Obscure Women From History That You May Not Know About-(But Really Should)

Words: Jo Elliott

History is full of women who did incredible things. But history is written by the victors, and that means that by and large, it focuses on men, whose work was more widely documented.

This means that we do not hear about amazing women from history as much as we should.

Throughout history, women have often been anonymous, or have had to take on a man’s name to get recognition. However, there are so many women who have made such amazing contributions to society, and as someone who studied History and particularly loves learning about women in history, I wanted to share some of my favourite historical women who you may not have heard of.

Chien Shuing Wu (1912–1997)

A Chinese-American physicist, Wu worked on the Manhattan Project where she helped to develop the process for separating the two different isotopes of Uranium.

The Wu Experiment changed the idea that Beta decay was symmetrical, proving that it was in fact asymmetrical.

Lee and Yang, members of Wu’s team, received the Nobel Prize in 1957. Wu received recognition in 1978, being overlooked at the time. This was despite the fact that it was her experiment which proved their theory!

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876–1948)

The history of women’s suffrage in the UK largely focuses on white women, like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Wilding-Davison. Women of colour’s involvement in the suffrage movement get far less focus, simply because it is less widely recorded.

Sophia Duleep-Singh was an Indian princess and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was a member of the WSPU in the early twentieth century, and one of the most prominent non-white suffragettes.

She auctioned off her belongings to help the cause, with the proceeds going to the Women’s Tax Resistance League. The League supported the avoidance of taxes until women received enfranchisement.

She also pushed for women’s suffrage in India.

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)

Gertrude Bell was a British explorer, writer, archaeologist and cartographer, who played a major role in establishing modern-day Iraq and Jordan.

She helped the British Government in setting up the Iraqi State, bringing together the disparate areas of Mosul, Baghdad and Bagra and was the only woman working in this team.

She helped to organise elections, write a constitution, draw up borders & founded the Iraq National Museum.

Debate around Bell’s legacy, and her work’s contribution to current political turmoil in Iraq continues to this day.

However, she was undeniably a trailblazer. She was the first woman to cross Arabia, the first to graduate with a First from Oxford, the first to climb all the peaks in the Swiss Alps and the first female intelligence officer employed by the British Government.

Nellie Bly (1864–1922)

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, best known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, was an American Journalist, and a pioneer of investigative journalism.

10 Days In A Madhouse, her expose in which she feigned being insane in order to gain admittance to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, uncovered widespread neglect and brutality in the asylum.

The asylum received an increase in funding and implemented a more thorough examination procedure following an investigation by a Grand Jury. This investigation was entirely due to Bly’s expose.

Bly was also an inventor, and set a world record for circumnavigating the world in 72 days.

Dr Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865–1915)

Dr Susan La Flesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree. She campaigned on various public health issues, including tuberculosis, alcoholism, and sanitation.

She also campaigned against the allotment of Native American lands and opened the first hospital for the Omaha tribe in 1913.

Katie Sandwina (1884–1952)

Sandwina, born Katharina Brumbach, was an Austrian strongwoman. She was the World’s Strongest Woman until 1987, when her record was broken by Karyn Marshall.

She performed up until her retirement at age 60, and frequently lifted upwards of 136 kilograms!

Nell Donnelly Reed (1889–1991)

Nell Donnelly Reed, born Ellen Quinlan, was a pioneering American fashion designer. She established her company, the Donnelly Garment Company in 1919.

Donnelly Reed created house dresses for women, after finding the choices available at the time unflattering.

By 1931, her company had sales of over $3.5 million. She was incredibly loyal and good to her employees, providing benefits which included medical and life insurance. She even provided scholarships for her employees’ children!

By 1953, her company was the largest manufacturer of women’s clothing worldwide.

The company went bankrupt in 1978, following a transfer of ownership after Nell’s retirement.

Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944)

Inayat Khan was a spy in the Special Operations Executive, an organisation set up by Hugh Dalton in World War Two.

Khan served in Nazi-Occupied France, and worked as a Wireless Operator. This involved sending messages back to London about Nazi activities in France.

Khan’s betrayal and capture by the Gestapo ultimately occurred in 1943. However, she did not give in under questioning and tried to escape multiple times.

Her transfer to Dachau Concentration camp, and subsequent execution happened in 1944. She was only 30 when she died. She received posthumous recognition for her work, being granted the George Cross in 1949.

These are just eight women who have made amazing contributions to the world. There are so many more, whose work goes unacknowledged or are unknown by the public at large. This is due to women’s contributions remaining under-documented, and under-appreciated by society.

But rest assured, no matter how obscure, women have been doing amazing things throughout history and will continue to do so in the future.

Originally published at https://capechameleon.co.za on February 9, 2020.



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