There’s a lot that still needs to be done to support women’s rights around the world. But now more than ever, women have access to education, job opportunities, and leadership roles.
This slow but steady progress is thanks to generations of women who have shaped history. Despite their lasting mark, the names of these women aren’t as recognizable as history-making men. We all know who famous male leaders like George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. are, and we celebrate them every year. But what about Nellie Bly and Henrietta Lacks and Francis Marion? These women are often forgotten, but help shaped the world as we know it.
Frances Marion Was One of Hollywood's Highest-Paid Screenwriters
The era of silent films in Hollywood may be a thing of the past, but when it was happening, women were calling the shots. From the early 1910s to the late 1920s, women were at the epicenter of the burgeoning film industry -- so much so that Hollywood was once described as a "manless Eden."
Women like Frances Marion penned scripts, directed actors, and edited films. Marion herself wrote at least 325 scripts during her career and even hosted "cat parties," which were women-only get-togethers for ladies to talk business and gossip.
Nellie Bly Helped Asylums Get More Funding
Nellie Bly lived a fascinating life. She started her career in journalism after responding anonymously to a misogynistic newspaper editorial. The newspaper was so impressed with her writing that they offered her a job. Before long, she was penning articles and covering hard-hitting news.
Bly did whatever it took to tell a good story. She even had herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum for 10 days so she could investigate the conditions. She found the asylum was abusing patients, serving them rotten food, and forcing them to live in rat-infested quarters. Her exposé led to the city increasing budgets for asylums which greatly improved the treatment of patients.
Amelia Bloomer: Feminist Activist and Trendsetter
Amelia Bloomer started her career writing for her husband's newspaper but was unhappy with the lack of dedicated content for women. To remedy this, she started The Lily, which was one of the first newspapers written, edited, and published by an all-female team.
It was through The Lily that Bloomer was able to voice her opinions on women's suffrage and the temperance movement. She also worked to reform women's clothing and believed that women should say goodbye to their corsets and petticoats and opt for more comfortable clothing of their choice...like bloomers.
Rosalind Franklin Unlocked the Structure of DNA
One of the most significant scientific discoveries in history was the structure of DNA. Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins were eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for uncovering the "secret of life" — but none of their work would have been possible if not for a woman named Rosalind Franklin.
Franklin obtained photographs of DNA diffraction patterns using her experience in X-ray crystallography. In 1953, Wilkins showed Watson the images Franklin had taken, without her permission. Franklin's pictures were the "clue" the men needed to finalize their discovery and soon, they published their results. Sadly, Franklin died from ovarian cancer at just 37 years old and was largely unacknowledged for her role.
Dorothy Lawrence Was a Heroic War Correspondent
In 1915, Dorothy Lawrence longed for one thing: to be a war correspondent. And she went to extreme measures to do it. Lawrence convinced two British soldiers to smuggle her a uniform piece by piece. She flattened her chest with a corset, chopped off her hair, and rubbed shoe polish on her face to give her a darker complexion.
With her appearance transformed, Lawrence stayed undercover in the trenches for weeks. But as stress began affecting her physically and emotionally, she revealed herself to her superiors. She was immediately arrested and accused of being an escort, and worse — a spy. She was eventually released and penned a memoir in 1919. Sadly, Lawrence's work was highly censored by the government. She lived out the remainder of her life in an asylum.
Sybil Ludington Was Basically The Female Version Of Paul Revere
One of America's most beloved folk heroes, Paul Revere is known for his midnight ride to alert the colonial militia about the approaching British forces. But few people are as familiar with Sybil Ludington.
In 1777, Ludington rode 40 miles (over twice Revere's distance) to warn her father's militiamen that the British were coming. Oh, and she was just 16 years old at the time. When the British looted Danbury, Connecticut late one evening, Ludington gathered the scattered militia and rode nine hours on a man's saddle with only a stick to fend off bandits. The group was too late to save Danbury, but they did eventually drive the British back to their ships.
Lois Jenson Sought Justice For Sexual Harassment
Born into a family of miners from northern Minnesota, Lois Jenson, became one of the first female employees of Eveleth Mines. Jenson, along with three other women, worked deep within one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world. Their work was physically and emotionally demanding.
The women were regularly groped, stalked, threatened, and called derogatory words since men thought they didn't belong there. With little resources to help the women, Jenson filed a complaint with the state. Little didn't she know, her complaint would turn into a 14-year-long battle. In 1991, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the country. The women were eventually awarded millions and Jenson's efforts led to a serious change in how mining companies handle sexual harassment policies.
Noor Inayat Khan Was a Quick-Witted Spy for the Allies
Noor Inayat Khan joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force after World War II erupted and her family fled to England. There, she trained to be an undercover wireless operator and was assigned one of the most dangerous jobs in the field. Her job was so dangerous, she was given a lethal pill so she could kill herself in the case that she was captured.
Although typically considered men's work, England was desperate for help. But Khan proved she could outsmart, outrun, and outmaneuver the enemy just as well as the boys. While she was eventually captured, she didn't go down without a fight. Khan spent nearly a year in confinement before she was executed — her final word being 'Liberté.'
Cecilia Payne Was A Star
The fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have been predominantly male for centuries. But back in 1919, one female astronomy student showed everyone that women deserve a seat at the table. Cecilia Payne, who was then a student at Cambridge University, determined in her doctoral thesis that stars are actually made mostly of helium and hydrogen. This went against what most scientists believed at the time — that the stars were made of the same stuff as Earth.
Payne's theory was right and despite being considered radical at the time, was later called "the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy."
Wu Zetian Helped Keep The Peace In A Tumultuous Country
China has a long list of rulers, but only one woman has ever ruled the country in her own right. Wu Zetian rose to power during the Tang Dynasty and the girl put in the work. Not only did she improve agricultural production, reduce the size of the army, and lower taxes, but Wu Zetian challenged commonly held prejudices against women.
She kept what was at the time a very tumultuous country at peace. Unfortunately, she is often portrayed as a monstrous leader.
Ada Lovelace Created The World's First Computer Program
The only daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace is one of the most famous poets from England. Although she never knew her father, his legacy influenced her upbringing. Worried that she would inherit her father's erratic temperament, her mother made sure she grew up studying math and science.
At 17, her mentor showed her the prototype for the world's first computer, the 'Difference Engine.' Lovelace eventually helped her mentor translate an article about plans for his newest machine. Lovelace ultimately wrote an algorithm he could use to compute Bernoulli numbers. Today, her code is considered the world's first computer program.
Henrietta Lacks Has Been Paramount In Medical Breakthroughs
You may have never heard of Henrietta Lacks, but we all have her to thank for medical advancements. That's because the human cells used to test treatments for cancer, cloning, polio, and more come from her cells.
Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at just 30 years old. During her treatment, doctors took a sample of the cancerous cells (without her consent!) and discovered something remarkable. The cells wouldn't die. Because it's incredibly difficult to grow human cells in a lab, doctors continued using Lacks' cells, which multiplied perpetually for unknown reasons. Sadly, she passed away in 1951, but her cells live on and have been paramount in various medical breakthroughs including the development of vaccines, cloning, and gene mapping.
Mary Frith Lived Unapologetically
Mary Frith was notorious for her outlandish behavior. She donned men's clothing, smoked a pipe, and swore often. At the time, it didn't take much for a woman to break the law. In fact, even speaking too loudly was enough to earn women a less-than-favorable label — so Frith really stood out as a real "troublemaker."
While some may oppose her bad behavior, there's no denying that Frith was a symbol of defiance. She lived unapologetically and knew that society's governing over women was wrong. If you needed another reason to like her, Frith would get wine drunk before she was forced to repent for her crimes so she could pretend that she was crying.
Grace Hopper Was An Important Figure In Modern Computing
Have you ever felt compelled to do something even though no one thought you could? Grace Hopper did. Which is why at 37 years old, she decided to enlist in the Navy during the Second World War. Hopper had already earned her Ph.D. in mathematics and was a professor, but she was adamant about shifting gears.
She enlisted and helped program the first computer in the country, the Mark I. While working on the Mark II, a moth shorted out the computer and Hopper joked she needed to "debug" it — the term stuck. She went on to help create the first compiler as well as the COBOL programming language. She was awarded the highest level of distinction when she retired.
Edith Cavell Cared for Hundreds of Wounded Soldiers
Edith Cavell was visiting family in England in 1914 when war erupted. A nurse, Cavell was eager to get back to her home in Belgium to care for the wounded. Along the way home, she helped hundreds of soldiers but was betrayed by a Belgian collaborator who thought she was a spy.
She was arrested and executed, despite diplomats trying to intervene. When Cavell was executed, her death sparked outrage worldwide. Although there is little known about her participation in espionage, Cavell should be remembered for being brave, caring, and selfless.
Hypatia Of Alexandria Was A Martyr For Philosophy
The city of Alexandria was once a beacon of culture and education. Hypatia of Alexandria was well educated and even became the head of a university where she taught astronomy and philosophy. A prominent thinker, she is often considered one of the most important philosophers in history. But Hypatia met a tragic end in March of 415.
She was a Pagan, but was tolerant toward Christians and even taught many Christian students. As Christianity spread, Hypatia was seen as a threat to the religion. Rather than converting to Christianity, she stood her ground and made no effort to conceal her Paganism. She became a target and was kidnapped and murdered. Today, she is celebrated for being a leading thinker of her time.
Edmonia Lewis Was Renowned For Her Sculptures
Edmonia Lewis was the first black woman to garner international fame as a sculptor. Inspired by her African American and Native American roots, much of Lewis' work incorporated themes and black and indigenous peoples.
Lewis relocated to Rome and spent much of her career in southern Europe before she passed away in 1907. Sadly, many of her works haven't survived — but her sculpture The Death of Cleopatra was recovered in a junkyard and restored in the early 1990s.
The First Moon Landing Couldn't Have Happened Without Margaret Hamilton
When mankind set foot on the moon in 1969, history was made. But along with the pivotal men of NASA, there is one woman who is often forgotten. Margaret Hamilton was the leader of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which was contracted by NASA. Hamilton directly managed the development of the spacecraft's navigation system.
Without her detailed testing of the software, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin may have never successfully completed their mission. In 2003, NASA finally awarded Hamilton a long overdue award recognizing her value.
Clelia Duel Mosher Focused On Women's Health
Clelia Duel Mosher was born in 1863 — a time when women were largely considered physically inferior to men. But Mosher knew better and devoted her research at Johns Hopkins Medical School to things like disproving the myth of female fragility (no big deal), menstruation, and sex.
Always looking out for the ladies, Moshering developed a series of breathing exercises called 'Moshering,' which helped women relieve cramps. Before Mosher, there wasn't really anything available to women experiencing period-related issues.
Marusaki Shikibu Wrote The First Modern Novel
Marusaki Shikibu lived in Japan sometime between 978 and 1016 and is best known for her classic work of Japanese literature The Tale of Genji.
At a time when women were largely excluded from learning Chinese, Shikibu became fluent in the language, both spoken and written. She received a "man's" education from her father, who often resented that he had a daughter but not a son. But Shikibu didn't care. All that mattered to her was that she was just as capable as a man. When she passed away, she left behind 128 poems and the first modern novel.