11 Overlooked Women From History, According To Female Historians

Academics share fascinating stories you haven't heard before.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
Library of Congress/National Archives/Caetch/Wikimedia Commons

There are countless women of the past who've played a role in shaping the world as we know it today. Unfortunately, because of various factors — from systemic sexism biased toward male perspectives to male historians downplaying or dismissing women's achievement to men taking credit for women's work — many women from history who deserve a lot of credit and attention don't necessarily get their due. Bustle talked to 10 historians from around the world about the "forgotten" female figures in history they'd love to see receiving the attention they deserve and why they're so inspirational.

Whether their contributions to history have been ignored, neglected, glossed over, or unfairly overshadowed by the work of others, the 11 women on this list, the historians tell Bustle, were rebels and world-changers of the first order. They broke boundaries from the medieval period to the Civil Rights Movement, in areas from writing to war to radio broadcasting. While it's difficult to put the label "feminist" on women who lived before the label was formed, you can argue that many of the women on this list were fighting for the right for women to determine their own paths.

Here are 11 women in history that modern historians say all women today should know about.


Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430)

Dr. Charlotte Cooper-Davis, a stipendiary lecturer at St Hilda's College at the University of Oxford, tells Bustle, "I work on a lady called Christine de Pizan, who was the first professional woman writer. Christine is awesome because she was a feminist avant la lettre: she argued for women to be respected and educated. Some of her short proto-feminist poetic works (the Epistre au dieu d’amours and Dit de la Rose — the Letter of the God of Love and Tale of the Rose) are also bitingly witty when it comes to criticizing the way in which men treat women.

"She was the first professional woman writer in France. In other words, she was the first woman to actually make a living from her pen. She took to writing when her husband died, leaving her with three young children to look after at the age of 25. This being the Middle Ages, women were very much limited in terms of what they could do professionally, but Christine wasn’t going to let this hold her back. She is the only medieval French author whom we know for certain was involved in producing her own manuscripts. Almost 60 manuscripts survive that she is known to have supervised or overseen the production of.

"In terms of what we might call her feminism, she argued for things like the protection of widows and for the education of girls. This should not be overstated too much — she hardly argued for the equality of women, but the fact that she stood up to challenge existing views is significant in and of itself."

Cooper-Davis' book, Christine de Pizan: Cultural Encounters Past, Present, And Future, was published in 2021.


María de Zayas (1590-1661)

Dr. Margaret Boyle, an associate professor at Bowdoin College, tells Bustle, "I often take the opportunity to introduce María de Zayas. During her lifetime (1590-1661), she authored two collections of short stories featuring female protagonists and nearly all of them focusing on violence against women and women telling their own tales of suffering to other women (early modern consciousness-raising!). The stories are gruesome and described by some critics as 'proto-gothic', including scenes of torture, rape, beheading, poison, and confinement.

"Cervantes had a bestselling collection of short stories called the Novelas ejemplares," says Boyle. "Zayas and her readers were certainly responding to the genre. The books are called the Novelas Amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels), published in 1637, and the Desengaños Amorosos (Disenchantments of Love), published in 1647. We lost track of Zayas for hundreds of years when her stories were translated into French and English under the name of a male translator, virtually erasing her from the canon.

"Zayas also authored a play, The Betrayal of Friendship, featuring a polyamorous protagonist who steals away her friend’s boyfriends. Zayas was unmarried during her lifetime, and there is evidence for a strong friendship between her and another woman writer from the period, Ana Caro, a poet and playwright."

When it comes to the Spanish Renaissance, Boyle says, "most people want to talk about Cervantes, Don Quixote, or the Spanish Inquisition." And yet Zayas is one of its key — and neglected — figures.

Boyle published Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain in 2014.


Margery Kempe (c.1383-c.1438)

Art historian Nerissa Taysom, a research associate at the University of Bristol, tells Bustle, "Margery Kempe was born in the 1370s in Kings Lynn and wrote an extraordinary text now thought to be the earliest vernacular autobiography. She was a Christian mystic who, following the birth of her 14th child, embarked on a lengthy pilgrimage around Europe and into the Holy Lands. She is particularly well known for her traits of screaming and crying and writes about her mystical conversations with God. During her lifetime she was thought of as a heretic, a madwoman, and a liar.

"Her text was only discovered in the 1930s by chance, and until recently, she's been largely misunderstood or maligned in critical studies (e.g., [critics said] she wasn't telling the truth because she had postnatal depression)!"

Kempe's book, Taysom says, is loud, and yet "because she was illiterate and had to dictate the book, there's also a lot of silence. She is a woman who has been silenced through the man's hand." And she deserves to be rediscovered.


Dr. Paulina Luisi (1875-1945)

Dr. Christine Ehrick, a professor at the University of Louisville, says, "Dr. Paulina Luisi was a pioneering Uruguayan physicist and feminist. Born in Argentina but raised in Uruguay, Paulina Luisi was the eldest child of European immigrants. After becoming the first woman in Uruguay to earn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, Paulina became the first woman to enroll in — and complete — medical school.

"As the first female medical student, Paulina faced a lot of harassment from her classmates. One day, Luisi found a severed human penis in the pocket of her lab coat. Luisi reportedly waited until class was over, when she held up the offending member and asked her all-male classmates, 'Did one of you lose this?'

"In 1916, Paulina founded and led the Uruguayan branch of the National Women’s Council. In late 1932, Uruguay became only the second Latin American country to grant women full voting rights. At that point, Luisi was in Europe serving as a diplomatic representative, but she resigned to return to Uruguay to fight totalitarianism at home and abroad.

"When Uruguayan women won the vote, a congratulatory message issued via Radio Madrid was one of Luisi’s first forays into the transformative medium of radio. The earliest surviving Luisi radio script we have from Uruguay, in fact, was delivered on Radio Femenina in 1936. By the early 1940s, Luisi had become the female voice of the Socialist Party and, using the on-air name abuela (grandmother), had developed something of a following among Uruguayan listeners. She was a female voice in the otherwise patriarchal soundscapes of medicine, politics, and radio; a voice that in both medium and message spoke in favor of women’s legal and political equality, and in favor of women’s right to speak."

Ehrick's book Radio and the Gendered Soundscape: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950 was published in 2015.


Soong Meiling (1898-2003)

Dr. Kate Merkel-Hess, an associate professor at Penn State University, tells Bustle, "The former first lady of the Republic of China, Soong Meiling — better known in the West as Madame Chiang Kai-shek or May-ling Soong — has not been entirely forgotten, but she has been taken less seriously than her political influence warrants. One of the two most prominent political spouses in 20th century China, Soong married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 in the midst of Chiang’s efforts to reunite China after a decade of regional warlord infighting. Soong played a critical role in building new national coalitions of elite women, petitioning foreign support during China’s war with Japan (1937-1945), and arguing for the importance of a unified, modern Chinese state.

"Soong Meiling spent much of her early life in the U.S., and graduated in 1917 from Wellesley College. Her linguistic and cultural fluency meant that she became the most important Chinese envoy to the U.S. during the 1930s and the 1940s as China pleaded for greater U.S. support in the war against Japan.

"Soong Meiling was a master at framing her political involvement — which was extraordinary for her time — within a framework of wifely duty and cosmopolitan charm, but she also chafed at the limitations that framework placed on her ability to act. After Chiang was kidnapped by subordinate officers in Xi’an in December 1936, his deputies argued for an immediate attack on the kidnappers. Soong wanted to negotiate, and eventually got her way. Soong was not at all shy about claiming her place as a leading political figure, and we must stop putting her on the periphery of Chinese history. Instead, we should try to see her as the central political figure that she was."

Merkel-Hess' book The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China was published in 2016.


Andree Borrel (1919-1944)

Historian Sarah Rose tells Bustle, "Andree Borrel was 22 when she was recruited to parachute undercover into occupied France to help arm and train the resistance ahead of the D-Day landings. She was the world's very first female paratrooper and was a patriot despite the fact that the rebel leader of France, Gen. de Gaulle, was personally responsible for the torture of her boyfriend. Among his threats: de Gaulle's secret service threatened to gang rape Andree Borrel.

"Andree infiltrated France in the special forces and helped lead the Paris-based resistance. She was captured and executed one month after D-Day in a concentration camp on French soil." Despite this, Borrel "has been left out of history almost entirely."

Rose's book D-Day Girls was published in 2019.


Gloria Richardson (1922-2021)


Professor Katherine Bankole-Medina, a professor of history at Coppin State University, says, "One of the truly unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement was Gloria Richardson. She was an incredible activist mover and shaker in the 1960s — absolutely fearless. Richardson was one of the founders of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee in the state of Maryland. In addition to her grassroots organizing and social activism, she was courageous in critiquing how Black women were treated in the modern Civil Rights movement.

"While droves of women worked 'behind the scenes' at the 1963 March on Washington, one woman, Gloria Richardson, was on the stage. She was friends with some of the most notable leaders of the time, including Malcolm X. She defied all of the ideas about African Americans and Black women at that time. The media, particularly, had great difficulty in classifying her motivations as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. This was, in part, because she was from the Black upper class in Maryland, Howard University-educated, and divorced. Richardson advocated for voting and economic rights for African Americans in Dorchester County Maryland (Eastern Shore). This was important for Black women, who were often discriminated against in the area of employment.

"Yet Richardson, like many Black people [at the time], was uniquely unemployable. Though highly educated, Richardson could not get a job in Cambridge, Maryland, because routine racial discrimination practices prohibited Black people from professional positions and even some of the most menial jobs."

Bankole-Medina says Richardson is one of her "female heroines."


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Professor Bankole-Medina also tells Bustle, "Before the Harlem Renaissance, the mainstream appearance of Black women writers of the 1960s and 1970s, or the race and resistance writers of today, there was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper . She was a well-known and loved poet, novelist, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragette. She was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. At the age of 25, she moved to Boston where she published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1854.

"Despite her own hardships, she continued to write and speak bravely about racial justice and gender equality. I am always moved by one of her most famous abolitionist poems, 'Bury Me in a Free Land.' In this 1858 work Harper boldly declared, 'Make me a grave where'er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; Make it among earth's humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves.'

Both Harper and Richardson "defied racism and injustice, Bankole-Media says. "They were freedom-seeking women. They used their voice, intellectualism, power, self-awareness, sense of community, and strength to bring about a better world."

Bankole-Medina's book World To Come: The Baltimore Uprising, Militant Racism, and History was published in 2016.


Hilda Kuper (1911-1992)

Abby Gondek, Morgenthau scholar-in-residence at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, tells Bustle, "Jewish, British, and African anthropologist Hilda Kuper was born in 1911 in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Kuper’s first fieldwork involved studying the impact of liquor laws on Black women in Johannesburg. Later, her research sites expanded to Swaziland and Indian communities in Durban, Natal, South Africa, where she formed lifelong friendships and research partnerships with Swazi anthropologist Thoko Ginindza and South African Indian Muslim-Jewish sociologist Fatima Meer.

"Through Hilda’s marriage to Leo Kuper, she became involved in nonviolent apartheid protests as one of the founders of the Liberal Party and was forced to leave South Africa; she eventually became a professor of anthropology at UCLA. In her theorizing about Black women, Hilda took a 'Swazi point of view,' arguing that Westernization weakened women’s position. She portrayed Swazi women and Indian South African women as the victims of colonization as well as patriarchal indigenous systems. Hilda’s initial interests in law, acting, languages, and history morphed into her career as a legal and political anthropologist, novelist, and playwright."


Matilda Of Tuscany (1046-1115)

Dr. Pamela Toler, author of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, tells Bustle, "I kept coming back to Matilda of Tuscany. Her name means 'mighty in war' and she lived up to it.

"Over the course of a 40-year military career, Matilda mustered troops for long-distance expeditions, fought successful defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman emperor (himself a skilled commander), launched ambushes, engaged in urban warfare, directed sieges, lifted sieges, and was besieged. She built, stocked, and fortified castles. She maintained an effective intelligence network. She negotiated alliances with local leaders. She rewarded her followers with the favorite currencies of medieval rulers: land, castles, and privileges. She was both a skilled military commander and a key player in the most important political and theological issue of her time.

"Matilda fielded her last military action in 1114, putting down a revolt in the city of Mantua less than a year before her death. Mighty in war to the end."


Gertrude Benham (1867-1938)

Dr. Kate Strasdin, senior lecturer at Falmouth University, tells Bustle, "Gertrude Benham was one of the most prolific world explorers and mountaineers that you have never heard of. Between 1904 and her death in 1938, she had circumnavigated the globe seven times, had climbed more than 300 peaks of 10,000 feet or above, and even had summits in the Rocky Mountains, the Truda Peaks, named in her honor. Yet her name remains surprisingly obscure.

"Gertrude always traveled alone, hiring local porters on her trips abroad, covering thousands of kilometers on foot across Africa, New Zealand, India, Canada, and the Himalayas. She was the first European to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 1909, a feat she achieved alone when her guides left her. Shouldering her kit, she climbed on but never received the accolades for her success. She belongs to that remarkable type of woman, unique perhaps to that period, who was able to venture forth, unfettered by a conventional life, covering extraordinary distances, overcoming endless challenges and yet describing herself as a ‘very quiet and harmless traveler.’ In a pre-digital age, her achievements are all the more startling and yet are so little known."

Correction: This story was updated on March 15 to correctly reflect the publication date of Rose's book.

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