One of my favourite things about writing heroines is my ability to borrow from the history books when it comes to giving them a passion. I’ve created heroines who are mathematicians, doctors, artists, soldiers, stewards, smugglers, jockeys, and staunch education advocates, all inspired by real women.
So it always surprises me when readers tell me that these passions or occupations are unrealistic or anachronistic for women ‘of that particular time’. That women ‘would never have done these things back then’. Their stories are harder to find, that is true, but they are there all the same and deserve to be shared.
I’ve listed below a collection of notable women who did exactly what no one believed that they ‘should’ or ‘could’ do. It is by no means an exhaustive list and I’ll continue to add to it. These women have not only inspired my writing and my characters, but continue to inspire me as well.
Rebecca Pennock Lukens (1794-1854)
Steel/iron magnate, Rebecca owned and managed the iron and steel mill which became the Lukens Steel Company (Pennsylvania, USA). She is widely considered America’s first CEO of an industrial company. She ran the company until 1847 and made it America’s premier manufacturer of boilerplate.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Mary was a writer, a philosopher, and an advocate for women’s rights. She rejected the idea that women were inferior to men but were portrayed as such only because of their lack of access to education. She advocated for the education of women in fields and subjects that were then restricted to men.
Ching Shih (1775-1844)
One of the most prosperous pirate captains in history who headed an armada called “The Red Fleet”. There are conflicting reports of the size of the forces she commanded (300-800 ships and 40,000-80,000 men), however, historians all agree it was substantial. Ching Shih took over command after her husband died and the fleet captain started to scatter. She is credited with one of my favourite quotes: “Under the leadership of a man you have chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourself under a woman.”
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Ada was a gifted mathematician and writer, and is widely regarded as the first person to recognize the potential of a computing machine. She published the first algorithm intended for a computer program in the mid 1800s.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
A French/Polish scientist, Marie Curie is probably best known for her research into radioactivity. At a time when the education of women in the fields of chemistry and biology was certainly not encouraged, Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel prize for her work. Further, she was the first person and only woman to win the Nobel prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Mary was a British-Jamaican business woman and nurse who cared for sick and injured soldiers during the Crimean War. The British Army refused to admit her to the war effort because of her gender but she went to the front lines anyway. The soldiers she cared for later raised money for her when she lacked funds.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Jane was a prolific writer who published her work at a time when writing was considered a ‘manly pursuit’. Many of her female contemporaries, including Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein), were forced to publish their work anonymously to hide their gender.
Anna Nzinga (1583-1663)
Anna was an early modern ruler of Africa, ruling the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in 17th century Angola. She was a gifted military tactician, politician, and worked tirelessly to restrict European intrusion into her lands.
Murasaki Shikibu (973-1031)
Novelist and poet at a time when women were traditionally barred from learning the written language. She is credited with writing the world’s first full-length novel, ‘The Tale of Genji”, written between 1000 and 1012.
Sybil Ludington (1761-1839)
While there is some disagreement from historians about the details, Sybil was an American Revolutionary War hero. As a teenager, she rode 40 miles in a single night across Connecticut to warn soldiers of an imminent attack on Danbury. Her ride was two times longer than Paul Revere’s.
Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204)
Queen of France, Queen of England and one of the most famous rulers of medieval times, Eleanor was a skilled politician and ruler. She is credited with establishing the rules of chivalry and of even greater effect, credited with inventing the fireplace.
Anne Lister (1791-1840)
Anne was a wealthy British woman known for her business savvy. She owned multiple properties and industry shares. All of which she shared with her wife, Ann Walker.
Molly Pitcher, aka Mary Ludwig (1744-1832)
I picked the tale of Molly Pitcher for this list, and while it has become somewhat of a legend, it represents the dozens and dozens of women who have stories just like this one across time and conflicts. Mary travelled with her husband to the front and cared for the wounded during the American Revolutionary war. When her husband was wounded and carried off the field, Mary joined his artillery unit loading cannon to take his place. It is reported that a British cannonball flew between her legs at some point, ripping her skirts, but not injuring her. Her response before she carried on with her duties: “Well, that could have been worse.”
Elsie Inglis (1864-1917)
Doctor, philanthropist, suffragist, healthcare reform advocate, and founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Elsie organized all-female medical units, ready to be deployed during WW1. After the British told her to ‘go home and sit still’, she deployed her units to assist the French.
Sor Juana Ines la Cruz (1648-1695)
Scholar, poet, philosopher, and composer. She was one of the earliest writers of Mexican literature, and one of the earliest voices in the Americas calling for women’s right to education and equality between genders. In 1667, she joined a nunnery and turned her nun’s quarters into a salon, visited by many of the city’s intellectually elite. She was highly critical of the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy of men and that led to her public condemnation by the Bishop of Puebla.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
Best known for her work for women’s suffrage and voting rights. She was also a staunch advocate for women’s education after being told that ‘it was useless for her to learn maths because a woman needs only to know how to read the bible and count her egg money’.
Lady of the Mercians, she was a brilliant military strategist and tactician. She is largely credited with the expulsion of the Danes from England after she assumed power upon the death of her husband.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
English fossil collector and dealer and paleontologist, Mary is best known for her discoveries and documentation of Jurassic marine fossils in Dorset, England. Her findings were key in the scientific reconciliation of prehistoric life and the history of the earth.
Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791)
Catherine is considered the world’s first female historian and was an avid advocate for the education of women. She wrote ‘The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution’ as well as a treatise titled ‘Letters on Education’. She believed that the perceived ‘weakness’ of women was due to mis-education.
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
Edmonia (pictured above) was an American artist and sculptor who worked in Rome. She achieved international recognition for her work and is known for incorporating themes related to indigenous peoples of the Americas and her black heritage.
Hannah Snell (1723-1792)
Hannah disguised herself as a man, took her brother in law’s name, and joined the British Navy in search of her husband. She served with the Marines, the Army, and upon her return, petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for a stipend (her husband had already died). She is most famous for taking on a press gang in later years, challenging the lieutenant who was attempting to press a family man into service to a fight. She is quoted as saying “If they were seamen, they ought to be on board and not sneaking about as kidnappers” and “But if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess upon your shoulder and march through Germany as I have done. Ye dogs, I have more wounds about me than you have fingers. This is no false attack. I will have my man.”
Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)
Sophie was a highly recognized mathematician. She is known for her contribution to number theory and theory of elasticity. She was able to obtain smuggled lecture notes from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (though she was not allowed to attend class). She originally submitted her work under an alias but eventually became the first woman to attend the French Academy of Sciences.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Mary was a Scottish science writer and polymath. She studied math and astronomy and was eventually nominated to become the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Elizabeth Stokes aka Lady Bare Knuckles (actively competed 1722-1728)
At a time when boxing was an entertainment sport for both men and women, Elizabeth was one of the most famous female bare-knuckle boxers of the Georgian period. She also fought with a cudgel and a short sword, and was wildly popular, achieveing great success. It is said that she inspired Lady Barrymore, ‘The Boxing Baroness’ in the 1820’s, who began boxing to keep fit and amuse her husband.
Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816)
Mary was an American publisher and postmaster. She was the second printer to print the Declaration of Independence and the first to include the names of the signatories. She continued to publish the Constitutional Post throughout the Revolutionary War until 1784.