Women's History Month

35 Groundbreaking Women From History You Didn't Learn About In School

Women’s History Month is a great time to honor them.

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Ever since Congress passed Public Law 100-9 in 1987, March has officially been known as Women’s History Month in the United States. Women have contributed so much to society, and Women’s History Month is one way to acknowledge that fact. That said, we can’t honestly say that women’s history is being adequately represented in this country when our history books continue to feature a majority of cis white men. The truth of the matter is, there are dozens of groundbreaking women from history that you’ve probably never heard of, simply because American history books don’t discuss them.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably grew up reading about the bravery of Harriet Tubman and the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt. Or maybe you learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, or the many other successful female authors who made their mark on history. While those women are super inspiring and totally deserving of their place in our history books, we should also be teaching young girls (and ourselves) about Mary Jackson, Rosalind Franklin, and other influential female scientists from history — among others.

History is chock-full of badass women that nobody’s heard of, so here are 35 inspiring women from history that you need to know about.

1. Hypatia Of Alexandria ? - 415 AD


Although scholars can't seem to agree on her date of birth, historians everywhere do agree that Hypatia of Alexandria was a total badass. In addition to being an unwed Pagan woman who taught astronomy and mathematics from her home, Hypatia managed to establish herself as a philosopher of the Neoplatonic school. Hypatia also gave public lectures where she openly spoke out about non-Christian philosophies, like Paganism and Neoplatonism.

Debating philosophy and religion in a public forum might not seem like that big of a deal to us nowadays, but it would have taken a considerable amount of courage to openly defy Christianity under the rule of Julius Caesar. (After all, this was the man who ordered the burning of all Pagan temples in 391 AD.) Unfortunately, it was that same courage that ultimately cost Hypatia her life. In either 415 or 416 AD, a mob of Christian zealots pulled Hypatia from her carriage, dragged her into a nearby church, stripped her, and beat her to death with roofing tiles. As if that wasn't enough, the mob proceeded to tear Hypatia's body into pieces and burn them, effectively solidifying her role as cherished martyr to feminists and atheists alike.

2. Wu Zetian 624 AD - 705 AD


OK, so Empress Wu Zetian is definitely a controversial person. Many Chinese historians have painted Wu as an evil concubine who would stop at nothing to get one step closer to the throne. (Some even say Wu had members of her family murdered during her reign.) But, there is no denying that Wu Zetian was a formidable human being who usurped the throne, and as Smithsonian Magazine points out, she was the first Chinese woman to come to power on her own in 3,000 years.

3. Hojo Masako 1157 - 1225


Normally I wouldn't praise someone just for marrying the first military dictator of a nation, but Hojo's case is special. Not only did Hojo eventually help Minamoto Yoritomo (the first shogun ever) conquer Japan, Hojo's marriage to Yoritomo was 100 percent her idea. When Yoritomo was exiled from the capital by his family's enemies, he became Hojo's father's responsibility. Hojo eventually convinced her father to let her marry the exiled royal that he'd been tasked with protecting. Not long after their union, the literal power couple took control of Japan.

4. Mary Frith 1584 - 1659


Mary Frith, a.k.a. Moll Cutpurse, a.k.a. Moll Frith, was one of England's most infamous criminals back in the 1600s. (Hence the multiple aliases.) Frith started her career in crime as a pickpocket (ahem, Cutpurse), but she kept getting caught, so she started dressing like a man and robbing people on the highway. After being briefly jailed for highway robbery, Frith opened her own shop on Fleet Street. It was, of course, a front. Frith made her living by facilitating the resale of stolen articles. Also, Frith reportedly enjoyed smoking and swearing excessively.

Obviously, crime is never something to aspire to, and Frith isn't exactly an ideal role model. But, she also definitely didn't conform to the expectations demanded of women at the time — and for that reason, she's worth knowing.

5. Peggy Shippen 1760 - 1804


We've all heard of Benedict Arnold — infamous traitor of the Continental Army and the American Revolution itself. But did you know Arnold's wife, Peggy, might have facilitated Benedict's treason? Recent historians believe if Peggy hadn't befriended a British officer named Jon André, then Benedict wouldn't have had a British contact to sell his secrets to. Further, if Peggy was complicit in her husband's treason, she managed to get away with it. When Benedict was outed as a traitor to the Continental Army, even George Washington was convinced by Peggy's feigned innocence.

Again, maybe not the strongest role model, but she's definitely a historical figure you don't hear much about in school. Peggy died of cancer at the age of 44, but she devoted most of her short life to her five kids.

6. Sybil Ludington 1761 - 1839


On the same night that Paul Revere took his infamous midnight ride, Sybil Ludington was off on a much longer ride of her own. After an exhausted messenger came to warn Colonel Ludington that the British had just attacked the nearby town of Danbury, Connecticut, Sybil rode over 40 miles through the night to alert her father's men of the approaching British army. Thanks to Sybil, almost the entire regiment was gathered by daybreak to fight The Redcoats. Huzzah!

7. Edmonia Lewis 1844 - 1907


Orphaned before the age of five, Edmonia Lewis was the daughter of a free African-American man and a Chippewa woman. Financed by her brother, Lewis briefly attended Oberlin college. Her career at Oberlin didn't last long, though. Lewis was eventually kicked out after being accused, and acquitted of, poisoning her two white roommates.

After leaving Oberlin, Lewis found the determination to become a sculptor. Although most of her work hasn't survived, Lewis' first pieces featured well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. Edmonia Lewis never married or had any kids, and was last reported living in Rome in 1911.

8. Ada Lovelace 1815 - 1852


I think it's safe to say most of us have heard of Ada's dad, the poet Lord Byron. But, Lovelace was actually way cooler than him. After her mother insisted that her daughter be tutored in math and science, Lovelace grew up to be the world's first computer programmer. Lovelace came up with a process known as looping that computer programs use today. She might have been the first person to ever talk about coding, too.

Despite her evident awesomeness, Lovelace's brilliance was largely ignored during her life. Though she did get at least one article published in an English science journal, she didn't start receiving proper credit for her work until her writings were reintroduced to society by B.V. Bowden, who republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named a newly developed computer language "Ada," after this unlikely computer nerd.

9. Mary Edwards Walker 1832 - 1919


In addition to becoming the first female physician in the U.S. Army, Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. After her application to join the Union Army as a medical officer was denied, Mary opted to volunteer as a surgeon. While on duty in April of 1864, Mary was captured by the Confederate Army and held as a prisoner for a few months at Castle Thunder Prison near Richmond, Virginia. By the time October rolled around, Mary had ben released and given a commission as acting assistant surgeon.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill awarding Mary the Medal of Honor because she, "devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war." None of this kept Congress from trying to strip Walker of her medal in 1917, when it was decided only those who had engaged in combat would remain eligible for the award. Walker refused to give up her medal, though, wearing it until she died in 1919. As if Walker wasn't cool enough, she also arrested multiple times for wearing mens clothing. She fought hard for women's rights, too.

10. Ida B. Wells 1862 - 1931

Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells ultimately became the first African-American journalist. After beginning her education at Rust University in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells spent several years teaching in various Southern towns. In 1884, she moved to Memphis and attended Fisk University in Nashville during the summers. When the 1890s finally arrived, Wells started using her journalistic skills to lead the anti-lynching movement in the U.S.

11. Nellie Bly 1864 - 1922


Nellie Bly is probably best known for her article detailing the living conditions of asylum patients at Blackwell's Island in New York City. Bly went undercover for the story, committing herself to Blackwell's Island for a full 10 days. Shortly after Bly's article was published in New York World, a much-needed formal investigation was launched into the asylum. After all of that went down, Nellie got to sail around the world in 72 days and then write about it.

12. Mary Ware Dennett 1872 - 1947

Courtesy of the Dennett Family Archive

As an artist, interior designer, suffragette, and anti-war advocate, Mary Ware Dennett wore a lot of different hats, but her most important work may have been her contributions to birth control reform. She wrote a number of influential essays on the movement during her time as the literature coordinator at the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and later founded the first birth control organization in the United States, called the National Birth Control League, in 1915.

Dennett was very outspoken about her belief that birth control was a fundamental right, but not all of her contemporaries agreed with her, including Margaret Sanger. Although they were both leaders during the birth control reform movement of the 1920s, Sanger successfully advocated for medicalizing birth control, instead of making it accessible to everyone as Dennett would have wanted.

13. Harriet Chalmers Adams 1875 - 1937


Born and raised in California, Harriet Chalmers Adams was an American writer, explorer, and photographer. It's also possible that she was the coolest kid ever — she traveled from Oregon to Mexico with her father when she was only 13, and she spoke six languages as a young woman. On top of all that, Adams traveled all over the world and then wrote about it for National Geographic. She also became a well-known lecturer after successfully pitching a lecture to the National Geographic Society in 1906.

14. Constance Kopp 1878 - ? ‌

After a factory magnate named Henry Kaufman drove his car into Constance Kopp's buggie, Kopp wanted justice. Even though personally invoicing Kaufman for damages and going to the police only resulted in blackmail and threats to Kopp and her family, she didn't give up. Instead, Kopp found Patterson's Sheriff Heath — the only police officer who seemed to care about the Kopp family's plight.

Kopp's relationship with Heath proved to be extremely beneficial. Heath was so impressed with Kopp, he appointed her to be undersheriff, officially making her America's first woman sheriff.

15. Frances Perkins 1880 - 1965

As an active member of the suffrage movement and an advocate for worker’s rights, Frances Perkins wasn’t afraid to fight for what she believed in. She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, an event she later described as a pivotal moment in her life, and watched as nearly 150 workers (mainly women) unsuccessfully tried to escape the building despite its lack of fire escapes. After this incident, she went on to serve as the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York on the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt. Her advocacy for worker’s rights eventually earned her the title of United States Secretary of Labor, and she became the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet under FDR.

16. Bessie Coleman 1892 - 1926


OK, so Amelia Earhart was awesome, but have you heard of Bessie Coleman? Not only was Coleman the first black woman to earn her pilot's license, she learned French and moved to France to do so. Flying schools in the U.S. refused her, so Coleman earned her pilot's license from France's Caudron Brother's School of Aviation instead. (It only took her seven months, too.) In 1922, Coleman became the first black woman to stage a public flight in the U.S.

17. Dorothy Lawrence 1896 - 1964


At the start of World War I, Dorothy Lawrence was just a newbie reporter who longed to become a war correspondent. So in 1915, Lawrence donned a curves-flattening corset, chopped her hair off, and transformed herself into a man named "Tim," and forged the travel documents that would get her through France to the front lines.

When she finally reached Albert, France, Lawrence was able to join the ranks of 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers, as they dug under neutral land and across to German lines. Lawrence spent two weeks in the trenches before she outed herself to her superiors and emerged with the biggest story of her life. Though the War Office forbid Lawrence from writing or lecturing about it until after the Armistice in 1918, she was eventually able to turn her experiences into a book titled: Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, The Only English Woman Soldier.

18. Anna Arnold Hedgeman 1899 - 1990

Anna Arnold Hedgeman was an educator, public speaker, civil rights activist, and the first black woman to be a member of a mayoral cabinet in New York City. (This was all in the 1950s, too.) In addition to assisting Mayor Robert F. Wagner from 1954 - 1958, she was executive director of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. She also acted as an assistant to Oscar R. Ewing, Administrator of the Federal Security Agency. In 1963, Hedgeman joined the staff of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches — but this was just one of many ways Anna Arnold Hedgeman worked to improve race relations.

19. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin 1900 - 1979


Born in Britain but still very much an American, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first astronomer to discover that stars are made primarily of hydrogen and helium. She also found a way to establish that stars can be classified by their temperatures. Payne-Gaposchkin attended Cambridge on scholarship, earned a PhD in astronomy from Harvard, and wrote several books about stars during her lifetime. In 1956, she became Harvard's first-ever female professor and department chair.

20. Zelda Fitzgerald 1900 - 1948


I have yet to meet someone who hasn't heard of the Great Gatsby writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald — but his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, was equally fascinating. Though her marriage to F. Scott was reportedly a toxic one, Zelda inspired many of her husband's most-loved characters. And she's inspired many more creative people since F. Scott, apparently. The Eagles wrote "Witchy Woman" after reading Zelda's biography, and Legend of Zelda creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, named his video game after her.

21. Ella Baker 1903 - 1986

Retrieved from the The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.Wikimedia

Born in North Carolina in 1903, Ella Baker grew up to become one of the most passionate political activists of the 1930s. Baker organized the Young Negros Cooperative League in New York City, and she even became a national director for the NAACP at one point. Baker joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization whose first president was Martin Luther King Jr. Before her death in 1986, Baker also worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to encourage civil rights activism on college campuses.

22. Grace Hopper 1906 - 1992


After graduating from Vassar College and then earning both a Master's degree and a PhD from Yale University, New York City native Grace Hopper joined the Navy. Hopper joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, and she was almost immediately assigned the task of programming the Mark I computer. After the war was over, Hopper continued her work with computers. She eventually led the team that would create the first computer language compiler, which led to the popular COBOL language. Hopper resumed active Naval service at the age of 60, and she also managed to become a rear admiral before retiring in 1986.

23. Dorothy Vaughan 1910 - 2008


Although she worked for NASA during the Jim Crow era, Dorothy Vaughan became NASA's first black manager. Vaughan had been working at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory for six years when she was promoted to the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) segregated West Area Computing Unit. Vaughan held the position from 1949 until 1958, and she worked as a respected mathematician for NASA until her retirement in 1971.

24. Dorothy Height 1912 - 2010


Featured on the right, Dorothy Height was a civil rights activist from early on in life. Height attended racially integrated schools in Philadelphia, where she participated in anti-lynching campaigns as a high school student. Height acted as president of the National Council of Negro Women, and she fought against illiteracy and unemployment. Of the many honors awarded her, Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. More than anything, Height's legacy is that she fought to improve the lives of black women, while also fighting for the civil rights of all.

25. Katherine Johnson 1918 - 2020 ‌


Katherine Johnson was so gifted in mathematics that she was able to attend high school at the age of 13. With a mind like hers, it's not surprising that West Virginia State’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, asked Johnson to be one of the first three black students to be offered spots at West Virginia University. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Johnson landed a job working with Dorothy Vaughan at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA). Johnson's work helped send John Glenn on his 1962 orbital mission, and she worked on the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. Johnson also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and she authored (or coauthored) 26 research reports.

26. Henrietta Lacks 1920 - 1951


Unfortunately, Henrietta's story is a mega-bummer. After marrying her cousin and having four children with him, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After her diagnosis, doctors at John Hopkins removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge, and Lacks' cells have been used extensively in medical research ever since.

Still, despite her difficult life and death, Henrietta Lacks made a huge impact on scientific research as we know it. After researcher Dr. George Otto Gey discovered Lacks' cells were unnaturally durable, he isolated and multiplied a specific cell, creating a cell line. What resulted was the HeLa Line, derived from the name Henrietta Lacks. Though Lacks was clearly treated unethically in both life and death, she made her mark on the world simply by existing — and that's pretty amazing.

27. Rosalind Franklin 1920 - 1958


Although other scientists took credit for her discoveries, Rosalind Franklin played a major role in the discovery of DNA. Franklin earned a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge, where she learned crystallography and pioneered the use of X-ray diffraction. These were techniques that Franklin eventually applied to DNA fibers, and it was one of her photographs that provided important insights on DNA structure. Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer when she was only 37.

28. Mary Jackson 1921 - 2005 ‌


You might know who Mary Jackson is if you watched Janelle Monáe's portrayal of her in Hidden Figures. If you haven't watched the award-winning film yet, then you might not know that Mary Jackson became NASA's first black, female engineer in 1958. In that same year, Jackson co-authored her first report, Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds. She also worked hard to get kids interested in math and science, and she did everything in her power to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. She also received the Apollo Group Achievement Award, among others.

29. Rose Marie McCoy 1922 - 2015

Rosie Marie McCoy has been referred to as, "one of the most prolific songwriters you've never heard of." Unfortunately, this title makes perfect sense. Although she originally moved from Arkansas to New York City (at the age of 19, no less) to become a singer, McCoy eventually discovered that songwriting came more naturally to her than performing. This realization led her to write some wildly popular songs for stars such as Big Maybelle, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Bette Midler, Elvis Presley, and Ike and Tina Turner.

Even though McCoy wrote and/or collaborated on more than 850 songs during her 92 years, she was widely unknown until an NPR documentary about her life aired in 2009.

30. Patsy Takemoto Mink 1927 - 2002

Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1964, Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and Asian-American woman elected to Congress. As a third-generation Japanese American, Mink served her home state of Hawaii for 24 years, first from 1965 through 1977, then again from 1990 through her death in 2002. Mink did a lot to advance legislation regarding women’s rights and education during her career, but she’s probably best known for co-authoring the Title IX Amendment of Higher Education Act in 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and education programs. The legislation was later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in 2002 in her honor.

31. Margaret Hamilton 1936 - ‌


Even though her name probably isn't familiar to most Americans, it was Margaret Hamilton's code that landed American astronauts on the moon. In the 1960s, Margaret lead the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. She also coined the phrase, "software engineering." Most impressively, if it weren't for Hamilton's leadership and her coding, it's highly doubtful that the Apollo mission would have been successful. For these reasons and probably more, President Obama awarded Margaret Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November.

32. Diane Nash 1938 -

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Diane Nash helped lead the fight against segregation in the American South by staging sit-ins and co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1962, Diane Nash was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi — despite the fact that she was four months pregnant at the time. Luckily, Nash was released on appeal, allowing her to play a pivotal role in the Birmingham de-segregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965.

33. Marsha P. Johnson 1945 - 1992

Marsha P. Johnson played an influential role in leading the gay rights movement in the 1960s; in fact, she is largely credited with helping to start the New York City Stonewall riots in 1969. A black, trans-LGBTQ activist, she was a major player in the Gay Liberation Front and also spent her life extensively working to fight the 1980s AIDS endemic. In 2012, Johnson's work was recognized in the documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnsonthough you'd be hard-pressed to hear her name come up in many classrooms.

34. Barbara Lee 1946 -

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration drafted an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the hope that Congress would pass it. The AUMF gave the President permission to use, "all necessary and appropriate force" to find and punish those who committed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Barbara Lee, who began representing the East Bay in Congress on April 7, 1998, felt this was too much power for one person. Amazingly, Lee was the only member of Congress who voted against the AUMF. Though her unpopular vote received criticism from many, Lee also received support from both her constituents and U.S. Army veterans.

This list is nowhere close to exhaustive — there are countless other women who have made a huge impact in the lives of Americans today. As you celebrate Women's History Month, make sure you take time to read up on all the amazing women who have fought so hard to make a difference — not just the ones you learned about in school.

35. Sally Ride 1951 - 2012

Space Frontiers/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Everyone knows Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, but not many people know Sally Ride was the first American woman to fly in space. She applied to work for NASA in 1977 while she was still a student when the company began searching for female astronauts. On June 18, 1983, she cemented her place in history when she was sent up on a space shuttle mission to work the robotic arm to help put satellites into space.

This list is nowhere close to exhaustive — there are countless other women who have made a huge impact in the lives of Americans today. As you celebrate Women's History Month, make sure you take time to read up on all the amazing women who have fought so hard to make a difference — not just the ones you learned about in school.

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