Women in History: The Women You Know, You Should Know, and You Need to Watch

By Kileigh Ford

  Image: State Dept./Doug Thompson

Image: State Dept./Doug Thompson

Cleopatra’s powerful rule gained respect for women in politics, Marie Curie’s profound work literally killed her, Mary Wollstonecraft is considered one of the first feminists for her radical writing on the topic, and Susan B. Anthony fiercely fought for the right to vote for African Americans and women. Four notable women whose actions and discoveries have benefited the world for centuries. Four women whom the world as we know it would be different without today. But four is no magical number in the accomplishments of women, four is a minuscule fraction of the  population.

Throughout school you’ve heard the same names over and over again of the women who shaped the world but past those, there are so many whose names you should know and, arguably more important, some modern-day queens in their own right you should look out for.

Politics

The one you know: Cleopatra

Cleopatra is a name you can be sure to see in a history textbook or on the cover of a DVD. One of the most powerful women throughout history, Cleopatra not only inspired many modern films and books, but ruled Egypt as Queen with a ruthless hand and immense strength from 69 BC – 30 BC. Cleopatra would not let anything in the way of her throne and had no qualms in doing whatever was needed to stay in power. Cutthroat, Cleopatra slayed whoever posed a threat to her power. In doing so, she created bonds with Caesar and Marc Antony, two Roman rulers whom she bore children to, through her charm, wit, and passion. Admirable for her intellect, Cleopatra spoke 9 languages, brought empires together, and ruled before she turned 18, on and off from 50 BC until her death. While Cleopatra was a brutal woman, she demonstrated what great strength, charm and capabilities a woman was able to hold in a position of power.

The one you should know: Wu Zetian

With many familial dynasties ruling throughout history in China, Wu Zetian is the only women to ever be emperor. Encouraged by her father to read and write from a young age, which were regarded as activities for boys, Wu was chosen as a concubine for Emperor Taizong because of her intelligence and beauty, but quickly became his secretary. Concurrently, Wu carried on an affair with his son, Prince Li Zhi/Emperor Gaozong, who called for her to return to court as his own concubine when she was sent away to a convent after the death of Emperor Taizong. After getting Gaozong’s wife and another concubine expelled by framing them for killing her daughter, she married Gaozong. Many refer to Lady Wu Zhao as ruling like a man because she was the brains and force behind her husband’s rule. After his passing, she did not deem either of her sons worthy of the throne and appointed herself as Emperor Zetian, or ‘Ruler of the Heavens.’ During her rule, Emperor Zetian created a secret police force to monitor court, added the Zetian Characters to Chinese writing and put out reforms that were requested by her citizens. She was an emperor of the people and was beloved because of it. Wu Zetian is a shining exception of  the male dominated history in the rule of China; she was said to “rule like a man” because of her ability to read, write, do anything to keep her throne and think for herself, but her compassion and gender-evading actions proved she was like no emperor prior, that is why she led an empire.

The modern lady: Condoleezza Rice

The 66th Secretary of State to the US, Condoleezza Rice served under George W. Bush and was the first female African-American secretary of state, the second African-American national security advisor overall, and the first woman to serve on the National Security Advisory. These many firsts in her life were not just through sheer luck; Condoleezza Rice grew up in Alabama in the mid-1900s where racism and segregation ran rampant . She became a political science professor, and then the first woman and African American to be provost of Stanford. From there, she was given the role of director of Soviet and East European affairs in the National Security Council, then special assistant to George H.W. Bush, and later served on the Federal Advisory Committee on Gender-Integrated Training in the Military. In the early 2000s, she served in her two positions under George W. Bush and sought to focus on “Transformational Diplomacy” where she would set out to create democratic, fairly governed states across the world. Breaking out of a childhood where she was told her race confined her, Condoleezza Rice has become one of the most influential women and important players in government during the 21st century through her focus on education, integration and spread of democracy.

Sciences

The one you know: Marie Curie

In the world of STEM, Marie Curie is one of the most notable figures. Discoverer of radium, polonium and radiation, Curie was the first female to get a doctorate in Europe and first female physicist to win the Nobel Prize (and she did it twice!). Unfortunately, Marie’s discovery would lead to her end in 1934, at the age of 67 from Aplastic anemia developed through exposure to radiation, but not before she could open two medical research centers and invent the portable x-ray machine. Before her fame, Marie was a governess to support herself, then jumped at the opportunity to attain a degree from Sorbonne University in Paris so she could become a teacher. A woman devoted to supporting herself and not allowing her gender to define her work, Marie Curie is one of the women who paved the path for women in the sciences.

The one you should know: Sally Ride

The first woman from the United States in space, Sally Ride blasted off 35 years ago and is the only known LGBTQ astronaut. A part of the initial NASA class of astronauts to accept women, Ride was the first woman to fly in her class. After many years working at NASA, she went on to conduct research at Stanford University and University of California, San Diego and become an advocate for reaching younger audiences with science through her and her partner’s company, Sally Ride Science. Throughout her career, many questions influenced by her gender posed roadblocks for her; In an interview with Gloria Steinem from 1983, Ride shared “Without a doubt, I think the worst question that I’ve ever gotten was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.” Ride did not come out as gay until her obituary, where her partner of 27 years shared her sexuality. A powerhouse in her own right, Sally Ride was a strong woman of firsts in the world of space travel and education.

The modern lady: Tiera Guinn

A newcomer to the field, Tiera Guinn is a 22-year-old rocket scientist who recently graduated with a degree in aerospace from MIT. Despite her young age, Guinn has been helping NASA build the largest, most powerful rocket ever created, which will be used to send people to Mars, since her senior year of college. She began this project through her job as a Rocket Structural Design and Analysis Engineer for the Space Launch System at Boeing. In 2017, Guinn won Good Housekeeping’s Awesome Women Award, where they stated, “Some kids dream of being princesses, but Tiera Guinn wanted to build rockets.” Although just a young lady, Guinn’s passion for space travel and diversity in STEM shows through. Already on the track for doing great things, Guinn is one young woman to look out for.

Literature

The one you know: Mary Wollstonecraft

Considered the original feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which reflected her ideas of the importance of feminism. After fleeing her abusive father and setting out to provide for herself, she founded a school for girls in Newington Green, England with the help of her sister and close friend. She later wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters about her time as an educator. During her time as an adviser to publisher Joseph Johnson, she submitted pieces to his Analytical Review and published her notorious piece, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She discussed  the moral and political rights of women and dismissed the stereotype of them being labeled as the fragile domestics. The solution to overcome this stereotype, she said, was in providing women with the same opportunities for education as men. Her other work, Maria, discussed female sexuality and the fact that it truly exists, although people like to dispel this fact. Wollstonecraft fell for a dashing, like-minded man, Captain Gilbert Imlay, whom she shared similar beliefs on equality and education with. The pair were seen as a very scandalous couple for these revolutionary thoughts. Well past her years in progressiveness, Wollstonecraft set the precedent that women are multidimensional, past the housewife stereotype, and deserved treatment as such.

The one you should know: Sappho

A lyrical poet from 630 BC to about 550 BC, Sappho was one of the first known female writers. During her life, she ran a school for unmarried, young women and was dubbed “the tenth muse” by Plato. Though most of her work has been lost, her prominent reputation still stands. Living in Greece, where women were seen as the lesser sex, much of the written work from the time depicted women in a misogynistic light, but Sappho disproved this misconception and demonstrated the intelligence of women, especially the independent ones. It is suspected that Sappho was gay, due to her love poems discussing being taken with a young woman. This was not as scandalous for women at the time because of the male practice of pederasty, where many men would take a young boy as their mentee, sexual outlet, and social enhancement. We can thank Sappho for the words “sapphic” and “lesbian”, and for not letting harsh gender stereotypes keep her from her passion.

The modern lady: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One of the most raw, real authors and best TED talk speakers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, short story and nonfiction writer. In her books Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists, Purple Hibiscus and Half of the Yellow Sun, Adichie includes themes to highlight the struggles women and immigrants face throughout their lives, and how powerful these groups of people really are. She has graced The New York Times Best Books list and won numerous awards for her esteemed novels. She commonly uses her home country of Nigeria as the base of her stories to discuss the country’s corruption and relate her characters to her own experience. Her two TED talks entitled We should all be feminists and The danger of a single story discuss the importance of women and what feminism really is, dispelling misconceptions and having role models that look like you. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a woman who has been through an incredible journey and has the strength to share it. She is personally one of my favorite authors and if you leave with nothing else from this piece, I hope you exit with the link to her TED talks.

Activism

The one you know: Susan B. Anthony

An anti-slavery advocate and organizer of the 19th century women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony was one of the pivotal players in the fight for women’s rights. Growing up, her family actively participated in the abolitionist and temperance movements, which pushed her to continue to fight for causes her passion laid in. Despite her vocality in the temperance movement, Anthony was denied a speaking role at a convention on the matter because of her gender. This led to her revelation, as biography.com put it, “that no one would take women in politics seriously unless they had the right to vote.” She traveled across the country giving speeches on women’s rights and voted illegally in the 1872 presidential election, landing her in jail. With the help of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two earned women the right to vote through co-founding the National Woman Suffrage Association. Unfortunately, Susan B. Anthony passed away before women were give the right to vote but her lifelong work changed the shape of the U.S. forever.

The one you should know: Sojourner Truth

Originally named Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth is known for her improvised speech on racial inequality, “Ain’t I a Woman?”. A passionate African-American woman whose life’s work was dedicated to the abolitionist and feminist movements, Truth escaped slavery in New York with her young daughter before it was outlawed and began her work on reformation. Her efforts included prison reform, property rights, and universal suffrage. She gained traction for these issues by delivering speeches across the country on the matters. Sojourner took a white man in Alabama to court for purchasing her son as a slave illegally and was one of the first African Americans to win a case against a white man. Sojourner Truth sought change on a wide scale; she believed the abolitionist movement should be more intersectional, not just focused on gaining rights for black men. The Sojourner Truth Library, in New Paltz, New York, and The Sojourner Truth House, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless and endangered women and children, are both named in honor of her compassion and beliefs.

The modern lady: Malala Yousafzai

Malala: An icon, an angel, a real-life superhero. At the age of 17, Malala became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her devotion to education, especially for girls. She was nominated twice for the award after surviving being shot by the Taliban in her home country of Pakistan and escaping multiple death threats due to her activism. Her book, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, and speech at the United Nations exemplify her extreme strength and devotion to her beliefs. Malala is the perfect role model of a woman fighting for her natural rights against all odds and fear.

Women are important. They are strong powerhouses who have the option of birthing children but are not required to, nor is it their sole purpose in life. Women are intellectuals and activists who will not shut their mouths because men in charge tell them to. They are passionate, wise individuals who will dedicate their life to their cause. These are the women who created the world for you to live in today.