The first official celebration of Women’s History Month occurred in March of 1987. While there had previously been a week dedicated to women’s history, this was the first time that U.S. citizens were asked to reflect on the various struggles and achievements of women for an entire month. The tradition has only grown stronger over time, with each March marking a month of celebration of women’s history.
Though there are essential facts about women’s history that nearly everyone knows, it’s worth taking a look at some little-known facts as well. From unsung war heroes to brave suffragettes, this list highlights the oft-overlooked women who have broken down barriers and changed history for the better. Here are 12 facts about women’s history that you might not know.
Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Located in Cleveland, Ohio, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was established in 1983. An annual ceremony inducts roughly six to a dozen members into its rank, and the honor was given to the first woman in 1987. Though this industry honor is still stacked against women to this day, the first induction couldn’t have gone to a woman more deserving than Aretha Franklin. Best known for her earth-shattering rendition of Otis Redding’s “RESPECT” and her own hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” she is widely known as the “Queen of Soul.”
Women weren’t guaranteed the right to acquire credit cards on their own until 1974.
It wasn’t until Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 that women had the right to acquire a credit card in their own name. Before then, banks could require women to bring a man along to cosign for them. When applying, women were questioned as to whether they were married or planned to have children someday. When calculating their card limits, their wages were discounted up to 50 percent. It was late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who laid the foundation for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibits gender and racial discrimination.
The first novel in the world was written in c. 1000 CE by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese woman.
Written in the early 11th century, The Tale of Genji is now a classic of Japanese literature. Author Murasaki Shikibu was a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting, who became a cultural innovator for her great work. The original manuscript was made in the orihon style of pasting several sheets of paper together and folding them in alternating directions. In the early 20th century, the book was first translated into modern Japanese, and has since been translated into dozens of languages. The book follows the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient emperor, and makes keen observations on court life and aristocratic society.
The first female physician of recorded history was a doctor who lived in Egypt circa 2700 B.C.
Merit Ptah was not only the first woman on record to serve as a doctor, but the first woman on record to participate in any official sciences. She served on the pharaoh’s court during the Second Dynasty of Egypt. As is the case for many women recorded in early (and not so early) history, her very existence is debated. However, her grave at Saqqara allegedly states her status as a physician in life.
Sybil Ludington took the same risks as Paul Revere to warn patriots of a British attack—except her journey was twice as long.
On the night of April 26th, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington hopped on her horse to ride 40 miles and warn roughly 400 militiamen under her father’s command of an impending raid by British troops. The target was Danbury, Connecticut, where the Continental Army kept a supply depot. It’s alleged that Ludington rode through the night from 9pm to dawn, banging on people’s shutters with a stick to wake them up, shouting “The British are burning Danbury!” While the supplies and munitions perished in the raid, Ludington’s warning meant that the casualties for both sides were kept low.
Women weren’t legally guaranteed equal educational opportunities until 1972. Today, more women earn college degrees than men.
Though women gained the vote in 1920, there were still many barriers to true equality. Congress addressed the issue of inequality in education with the 1972 passage of Title IX, which states that schools receiving federal assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. At universities, the resulting benefits of Title IX included an increase in female athletes, greater protection for victims of sexual assault, and increases in women’s enrollment. In fact, the majority of bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to women, a trend that began in 1980 and has steadily continued.
Lydia Taft became the first woman to vote in colonial America, 164 years before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.
In 1756, long before the women’s suffrage movement gained any traction, Lydia Taft was legally allowed to vote. Her husband Josiah Taft was a prominent member of their community in Uxbridge, Massachusetts; he served several terms as a legislator and presided over town hall meetings. When he died, the townspeople agreed to permit Lydia to vote in her husband’s place. The decision was made in keeping with the tradition of “no taxation without representation”, since Josiah Taft was the town’s largest taxpayer. Lydia went on to cast several more votes, contributing to the town’s stance on important matters like financial contribution to the French and Indian Wars.
Marie Curie is the only person who has ever received two Nobel Prizes in two different science categories.
You may know Marie Curie as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but Curie was also the first person - man or woman - to ever win a second Nobel Prize, and remains the only person to date who’s won the coveted prize in two different science categories, physics and chemistry. Curie struggled throughout her lifetime to overcome gender discrimination and be taken seriously. Born and raised in Poland, she moved to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne–higher education for women was illegal in Poland. Her lasting achievements include the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium, and founding two medical research centers. Curie also developed mobile X-rays to assist wounded soldiers in World War I. Curie’s devotion to scientific exploration eventually cost her her life. She died of aplastic anemia caused by frequent exposure to radiation. Over 80 years after her death, Marie Curie’s notebooks are still radioactive.
Wyoming refused to join the United States without a guarantee that women would be allowed to vote.
In 1869, the territory of Wyoming made history when it passed a law granting women aged twenty-one and older the right to vote. That law was threatened two decades later when Wyoming applied for statehood. Congress stated that it wouldn’t allow the territory to join the union unless women were disenfranchised. Wyoming called Congress out on its bluff, replying via telegram, “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Congress relented and Wyoming became a state in 1890, with women’s right to vote intact. True to its past, Wyoming’s state motto today is simply, “Equal Rights.”
17-year-old pitcher Jackie Mitchell made baseball history when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Jackie Mitchell took an early interest in baseball; her dad began teaching her the sport as soon as she was old enough to walk, and her next-door neighbor was Dazzy Vance, the major league pitcher and Baseball Hall of Fame inductee. At just 17 years old, Mitchell was signed to the Chattanooga Lookouts, becoming the second woman ever to participate in professional baseball. During an exhibition game against the Yankees in 1931, Mitchell struck out baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Despite this impressive feat, Mitchell found herself facing more obstacles than ever. Babe Ruth was quoted as saying that women “are too delicate” to play baseball, and the presiding baseball commissioner barred Mitchell from the sport a few days after her record-breaking game.
The British suffragettes learned jiu jitsu to defend themselves and evade arrest.
Campaigning for women’s enfranchisement was a dangerous act back in the early twentieth century. Many suffragettes in the U.K. were incarcerated, and some were even force fed in jail as punishment for their self-imposed hunger strikes. To protect women from going to jail and facing this abuse, which could have disastrous health consequences, one suffragette had the bright idea to teach her fellow protesters jiu jitsu. Edith Margaret Garrud used her martial arts background to secretly train a unit of 30 members of the Women’s Social and Political Union in self-defense. The group was alternately known as “the Bodyguard” and “the Amazons,” and was highly effective at resisting arrest.
The famous feminist “bra burning” incident never actually happened.
The rumor that feminists were burning bras originated at the Miss America Protest of 1969. About 200 feminists organized a protest of the Miss America pageant, which they argued was a patriarchal contest that degrades and objectifies women. Feminists gathered on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, where they threw bras, lipstick, corsets, and other items into a “Freedom Trash Can” to denounce oppressive standards of feminine beauty. Though no one actually set this trash can on fire, media coverage of the event made a connection between the Miss America protest and Vietnam War protests, in which participants burned their draft cards. People took this metaphor literally, resulting in the belief that feminists were actually burning their bras, not just doing so symbolically. The trope of “bra burning feminists” was forever conflated with the protest, and attached to the feminist movement in general.
Featured photo of Women’s Social and Political Union leaders meeting: Wikimedia Commons