notable women in history

Boxers and pirates and astronomers, oh my!


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’.

Ǣthelflaed (870-918)

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.