From ancient times to the present day, great women have changed the course of history. Yet they are often overlooked by scholars, and rarely remembered by the public.
These 15 women in history changed laws, broke new scientific ground, and shattered gender barriers. Join us as we shine a light on their stories, and celebrate their contributions.
Peggy Shippen Arnold (1760-1804)
We’ve all heard about the traitorous Benedict Arnold, who betrayed America in its struggle for independence from Great Britain. However, we hear little about his wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, who actually played a pivotal role in the treachery.
Benedict Arnold clued Britain into confidential American military strategy, sabotaging American colonists’ plans. For a long time, Peggy was considered to be innocent of any treachery, but historians now believe that she may have actually masterminded the deceit.
Growing up, Peggy’s family decided to support the British, for both security and financial reasons. After Peggy and Benedict wed and the two moved to Philadelphia, the couple began secretly corresponding with the British through a contact of Peggy’s. Peggy was part of a women’s circle in which she would pass letters on to British Major John Andre, written in code and invisible ink, filled with private information about American military locations and plans.
Alice Coachman (1922-2014)
At the 1948 London Olympics, Alice Coachman won the high jump for the United States, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. King George VI awarded her medal, and subsequently, President Harry S. Truman congratulated her at a White House ceremony. Coachman was also celebrated in a motorcade that traveled from Atlanta to her hometown of Albany, Georgia.
As a child, Coachman was forbidden from training at athletic fields with whites, which forced her to get creative: she would use ropes and sticks as high jumps, running barefoot. Despite these barriers, she was able to be the first black woman to win an Olympic medal and the first black person to receive an endorsement deal.
“If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder,” Coachman told The New York Times in 1996. And indeed, she paved the way for African-American athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Evelyn Ashford, Florence Griffith Joyner, and many more.
Margaret Hamilton (1936-present)
Mankind successfully set foot on the moon in 1969. While history's spotlight remains trained on the pivotal men of NASA, there were several women who played an essential role in the Apollo 11 mission. Margaret Hamilton is one of those important women.
As the leader of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, contracted by NASA for the Apollo program, Hamilton helmed the development of the spacecraft’s guidance and navigation system. Her team developed the framework for software engineering, and she worked tirelessly in testing Apollo’s software.
Thanks to Hamilton’s rigorous testing of the software, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the Moon, despite a software override. In 2003, NASA honored Hamilton with a special award recognizing the value of her software innovations. In 2016, President Obama awarded Hamilton a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Hamilton was, of course, preceded by women like Katherine Johnson and the other great women of Hidden Figures. Women’s contributions have been vital to NASA since its inception.
Wu Zetian (624-705)
Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. She used every ounce of her political skills and pulled Machiavellian maneuvers to gain and maintain her power.
In dynastic China, Confucius deemed women unfit to rule. Nevertheless, Wu Zetian rose through the ranks in Chinese society. Wu’s intellect and beauty attracted Emperor Tai Tsung, who recruited her to his court as his concubine. After the emperor’s death, his son Kao Tsung succeeded him.
Kao Tsung had been having an affair with Wu even before the death of his father. She became his second wife—a large step up from concubine—after his ascension. She gave birth to a daughter soon after they married, who died young. Wu blamed the first wife, Empress Wang, although some people believe that Wu herself killed her daughter.
Emperor Kao Tsung later died from a stroke, and Empress Wu began administrative duties in the court, eliminating and spying on those who posed an obstacle to her, and putting her youngest son into power. When her son stepped down in 690, Wu was crowned emperor of China. As emperor, Wu truly did effect change in China. She gave government positions to qualified scholars, reduced the army’s size, lowered unfair taxes on peasants, and increased agricultural production.
Sybil Ludington (1761-1839)
While there seems to be a chorus of praise for American revolutionary Paul Revere, we haven’t heard much of the female revolutionary who rode even farther through the night in the name of American freedom.
On April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was born to Abigail and Colonel Henry Ludington, a veteran of the French and Indian War. When Sybil’s father found out that British troops were attacking Danbury, Connecticut, 25 miles from the family’s New York State home, 16-year-old Sybil took it upon herself to warn the countryside of the coming British invasion. By horse and in the pouring rain, she travelled 40 miles to announce that the British were coming. Her ride proved successful, because when she arrived back from her trip, hundreds of troops were assembled in front of her home.
After her successful ride, Ludington continued to serve as a messenger in the Revolutionary War. Although President George Washington thanked her for her service, she faded into obscurity soon thereafter. It's worth noting that not every historian is convinced of the story of Sybil Ludington. Paula D. Hunt published a paper in The New England Quarterly in which she scrutinizes the account, attempting to separate fact from fiction. However, other organizations and outlets—from the National Women's History Museum to the New England Historical Society and American historian Carol Berkin in her book Revolutionary Mothers—stand by the midnight ride.
Huda Sha'arawi (1879-1947)
Raised in an Egyptian harem system, Huda Sha’arawi had the desire to advocate for women at an early age. At the time in Egypt, upper-class families dedicated separate buildings to housing and protecting women; the buildings were guarded by eunuchs, who also acted as the women’s messengers. Women of all religions stayed in these “harems,” separate from men, and wore veils in public.
Huda’s upbringing led her to challenge the notion that women need protecting. In 1908, she founded Egypt’s first female-run philanthropic society, which offered services for impoverished women and children. As more education opportunities became available for Egyptian women, Huda planned lectures to educate women, and eventually organized the largest women’s anti-British protest. Once Egypt gained independence from Britain in 1922, it was expected that women would go back to life in the harem–but not under Huda Sha’arawi’s watch.
She then decided to make a decision that would prove revolutionary for Egyptian women: After stepping off of a train in Cairo, Huda removed her veil in public. After Huda’s rebellious act, few Egyptian women continued to wear the veil. She continues to have a lasting influence on women not only in the Middle East but also around the world.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
Lab-grown human cells are invaluable to medical researchers. They allow scientists to better understand complex cells and theorize about diseases. The first “immortal” cell of its kind was created in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, its donor remaining unknown for years. But we now know that those cells belonged to Henrietta Lacks.
From southern Virginia, Henrietta was a black tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 30. Without her knowing, her tumor was sampled and sent to scientists at Johns Hopkins. Much to the scientists’ surprise, her cells never died. Henrietta’s immortal cells were integral in developing the polio vaccine, and were used for cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.
For decades, the donor of these cells, which were code-named HeLa, remained anonymous. In the 1970s, Henrietta’s name was revealed and the origins of HeLa, a code for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks, became clear. While Henrietta Lacks may no longer be with us, her contribution to science is long lasting. A book about her invaluable and forced contributions was also made into a film starring Oprah and Rose Byrne.
Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị (c. 12-c. 43 AD)
It can be said that the existence of Vietnam today is due almost wholly to the efforts of the Trưng sisters. Prior to 40 A.D., the Chinese conquered Vietnam, leaving the country under the brutal rule of Chinese governor To Dinh. The daughters of a powerful Vietnamese lord, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were determined to change the state of affairs Vietnam.
Elder sister Trắc decided to mobilize Vietnamese lords to rebel against the Chinese rule. It is said that, to further their cause, the Trưng sisters killed a people-eating tiger and used its skin to write a declaration against the Chinese.
Among the 80,000 people they rallied for their uprising, the Trưngs chose 36 women to be generals, who successfully drove the Chinese out in 40 A.D. Trắc became queen, abolishing tribute taxes and struggling to revert back to a simpler government. After their troops suffered terrible defeat in 43 A.D., legend has it that the sisters took what the Vietnamese considered to be the honorable way out: suicide.
The Trưngs’ bravery and sacrifices made for Vietnam continue to be honored today through stories, poems, posters, monuments, and more. Although the sisters are well-known in Vietnam, their contributions are unnoticed elsewhere, especially within Western countries.
Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964)
Dorothy Lawrence was a reporter in England who disguised herself as a man to fight in WWI, thus making her the first confirmed female to fight in the English army. In 1915, with her chest flattened by a corset, her hair completely cut off, and her complexion darkened, Lawrence decided to leave her job as a journalist and head to the front lines.
Lawrence didn’t spare any of the details of her disguise: She borrowed a khaki military uniform from two British soldiers, asked the soldiers to teach her how to walk more androgynously, and forged travel permits for war-torn France. After serving in the military for a brief 10 days, Lawrence fell ill, and because of worsening symptoms, decided to reveal her identity to her commanding sergeant. She was put under military arrest.
Upon her return to England, she was interrogated as a spy and deemed a prisoner of war; she also swore an oath not to write about her experience as a soldier-in-disguise. In 1919, against England’s wishes, Lawrence published Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, which was a commercial flop despite critical interest and left her with no income.
In a state of despair, Lawrence told a doctor that her church guardian raped her as a child. She was declared insane and committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1964.
Related: The 15-Year-Old Marine
Edmonia Lewis (1843-1907)
Little is known about the early life of mid-19th century sculptor Edmonia Lewis, but she was reportedly born on July 14, 1843–although that is up for debate as well. Lewis is considered the first woman sculptor of African American and Native American heritage.
She began her education in 1859 at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she was said to have been quite artistic, particularly in drawing. During her undergraduate years, she changed her name to Mary Edmonia, which she had been using anyway to sign her sculptures. While at Oberlin, Lewis was wrongly accused of theft and attempted murder. Though she was eventually acquitted, she was prohibited from graduating.
When she moved to Boston, she was mentored by sculptor Edward Brackett and began to develop her own artistic style. Her dual ancestry proved to be a source of much inspiration for her, as her early sculptures were medallions with portraits of white abolitionists and Civil War heroes.
“Forever Free” (1867), one of her best-known works, drew from the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1876, Lewis completed what is considered by many to be the pinnacle of her career: “The Death of Cleopatra”. This sculpture went against artistic traditions of the time by portraying a realistic illustration of the event, instead of using a sentimental manner.
Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415)
We hear about the lives and contributions of classical Greek luminaries and philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, but what about the important women who lived at the same time? Hypatia of Alexandria is one of these influential female scholars.
Growing up, Hypatia’s scholar father Theon taught her mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy in hopes of giving her the same opportunities available to men. Soon enough, Hypatia had students of her own to whom she taught mathematics and philosophy. She was an acclaimed teacher, with many of her students returning for years to discuss arcane and intricate matters.
At the time, Alexandria was transforming into a Christian city; the pagan Hypatia was viewed by Christians as an obstacle to her students' proper religiosity. Extremely dedicated to her studies, Hypatia never married and remained celibate through her life.
In March of 415 CE, Hypatia was on her way home when she was attacked by a mob of Christian monks, stripped naked, dragged through the city, and beaten to death. After her death, many scholars and artists left Alexandria, viewing Hypatia’s murder and the Christianization of Alexandria as the death of intellectualism and the arts.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1934, but she accomplished much more. After receiving her master’s degree, she taught as an associate professor at Vassar until she enlisted in the Navy during World War II.
An experienced mathematician, Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation and contracted to program a Mark I computer. As a researcher at Harvard, she then worked on the Mark II and III computers, helping popularize the term “computer bug.” After her tenure with the Navy, Hopper worked for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, and then as a programmer for Remington Rand. Hopper and her team are responsible for creating the first compiler for computer languages, a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), which is now widely used.
Hopper changed the face of programming. Her legacy continues to inspire young people, through efforts like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which encourages women to become programmers, and the Grace Murray Hopper Award through the Association for Computing Machinery.
Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948)
Behind many male authors are accomplished wives and women who are often overlooked by history. Zelda Fitzgerald is one of these women.
“The most enormous influence on me in the four and a half years since I met her,” The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald told Edmund Wilson, “has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda.” While Zelda Fitzgerald is often regarded as a mere spectator to her husband’s literary success, she was the inspiration for nearly all of F. Scott’s heroines. And the literature she wrote on her own is just as accomplished as her husband’s.
Zelda’s remarks and writings were repackaged into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, and she knew it, too. In a review of her husband’s novel The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), she wrote, “plagiarism begins at home.” F. Scott would look through his wife’s letters and diaries for inspiration, tidbits of which Zelda recognized in his books. In fact, one of the most well-known lines from Gatsby is what Zelda said to him, word for word, when she learned the sex of her child: “I hope it's beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.”
Rose Marie McCoy (1922-2015)
Much like many of today’s Top 40 radio hits, the chart-topping songs of the 1940s and ‘50s weren’t written by the performers, but by lesser-known songwriters who operated behind the curtain. One of these old-time songwriters is Rose Marie McCoy.
At 19, McCoy moved from Arkansas to New York City to pursue her dream of being a singer. She was a indeed a gifted vocalist, but in the late ‘40s she decided to pursue her true calling, songwriting. Her song “Tryin’ to Get to You” was performed by Elvis Presley on his debut album and soared to the top of the charts.
As an African-American woman living in the 1960s, McCoy accomplished a remarkable feat when she got a private office in the Brill Building, the songwriting hub of the time. Her lyrics continued to resonate with everybody and she went on to write for the likes of James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Mathis. McCoy’s “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” sung by Ike and Tina Turner, earned a Grammy nomination. McCoy went on to write for Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor and composed several commercial jingles performed by Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
She was approached by prominent record companies who wanted to sign her, but refused all of their offers. In total, she wrote approximately 850 songs, a shocking number for someone so few have heard of. At least McCoy is finally getting the attention she deserves: A 2009 NPR radio documentary featured her work, including some of her most famous songs.
Shirley Chisolm (1924-2005)
“Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm,” the title of a BBC article reads. As the first black woman to run for president with a major political party, Shirley Chisholm is undoubtedly groundbreaking. Why isn't Chisholm in our history textbooks?
In January of 1972, Chisholm announced her presidential candidacy. While her campaign had a short run, it remains significant. And her presidential campaign wasn’t Chisholm’s only first–she was also the first African American congresswoman.
Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924. While working in childcare, she became interested in politics, serving in the New York state assembly and then becoming the first African American congresswoman in 1968. Needless to say, during her tenure in Congress, Chisholm shattered many a glass ceiling: she fought for the underprivileged and minorities, pushing forward a bill for domestic worker benefits, advocating for improved access to education, and fighting for immigrant rights.
She then decided to break the biggest of boundaries by running for president. "I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday, it was time in 1972 to make that someday come," she told an interviewer at the time. Her slogan, “Unbought and unbossed”, remains legendary to this day.