The past is packed with women who made incredible contributions to history, yet are often overlooked by the public. From pioneers and political dissidents to inventors and astrophysicists, the biographies of these historical female figures deserve a spot on your must-read list.
1. Emma Goldman
Red Emma Speaks
Anarchist activist Emma Goldman played a crucial role in the spread of anarchist political philosophy across Europe and North America during the early 20th century. Goldman immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1885. She became a writer and renowned lecturer on women’s rights and social issues, attracting thousands of followers.
During her life, Goldman conspired to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, industry baron and union enemy. She was jailed for inciting riots in 1893, spending two years in jail. She was arrested and deported for conspiring with Alexander Berkman to stop men from registering for the draft during WWI. Upon her return to Russia in 1920, she denounced the Soviet Union for its violent suppression of independent voices. Goldman was considered a free-thinking “rebel woman” by admirers and denounced as a agitator by many of those in power. Until the 1970s, Goldman was mostly forgotten. Scholarly work and recent biographies have brought her back into the public sphere.
2. Ada Lovelace
Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age
Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, is most notable for the work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Because she acknowledged the machine’s ability to create complex algorithms, Lovelace was considered the first computer programmer. Through marriage, she became a countess, and it was through this position that she was able to meet famous scientists and writers to continue building upon her education.
Between 1842 and 1843, Lovelace translated an Italian article about Babbage’s work. As she did, she added notes to explain the function—those notes are considered the first true computer program, an algorithm carried out by a machine.
3. Pauli Murray
The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship
In 1938, Murray officially entered the Civil Rights Movement when she campaigned for entry to an all-white school. With assistance from the NAACP, Murray’s case received national attention. After receiving her law degree, she moved to New York City to continue her fight for equality. She published influential literature in 1951 on the state’s laws toward race, but suffered from the impacts of McCarthyism, as she was believed to be too radical.
After losing her position at Cornell University, she published an autobiography documenting her family’s heritage and their struggle toward racial justice. By 1977, Murray became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest. This fascinating biography details Murray’s life and her enduring friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Murray often discussed social issues.
4. Amelia Bloomer
Amelia Bloomer & Dress Reform, Or: How Women Came to Wear Pants
A women’s rights and temperance advocate, Amelia Bloomer was the first woman to own, operate, and edit a news platform for women. While Amelia did not fashion the radical style of dress known as bloomers, she was one of its earliest adopters.
In opposition to fellow women’s rights activists, Amelia Bloomer felt women’s suffrage conventions were unseemly. Instead, she believed writing was the best way for women to affect change and inspire reform. She remained a suffrage pioneer, writing and speaking, through her entire life until her death. Bloomer is also the namesake of the Amelia Bloomer Project, which publishes annually a list of children’s books with feminist content.
5. Zora Neale Hurston
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
Author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was a writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. While living in New York City, she became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance along with famed writers like Langston Hughes. After a series of financial struggles, she was forced to live in St. Lucie County Welfare Home where she died in 1960 from a stroke.
Her writing went largely unrecognized until novelist Alice Walker wrote a Ms. article about Hurston’s work. The article helped revive interest in the deceased writer. Wrapped in Rainbows explores the fascinating life Hurston led—including her dabbles in voodoo.
6. Dorothy Lawrence
Dorothy Lawrence is most known for her clandestine transformation from journalist to soldier. After seeing some success with articles published in top newspapers and magazines, Lawrence began reporting on the outbreak of WWI in France, entering a war zone and reporting as a freelance war correspondent. She made it to the frontline but was ordered to leave. She concluded she must become a soldier to report on the war.
Lawrence then befriended two British Army soldiers who smuggled her a uniform, flattened her figure with a homemade corset, used sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders and cut her hair into a short military style. She darkened her skin and learned how to drill and march by a friend’s instruction. She then obtained forged identity papers and headed for the front lines. Upon her return from battle, she wrote about her experiences.
7. Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist.
Born Elizabeth Cochran but known primarily by her pen name, Bly was an American journalist most widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. She was a pioneer of her field, launching a new kind of investigative journalism. Her early work focused on the lives of working women. She then traveled to Mexico and reported on the cultural landscape of the country, later collecting her reports into a book.
Bly then accepted an undercover assignment to report on the harsh conditions of the treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York City. She managed to get herself committed to the asylum and experienced the conditions first hand. Ten Days in a Mad-House brought her instant fame. Bly was not just a writer—she was also an inventor, heavily involved in charity worker, and later, owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
8. Cecilia Payne
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections
A British-American astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne proposed in her PhD thesis the contents of stars—namely, that they were primarily made of hydrogen and helium. This remains the accepted understanding of the composition of stars.
Payne completed her graduate studies at Cambridge, but was not awarded a degree, as the university did not award women degrees until 1948. She then moved to the United States to complete her PhD at Radcliffe College, now part of Harvard.
9. Alice Coachman Davis
Queen of the Track
Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to receive a gold medal in the Olympics. She specialized in high jump. At the height of her career, Coachman was unable to compete in the Olympics due to World War II. When, finally, she participated in the 1948 Olympics, she jumped five feet and six inches, earning her the gold.
Upon her return to the United States, Coachman was a sports hero. She met President Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Parades were held in her honor and she spoke on behalf of women taking stronger leadership roles. In 1979, she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
10. Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
She may be unfamiliar to most, but Rosalind Franklin played a key role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Most of her work was only recognized posthumously. After finishing her work on DNA, Franklin led pioneering efforts at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses. One of the only women in her lab, Franklin’s life was a fascinating one, from childhood to the DNA discovery. Tragically, Franklin's life was cut short; she died in 1958 of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.
11. Frances Perkins
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins
The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, Perkins was the Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and became a key player in the construction of the New Deal. Her goal was always to increase the benefits and safety of the working class.
In 1911, Perkins witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, later calling it the moment the New Deal was born. Upon his election, FDR asked Perkins to serve in his cabinet and help advance an agenda of social equality. Many of the advancements and protective regulations created by this hardworking woman are still in place today.
12. Hedy Lamarr
Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamar, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Hedy Lamarr began her career as an actress known for her controversial presence on screen, appearing nude on occasion. She ran away from her husband in secret to Paris, where she met Louis B. Mayer. He offered her a contract with Hollywood, and her career quickly exploded.
Famous for her beauty and movies, Lamarr was also a talented inventor and tinkerer. At the beginning of World War I, Lamarr and composer George Antheil fashioned a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes that combated jamming attempts by Axis powers. Although the U.S. Navy didn’t adopt the technology until the 1960s, Lamarr and Antheil’s creation is used today in Wi-Fi, CDM, and Bluetooth technology.
13. James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon)
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. for 20 years. During that time, Tiptree was heralded as one of the best—and most masculine—sci-fi writers. When the truth about Sheldon's identity was discovered in 1977, assumptions about "feminine" and "masculine" science fiction came tumbling down. The recognition of women in hard sci-fi today, and the beginning of the end of gendered segregation in sci-fi interests, is all thanks to Sheldon. Sheldon also led a fascinating life outside of her well-regarded science fiction.
14. Sophia Duleep Singh
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh. Her father abdicated her throne, but he and her family kept their honorary titles. Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Singh spent most of her life in England. She was one of the leading women in the struggle to gain voting rights in England, working primarily with the Women’s Tax Resistance League. She also worked with the Red Cross during World War I, was president of the Suffragette Committee, and worked for equality in many different areas.
15. Isabella Lucy Bird
A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
Isabella Lucy Bird was a 19th-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist. Working with Fanny Jane Butler, she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar. She’s best known for being the first woman to be elected fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. She traveled throughout India before venturing to the United States, where she spent a handful of years exploring the newly acquired territories to the west. She documented her experiences and later published her written work in this book.
Featured photo of Ada Lovelace, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frances Perkins: Wikimedia Commons