Major Moments In History Sparked By Women

by JR Thorpe

There are various points in history that one can pinpoint and say "Look! There. A woman, or women, caused that momentous historical event." Those events, with their considerable consequences, are more common than you might think; but often female contributions to human history are overlooked, underplayed, or paired with male actions that get more attention.

Some major historical moments, like the crowning of Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut or the refusal to wed of Elizabeth I, were historic precisely because they were made and engineered by women; but there are numerous other instances in which women put processes in motion, made discoveries, took initiatives, or reached decisions that would change the world in serious and lasting ways — and did it solo.

Women's History Month is often about celebrating female contributions to history, from the names that need to be better known (Margaret Hamilton, for instance, who wrote the code for the Apollo Space Program by hand) to those that have been eclipsed by explicit sexism, racism, or classism (Madam CJ Walker, the civil rights activist and entrepreneur, is one). But there are certain situations in which the hand that lit the fuse, or wrote the paper, or brandished the protest sign was female, and they deserve to be recognized and celebrated. Here are seven moments in history that were decidedly female-made.

The Invention Of The Novel, 11th Century

When it comes down to the invention of the novel form, it's often a battle between two radically different texts: Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s, and an unusual, beautiful work from a Japanese noblewoman of the 11th century about courtiers going around seducing people and getting into trouble. If you haven't read The Tale Of Genji, which was penned by Murasaki Shikibu, you're missing out: it tells the life story of the swashbuckling, intrigue-prone Prince Genji, with a cast of over 400 characters, and is one of the classics of world literature. And it certainly seems to take the crown from Cervantes when "first novel" notions are bandied around. It's also astonishingly beautiful, particularly when you look at one of its original texts, a 12th century picture scroll with illustrations of all the pertinent scenes. The work of Murasaki Shikibu changed both Japanese literature and the shape of storytelling forever.

The Catholic Reformation In Spain, 16th Century

Amid the religious turmoil of 16th century Spain, one figure was eking out a space for herself as a reformer: St Teresa of Avila, a Catholic nun and mystic who would found a new holy order, the Discalced Carmelites (discalced meaning "shoeless"), to try and reinstate what she saw as the true purpose of lives in devotion to Christianity. She'd become disillusioned with her original order; she took the vow as a nun in the Carmelite order, but at the age of 43 decided to form her own that was more devoted to "poverty and simplicity." In the process she made enemies of corrupt church bureaucrats, the Inquisition, people who believed only men could be religious leaders, and a host of other people. Not fun. But she was allowed to establish more and more houses for her new order, and gradually came to be seen as one of the great instigators behind the Catholic Reformation, in which Catholicism revitalized itself to try and compete with the rise of Protestantism.

Our Understanding Of Chromosomes & Gender, 1906

These days, our understanding of how chromosomes influence our gender is pretty established knowledge: females have XX chromosomes, while males have XY ones, and the gender of babies is determined by the interaction of sperm and eggs. This particular aspect of human biology, which has influenced huge swathes of medicine, came from a woman: Nettie Marie Stevens, a brilliant American scientist who, at the beginning of the 20th century, discovered that male and female chromosomes have different shapes (the ones we now know as X and Y), and found that sex is an inherited characteristic determined by the sperm. Tragically, she died in 1912 of breast cancer.

The February Uprising In Russia, 1917

This isn't just one woman but multiple women — thousands of them, in fact. The 1917 February Revolution, which would lead to the end of tsarist rule in Russia, was instigated on 8 March — International Women's Day — by huge gatherings of protesting women in Petrograd, from two different sources. Some were marching in "bread riots," protesting government rationing of flour and other essentials, while others came out of factories on strike. The growing mass also attracted men, until up to 90,000 of them were marching in the streets. The crowds had numerous clashes with the army, burned down police stations, and eventually raised the pressure so much that Nicholas II, the famous scion of the Romanov family, would eventually abdicate.

The Invention Of Gas Heating, 1919

This is an intriguing one. Gas heating changed domestic life and conditions around the world for the better, moving away from the mess and pollution of coal and soot, and the person who first appeared to come up with the idea was inventor Alice Parker, from New Jersey. An African-American graduate of Howard University, Parker filed a patent in 1919 for the world's first gas-powered central heating system, using air ducts to transfer hot air throughout a house. What's remarkable — and aggravating — is that we know next to nothing about Parker's life. Her heating system may never have been put into practice, though it was the first of its kind and near-identical ideas would shortly thereafter take over the world.

The Legal Personhood Of Women In Canada, 1929

Emily Murphy was a formidable figure in Canadian history for various reasons, but the most notable has to be her legal victory in 1929. At the time, Canada was defined by the British North America Act of 1867, which had established it as a federation and the rights of its people — but Murphy, who had fought hard to become the British Empire's first female magistrate, discovered during her first case that her verdict was not considered to be valid because she, as a woman, was not considered a "person" under the Act. That decision, in 1916, let to a 12-year battle in which Murphy challenged both politicians and the law to define Canadian women as legal people. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against her, but in 1928 she took the case to the Privy Council in Britain, then the highest court for British colonies, and they declared that Canadian women were indeed "persons." This was less than a hundred years ago, guys.

The Atoms For Peace Conference, 1955

The historical role of Sameera Moussa, an Egyptian nuclear scientist, in organizing and sponsoring the Atoms For Peace Conference in Geneva in 1955, which would be the largest scientific gathering in human history, is slightly confused. Partly that's because Moussa was killed in a car accident in America in 1952, in what are still regarded as suspicious circumstances. But Moussa undoubtedly held a prominent role in getting the Atoms For Peace idea off the ground, and was a hugely gifted scientist, holding one of the first doctorates in nuclear radiation and discovering how cheap metals could have their atoms split. The 1955 conference, according to Vladimir Veksler, was a huge success for scientific connection: "we can certainly claim, as regards scope and significance, that it was a conference of scientists unique in history.”