15 women you didn’t learn about in history class



Democratic Representative Patsy Mink.

History is rife with stories of heroic men saving lives, making major discoveries and advancing society. Unfortunately, the women that worked alongside them, even those that surpassed them, are often hidden in their shadows. As March is Women’s History Month and houses International Women’s Day, here are 15 lesser-known female historical figures that shaped the world we live in today.

1. Sappho (630 BCE – 570 BCE)

Sappho was a lyric poet from the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece. Though much of her poetry has been lost over time, her work was popular in its time and earned the accolades of esteemed Greek thinkers like Plato. Her poetry is known for depicting a distinct romantic interest in women (though classics connoisseurs still debate whether or not Sappho herself was gay) thus resulting in the terms “sapphic” and “lesbian” (an ode to Sappho’s home island).

2. Wu Zetian (624 CE – 705 CE)

Empress Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao or Wu Hou, was the only female emperor in Chinese history, ruling during the Tang Dynasty. Beginning as one of emperor Taizong’s concubines, she married Gaozong, the son of Taizong, upon Taizong’s death. She officially became empress (though was exercising her power long beforehand) when Gaozong died in 683 CE. Though controversial and at times cruel, Empress Wu was a skilled leader and campaigned for women’s rights in China.

3. Fatima al-Fihri (died circa 880 CE)

Fatima al-Fihri, full name Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, is the founder the oldest existing university in the world. After the death of her husband and father left her with a large sum of money, she put the money towards founding a mosque in Fez, Morocco. That mosque later developed into what is known today as the University of al-Qarawiyyin.

4. Grace O’Malley (1533 – 1603)

Otherwise known as Gráinne Ni Mháille, Grace O’Malley was an Irish pirate queen. The only daughter of a chieftain, she took over her husband’s ships as well as his land after he was murdered. She developed a fierce reputation among seafarers, and even fought a battle aboard her ship mere hours after giving birth to her son.

5. Sybil Ludington (1760 – 1839)

Sybil Ludington was one of the most important heroines of the American Revolution. At only sixteen, she rode 40 miles on horseback around Putnam County, New York to alert others of an impending British attack and rally the militia to fight. For reference, our hero Paul Revere’s midnight ride lasted about 12.5 miles.

6. Sarojini Naidu (1879 – 1949)

Nicknamed the Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu was a poet, feminist and political activist who worked with Gandhi to peacefully liberate India from British imperial rule. In 1925, she was appointed as President of the Indian National Congress, the first woman to hold that office. In 1947, she was elected as Governor of the United Provinces, also the first woman to do so.

7. Milunka Savić (1892 – 1973)

Milunka Savić is the most-decorated female soldier in the history of warfare. Born in Serbia, she took her brother’s place when he was called for duty to fight in the Balkan Wars. Reportedly, she served in nine missions, earning medals along the way, before a serious injury led to the discovery of her gender. She convinced her commander to allow her to continue fighting, and even participated in World War I and survived Nazi imprisonment.

8. Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960)

Gladys Bentley was an African American nightclub performer during the Harlem Renaissance, known for her risqué, bold performances. She dressed in suits and a top-hat, and filled venues with loud, rowdy performances in which she would flirt with women in the audience,” according to the Smithsonian. Open and unapologetic about her love for other women, Bentley transcended boundaries of gender, race and sexuality.

9. Hedy Lamarr (1914 – 2000)

While Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr is more famous for her beauty and screen presence as an actress in America, many don’t know that she also laid the groundwork for modern GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth technology. As World War II loomed over America, Lamarr worked together with fellow Hollywood socialite, writer and composer George Antheil to engineer a system that would help guide the trajectories of torpedoes. The technique of “frequency hopping” Lamarr came up with was the predecessor for some of today’s most useful technology.

10. Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964)

Claudia Jones was an African-American journalist, feminist and activist born in Trinidad and Tobago, most known for her work with the Communist Party, who were ahead of the game in terms of racial and gender equality. In New York, she spoke on civil rights issues and served as editor of the Communist Party’s paper the “Daily Worker” before she was deported and relocated to England. There, she founded the “West Indian Gazette” and created the Notting Hill Carnival, a showcase of Caribbean talent and culture.

11. Alice Coachman (1923 – 2014)

Alice Coachman cemented her place in history when she became the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the London Olympics in 1948. A star athlete from Albany, Georgia, Coachman played basketball, and was also a national competitor in the 50m, 100m and 400m relays. Her forte, however, was the high jump, where she won her medal by clearing a 5 foot, 6 inch tall bar on her first attempt. She was also the only American woman to win gold that year.

12. Truus (1923 – 2016) and Freddie (1925 – 2018) Oversteegen 

The Oversteegen sisters were two assassins working for the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation, first joining the resistance at the young ages of fourteen and sixteen. They distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets, shot down Nazi soldiers and Dutch collaborators, and on possibly more than one occasion, seduced Nazi soldiers to walk alone with them so others in the resistance could shoot the soldiers dead.

13. Patsy Mink (1927 – 2002)

Patsy Mink made history in 1964 as the first woman of color elected to the United States House of Representatives, as well as the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress. Born Patsy Matsu Takemoto in the state of Hawaii, she attended the University of Nebraska, but transferred to University of Hawaii to escape racial prejudice, and later attended law school at the University of Chicago. Mink was elected to the Hawaii State Senate in 1962, and then the House two years later, where she supported influential bills like Title IX and fought for racial and gender equality.

14. Dolores Huerta (1930 – )

While many know or have at least heard of the name Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta’s name comes up less often. Huerta, a labor and civil rights activist, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which would develop into the United Farm Workers’ Union (UFW), for which she served as vice president until 1999. Huerta organized protests and boycotts, advocating for safer working conditions and better wages for farmers. She received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998, and in 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

15. Faith Spotted Eagle (1948 – )

Faith Spotted Eagle is a pioneer for Native American rights and is even the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for president. She fought the KXL Pipeline Intrusion and protected the Horn of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. This and much more dedication to the protection of Native American land and culture earned her an electoral vote in the state of Washington in the 2016 Presidential Election. 


The fact is, one list of fifteen outstanding women doesn’t come close to capturing the extent of what women have done to shape the world, and what women are still doing today. In the same sense, just because Women’s History Month is coming to a close doesn’t mean we have to stop honoring these women, either; it’s merely a reminder that there’s more to history than meets the eye.


By: Jessi Rich

Image: The Atlantic