Women in History
Throughout history, the world has seen some fiercely intelligent, fearless, and undeniably strong females.
Despite having to struggle through vicious adversity, women in history have been pioneers for women’s rights, fought racial inequality, defined the worlds of science, arts, politics, and wars.
Narrowing down the list of bold women throughout history is no easy feat. Female pioneers, heroes, warriors, thinkers, and rulers don’t always get the proper credit in the history books they deserve. It’s time to change that. We’re championing the legacies of the brave women of years past.
Famous women such as Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Marie Curie are well-known for the most part. But what about the lesser-known women? Let’s take a closer look at some women in history that deserve recognition in today’s world.
Theodora (l. 500-548 CE)
Theodora (l. 500-548 CE) was an actress (and possibly a prostitute) who ended up choosing weaving and wool-spinning as her profession. Like all women, she balanced many hats. Theodora swooped emperor Justinian off his feet. He was so infatuated with her that he changed the law, which forbade royalty from marrying just an actress.
The Medieval Church ensured everyone stayed in their respective societal classes. Women were low on the totem pole – shocking. But this fierce female broke all the rules of societal norms.
Theodora became a dominant female monarch. She and Justinian shared equal power; well, for the
most part, we are talking about the Middle Ages after all.
But never underestimate all the powerful men that had the cleverness of their woman whispering in their ear to lead the way. And if the men didn’t allow it, like most, those rulers or politicians met their doom sooner than later.
Some would argue these two became the power-duo of the Byzantine Empire. The couple ruled together until Theodora died in 548 CE.
Today, politics and trends can change in a heartbeat with nothing more than a 150-character Tweet. Her achievements seem all the more impressive given the modern world we currently live in.
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883)
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and kickass women’s rights activist. She was one fearless lady who often gets overshadowed by some of the other famous females of her time. You may or may not recognize her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, 1851 – which has since become known as the mighty “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
Sojourner Truth was sold at an auction for $100, along with a flock of sheep. By 1829, she grabbed whatever she could and escaped to freedom with her baby girl, Sophia.
She surely didn’t stop there. Using her newfound freedom, she became one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights, prison reform, and universal suffrage.
It’s nothing less than remarkable that this once enslaved mom would become one of the most inspirational black women in America’s history. Can we get a yes queen?
Queen Boudica was a Celtic queen who led a revolt against Roman rule in ancient Britain in A.D. 60 or 61. She was a mother, a widowed wife, and one kickass lady warrior.
She was the wife of the king of the Celtic tribe, Iceni. After her beau died, she became a warrior. In her late husband’s will, his kingdom was said to be given to his daughters and ally, the Roman emperor. But surprise, surprise, the Romans only recognized his son’s right to inherit the kingdom.
Rome invaded the kingdom, tortured Boudica and her daughters. Enraged and ready for vengeance, Boudica called on her tribe and some other allies to unite and kick Rome out of their lands. She rallied 100,000 soldiers and, with her command, overthrew the Roman Capital of Britain, Camulodunum.
Fun Fact: Camulodunum is modern-day Colchester.
She rode her troops through London, destroyed cities, and slaughtered between 70,000 and 80,000 people. It seems safe to say that she had a ‘marvelous time ruining everything.’ Her violent victories even forced Emperor Nero (he was the tyrant of Rome and the fifth and final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) to consider pulling out of Britain. But after a Roman defeat of Boudica’s forces, things took a turn for the worse. No one is really sure what happened to her.
Since there’s no record of her being captured, we’re left to think she either died from illness, suicide, but most likely a death led by the enemy.
Despite the massive destruction she brought to London, she’s not only considered a legend, but she’s actually remembered positively. In 1902, she got some much-deserved recognition. A colossal bronze statue called Boadicea and Her Daughters was constructed at the western side of Westminster Bridge. The figure shows this warrior queen momma riding her chariot into battle. With her daughters by her side, horses pulling her, a crown on her head, and a mighty spear in her hand – Queen B is shown ready for action.
Dobrodeia of Kiev (born unknown–d. 1131)
Dobrodeia of Kiev (born unknown–d. 1131) was born during the early 12th century, although her exact date of birth is unknown. Born royalty, she later married Alexios Komnenos, the son (and co-emperor) of Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos.
Dobrodeia was made an empress, given a new name (“Irene”), and brought to the famous imperial court of Constantinople.
She was integrated into an exclusive circle of well-educated women who studied and promoted various pursuits such as astrology, education, science, and medicine, where she quickly became absorbed in her studies. One contemporary even noted that Dobrodeia “was not born in Athens, but she learned all the wisdom of the Greeks.”
Medicine and healing became Dobrodeia’s primary intellectual interests. She began to study healing methods, medical treatments, and medicinal salves. Her most notable contribution to medicine came in the form of a scholarly treatise, simply entitled: “Ointments.” Dobrodeia’s “Ointments” is believed to be the first known treatise on medicine written by a woman.
Dobrodeia died of unknown causes in 1131; her treatise, which survived only in fragments, is held in the Medici Library located in Florence.
Guan Daosheng (1262-1319)
Guan Daosheng (1262-1319) was a Chinese poet and painter active during the early Yuan Dynasty. She was born into a well-to-do family in Huzhou today in the Zheijiang province of China.
Also known as Guan Zhongji or Lady Zhongji, her rise to fame coincided with the foundation of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty in 1279. Kublai Khan, to secure more control over the local people, sought scholars, artists, and other prominent Chinese intellectuals for his royal court.
The family’s new position in court allowed Guan’s own work to be displayed in the new royal court, which earned her critical praise and fame. Many of her works were so well received that they were incorporated into the official imperial archives; today, these works are regarded as some of the finest Chinese calligraphy in history.
In addition to paintings, Guan also wrote poetry; most of her poems were inscribed directly onto her canvases. Again, with her poetry, Guan subverted expectations by using a poetry style often used by men.
Her most famous poem is “Song of Me and You,” a poem she wrote after her husband said that he wanted to have concubines. She left the poem, where he would find it, and the subject was dropped. One moving line read: “You and I have so much love, that it burns like a fire … in life we share a single quilt, in death we share a single coffin.”
Guan died of illness in 1319, and her husband never remarried.
Heo Nanseolheon (1563-1589)
Heo Nanseolheon (1563-1589) was the daughter of a highly distinguished scholar who subscribed to traditional conservative values (he believed in namjon-yubi or ‘men above, women below’) and did not believe in educating women in intellectual pursuits. Writing and poetry were common pursuits for women, but even women who achieved critical praise were not always able to rise above society’s standard rules. Her brothers, Heo Pong and Heo Gyun decided to introduce their sister to literature after noticing her developing interest in written works.
Her earliest known written work, ‘Inscriptions on the Ridge Pole of the White Jade Pavilion in the Kwanghan Palace,’ was completed when she was only 8 years old. The work was considered a genius, and it earned her the contemporary nickname: “immortal maiden.” She continued to write, but due to the limitations placed on women at this time, she was unable to achieve any official titles or positions normally available to gifted writers.
Heo Nanseolheon was married to Kim Seongnip, the son of a civil official, but their marriage as an unhappy one. He had regular affairs and left her at home alone with her mother-in-law. She had two children, but both died in infancy.
Scholars have noted that the transition of Heo Nanseolheon’s poetical style appears to coincide with her marriage; she transitioned
from writing primarily traditional verses on common subjects for poets at the time (such as folklore and nature) into more personal and emotional poems on poverty and women’s hardships.
One of her later poems, titled Women’s Grievance, is emblematic of the type of loneliness and stress experienced by women who were unable to break out of the role expected of them in society at the time.
Embroidered sash and silk skirt are wet with tears,
Every year fragrant plants lament a princely friend.
On my lute I play to its end the South River Song;
Showers of peach blossom patter on the door, shut all day.
Autumn is over at the moonlit pavilion; its jade screen desolate.
Frost encrusts the reed island; wild geese roost for the night.
I play upon the jasper lute. No one sees me.
Lotus flowers drop into the pond.
[translation: Yang-hi Cheo-Wall]
Her beloved brother Heo Pong died from illness in 1529. Heo Nanseolheon, already experiencing the stress from the loss of her children and unhappy marriage, was devastated. She committed suicide less than a year after her brother’s death, at the age of 27. WOW.
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842)
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) was born in 1755, the daughter of a hairdresser and a prominent portrait painter, Louis Vigee. She is also known as Madame Le Brun and a famous French portrait painter of the late 18th century. Elisabeth was interested in painting from a young age, and her father frequently encouraged her talents by purchasing supplies for practice. I love a girl dad that supports his daughter’s artistic passions!
Elisabeth’s portraiture work became well known throughout Paris, so much that she was painting professionally when she was still a teenager. In addition to displaying her works in various painting salons, she also held private exhibitions at her home in Paris. She married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an art dealer, and occasional painter, in 1776. Their marriage was tumultuous, and Elisabeth began handling her own finances due to her husband squandering their money on gambling.
Elisabeth’s star officially rose in 1774 when she was commissioned by Queen Marie Antoinette to paint her portrait. Marie Antoinette disliked most pictures of her, believing they were unable to capture her features. Elisabeth’s painting was the first one well-praised by the queen, and she quickly ordered multiple copies to send them to her mother. Over the years, Elisabeth would paint more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette and her immediate family.
In 1783, she was received as a member of the famed Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture; she was one of 15 women who were granted membership in 1648 through 1793.
In 1789, she fled France due to the events of the French Revolution. She painted portraits throughout Europe and returned to live in France after the Bourbon Restoration. She died in 1842 at the age of 86.
Mary Mahoney (1845-1926)
Mary Mahoney (1845-1926) was the daughter of freed slaves who were originally from North Carolina. At the age of 10, Mary attended the Philips School; this was one of the first integrated schools in the United States and was well known for emphasizing morality and humanity in addition to traditional school subjects.
Mary was interested in nursing from a young age, but African-American women were traditionally limited in their ability to receive formal education in nursing due to the frequent rejection of black applicants by nursing schools. Eventually, she received formal training at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was the first institution in the United States to allow women to train on the job as nurses.
Mary graduated in 1879 as the first black woman to graduate from a hospital-led nursing program in the United States.
After graduation, Mary worked as a private nurse while also advocating for equal rights for African American women who wanted to train and work as nurses. Many African American women who were able to achieve nursing degrees found that they were treated as “the help,” rather than skilled professionals; Mary advocated against both in writing and practice.
Mary also worked with organizations that focused on helping African-Americans; she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), a nursing organization that accepted African-American nurses. Mary Mahoney’s public works as the first African-American nurse to graduate from a hospital program paved the way for addressing discrimination in nursing programs in the U.S.
Hydna of Scione (ca.500 BCE-unknown)
Hydna of Scione (ca.500 BCE-unknown) was a prolific swimmer, diver, and Greek Heroine. The ladies of history are often regarded for their brains, but Hydna of Scione was one with pure brawn.
The Ancient Greeks were no strangers to the water, and it’s said that they would learn to swim just as they’d learn to walk. In keeping with this tradition, Hydna was taught to swim and dive by her father, Scyllis of Scione. The real reason she stands out so firmly is she put this talent to work in defense of her country.
Set in the same era as the brave Leonidas and his 300 men, the Persian King Xerxes was determined to invade Greece. With a battle-by-sea looming, Hydna and her father volunteered to assist in the fight by swimming out amongst the enemy fleet and sabotaging their ships.
They swam ten miles through rough waters with knives between their teeth and effectively cut the ships’ moorings. With an unbelievable amount of strength, they effectively upheld themselves in rough seas and drug away many of the ship’s anchors. This caused the destruction to the vessels at the liberty of stormy waters and ultimately delayed the attack. The naval battle, which was later fought at Salamis (480 BCE), saw the Greeks defeat the Persians.
Hydna and her father were commemorated in statues at the sacred Greek site of Delphi–though these statues are said to have been taken by Nero and were lost. In modern storytelling, the story of Scyllis and his daughter loosely portrays in 300: Rise of an Empire, though the character of Hydna is disappointingly replaced by a son. A big WTF there!
Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim
Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim (935 AD-1002) was a German playwright and scholar who was considered a pioneer for women in arts and education. She is Germany’s first female historian, modern-day dramatist, and poet.
Hrotsvitha lived in Gandersheim Abbey, known to be a cultural and educational center of the German empire of the time. She took vows of obedience and chastity, but, as a canoness, not a nun, she wasn’t subject to an impoverished life.
She was wholeheartedly committed to her faith, but questioned the role of women within the Church and society in her plays, emerging as an early feminist.
Her plays, written in Latin, explored the martyrdom of Christian women who went
against Roman paganism. One of her most famous and enduring is Dulcitius, a comedy wherein three sisters are martyred, but presumably are granted lasting and eternal life.
What’s particularly notable is, in her play Paphnutius, the introduction includes passages on mathematics and the cosmos. This alludes to Hrotsvitha’s true intellect, who was not only creative but educated, curious, and incredibly well-rounded.
More importantly, her focus on women’s lives gives us a rare look into what it was honestly like to be a woman in a time when few women had a say in the story. Her characters, though devoutly Christian and pure, are meant to frame women with integrity and respect.
Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430)
Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430) was a pioneer feminist writer and poet at the court of King Charles VI of France. It wasn’t always easy (let’s be honest, may still not be) to stand up in defense of women, but Christine de Pizan used her royal post to do so way back in the Middle Ages.
As perhaps the first professional female writer, she set an example that women had just as much ability to enlighten people through their work as men. She represented women in history in works like Letter of Othea to Hector.
One of her last works would be a lyrical verse on The Tale of Joan of Arc.
She also had a philosophical edge, as she wrote of the human soul being trapped in the body in Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life. This work was intended, first and foremost, to console women who lost family in the battles of the Hundred Years War.
She undertook other endeavors and fought against contemporary writers who wrote and upheld the stereotypical beliefs that undermined women. In response to Jean de Meun’s widely-read book Romance of the Rose, which depicted women as nothing more than seducers, she wrote Tale of the Rose.
Her most famous works are The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies. In the former, she illustrated women in history who had a lasting and meaningful impact on society. The Treasure was more geared as an encouragement for women to continue to learn, grow, and influence their worlds, just as she had done through her life’s work.
Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524 –1588)
Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524 –1588) was the first female Florentine painter. Most everyone can recognize the famous painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, but few have seen the masterful depiction of it done by Sister Plautilla Nelli… that is until it was restored and unveiled last year.
Now hung in the Santa Maria Novella Museum, Sister Plautilla Nelli is recognized for her artistic accomplishments as Florence’s first female Renaissance painter.
All of her work was done in the convent in which she lived since age 14. It was common practice for young girls to become nuns to avoid the need for a marriage dowry.
It was also forbidden at the time for women to learn an art or study the male form. As a result, many of her paintings depicting men are described as somewhat “feminine.”
More importantly, though, her paintings are those who clearly depict raw emotion, something incredibly important to bringing truth to the depictions of religious subjects. As a woman of the Church, it’s no surprise that much of her work centers on Christian themes.
Some of her other enduring paintings include Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata, Lamentation with Saints, and St. Catherine of Siena. Centuries after her death, she’s finally gotten the recognition she deserves among the greats.
Lin Siniang (1629-1644)
Lin Siniang (1629-1644) was a true Warrior Princess. She had a short but exceptional life. Born a peasant, when China’s Ming Dynasty was near collapse, her father bestowed on her the knowledge of martial arts. She was skilled in wielding a sword and spear by age 6.
After her parents died, she became a prostitute to support herself, but never surrendered her martial arts practice. With her looks and her skill, she caught the attention of King Zhu Changshu, who was so impressed with her he took her as his wife.
As a princess, Lin taught the court concubines martial arts, eventually amassing an all-female army. When enemies in the North rose up to invade their lands, the King underestimated this threat, leading to his capture. It was Lin and her army that marched to rescue him.
They succeeded in freeing him, but having been outnumbered, all died in battle. Each of them was given an honorable burial, reserved for only the most impressive soldiers.
This is, more or less, the full story of Lin’s life, but it was well-agreed that she had so much more to offer. Her story is so much more than just a tale of “rags to riches,” but an indication of women’s bravery and brilliance. She’s so powerful, in fact, that she lived on for many years as a ghost in Qing-era stories.
Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher.
In a time when it was believed that mathematics was inappropriate for women, Sophie Germain would make strides in the field that would revolutionize our modern world.
In learning that Archimedes was reading geometry when he was killed, she concluded that mathematics must be worth exploring, even in the face of death.
She didn’t particularly face death herself, but she did face unrelenting opposition. Her parents disapproved of her studying, and forbade it, so she studied at night. When they took her candlelight away, she stole back the flames to continue to read, eventually forcing them to relent.
To further her studies in a time when women still weren’t admitted to universities, she would correspond with professors under the pseudonym “M. le Blanc.” Her groundbreaking work eventually led to one of the professors, who recognized her for her brilliance and continued the correspondence.
Her greatest achievement was perhaps elastic theory–which is now integral to the construction of skyscrapers. In addition to this, she’s also credited with her work on numbers theory.
Her work remains relevant today, and her namesake is honoured by a school and street in Paris. Her name is also attributed with several prime numbers, starting at 2, which are called “Sophie Germain primes.”
Long Live the Ladies
They were sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives. But above all, these women listed here are just a handful of those who paved the way. What they did in times of great adversity echoes in our modern-day, and serves as inspiration for all women who dare to create and fight their way to glory.
Throughout history, so many women have fought courageously and tirelessly for rights that should have been given to them – something that most men throughout the years have had the luxury of taking for granted.
Look to any point in time, and you’ll uncover far more stories of heroism and enlightenment waiting to be revealed if you just look to the woman who had a hand in it.
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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