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5 Incredible Women You’ve Never Heard Of

Our feeds are typically bombarding us with gloomy stories, but it is important to remember that there are always incredible people out there doing incredible things to make our world better. 

This is a list of five kick a** women who rebelled against tradition and broke deep rooted gendered barriers. 

Sofya Kovalevsky (1850 – 1891)

We start our list off with Sofya Kovalevsky, a girl born to a traditional family in Moscow, Russia. She was incredible at math and was even considered a child prodigy, but was not allowed to study the subject since she was a girl. 

Her parents were harsh with their expectations of gender roles and even threatened to take away education at large if she continued learning math. Her solution was to sneak into their spare room and secretly write out equations on the back of the wallpaper! 

As an adult she left Russia and went to Germany where she attended the University at Heidelberg. Kovalevsky even became the first woman to receive a doctorate at a European university and went on to become a full professor at Stockholm University, again being the first woman in Europe to do so! 

She is remembered as being a genius mathematician and a figure who inspired many other girls and women to the field of math.  

Cecilia Payne (1900-1979) 

Payne, originally from Wendover, England, sought out a career in Science when girls were rarely, if ever, given a change to pursue that path. She started out at Cambridge University but after realizing the structured limitations set up for women, she decided to move to the U.S. and study at Harvard. 

Payne studied astrophysics and discovered that stars are made up of hydrogen and helium in her doctorate thesis. She discovered the composition of the stars and universe! Many initially doubted her findings, especially since she was a woman. Eventually the scientific community came around and realized how revolutionary her discovery was.

Even after making this scientific breakthrough, her official title was still just “technical assistant”. Later in 1956 she was finally recognized as a full professor, becoming the first female professor ever at Harvard University. She went on to finally receive the recognition she deserved for her fascinating contributions to our understanding of the universe.  

Lotfia ElNadi (1907 – 2002) 

ElNadi was born in Cairo, Egypt to a middle class family. She had dreams of studying aviation and approached the director of EgyptAir for help despite her father’s belief that higher education was not suited for women. The director chose to help and ElNadi became a secretary and telephone operator for the school to pay her way. 

In 1933 after only 67 days of studying she achieved her pilot’s license. Lotfia ElNadi was the first Middle Eastern woman and the first African woman to become a pilot! Her accomplishment in the face of adversity made global headlines. She inspired countless women around the globe to take to the sky. 

ElNadi was eventually given the Order of Merit of the Egyptian Organization for Aerospace in 1989. She lived well into her 90’s and never married. 

Halet Cambel (1916 – 2014) 

Cambel was such a baddie! She was born in Berlin, but mostly raised in Istanbul, Turkey. Her father was previously the Grand Vizier to the Ottoman Sultan and had high connections in elite society. She took advantage of the opportunities afforded to her and leaped into the world of academia. 

She studied archeology at the Sorbonne University in France and then worked as a scientific assistant at Istanbul University where she received her doctorate. After being a lecturer for a couple of years, she became a professor there and founded their institute of Prehistory. 

So, yes Cambel is well educated, but the saga continues! She was also highly skilled in fencing and represented Turkey in the summer Olympics in 1936! Cambel was the first Muslim woman ever to compete in the Olympics and also the first archeologist to do so. 

Cambel also dissed Hitler when fencing at a Nazi-run competition. In The Book of Awesome Women Anderson states, “The 20-year old had grave reservations about attending the Nazi-run Games, and she and her fellow Turkish athletes drew the line at a social introduction to the Fuhrer…” (74). The German officer assigned to them asked if they would meet Hitler and the athletes responded with a rigid no. 

She was an archeologist, professor, Olympic fencer, and openly rejected meeting Germany’s dictator. How bad***!? 

Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) 

Described by Becca Anderson as a Green Goddess, Wangari Maathai was an extraordinary person. She was born in a village right beside the Great Rift Valley, which is the location where humans originated from. The sacred nature of her surroundings were instilled in her by her mother as she grew up. 

Maathai’s passion for the earth led her to higher education to where she received a master of science from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate of Philosophy at the University of Nairobi. Her achievement at the University of Nairobi is groundbreaking, as she was the first woman there to receive a Ph.D. She continued to break boundaries as she became their first female professor, and first department chair. 

After her journey through academia, she used her passion and knowledge to start the Green Belt Movement in Africa. She combined her efforts for women’s rights and environmental rights as she ventured through Kenya and taught women how to plant trees and preserve nature. By 1988 over 10,000 trees were planted thanks to her efforts. This was just the beginning. 

Maathai received an abundance of recognition for her work to care for the earth. She was given a “Woman of the World” award from Princess Diana, the Right Livelihood Award, the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai’s contributions were crucial then and now as her efforts spiraled out and encouraged conservation and care of the Earth.  

These women are incredible pioneers and leaders who deserve to be recognized. I found out about most of them through The Book of Awesome Women: Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes & Female Artists by Becca Anderson. 

Women have largely been erased from history, but as Anderson acknowledges it is vital to remember that, “Women hold up half the sky and, most days, do even more of the heavy lifting…”. 

Hello! I'm the Editor in Chief for Her Campus SPU. I am a senior at Seattle Pacific University, double majoring in Communication and Social Justice & Cultural Studies with a Concentration in Pre-Law, Human Rights, and Policy. I'm also pursuing a minor in Women's Studies! I am passionate about intersectional social activism and love dogs, books, and cookies.
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