9 Incredible Women You Didn’t Learn About in History Class
From mathematicians to athletes to entrepreneurs, here are the empowering stories of women you may not know about, but definitely should.
We’re willing to bet your high school English classes featured lots of novels by male writers, from Twain to Dickens to Hemingway. But their craft may not even have existed if it hadn’t been for Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese woman widely considered to be the world’s first novelist. Shikibu was a noblewoman living in Japan around the year 1000 AD. She wrote a two-part novel called The Tale of Genji, which tells a riches-to-rags story about the son of a Japanese emperor forced to live life as a commoner. In addition to The Tale of Genji, widely considered to be a masterpiece of Japanese literature, Shikibu also wrote a book of poetry. A statue in Kyoto, Japan, commemorates this pioneering writer.
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Maria Sibylla Merian
Today, children as young as preschool can happily explain how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But there was a time when no one knew this—not even scientists. Until the 1670s, scientists thought that caterpillars and butterflies were two totally distinct creatures. Thanks to Maria Sibylla Merian, we know the truth about these beautiful winged insects. Born in Germany in 1647, Merian was fascinated by insects, and she began collecting, studying, and drawing them when she was as young as 13. She was one of the few naturalists of her time to actually study and sketch live insects. It was through her study of caterpillars that she discovered the truth about their life cycles, and she went on to publish two volumes of naturalist research about the life cycles of insects. Her work provided major contributions to the field of entomology.
Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, was the daughter of celebrated British poet Lord Byron, but she wasn’t a poet herself. She was the world’s first computer programmer. We think of computers as a recent invention, but people were toying with the idea of “computing machines” in the mid-19th century when Lovelace was alive. Lovelace’s mathematical genius was apparent at a young age and caught the attention of Cambridge professor Charles Babbage. Babbage was working to design early computing machines that he hoped would be able to quickly solve math problems. Lovelace, his protégée, wrote some suggestions as to how to program the machines to calculate a specific sequence of numbers.
In addition to designing this early computer program, she also was first to suggest that these computers might be able to do more than, well, compute. She envisioned them doing everything that could possibly be represented by a string of numbers, from producing images to composing music. Quite the visionary.
If you know (or are!) a woman who decided to keep her own surname after getting married, she is continuing a tradition started by Lucy Stone. Born in 1818, Stone married a fellow activist and initially changed her name, but decided to change it back a year later. She held the belief that “a wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.” She became the first American married woman to retain her maiden name for her entire life. Both she and her husband also fought the prevailing idea that husbands had legal dominion over their wives. But those are far from her only claims to fame. Stone was also one of the founding members of the American Equal Rights Association and fought for the abolition of slavery.
Famous investigative journalist Nellie Bly, née Elizabeth Cochran, was born in 1864 in Pennsylvania. When a Pittsburgh Dispatch journalist wrote an editorial claiming that working women were a “monstrosity,” Bly wrote a scathing rebuttal that got her a job offer from the paper. She was 18 at the time. She began writing for the paper with the pen name “Nellie Bly,” inspired by a popular song at the time. After two years, she began writing for the New York World. In her most famous assignment, she spent 10 days living in a mental institution to expose the truth about the conditions the patients faced. Her exposé launched a major investigation into the treatment of mental patients. In 1889, she set out to travel around the world in 80 days, emulating the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 adventure novel. And she made it—in only 72 days. Take that, Jules Verne!
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who had been freed from slavery only a few years earlier because of the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time she was seven, both of her parents had died, and she moved in with her sister. In 1890, she developed a condition that caused her to lose her hair, and with it, an interest in hair care. She began working for black hair care entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone. Eventually, Walker began making and marketing her own hair-care products designed for African-American women, a virtually untapped market at the time. Her self-starter company evolved into the enormously successful Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She is widely recognized as America’s first black female self-made millionaire. And she was generous with her fortune, donating much of it to the NAACP and helping to fund a YMCA in Indianapolis.
You might know Hedy Lamarr from the silver screen; she starred in many films from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, including Samson & Delilah and The Strange Woman. But her film career is far from her only noteworthy achievement—she was also a brilliant inventor. She was born in 1914 in Austria and moved to the United States in hopes of pursuing a film career. In 1942, in the midst of her Hollywood success, she and composer George Antheil received a patent for a device that could change radio signal frequencies. The purpose of the technology was to keep military enemies—specifically, the Nazis—from decoding messages. But it did more than that—it paved the way for much of the wireless technology we use today. As if that weren’t enough, she left her Austrian husband after learning that he was selling weapons to the Nazis. Way to be.
Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold. She was born in 1923 and grew up in Georgia, where segregation prevented her from joining sports teams. So she trained on her own. She eventually competed—and broke records—in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national championship and received a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute. She was winning national championships in the 1940s but was unable to compete in the Olympics—the Games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944. Finally, Coachman competed in the 1948 Games in London, where she not only won a gold medal but set a record in the high jump. And she still wasn’t done breaking barriers—in 1952, Coca-Cola reached out to her to be their spokesperson, making her the first African-American (male or female) to get an endorsement deal.
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Youyou Tu, born in 1930, became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and the first Chinese woman to win any Nobel Prize. In the 1970s, Tu, a skilled chemist, worked to find a way to prevent the spread of malaria. She discovered how to extract a substance called artemisinin, which can hinder the parasite that causes malaria, from the sweet wormwood plant. Today, artemisinin is used in life-saving, malaria-fighting drugs around the world. Tu won the Nobel Prize in 2015, and today, she is the Chief Scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Next, check out the 13 moments that changed women’s history forever.