Lindsey is a freelance writer with a passion for many topics. She has a particular obsession with archeology and new discoveries.
It’s well known that for centuries men have dominated history and placed important woman in footnotes. When it comes to the advancement of mankind there will always be an intelligent woman to help push on. Here are ten women you probably won’t find in a history book.
The first woman to receive an M.D in the United States. Elizabeth Blackwell was born 1821 in Bristol, England. Her father moved their family to America when she was eleven for both financial reasons and to help abolish slavery. Samuel Blackwell raised his children to advocate for those without a voice, and as a result his children supported woman’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. Initially the idea of become a physician repulsed Elizabeth and she preferred history and metaphysics. It wasn’t until a friend of hers was dying that her interest was piqued. Elizabeth claimed her close friend stated “she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman.”
Elizabeth had no clue how to become a physician though. She spoke with physicians that were family friends. They told her it would be a good idea for her to pursue this career path, but that it would be difficult, expensive, and impossible because she was a woman. She took on the challenge and convinced her physician friends to allow her to study with them for a year. She applied to every school in New York and Philadelphia. She also applied to twelve other schools along the northeast states. Eventually she was accepted into Geneva Medical College in 1847. The faculty did not know whether to accept her, so they put it to vote amongst the male students. As a joke they all voted yes to admit her, not realizing she would really be attending. Despite reluctance among students and faculty she was admitted, and in two years she graduated with her M.D.
Most noted for her portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the back of the dime. Selma Burke was born on December 31, 1900 in Mooresville. She was fascinated with African sculptures and ritual objects, so she would take the white clay on her family farm and use to make her own sculptures. She was educated at Winston-Salem State University and had nurse training at St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh. After she graduated she moved to New York City and worked as a private nurse.
In the 1930’s she was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and turned away from nursing to focus on her art. In 1938 she traveled to Europe and studied with Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol after receiving a fellowship from the Rosenwald and Boehler Foundations. She returned to the United States and finished her M.F.A at Columbia University in 1941. After this she began to teach art at the Harlem Community Center. She later founded and taught at schools in New York and Pittsburgh. Selma worked as a driver for the Navy but an injury put her back in her studio. She learned of a competition to create a likeness of FDR. Selma had trouble with her recreation, so she wrote the White House asking for a sit-down with the President. He agreed, and her portrait was finished. Eleanor Roosevelt came to Selma’s studio to see the finished piece and commented he was too young in her portrayal. Selma replied, “I’ve not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow.”
A mathematician who pioneered the theory of elasticity. Marie-Sophie Germain was born on April 1, 1776. She was born into a wealthy family but at the time women were not educated like men. One of her sisters also had the name of Marie, as did her mother, so she went by Sophie for that reason. In 1789 her father was elected to be a representative of the bourgeoisie. Sophie may have witnessed many discussions between her father and his friends about politics and philosophy.
When Sophie was thirteen the Bastille fell and the Revolution began. This forced her to stay inside and find different ways to entertain herself. She began finding herself in her father’s library reading about the history of mathematics and the death of Archimedes. She read ever book on mathematics her father had, and even taught herself Latin and Greek so she could read works written by Newton and Leonhard Euler. She would study late into the night, but her parents disapproved of her studying. So to try to deter her from working into the night they took away her warm clothes and refused to light her a fire. Sophie would smuggle in candles and blankets. It wasn’t until her parents found her asleep at her desk with her slate covered in calculations that they gave up and realized she was serious.
When she was eighteen the Ecole Polytechique opened with a new system that allowed anyone to see lecture notes. So Sophie could see the notes, but was barred from attending because she was a woman. With the new system students had submit assignments to faculty. Sophie got the notes and then started sending in her work under a male student’s name to Joseph Louis Lagrange for review. Lagrange saw her intelligence and set up a meeting where she was forced to reveal herself as a woman. Luckily for Sophie he saw her true intelligence and became her mentor, offering her support and even visiting her home to give moral support. From here she would move into working with number theory and elasticity. She submitted her work to the Paris Academy of Sciences three times before winning an award and daring, the third time, to put her own name on her work.
The pirate of Ireland. Grace was born into the O’Malley clan in the western corner of County Mayo in 1530. Her family made their living on the sea, and she wanted to be on the sea as well. Her father reportedly told her she could sail because her long hair would get tangled in the rigging. To embarrass her father she cut off all her hair and she began her seafaring career. She was celebrated in songs and poems. She held her stronghold on the Clare Island and those who wanted to pass into the bay had to pay her for safe passage. If the passing ships did not pay she would plunder them. Grace also lead raids against Irish and English enemies in further territories.
Although she was generally opposed to English interference, Grace had a friendship with Queen Elizabeth I. In 1593 Grace’s ships had been confiscated by the new governor of Connaught, and it became impossible for her to earn a living. She sent a desperate petition to the queen making the governor, Sir Richard Bingham, look like an enemy of the crown. Queen Elizabeth sent back a questionnaire for Grace to fill out. With great skill Grace filled out this paperwork making it seem her piracy was required for her survival and that Bingham was treating her unjustly. Upon trying to get justice for herself Grace travelled to England and met with the queen. She made a big impression on Queen Elizabeth and all her requests were made, so long as Grace stopped all actions against the crown. Bingham however tried everything he could to undermine the agreement. Two more petitions were sent by Grace but were not answered, as Queen Elizabeth was busy with a rebellion. The rebellion only made Grace fall into more poverty, and by the tie it was over she was too old to return to the sea.
Apache warrior and healer. Lozen was born into a time where the Mexican government had a bounty on Apache scalps. It was a bloody period before the Mexican-American War. She was born into the Chihenne Apache, which means red people. They were called this for the red clay they used on their faces during ceremonies. Lozen translates to “dexterous horse thief” and she was given this name because of her way with horses. She could sneak behind enemy lines and free all the horses with no problems. Traditional Native names were given for skills the person had, which is why Lozen was named as such. She may have had many other names as a child, as it is traditional for a name to change as a person grows and changes. According to her legend after her puberty ceremony around age twelve she went to the top of a sacred mountain where she was blessed with precognition, to know where her people’s enemy was. Lozen turned away from the traditional paradigms and became a warrior alongside her brother Victorio. She sat in on councils and dressed as the other men did; she also fought with her fellow warriors against American occupation.
There are many accounts of her brother fighting in battles alongside Geronimo and Lozen may have been present in these battles. Lozen, Victorio, and another leader called Nana moved the tribe around to avoid capture. In 1869 they met with First Lieutenant Charles E. Drew to discuss creating a reservation for their tribe near Ojo Caliente. From 1870 to 1877 the Chihenne tribe was moved from the Ojo Caliente reservation to the Tularosa reservation and then a forced relocation to the San Carlos reservation in Arizona. Many of the tribe died during these forced relocations from disease and a lack of resources. Victorio had had enough in 1877 and evaded the U.S. Military and fled with his tribe. Victorio attempted to gain permission to go to the Mescalero reservation but he was denied. In 1879 the Chihenne Apache declared war on the U.S. and refused to continue to San Carlos. In an effort to confuse the U.S. military the tribe disbanded, sending people scattering everywhere. Lozen escorted a group of women and children to the Rio Grande.
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James Kaywaykla, just a child at the time, recounts his experience: “I saw a magnificent woman on a beautiful horse—Lozen, sister of Victorio. Lozen the woman warrior! High above her head she held her rifle. There was a glitter as her right foot lifted and struck the shoulder of her horse. He reared, and then plunged into the torrent. She turned his head upstream, and he began swimming. Immediately, the other women and the children followed her into the torrent. When they reached the far bank of the river, cold and wet but alive, Lozen came to Kaywaykla’s grandmother and said: ‘You take charge, now.’ ‘I must return to the warriors’, who stood between their women and children and the onrushing cavalry. Lozen drove her horse back across the wild river and returned to her comrades.”
“Lady of the Lines,” self-appointed protector of the Nazca Lines. Maria was born in Germany in 1903 and immigrated to Peru in 1932. She left Germany to escape the political tension. She became fascinated with the Nazca lines after visiting the site in 1941. The Nazca Lines are perfectly preserved because of the lack of wind and rain where they were laid. The only way to see the full picture of the lines is in the sky. Maria moved to the desert in 1946 and began her work with the lines. She mapped and measured the lines creating the first serious study of them.
Maria published The Mystery on the Desert which concluded that the Nazca Lines were meant to be a calendar of sorts. More recent experts however have stated that the lines were used for ceremonial or community building projects. As her work became better known the region started to become a big tourist attraction. Maria hired guards to protect the lines as more people arrived. In 1995 and 1998 UNESCO declared the Nazca Lines a World Heritage site. Maria received a medal for her work before passing in 1998 at the age of 95.
Maria Sibylla Merian
An artist turned naturalist. Born in Germany in 1647 Maria’s father was a renowned illustrator. When she was three her father passed and her mother remarried a still-life painter, Jacob Marrel. Under the tutelage of Marrel, Maria began to learn how to paint. She was fascinated by plants and insects. She collected her own specimens to paint, and at first that’s all it was, painting. It wasn’t until she began to observe caterpillars to understand how they became butterfly did she herself transform into a naturalist. No one was sure where butterflies came from and thought they just popped up from the ground. Through Maria observations she watched as a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, and made remarkable paintings to show this transformation.
In 1665 Maria married one of Marrel’s apprentices, Johann Andreas Graff. Soon after the birth of their first daughter they moved to Nurnberg and remained there for fourteen years, having another daughter in the process. While there Maria created watercolor engravings of flowers that were published in Book of Flowers. In 1679 she published Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers. The second volume was published in 1683 and showed the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths as well as what they ate. Her work brought about new precision when it came to scientific artwork. Maria and her husband had a falling out and separated. In 1699 Maria and her second daughter Dorothea Maria set out on a five year expedition to Suriname in South America. They were able to observe and illustrate insects, plants, and other animals, but had to return to Amsterdam before two years because Maria fell ill. They were able to publish over 60 engravings of their journey. She died shortly after. The same year of her passing the tsar of Russia, Peter I purchased her paintings and hired her daughter to be a scientific illustrator, making Dorothea the first woman employed to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Paleontologist who helped discover parts of the first Ichthyosaur. Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis in the south of Great Britain along the coast. To this day it is a hotbed of fossils. Mary’s father would collect the fossils and taught his wife and family the process. This proved to be an important skill after he passed, leaving his family without an income. Mary’s mother started a small fossil business and they sold the fossils they found, but were still in poverty. Mary and her family provided fossils for museums, scientists, and collectors. However, because of their station and Mary being a woman, many doubted that she could find these amazing fossils and keep their integrity. A French scientist named Georges Cuvier doubted that Mary could have found these fossils and examined her work with the first ever found Plesiosaur. He discovered that her findings were in fact valid and the family became legitimate. This did not change the minds of collectors and museums, and Mary was never credited for her findings, and the family was forgotten.
Although Mary was forgotten in history for quite some time she cannot be denied in her discoveries. She did earn respect from scientists in her time, and without her the fossils along the Lyme Regis would be largely unknown. The wife of former Recorder of the City of London, Lady Harriet Sivester wrote this about Mary, ". . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour - that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."
Mary Edwards Walker
The only woman to receive a Medal of Honor. Mary was born into a progressive family in 1832. Her family owned a farm and her mother participated in hard labor, and her father helped with the household chores. Her mother encouraged her children to dress how they liked, and Mary took advantage of that and refused to wear traditional women’s clothing, as it was too restrictive to do chores in. With six daughters Mary’s parents were determined that all their children would receive a good education, so they opened a free schoolhouse in Oswego, New York where they lived. After completing primary school Mary and two of her older sisters attended a high learning school in Fulton, New York. Mary wanted to go to medical school, so she taught for a while to earn enough money and paid her way through school, graduating from Syracuse Medical College with high honors, and the only woman graduating. Mary was constantly experimenting with her wardrobe, determined to make it comfortable and functional for woman. She was seen usually sporting a skirt of various lengths and trousers underneath. She was constantly harassed for the way she dressed and was assaulted many times, but this did not stop her from trying to change women’s dress.
When the American Civil War broke out Mary knew she needed to help. She went to the Union Army and volunteered as a surgeon, but because she was a woman she was rejected. They offered her a position as a nurse but she declined. Instead she volunteered as a civilian surgeon. At first she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, but later she was an unpaid surgeon. She wore men’s clothing because it was easier to wear during periods of high demand. Mary wanted to be a spy but the Army rejected her offer. Her work brought her across enemy lines and she was arrested by the Confederates under suspicion of being a spy. She was imprisoned for four months before being released as part of a prisoner exchange. After the war she became a lecturer and writer, pushing issues such as dress reform for women, temperance, health care, and women’s rights. She was arrested many times for wearing men’s clothing but she insisted, "I don't wear men's clothes, I wear my own clothes." After the war Mary received the Medal of Honor, however, in 1917 the Army and Navy created their own separate rolls of honor recipients. Several people were removed from the rolls, along with Mary, and she was told to return the medal. She refused and wore the medal until she died. President Jimmy Carter returned her title in 1977.
An astronomer and mathematician. Born in 1768 Wang had a small, but intelligent family. She only had her grandfather, grandmother, and her father. Each one of them trained her in the fields of astronomy, poetry, mathematics, and medicine. She loved reading as a child, something she picked up from her father and grandfather. Her grandfather had a personal collection of seventy books for her to read. Her father, who failed the imperial examination instead turned to medical science and made sure to record his finds in the Collection of Medical Prescriptions. Her grandmother taught her poetry. When her grandfather died the family travelled to Jiling for his funeral. It is near the Great Wall. They stayed there for five years. During this period Wang explored her grandfather’s books and learned other useful skills like martial arts, horseback riding, and archery from a woman named Aa, the wife of a Mongolian general. When she was sixteen she travelled with her father along the south of the Yangtze River, giving her a wide variety of experiences. At eighteen she made friends with other female scholars through her poetry and began to shift her focus to mathematics and astronomy. She married at twenty-five and was well known for her poetry, even teaching a class of male students. She died at twenty-nine and had no children.
Despite her young age Wang was able to accomplish much. She was excellent when it came to mathematics and astronomy. She wrote a book explaining the movement of Equinoxes, and lunar eclipse, and observations on other astral bodies. Through her observations we can now accurately say when an eclipse will happen. She used previous observations and found her own research to further the study of the heavens. When it came to mathematics she took complex calculations and made them simpler to understand for beginners. When her studies became difficult for she would say, "There were times that I had to put down my pen and sighed. But I love the subject, I do not give up."
- Del Centina, Andrea (2008). "Unpublished manuscripts of Sophie Germain and a revaluation of her work on Fermat's Last Theorem". Archive for History of Exact Sciences. 62 (4): 349–392
© 2018 Lindsey Weaver