On the eve of the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, I think it’s important to reflect on history. Not just necessarily our own personal histories, nor the history of our country and allies, but also the lost histories — the stories of the losers, of the conquered and defeated and ignored because those are the really interesting perspectives.
Take the American Revolution, for instance. I probably learned about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride twelve times in as many years, but no lesson was as fascinating as the one from my British sixth-grade American History teacher, who told us all about those treasonous terrorists, Washington and Jefferson.
Today’s #FeministFriday is all about the stories of those who have been left invisible by history, which are all too often women. Most people know who Marie Curie, Elizabeth I, Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earheart, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Sally Ride are, and even why their lives and contributions to their fields were so important to history. These women are undoubtedly important to our human heritage, but a handful of paragraphs sprinkled throughout the pages of history aren’t recompense for ignoring complete tomes of women through the ages.
I loved studying history, but I can’t help but feel that the curriculum was somewhat lacking. To supplement, here are some of the most amazing women from history that you never learned about in school.
Lived: 1260-1306, Central Asia
Occupation: Mongolian Warrior Princess
In the 13th century, when khans ruled Central Asia and skill on a horse and with a bow and arrow was more important than brute strength, Mongol women made just as fierce warriors as their men.
One woman, Khutulun, had the combination of both skill and might. She was a devastating cavalrywoman and one of the greatest wrestlers the Mongols had ever seen. Born to the ruler of a swathe, she repeatedly helped her father repel invading hordes commanded by Khublai Khan (who happened to be her great uncle). Explorer Marco Polo recounted that her favorite tactic was to seize an enemy soldier and ride off with him.
Khutulun declared that she wouldn’t marry any man who couldn’t beat her in a wrestling match, and those who lost would have to give her their prized horses. Suffice to say, by the time she was in her 20s, she was a spinster by Mongolian standards and owned many horses.
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Combat:
Boudica: (aka: the original Braveheart) led her tribe of British Celts in a bloody, and ultimately doomed rebellion against the Roman occupation.
Tomoe Gozen: one of Japan’s few known female warriors, fought in the Genpei War in the 12th century, and was described as a peerless swordswoman, horsewoman, and archer, and had a taste for beheading her enemies.
Mai Bhago: considered the 18th-century Sikh Joan of Arc, she shamed Skih men who had deserted their Guru in the face of Mughal invaders into returning to battle, defeated the enemy, became the Guru’s personal bodyguard, and later retired to devote herself to meditation.
Maria Bochkareva: a Russian peasant who fought in World War I, formed the terrifyingly-named Women’s Battalion of Death, and won several honors, only to be executed by the Bolsheviks in 1920.
Nancy Wake: New Zealand-born British agent who commanded more than 7,000 resistance fighters during the Nazi’s occupation of France in World War II. She became the Gestapo’s most wanted person, and the Allies’ most decorated servicewomen.
Name: Nana Asma’u
Lived: 1793-1864, Nigeria
Occupation: Princess, Scholar, Political Adviser
Born the daughter of a powerful ruler in what is now northern Nigeria, Nana Asma’u was taught from a young age that god wanted her, and all women, to learn. Her father believed that sharing knowledge was every Muslim’s duty, and ensured she studied the classics in Arabic, Latin, and Greek.
By the time her education was completed, she could recite the entire Qur’an and was fluent in four languages. She corresponded with scholars and leaders all over the region, and penned poetry about battles, politics, and divine truth. When her brother inherited their father’s throne, she became his most trusted adviser.
While she could have settled for being respected for her learning, she was instead determined to pass it on, and trained a network of women teachers — the jaji — who traveled all over the kingdom to educate women. Their students were known as the yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood.” Two centuries later, jajis continue to educate women, men, and children in the name of Nana Asma’u.
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Activism:
Huda Sha’arawi: pioneering Egyptian activist who encouraged women to demonstrate both against British rule and for their own rights, and shocked 1920s Cairo by tearing off her veil in public. She went on to help found some of the first feminist organizations in the Arab world.
Edith Cavell: English nurse who treated German and British soldiers alike during World War I, and helped Allied troops escape from occupied Belgium, for which she was charged with treason by the Germans and sentenced to death by firing squad. Her last words were, “Patriotism is not enough.”
Beate Sirota Gordon: American who ensured that women’s rights were included in Japan’s constitution when it was rewritten after World War II. She was 22 at the time.
Lillian Masediba Ngoyi: South African woman who fought against apartheid, was the first woman elected to the committee of the African National Congress, and helped launch the Federation of South African Women. Confined to her house by banning orders, she died in 1980 without ever seeing the democracy she had given her liberty for.
Name: Policarpa Salavarrieta
Lived: 1790-1817, Colombia
Daring, sharp-tongued, and defiant, Salavarrieta fought to free her land, in what is now Colombia, from Spain’s rule — all while pretending to sit in the corner and sew.
Born around 1790, she grew up amid rebellion, as resistance to the Spanish Empire strengthened across South America. Determined to play her part, she moved to Bogota in 1817 and posed as a seamstress and house servant to Royalist households, where she could gather intelligence and pass it on to the guerrillas, and pretend to flirt with soldiers in the Royalist army, urging them to desert and join the rebels. She was actually sewing the entire time, as well — sewing uniforms for the freedom fighters.
She was eventually discovered, and when soldiers came to take her, she kept them engaged in an insult match while one of her comrades burned incriminating letters. She refused to betray the cause, and was sentenced to death by firing squad in November 1817. Dragged into the city’s main square to provide an example for anyone with thoughts of rebellion, she verbally harassed the Spanish soldiers so loudly that orders had to be given for the drums to be beaten louder to drown her out. She refused to kneel, and her final words her reportedly a promise that her death would be avenged.
Sure enough, she continued to inspire the revolutionary forces long after her execution.
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Liberation:
Manuela Sáenz: a contemporary of Salavarrieta, she became the co-revolutionary and lover of Simon Bolivar, and helped him escape assassination.
Vera Figner: a member of the 19th-century Russian middle-class who abandoned her social circle to train as a doctor abroad. She returned at the time of revolution against the czar and helped plot his assassination, before being betrayed, arrested, imprisoned, and exiled.
The Mirabal Sisters: Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria from the Dominican Republic opposed dictator Rafael Trujillo throughout the 1950s. All except Dede were murdered by Turjillo’s henchmen on 25 November 1960. In honor of the slain sisters, the United Nations General Assembly designated the 25th of November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Name: Ching Shih
Lived: 1775-1844, China
Born Shi Xianggu, she worked as a prostitute on a Cantonese floating brothel until she was captured in 1801 to marry pirate commander Cheng Ti. She had conditions to the marriage — equal share in his plunder, and a say in the pirating business — and Cheng complied. Their husband-and-wife team was a success, but lasted just six years before Cheng Yi was killed in a typhoon; at his death, his wife took over his name (Ching Shih means “widow of Cheng”), and his fleet.
Now at the head of one of Asia’s largest pirate crews, the Red Flag Fleet, Ching Shih revealed herself to be the brains of the operation. Her strength wasn’t in sailing (she put the first mate in charge of the ships after instituting one of the strictest pirate codes ever seen before or since), so she devoted herself to new ways to get rich on land, including extortion, blackmail, and protection rackets.
By 1808, her force had grown so formidable that the Chinese government sent its ships to defeat it. Faced with the Red Flag Fleet’s firepower and Ching Shih’s inspired naval strategies, the armada failed spectacularly, as did those subsequently sent by the British and Portuguese navies. Eventually China offered a truce, and just nine years after she’d negotiated a pre-nup with Cheng Ti, Ching Shih extracted stunningly favorable terms from the Emperor: in exchange for disbanding her fleet, she won amnesty for all but a handful of her men, the right for the crew to keep their loot, jobs in the armed forces for any pirate who wanted one, and the title of “Lady by Imperial Decree” for herself.
She retired to Canton to open her own gambling den, married her second-in-command, and died a grandmother at 69.
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Business:
Omu Okwei: a Nigerian businesswomen who built a trade network between Africa and Europe, relying primarily on her own intellect. By the 1940s, she was one of Nigeria’s richest women, with 24 houses and one of the country’s first automobiles.
Victoria Woodhull Martin: an American stockbroker, who set up Wall Street’s first female-owned brokerage company in 1870 with her sister Tennessee, and made a fortune on the New York Stock Exchange. She was also the first woman to run for U.S. President, under the Equal Rights Party in 1872.
Name: Gertrude Bell
Lived: 1868-1926, Britain
Occupation: Traveler & Writer
Born in 1868 to a wealthy industrial family in northern England, Bell excelled in her studies at Oxford. After graduating with the first first-class modern history degree the university had ever awarded to a woman, she traveled the world twice, became one of the world’s most daring mountaineers, taught herself archaeology, and mastered French, German, Arabic, and Persian.
Her intimate familiarity with the Middle East, whose deserts she explored and whose most powerful chiefs she knew personally, made her an invaluable recruit to British intelligence when World War I broke out. After the armistice, she became one of the driving forces of British policy in the Middle East. She mapped out the borders of what would become Mesopotamia and ultimately Iraq, installed its first king, and supervised who he appointed to his new government.
Just days before the Iraqi government was inaugurated, Bell was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. One of her Iraqi colleagues once told her that the people of Baghdad would talk of her for a hundred years, to which she responded: “I think they very likely will.” By accounts, for better or worse, they have.
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Exploration:
Jeanne Baret: a French sailor and expert botanist who became the first woman to sail around the world in 1775. She disguised herself as a man so she could assist her lover, botanist Philibert de Commerson. One of them — quite probably Baret — discovered the bougainvillaea plant.
Isabella Bird: a 19th-century Englishwoman who traveled through Asia, North America, and the Middle East, founded the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinagar, and became the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Geographical Society. She also famously refused to ride sidesaddle.
Kate Marsden: a British nurse who rode across Siberia on horseback in 1891 on a quest for a herb she had heard could cure her patients of leprosy. The herb didn’t live up to her hopes, but she founded a leprosy charity and wrote several books about her experiences.
Name: “The Night Witches“
Lived: World War II, Russia
Occupation: Fighter Pilots
Officially, they were the members of the Soviet Air Forces’ 588th Night Bomber Regiment, one of three all-female Soviet squadrons formed in 1941 by order of Josef Stalin. To the German pilots they fought, however, they were tormentors, harpies with seemingly supernatural powers of night vision and stealth. Shooting down one of their planes would automatically earn any German soldier the Iron Cross.
The few hundred women who belonged to the all-female squadrons were the first of any modern military to carry out dedicated combat missions, rather than simply provide support, but the 80-odd Night Witches had arguably the toughest task of all. Flying entirely in the dark, and in plywood planes better suited for dusting crops than withstanding enemy fire, the pilots developed a technique of switching off their engines and gliding toward the target to enable them to drop their bombs in near silence; they also flew in threes to take turns drawing enemy fire while one pilot released her charges.
“We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women,” one top German commander wrote in 1942. “These women feared nothing.”
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Flight:
Amy Johnson: became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, among other feats. She was killed making a transport flight for her country during World War II.
Maryse Bastié: a pioneering French pilot who set several of the earliest long-distance records for women. She went on to found her own flying school near Paris.
Bessie Coleman: the daughter of sharecroppers, she was first African-American to hold an international pilot’s license. Denied training in the United States, she traveled to France to qualify, and returned home to perform daredevil stunts under the stage name “Queen Bess.”
Name: Hedy Lamarr
Lived: 1914-2000, Austria
Occupation: Actress, Inventor
You probably have heard of Hedy Lamarr, the legendary beauty who had a career spanning two decades of playing femmes fatale in Hollywood movies. What you probably haven’t heard is that in her down time, Lamarr was coming up with the system of wireless communication that would later form the foundation of cellphones, Wi-Fi, and most of our modern lives.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1914, she courted scandal by appearing naked in the movie Ecstasy at age 18, and briefly marrying a Nazi arms dealer before fleeing Austria for France, and then Britain, where she met Louis B. Mayer and secured a $3,000-a-week contract with MGM Studios.
Between filming at the height of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil came up with the idea of a “Secret Communications System” that would randomly manipulate radio frequencies as they traveled between transmitter and receiver, thus encrypting sensitive signals from any would-be-interceptors.
Their invention, patented in 1941, laid the groundwork for the spread-spectrum technology used today in Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and some cellphones. Lamarr also came up with soluble cubes that would turn water into something like Coca-Cola, as well as a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion.”
Honorable mentions for women in the field of Invention:
Eva Ekeblad: a Swedish noblewoman who discovered how to make flour and alcohol from potatoes in 1746, and was the first woman admitted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Her technique is credited with making thousands of Swedes better fed.
Dame Barbara Cartland: in 1931, the British author best known for penning romance novels helped develop a technique of towing gliders long distance. It was later used to deliver airmail and transport troops.
Grace Murray Hopper: a US Navy officer known as “Amazing Grace,” who devoted herself to programming after World War II, led the team that invented the first program to convert normal English into computer commands, and coined the terms “bug” and “debug,” which originated from when she picked moths out of an early computer.
Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week!