Fiercely Intelligent Women who have paved the way
Those who dare to think, to speak, and discover are not always met with applause–many must fight against the societal pressures of being a woman.
Still, these women pushed the status quo and used their intellects to make a lasting impression on our world. From questioning the universe to rocketing out into space, here are the women who lived inside some of the biggest brains in history.
Hypatia (370-415 AD)
One of the most outstanding Alexandrian scholars of her time, and as a woman, that was essentially her death sentence.
Her father, a mathematician and astronomer, educated her. Hypatia’s idea to put the Earth at the center of the universe wouldn’t be contested again until Copernicus in the 14th century.
Throughout her life, she studied mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Though she may have ultimately been wrong, her daringness to assess the universe would make her an enduring female intellectual icon.
Fatima Al-Fihri (circa 800 AD)
Though women are often barred from attending schools throughout history, it’s ironic considering a woman founded the first university.
Fatima Al-Fihri used inheritance money to establish first a mosque, then the University of Al Quaraouiyine,
recognized today as the first degree-granting institution of higher education in the world.
This university also boasts one of the oldest libraries globally, housing over 4000 manuscripts still accessible today.
For a Muslim woman to establish such an institution, open to people of all ages, social classes, and faiths, is a testament to her exceptional vision for her society.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
A 12th-century Benedictine nun who had extraordinary visions, Hildegard wrote about these visions in theological books as inspiration for compositions.
This gentle saint spent much of her life writing lyrical poems and songs, biographies of saints, medicine, and natural history, and, for fun, created her own language.
As a doctor and advocate for wellness, she wrote two books related to healing. Physica is about how items in the physical world (plants, gemstones, fish, etc.) and their healing properties. Causes and Cures is about personal health, such as the importance of following a different diet in the winter than in the summer.
Interesting fact: She didn’t begin writing until she was 42. Yay, to the late bloomers who amaze with their talents!!
Laura Bassi (1711-1778)
The second woman in Europe to obtain a degree, Bassi began her scientific studies as a teenager and flourished enough to gain recognition. After studying at the University of Bologna before becoming a professor of Anatomy at just 21 years old and appointed as the chair of philosophy.
The University limited her lab work, so she started a private school, offering students innovative experimental physics classes, becoming a key figure in the diffusion of Newtonian science in Italy.
In 1745, Pope Benedict XIV created a new membership within the Institute of Sciences, the Benedettini, intending to stimulate further scientific research in Bologna, on the Paris Academy of Sciences model. Twenty-four academics were accepted among the Benedettini, and a stipend of 50 lire was rewarded to them if they present one dissertation per year based on new scientific work.
Bassi was not among the twenty-four appointed by the Pope. She petitioned an influential friend to lobby the Pope to include her, too, and the Pope created the twenty-fifth place for her.
Men denied Bassi in the Benedettini, as one wrote, “to be always alone in the midst of an assembly of men and to hear all their discourses and quarrels, doesn’t seem to befit the decency and modesty of her sex.” This discrimination is why I write historical fiction about women: to give them the notoriety they deserve.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie is an undeniable icon for women and scientists and everyone who crosses over the two. She became the first female professor at the University of Paris, discovered radium and polonium elements, coined the term “radio-active” and won the Nobel Prize-twice
President Harding spoke of her in praise and admiration. However, the sexism ran deep when he said, “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been wont to bestow upon the noblewoman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother.” I’m pretty sure none of the male contemporaries in her field, or any field for that matter, focused their attentions on the manhood and devotions as a father.
Professional science until recently was a man’s world, and in Curie’s time, it was rare for a woman even to participate in academic physics, never mind triumph over it.
Her research became essential to the treatment of cancer, and although excessive handling led to her own sickness, her work remains an integral part of the cancer treatment wheel.
Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887-1973)
During World War I, she joined the Red Cross and managed a hospital at the site of the final showdown between Romania and Germany in 1917. This experience would undoubtedly have affected her, and she would later become an advocate for international disarmament.
After the war, she returned to teach physics and chemistry. She worked at the Geological Institute of Romania, discovering new resources of coal, oil, natural gas, construction rocks, bauxite, and copper. The papers she published not only impacted her field and the world but encouraged other young girls to follow in her footsteps.
Vera Atkins (1908-2000)
A life of secrets! Vera Atkins’s talent for language led her to join the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train agents to go abroad. As one of Britain’s premiere secret agents during World War II, Atkin’s recruited, trained, and mentored special operatives whose job was to organize and arm the resistance in Nazi-occupied France. After the war, Atkins courageously committed herself to a dangerous search for twelve of her most cherished women spies who had gone missing in action.
For her commitment to her country, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and Commandant of the Legion of Honor in 1987.
A book out called A Life in Secrets by Sarah helm chronicles Atkin’s extraordinary life. Check it out and support female authors celebrating historical female figures.
Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu (1920–2008)
She would study and practice neurosurgery for nearly 50 years after. The World Health Organization declared her a hero, and the Red Cross gave her a Sign of Distinction.
Margaret Heafield Hamilton (1936-)
You’ve probably seen that image of a woman standing next to a “math equation” stacked in books taller than she is.
That woman is the legendary Margaret Heafield, director of Software Engineering for Nasa’s Apollo Space Program.
Her mathematical prowess is apparent, but her critical reasoning sets her apart. Her work focused specifically on developing software that could detect system errors and recover lost information in the event of a computer crash.
Without her work, Buzz Aldrin may have had a much different strut in space.
Valentina Tereshkova (1937-)
First parachuting and then the moon!
Valentina Tereshkova grew up working-class, raised by her mother after her father died in WWII. She excelled at parachute jumping, and this passion got her recognized and selected for a Soviet-run women-in-space program. On June 16, 1963, she set off for 48 orbits around Earth aboard the Vostok 6 and minted her as the very first and youngest woman in space.
Not only did she get there, but she did it alone.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
Hailing from Kenya, Wangari Maathai is known for being the first of many. She is the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, awarded for sustainability development, peace, and democracy. She was also the first Eastern and Central African woman to earn a doctorate and would progress to earn a Ph.D.
Her academic achievements led her to the Department of Veterinary Anatomy chair and an associate professor, the first woman to do so. Committed to environmentalism, she became assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources. Four years later, she was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations.
Named one of the most influential people in 2005 (Time) and powerful women in the world (Forbes), in the same year, she was awarded “Woman of the Century” by the New York Women’s Foundation.
She left the world decorated with accolades, high-ranking appointments, honorary degrees, and awards. But, perhaps her most lasting legacy is the founding of the Green Belt Movement, devoted to inspiring communities (mainly women) to improve livelihood through conservation.
It’s impossible to imagine a world today without the contributions of these brilliant minds. These are just a small selection of women who have paved the way for progression in society–and more importantly, for other women to follow suit. The unimaginable bravery they exhibited gave us some life-changing gifts and left us with inspiring stories to always remember the power women have.
A.R. Garrett is writing her debut historical fiction series, Atalanta & The Amazons. As a writer of the ancient world, she excavates facts & dissects mythology to spotlight the most prolific warrior women lost in the shadows of our history books—adding a touch of fantasy for the daydreamer in all of us.
A.R. Garrett has a degree in Business and English with a concentration in fiction writing from SNHU, and is currently working on a double masters in Creative Writing and Ancient History. She’s been a freelance fiction editor since 2018 and created a platform to help other women writers on FB: www.facebook.com/groups/supportingwomenwriters
When she’s not wrangling her two boys in the mountains of Colorado and trying endlessly to understand the mystical world of algorithms, she loves handwritten letters sealed with a wax stamp, and appreciates a dang-good brownie.
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