Achievements, contributions, and developments made by women have often gone overlooked or unacknowledged throughout world history. In 1909, “National Women’s Day” was held on 28 February in New York, which was amended to “International Women’s Day” two years later. President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation declaring the week of 8 March, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. Congress then designated the entire month of March as Women’s History Month in 1987, to raise awareness and empower women by celebrating those who have shaped society and history worldwide.
Below is a list of eight women who have each made enormous contributions to world history. It is a list that could go on indefinitely, and one that we hope opens up discussions on the incredible women that have helped pave the way for us all.
Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.
Edith Wharton, born in New York City, often expressed that she felt she fell short of both her mother’s and society’s expectations for a young woman, whose only purpose in life was to make a socially advantageous marriage. She spent most of her childhood retreating into a world of “making up”, which fueled her desire and skill for storytelling. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision, brought recognition amongst her contemporaries, and her second, The House of Mirth, solidified her name in fiction writing. She visited a number of frontlines in France during World War I and worked to aid refugees by establishing schools and orphanages for them in Paris. King Albert of Belgium awarded her the Medal of Queen Elizabeth and the French government recognized her work by making her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She was the first woman that Yale University awarded with an honorary doctorate of letters, and she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Image credit: “Edith Wharton” by unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia.
Private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city’s disinherited.
Born on the eve of the Civil War in a small farming community in Illinois, Jane Addams was among the first generation of college-educated women in the United States. In the 1880s, school teaching and missionary work were the primary occupations open to women seeking a public role, but Addams was not interested in either. In a society with little use for educated women, Addams opened Hull-House, a settlement house in Chicago. She encouraged residents to expand beyond direct service to the neighborhood and to lobby for improved sanitation, factory legislation, a juvenile court system, and enforcement of anti-prostitution and anti-drug laws. In this way, Hull-House participated in the Progressive Era’s redefinition of the role of government in a democratic, capitalist society. Addams became the first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Image credit: “Portrait of Jane Addams” by Elizabeth B. Brownell. Public domain via Wikimedia.
The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom.
Born in 1753, Phillis Wheatley was a renowned poet and cultivator of the epistolary writing style. She was born in Gambia, Africa, and was enslaved as a child of seven or eight. She was later sold in Boston to John and Susanna Wheatley, who allowed her to learn to read and encouraged her writing upon discovering her natural talent and ability. She published her first poem in the Newport Mercury when she was about twelve. Her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) appeared in print in London, and she traveled to England to assist in its publication. She received recognition from various dignitaries and it was “at the desire of my friends in England” that she was granted her freedom in October 1973. Wheatley left behind an enormous legacy of firsts: she was the first African American to publish a book, the mother of African-American letters, the first woman writer whose publication was encouraged and fostered by a community of women, and the first American woman author who tried to earn a living by means of her writing.
Image credit: “Phillis Wheatley” by Scipio Moorhead. Public domain via Wikimedia.
If it was little boys getting their penises cut off, there would be a revolution.
Born in Cape Coast, Ghana, Efua Dorkenoo moved to England at the age of nineteen. It was while training as a midwife in Sheffield that she first encountered the consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM). A young African woman in labour had undergone infibulation so severe she was unable to give birth naturally. Dorkenoo resolved to devote herself to researching and campaigning against the practice. She established the Foundation for Women’s Heath, Research and Development, to campaign for the abolition of FGM. It was largely through her campaigning that the practice was made illegal in Britain, through the Female Circumcision Act (1985). Dorkenoo, known by colleagues and fellow campaigners as Mama Efua, was widely regarded as the inspiration, pioneer, and leader of the campaign to eradicate FGM, and the key figure in moving the issue to the top of governments’ and international organizations’ agendas. She was particularly insistent that FGM should be seen as an abuse of human rights, not simply a health issue.
Image credit: “Efua Dorkenoo” by Lindsay Mgbor. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia.
You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralizing invention of man […] But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.
Early in her career, Rosalind Franklin worked with coal to improve X-ray techniques for dealing with substances of limited internal order. In a series of investigations, Franklin made discoveries that later proved to be highly relevant for the development of carbon fibers. In 1950 Franklin was invited to build an X-ray diffraction laboratory at King’s College, London, to study the structure of DNA. Within the first year she transformed the state of the field by producing much better X-ray patterns than ever before. Moreover, Franklin showed that two forms of the DNA molecule existed and she defined conditions for the transition between them. The results of her work helped lay the foundations of structural molecular biology and she will be remembered for her pivotal contributions to one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century.
Image credit: “Rosalind Franklin” by A Other. Public Domain via Flickr.
The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics.
When she attended school, Emmeline Pankhurst learned that the education of girls was considered less important than that of boys–the principle aim being how to make a home comfortable for men. Throughout Pankhurst’s life, she was elected onto the executive committee of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage and was a member of the Fabian Society, the Women’s Liberal Association, and the Women’s Franchise League. Her home at Russell Square became a center for political gatherings, particularly of socialists, suffragists, and radicals. Pankhurst knew that if society was to progress women must lift themselves out of their current position and campaign for the parliamentary vote, so she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, an organization dedicated to campaigning for votes for women on the same terms they were granted to men. She died in June 1928, only weeks before the Conservative government’s Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age.
Image credit: “Emmeline Pankhurst” by Matzene, Chicago. Public Domain via Wikimedia.
Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.
Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Parks is often considered “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. On 1 December 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, for which she was arrested. The African American community of Montgomery responded in two ways: challenging the constitutionality of segregation, and boycotting the buses. Parks served both as a symbol and strategist, working as a dispatcher for the alternative transportation system and distributing food and clothing to boycott participants who lost their jobs. In 1996, Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal three years later. She became the first woman and the second African American to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
Image credit: “Rosa Parks” by Unknow. Public Domain via Wikimedia.
I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.
The only formal schooling, Mary Wollstonecraft received was a few years at a day school in Yorkshire, where she learned to read and write. The rest of her knowledge, including several foreign languages, was self-acquired and the indignation she felt towards the disparity between men and women’s educational opportunities was gained first hand. She gave herself three months, produced over 300 pages, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman became an immediate best-seller. Often considered harsh, the text asserts that women are “rendered weak and wretched” particularly through the attitudes and actions of “men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”. As later feminists attest, women are made, not born, and it is this process of enforced feminization which is the principal target of Wollstonecraft’s polemic. Such has been Wollstonecraft’s influence, she is revered as one of the most discussed, admired, criticized, and mythologized feminist intellectuals in history.
Image credit: “Mary Wollstonecraft” by Unknow. Public Domain via Wikimedia.
Featured image credit: ‘Studies of Women’s Heads’ by Web Gallery of Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.