Powerful Women I’ve Never Heard Of

From The Guardian’s “Sandi Toksvig’s top 10 unsung heroines”:

“When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’

“It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions? How often had I sped past them as I learned of male achievement and men’s place in the history books? Then I read Rosalind Miles’s book The Women’s History of the World (recently republished as Who Cooked the Last Supper?) and I knew I needed to look again. History is full of fabulous females who have been systematically ignored, forgotten or simply written out of the records. They’re not all saints, they’re not all geniuses, but they do deserve remembering.”


1. Hilda Matheson (1888-1940)

If you love Radio 4 you should love Hilda. She was the BBC’s first director of talks and helped shape the programmes we listen to today, founding radio journalism and the notion of quality radio. She was almost solely responsible for the mammoth African Survey for which Lord Hailey took all the credit.


2. Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814)

As a child growing up in the United States I was taught that a man called Eli Whitney changed the face of the American economy with the invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine that mechanised the cleaning of cotton. In fact it was Catherine’s idea but in those days women didn’t take out patents.


3. Princess Khutulun (c1251- ?)

The niece of the great Mongol leader, Kubla Khan, Princess Khutulun was described by Marco Polo as the greatest warrior in Khan’s army. She told her uncle she would marry any man who could wrestle her and win. If they lost they had to give her 100 horses. She died unmarried with 10,000 horses.


4. Queen Vishpla (somewhere between 3500 and 1800 BC)

The ancient sacred text of India, Rig-Veda, includes the story of this queen who led her troops into battle and lost a leg. She had an iron leg fitted and returned to war. The first person known to have a prosthesis.


5. Jerrie Cobb (1931-)

Chosen for the US astronaut programme in 1958, Jerrie Cobb had twice as many flight hours to her name as John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the earth. She failed to go into space because she hadn’t gone through jet-aircraft testing. She hadn’t because women weren’t allowed to until 1973.


6. Agnodike (Fourth century BC)

Athenian women were not allowed to be doctors so Agnodike disguised herself as a man to study medicine. When she had finished she tried to treat women but they refused, thinking she was male. When she revealed her sex she was arrested but succeeded in having the law against female medics changed.


7. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Nightingale is well known in history as the Lady with the Lamp but this was actually a phrase invented by a Times journalist. The men of the Crimean actually called her the Lady With the Hammer because she was quite happy to break into supply rooms if her patients needed something.


8. Angelika Kauffmann and Mary Moser

In 1768 Angelika and Mary helped found the Royal Academy of Arts in London. When a portrait of the founders was painted, only the men of the Academy were shown gathered in a studio. The women appear as portraits on the wall.


9. Enheduanna (c2285-2250BC)

Probably a princess. Certainly the world’s first known author, male or female. She wrote hymns to the gods in cuneiform.


10. Edmonia Lewis (1843–c1900)

The first black woman to be recognised as a sculptor. At college she was accused of trying to poison two white students. Although she was proved innocent she was not allowed to graduate.

* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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