The Past Was Female: Notable Women in History
Whether history likes to admit it or not, Beyonce is right: Girls do run the world and have been for a long time. Despite adversity and challenges society has placed on them over the centuries, women have been changing the world — but not getting credit for it.
Instead, we find their achievements being forgotten or given to men who were inspired by women’s ideas. These amazing women have impacted the lives of millions in ways that deserve to be remembered.
Ada Lovelace, 1815–1852
Born over 200 years ago as Augusta Ada Byron, Ada was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Despite being a forefather of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron’s marriage to Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke ended just weeks after Ada’s birth, and she never saw him before his death when she was still a child.
Determined to prevent her from inheriting her father’s moody and erratic nature, Lady Anne had Ada tutored extensively in mathematics and science. In her brief 37 years, Ada became a countess, mothered three children and left an indelible mark on our world of technology.
Inventing the First Computer Program
At just 17 years old, Ada Lovelace befriended Charles Babbage, the inventor of an early calculator known as a difference engine. Years later, she was asked to translate an article about Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine. Adding her own notes and ideas, her translation ended up three times longer than the original article.
Among her numerous programming theories were instructions on how the device could process codes of letters and symbols in addition to numbers and generate mathematical sequences known as Bernoulli numbers. This written formula is considered the first complex computer program and was not truly understood for 100 years.
Peggy Guggenheim, 1898–1979
Not to be confused with her uncle Solomon, who founded the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Peggy was the middle daughter of Florette Seligman and Benjamin Guggenheim. At just 14 years old, Peggy lost her father when he was aboard the Titanic.
Upon turning 21, she inherited a share of his money — around $37.2 million at today’s value — making her a quintessential socialite of the Roaring Twenties. She quickly moved to Paris and took up a bohemian lifestyle, becoming close friends with writers, musicians and filmmakers. She loved artists and married two, Laurence Vail and Max Ernst.
Preserving Art for Future Generations
Having already fled to London and opened her first art gallery, Peggy knew that the Nazis were bent on destroying any vestige of modern sensibilities. This began her frenzied campaign to save as many pieces of art as she could during trips to Paris.
At a rate of one painting a day, Peggy spent $40,000 ($730,000 today) on over 75 pieces, including works by Brancusi, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Ernst, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. After the war, Peggy opened The Art of This Century, a gallery in NYC where she gave Jackson Pollock his first show.
Grace Hopper, 1906–1992
Born the oldest of three in NYC, Grace Brewster Murray was a curious child with a gift for mechanics. At just seven years old, she attempted to dismantle and reassemble alarm clocks to see how they worked. By 17, she was attending Vassar College, where she graduated in 1928 before earning her Masters and PhD in Mathematics from Yale.
Her 15-year marriage to NYU professor Vincent Foster Hopper ended in divorce, although she kept his last name. During WWII, she wanted to enlist in the U.S. Navy but was rejected for several reasons.
Advancing the Future of Computer Programming Languages
Grace persisted in her efforts to join the military and was accepted to the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 through the WAVES program. As a mathematician, she was assigned to the special Harvard Mark I project. She was asked to not only program the country’s first electromechanical computer but also to write a manual on how to use it.
In 1949, Grace worked on programming the first commercial computer and devised the idea that users should be able to communicate with it in English. This led to the development of COBOL, which is still a major language used in data processing today.
Mary Blair, 1911–1978
Mary Browne Robinson was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas before relocating to Morgan Hill, California. Skilled in watercolor painting, she won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. There, she met fellow artist Lee Blair. As the two fell in love and married shortly after college, their artistic styles became indistinguishable.
The Great Depression limited people’s career opportunities, so Mary reluctantly followed Lee and his brother, Preston, into the animation industry. There, she landed her first job with MGM before being hired by Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1940.
Painting Her Way Into Every American Home
After initially being overlooked by Walt Disney for participation in a South American goodwill trip, Mary convinced him to reconsider. While traveling, she was inspired by the vibrant colors and began using gouache paint in a bold, whimsical style that quickly became a favorite of Walt’s.
In the 1950s she became the colorist for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan before leaving Disney to freelance as a graphic designer and illustrator for projects like Little Golden Books and Hallmark cards. At Disney’s request, she designed the “It’s a Small World” attraction for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Asima Chatterjee, 1917–2006
Born in Bengal to Indra Narayan Mukherjee, a medical doctor, and his wife Kamala Devi, Asima Chatterjee was raised in a middle class family in Calcutta. This afforded her the opportunity to receive an education and become the first Indian woman to earn a doctorate in science.
Exploring her father’s interest in botany, her studies focused on organic chemistry with an emphasis on the medicinal value of plants native to India. Her research was continually hindered by the lack of funds and equipment available to her university at the time.
Revolutionizing Cancer Treatment With Flowers
For over 40 years, Asima Chatterjee researched various alkaloid compounds found in plants, including the vinca alkaloids of the Madagascan periwinkle. Her discoveries led to the chemotherapy medications vinblastine and vincristine, which are used in treating leukemia, neuroblastoma, lung cancer, brain cancer, melanoma and testicular cancer. These work by inhibiting cancer cells’ ability to divide and duplicate.
Her other notable works include the development of Ayush-56, an herbal anticonvulsant drug for treating epileptic seizures, and antimalarial medications. As a prolific writer, she published over 400 papers for national and international journals.
Hedy Lamarr, 1914–2000
Known best for her career as a Hollywood actress and starlet, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler grew up in Vienna, Austria, where her father instilled in her a love of understanding how things work. Marrying young, she experienced an unhappy first marriage to a man associated with the Nazi regime. This led to her escaping Europe, hiding her Jewish heritage and rebranding herself as Hedy Lamarr.
After five more marriages and divorces, Hedy spent her remaining years single and mostly in seclusion. She eventually only communicated by telephone — even with her children — for up to eight hours a day.
Developing the Foundation of Wireless Communication
Lesser known about Hedy Lamarr was her gifted mind for inventing. Having learned about radio signals from an ex-husband, she devised an idea for a “secret communications system” with composer friend, George Antheil, to help with the war efforts.
Together they designed and patented a radio-guidance system for torpedos that could transmit signals across multiple frequencies; it was impossible to track or jam. While the U.S. Navy didn’t adopt the technology until the 1960s, it’s now recognized as the basis for Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi technologies.
Esther Afua Ocloo, 1919–2002
Born to a blacksmith and potter in what is now Ghana, Esther Afua Ocloo grew up working hard to care for her own needs. While her grandmother ensured she received a formal education at a boarding school, she had to commute home regularly to gather food supplies for her weekly meals.
Her skill and determination merited her a scholarship to attend the prestigious Achimota School in Accra. Upon graduation, she knew she would need to support herself and was thankful to receive 10 shillings ($1 US) from her aunt.
Transforming $1 Into Aid for Millions of Women
Esther took six of her aunt’s shillings and bought sugar, oranges, used jars and firewood to begin selling marmalade. Soon she was contracted to sell juice and preserves to her old school, Achimota, and eventually the military. As her customer base grew, she used a bank loan to establish the Gold Coast’s first formal food-processing business, Nkulenu Industries.
By 1976, she knew she wanted to help other women by co-founding the Women’s World Bank. This non-profit organization helps women acquire micro-loans to grow their own small businesses.
Fatima Al-Fihri, Ninth Century
Because she was born so long ago, not much is remembered about the life of Fatima Al-Fihri. She was born to an Arab Qurayshi family in Kairouan in present-day Tunisia before they migrated to Fez. Her father built up a successful merchant business and ensured that his two daughters received education in the Islamic records of Prophet Muhammed.
Fatima was married, but records indicate that both her husband and father died shortly after the wedding. The sisters shared a sizable inheritance that both decided to use to build mosques for the community.
Building the First University
Fatima envisioned building a great mosque that could also serve as a place to study. She supervised the entire construction project herself and had the workers utilize the resources of the land she bought to build it. Upon completion, it was the largest mosque in North Africa and was named for her hometown.
Al-Qarawiyyin was quickly established as a school and is considered the world’s oldest continually operating educational institution and the first degree-awarding university in the world. It attracted scholars from all over the globe, including future Pope Sylvester II, who introduced Arabic numerals to Europe.
Flossie Wong-Staal 1947–
Renamed for a typhoon, Flossie was born Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China. At just five years old she fled with her family to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution. It was at the encouragement of her Catholic school teachers that her father picked the English name Flossie.
Although more interested in literature and poetry, Flossie chose science over humanities for her course of study at Marymount Secondary School in Hong Kong. For college, she immigrated to the United States to study bacteriology and molecular biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Identifying the Cause of AIDS
In the 1970s, Flossie began working at the National Cancer Institute researching retroviruses. When doctors started noticing a new disease aggressively spreading, Flossie and her team started researching the cause.
In 1983, they discovered that HIV was the cause of AIDS. Over the next two years, Flossie worked to not only clone HIV but also to complete genetic mapping of it. This made testing for the virus possible. Flossie Wong-Staal is a leading scientist in HIV research with over 40 tests, procedures and inventions relating to HIV, AIDS and hepatitis to her name.
Murasaki Shikibu, 978–1014
Murasaki Shikibu was born in Japan into a literati family during the Heian era. Although part of the notable Fujiwara clan, Murasaki’s family was in the middle to lower ranks of the aristocracy by the time of her birth. Despite women traditionally being excluded from learning Chinese, Murasaki learned the government’s written language under her father’s tutelage.
Widowed after two years of marriage, the young mother turned to writing as a comfort. Her skills with language were well-known and earned her a place as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sh?shi. The two remained lifelong friends, eventually retiring from court life together.
Writing the First Novel in Human History
Murasaki Shikibu began writing a work of romantic fiction sometime during her marriage or shortly thereafter. The epic drama was called “The Tale of Genji” and consisted of 50 chapters likely written as a serial distributed in installments to the ladies of the court.
Murasaki published the piece and “The Diary of Lady Murasaki” under a pen name, and that’s the only name she is remembered by. Featuring many elements of modern novel-writing, her work is considered not only an important reflection of the historical period but also a noteworthy piece of literature on its own.
Emmy Noether, 1882–1935
Born the oldest of four and the only daughter to a Jewish family in Bavaria, Germany, Amalie Emmy Noether didn’t stand out academically in her childhood. Being both near-sighted and speech-impaired, Emmy was a clever and friendly girl with a skill for brainteasers and a love for dance.
Initially planning to teach French and English, she found herself in her father Max Noether’s lecture hall at the University of Erlangen. Living in a time when women were excluded from academic positions, Emmy worked for Paul Gordan at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen for seven years without pay.
Paving the Way for Men Like Albert Einstein
In 1915, Emmy Noether’s work in theoretical physics proved a connection between symmetry and conservation laws that’s now known as Noether’s theorem. Her work in algebra began in 1920 and culminated in her development of abstract algebra.
Never out for attention or fame, she would help develop her colleagues’ and students’ careers by allowing them to take credit for her ideas. But many noted geniuses like Albert Einstein and Pavel Alexandrov considered her to be the most important woman in math’s history.
Rosalind Franklin, 1920–1958
As one of five children born to the affluent Notting Hill-based Franklin family, Rosalind Franklin grew up in an influential and politically active environment. From a young age, she was notably clever and eager to pursue academics. When she was six, her aunt, women’s suffrage activist Helen Bentwich, described her as “alarmingly clever — she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, and invariably gets her sums right.”
At boarding school, Rosalind excelled in science, Latin, German and French. She was good at sports and routinely won awards, only seeming to struggle in music.
Pioneering DNA Research
Rosalind’s most notable work in her 37-year life was the use of X-ray diffraction to photograph DNA. Using a machine she herself refined, Rosalind exposed a DNA sample for 100 hours to obtain the now-famous Photograph 51. This led to the discovery of the double-helix structure that earned James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins a Nobel Prize.
As an accomplished X-ray crystallographer, she made significant contributions to the research of RNA and viruses. Her work with the poliovirus was tragically cut short when she lost her life to ovarian cancer.
Olga D. Gonzalez-Sanabria, 1955–
Olga D. Gonzalez-Sanabria was born and raised in Patillas, Puerto Rico. She earned her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez before attending the University of Toledo in Ohio for her Master of Science degree.
The wife and mother of two enjoys mentoring underrepresented students and mid-career-level professionals in her spare time. For 30 years she has worked at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where she serves as Director of Engineering.
Keeping the International Space Station Running
Olga’s most notable achievement in her career at NASA is the development of long-cycle-life nickel-hydrogen batteries. Invented in 1980, these batteries are what keep the power system going on the International Space Station (ISS).
Since its launch in 1988, the ISS utilizes 33,000 solar cells to support the life and work of its permanent astronaut crew. At 220 miles from Earth, the ISS spends a third of its time with no direct sunlight, meaning the batteries are crucial for maintaining continuous power.
Grace Fryer, 1899–1933
A newspaper would write about Grace Fryer, “Grace has not been pampered, nor has she been taught to think first of her own happiness.” Born one of 11 children to a working-class family in Orange Township, NJ, she was raised to help.
With two brothers enlisted as soldiers and the United States just four days into WWI, 18-year-old Grace was eager to start her job at the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) as a dial painter. She would become a part of something directly helping the soldiers and making more money than her father while at it.
Fighting for Employee Rights and Changing Laws
Five years later, Grace’s harrowing journey began as her teeth started inexplicably falling out. She had been poisoned while working at USRC and she knew she needed to sue. Her uphill battle against a monster corporation and corrupt system seemed insurmountable, but she persevered until the very end.
Together with the other victims, Fryer established the legal right of individual workers to sue corporations for damages due to labor abuse. The women paved the way for passing the occupational disease labor law and life-saving regulations that led to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Maya Lin, 1959–
Maya Lin was born to create. Her Chinese immigrant parents settled in Ohio before her birth and fostered a home of nature and art. Her father was a ceramist and former dean of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts, her mother a poet and literature professor at the university.
As a child, Maya played freely outside, caring for animals and exploring the hills. When she was older she utilized the university’s foundry to cast bronze sculptures. She was always deeply concerned about the environment and humans’ impact on it.
Remembering Thousands Who Died Too Soon
While in her senior year studying architecture at Yale University, 21-year-old Lin decided to enter the anonymous Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition. She had a clear vision of a simple and elegant design: a V-shaped black wall like a gash in the ground bearing 58,000 names of those fallen or missing. No agenda, no politics — just healing and reflection.
Of the more than 1,400 entries, hers won and is now one of the most visited monuments in the United States. With nearly 13,000 visitors a day at the memorial she designed, Maya Lin has managed to create something that has truly left a lasting mark.