50 Underrated Women You Never Learned About In History Class

50 Underrated Women You Never Learned About In History Class

Ask Reddit wants you to know about these underrated women from history.

1. Nellie Bly is my personal favorite! She was a journalist in the 1890s who was given an assignment to investigate the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island due to accusations of the mistreatment of patients. She got in there by faking insanity and getting herself committed to the asylum, and when she was finally released, she ran an exposé in the New York World called “Ten Days In A Madhouse” that exposed the awful treatment of patients inside the asylum. This was considered a revolution in investigative journalism.

Plus, she read “Around The World In 80 Days”, basically decided she could do better, and went around the world in 72 days. She was also an inventor, and was one of the primary journalists to cover the suffragette movement. One of my favorite historical figures who doesn’t get enough attention!

2. Mala Zimetbaum was a jewish polish/belgian woman who got deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. She was fluent in multiple languages like polish, german, french, dutch and english so the SS assigned to “administrative duties” within the camps and she worked as a interpreter/messager for the nazis. This work allowed her to get a slightly better treatment as in more food/decent clothing and not so nightmarish living condition in the camps, the SS trusted her and needed her so they let her survive there for two years.

Many survivors talk about how she always tried tp help as much as she could and never used her privileges against people. She snuck food/letters in the camps, would falsify the list of people sent to the gas chambers in order to save as many lives as possible and tried to save women from very harsh work in order to save their lives.

In 1944, with her lover, another inmate who worked occasionally in the women camp, she managed to escape auschwitz for about 2 weeks before getting caught by the nazis. She was very close to the Slovakian border and almost escaped. She got brought back to the camp, got tortured for weeks and sentenced to public hanging.

All jewish women had to see her execution. Before her hanging the nazi commander started a speech about how escaping is useless and while giving his speech, Mala took a razor blade from her hair and opened her veins to commit suicide. The commander grabbed her arm and she slapped him in the face. Her last words differs from versions to version but she apparently screamed “I’ll die a hero while you’ll die like a pig” before the nazis started beating her up and ordered the prisoners to bring her -alive- to the crematorium.

She is mentioned in almost all women survivor testimonies of auschwitz.

3. Margaret “The Human Calculator” Hamilton. She led the MIT team assigned to develop code for Apollo 11’s on-board flight software. She was so brilliant, and so accurate, that she was asked to check the math performed by MIT’s computers. This, by itself, is remarkable. It gets better, of course: while preparing for the Apollo 11 flight, Hamilton urged her (male) superiors that the mission required additional back-up code, to act as a fail-safe in case something went wrong. She was criticized and ordered to do no such thing, because the astronauts “were trained never to make a mistake.”

Defying orders, Hamilton programmed the code anyway.

And wouldn’t you know it? Minutes before Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon, something did go wrong. An alarm was triggered and the moon landing was in peril. It was Hamilton’s code that saved the mission. Without her, we likely would not have landed on the moon.

4. Julie D’aubigny had a fascinating life. She was a duelist and opera singer in the late 1600s that dressed as a man but didn’t try to hide her gender. She got in many duels with men over insults or other matters and became lovers and friends with a young noble she beat in a duel. One time, when her girlfriend’s parents decided they didn’t want their daughter hanging around Julie anymore, they sent her to live in a convent. So of course Julie decided to break in, fake her girlfriend’s death, and run off together into the night.

Her life reads more like an action/drama film than a biography, chick was badass.

5. Sybil Ludington. Homegirl rode twice the distance of Paul Revere to warn nearby towns of the British attack. She was 16 years old.

6. Aphra Behn. First female to make a living as a writer in England. Worked as a spy for the government and they fucked her over when they didn’t pay her. Husband died at sea and she had to chuck him overboard. She’s fascinating. Worth a Google for sure.

7. Mariya Oktyabrskaya – After her husband was killed by Germans during WWII she bought herself a tank, asked Stalin permission to go to the front lines, and on her first maneuver killed 30 Nazis.

She wrote to her sister: “I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”

8. Grace Hopper. She invented the compiler which is the tool computer programmers use to turn their code into software. She was told computers were for doing calculations and not for running programs, so it couldn’t be done. She figured it out anyway and changed the world forever. She might be the most important woman of all time. Nobody knows who she is.

9. Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (phew, long name).

Founder of the oldest still running university. After her dad and her husband ate dirt, instead of sitting around and basking in her enormous wealth, she decided to start the world’s first degree-giving uni.

It’s been running since 800CE.

10. Cleopatra often gets shafted by history, portrayed as a simple femme fatale for the great men of Rome. In truth, Cleopatra was incredibly smart, able to speak nine languages, was the first member of her dynasty to even bother learning Egyptian, and she ruled effectively for 11 years before Augustus annexed Egypt. She was one of the smartest women of her day, and should be appreciated more than as a simple fuck-buddy of Caesar and Antony.

11. Grace O’Malley, also known as Grainne Ni Mhaille. She was an Irish pirate, ruler and all-round badass. Especially cool is when Queen Elizabeth I offered her a handkerchief, which Grainne used and then threw into the fire. I only heard about her recently and she seems amazing in every way.

12. Kathryn Bigelow. She’s the first woman to do a lot of great things in hollywood and film. Still a lot of people don’t mention her in conversations about great Hollywood directors but she most definitely deserves to be in those conversations.

13. Edith Wilson. She was, as far as practicality goes, the first female US president.

Basically Woodrow Wilson had a stroke during his presidency and so his wife, Edith, took his place. Woodrow was bedridden and while he was still given the final say, Edith still acted in his place for pretty much everything else, if I recall correctly.

14. Rita Levi-Montalcini was a Jewish-Italian neurobiologist. Her scientific career lasted from the 1930s to the 2010s. She died at 103 years of age, still doing science.

Oh, and she was named a Senator for Life in Italy because of course she was.

Once when a reporter asked her (she already in her eighties or nineties) what she would do if she was thirty years younger, her answer was, “I am doing what I would do if I was thirty years younger.”

15. Josephine Baker. Was a popular entertainer in Europe and America, and she lived in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Now, she was popular enough in Paris that the Nazis feared what kind of pushback they’d get if they did anything to her, despite the fact that she was a black woman, which were both things that the Nazis historically did not like very much, so one might forgive Baker for just shutting up and enjoying the relative comfort she had. But she did do that? No! She served as a spy for the Allies and the French Resistance, smuggling information across France during tours.

After the war, she became a civil rights icon, refusing to perform for segregated audiences and became such a powerful symbol that MLK’s wife asked her to take up her husband’s place in the movement after he was assassinated.

There are at least three awesome movie scripts in that life story, and it is a crime that none of them have been made.

16. Elizabeth Fry. She was a social reformer often been referred to as the “angel of prisons” – she was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane.

17. Susan Rogers. She was Prince’s sound engineer at a time where there were literally NO female engineers.

18. Stephanie Hayden. She made the Oroville Hope Center with her husband and they have helped hundreds of thousands of homeless people get food and water with only her, her husband and her kids with about 5 other people helping at first. Even on regular days they have about 12 people running the warehouse a day and everyone respects her. (Im her son)

19. Rosa Parks. Obviously everyone knows about the whole bus incident, but her family had a long history of standing up against white racism and she was involved with the civil rights movement prior to the bus boycott. But her entire life is now distilled to “tired old lady didn’t want to give up seat on bus, started civil rights movement. K thx MLK.”

20. Elizabeth Schuyler/Hamilton. She was Alexander Hamilton’s wife and stayed with him after he had an affair. After Alexander died she raised money for the Washington monument and established an orphanage.

21. Sandra Day O’Connor (born March 26, 1930) is a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who served from her appointment in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the Court.

22. Marie Curie. BA French woman who is responsible for our x-ray technology. Died from radiation poison though, but has a periodic element named after her!

23. Carrie Nation. Absolute unit of a woman. Was abused by drunkard husband. Carried a hatchet into local bars and pubs and wrecked their shit so hard. Was taller than most men in the town and nearby towns. My hero.

24. Hildegaard von Bingen. Medieval composer. she wrote so much music that went on to influence Baroque music and Classical music henceforth. Not only that, she is also considered to be the founder of natural history in Germany. Brilliant woman.

25. Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. She became regent for her son upon her husband’s death (already uncommon for the time) and managed to use that power to conquer freaking Egypt, allow for social and religious freedoms, and fostered cultural and artistic endeavors.

Her downfall was fighting against – and losing to – the Roman empire, but her rule was one of the most prosperous and peaceful for Syria.

26. Fei Fei Li. Her work with AI is pretty amazing. You should watch her Ted talk. She gave the same talk at VMworld a couple years ago and I was blown away.

27. Henrietta Lacks. No one knows who she is but her cells are still being used in labs all over to this day. All without her consent or knowledge.

28. Ada Lovelace. She was one of first people to see the potential of computing machines back in the mid-1800s and is regarded as one of the first programmers and first female coder.

29. The fucking Lioness of Brittany! Jeanne de Clisson.

My favorite woman in all of history.

She was a noble woman and her husband was executed on charges of treason and she was PISSED. She sold off all his lands and estates, everything and used the money to buy 3 ships that she had painted black and used red sails. They became known as The Black Fleet and they struck fear and terror into the hearts of many frenchmen as she massacred them. She would kill everyone but one or two dudes that she left alive just to tell the story and help spread the fear, she was basically the origin of a lot of pirate fiction. People were fucking terrified of her. She even put coastal towns and fortresses to the sword and torch.

France fucked her. So she fucked France. She teamed up with the brits to secure their supremacy over the english channel and all that good stuff. She wasn’t in it for profit, duty, or anything else, she was just there to fuck france in any way she possibly could. Her flagship that she captained herself was called My Revenge.

Best part is, she fucked france until she was either 50 or 60 years old and her ship was finally sank, but she survived. But she figured she’d fucked them hard and long enough and was getting too old for this shit, so she retired and married an english noble and lived the rest of her days with him.

Interestingly, Charles de Blois was the one who fingered her husband and accused him of treason. This asshole later became a catholic saint. Those catholics will make anyone a saint if they’re popular enough, regardless of what they do.

30. Theodora, Justinian’s wife and Empress of the Byzantine Empire. From prostitute and actress to arguably the second most powerful person in the world at the time, she saved Justinian’s ass and wasn’t afraid to voice her own opinions.

“When Justinian succeeded to the throne in 527, two years after the marriage, Theodora became Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. She shared in his plans and political strategies, participated in state councils, and Justinian called her his “partner in my deliberations.” She had her own court, her own official entourage, and her own imperial seal.

Theodora proved herself a worthy and able leader during the Nika riots. There were two rival political factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens, who started a riot in January 532 during a chariot race in the hippodrome. The riots stemmed from many grievances, some of which had resulted from Justinian’s and Theodora’s own actions.

The rioters set many public buildings on fire, and proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius, the nephew of former emperor Anastasius I. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora spoke out against leaving the palace and underlined the significance of someone who died as a ruler instead of living as an exile or in hiding, reportedly saying, “royal purple is the noblest shroud”.

As the emperor and his counsellors were still preparing their project, Theodora interrupted them and claimed :

“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”

Her determined speech convinced them all, including Justinian himself, who had been preparing to run. As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal troops, led by the officers, Belisarius and Mundus, to attack the demonstrators in the hippodrome, killing (according to Procopius) over 30,000 rebels. Despite his claims that he was unwillingly named emperor by the mob, Hypatius was also put to death, apparently at Theodora’s insistence. Interpretations that Justinian never forgot that it was Theodora who had saved his throne depend on seeing Procopius’ account as a straightforward report, and not framed to impugn Justinian with the implication that he was more cowardly than his wife.”

Theodora worked against her husband’s support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction.[25] As a result, she was accused of fostering heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom.

In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, Theodora founded a Miaphysite monastery in Sykae and provided shelter in the palace for Miaphysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority of Chalcedonian Christians, like Severus and Anthimus. Anthimus had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence, and after the excommunication order he was hidden in Theodora’s quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Miaphysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace, which had been Justinian and Theodora’s own dwelling before they became emperor and empress.

Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death he worked to bring harmony between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Monophysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus, and apparently personal friendship as well. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Jacobite Christianity equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora.

31. Christine de Pizan. She was French courtier in the 14th and early 15th century. She was the daughter of a Humanist, who taught her how to read and write. After the death of her husband, she wrote to support herself and her children. Her writing was resolutely prolific. She wrote several books of poetry and ballads, but also of philosophy, politics and ethics. One of her most famous books, La Cité des Dames (The City of Ladies) and Le Livre des Trois Vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues) are, respectively, a book defending women’s rights as equal and valuable members of society, and their right to education in particular, and a manual for the instruction and education of women of all classes.

She is widely considered to be the first woman to have lived off of her writing in the French language; she was a badass feminist in the 1300s; she was a widely respected intellectual in an era where that was not something women were allowed to do. Honestly, it’s a tragedy she’s not more well-known.

32. Frances Kelsey. A doctor who prevented the U.S. from selling a drug called thalidomide. Pregnant women in Germany took it to ease morning sickness because they thought that it wouldn’t affect their unborn child. But after many tests conducted by Frances and a bunch of deformed children from the pregnant women who took thalidomide, Frances was able to convince the U.S. from selling the drug.

She is TRULY the best

33. Hypatia, the earliest female mathematician who we know much about, and also a philosopher and astronomer. Murdered by a Christian mob in 415 CE.

34. Milunka Savic. She is Serbian Mulan, a hero of WW1 and the first woman in history to be decorated for serving in combat.

35. Mary Anning! She was pretty much the first female paleontologist and revolutionized the field. She worked on the cliffs at Lyme Rigous and one of her most famous finds was a basically complete ichthyosaurus fossil. When snooty rich men came to buy the fossils they found they refused to believe that she was the one who did the work because no peasant girl could have possibly been so educated on such a topic. We had a character day in year 3 when we had to dress up as our favorite person from a book and I went as her.

36. By 1943, Nancy Wake was the Gestapo’s most wanted person with a 5-million-franc price on her head.

  • Wake described her tactics: “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

  • Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”, to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

  • At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated.

  • Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid. During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. (she killed a Nazi with a judo chop)

  • Wake rode a bicycle for more than 300 kilometres (190 mi) through several German checkpoints to get to another group’s wireless operator and send a message to London apprising them of the situation. Unfortunately she could not convince the operator that she was with the SOE so she finally searched out the local maquis who did send her message. Wake then had to ride the bike back to where she started, and she did all this in 72 hours.

37. All the UK women who took over their husbands farms during WWII.

Their duties were literally endless, not only did they oversee or personally plow the soil for years until it was entirely depleted and unusable, they also communicated enemy plane locations as they passed overhead of their land, at great personal risk.

They also lit decoy fires and blacked out their homes to mask their true location from German planes, took refugees into their properties, and lived on rations they had to split with those refugees, all on top of dealing with government officials whose sole purpose was to make sure the farm was putting out the UTMOST amount of crops, or their duties and land would be seized and given to someone else to be worked harder.

If not for these women, the whole country would have starved, as Hitler would not allow any shipments at all into their harbors, including food, and enforced it with submarine firepower.

38. Rosalind Franklin – for the discovery of structure of DNA.

James Watson and Francis Crick took undue credit for work of Franklin, which was critical to the discovery.

39. Hedy Lamarr. Movie star genius who created a code of different radio frequencies that the Nazis couldn’t decipher.

40. Mary Wollstonecraft. Philosopher, advocate for women’s rights in the 1700s, and the mother of Mary Shelley aka the author of Frankenstein, one of the most iconic characters and books of all time.

41. Ryu Gwansun – A Korean resistance leader during the Japanese occupation, her parents were killed by Japanese soldiers at a protest. She organized protests and carried a smuggled copy of the Declaration of Independence. She refused to give up the names of her collaborators, even though she’d been tortured horribly. She died in a pit at the age of 17. She needs a biographical movie ASAP.

42. Lise Meitner. Unjustly denied the Nobel Prize (which was awarded solely to her colleague Otto Hahn) for discovering nuclear fission.

43. Sophie Scholl. She was a member/co-founder of the White Rose who were a resistance group against the Nazis. She, and her brother were students who risked their lives distributing pamphlets in University of Munich explicitly condemning Nazi policy and the Nazis in general. They were caught. She was told she would be spared the death penalty if she denounced her anti-Nazi beliefs. She did not. Her and her brother along with other members of White Rose were executed in 1943.

There is a great film about Sophie Scholl and White Rose called ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ which I highly recommend, the full thing is on youtube as well.

44. The Wasps. They were a group of women who flew aircrafts for the U.S. during WWII. Their duties were always aviation based, but they did pretty much anything in that field that the military wanted at any time. They were all well-trained pilots but were still not allowed to be considered part of the military when it came to benefits. This meant that they got hand-me-down uniforms from male personal and weren’t treated with the same respect. Even better yet, en had to learn to fly one or two specific aircrafts, while these women learned how to fly almost all the different types at the time, and every one had different instrument panels and such. And only in 1977 did the women who served get considered veterans and got veteran honors. I highly recommend reading about them.

45. Motherfucking Ida B. Wells. This badass bitch pulled a Rosa Parks 71 years earlier by refusing to move to another train car when they ordered her to.

When black people were getting lynched, she called out those racist cowards with her journalism saying truth like “Nobody in this section of the community believes that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

When women were trying to get the vote, they tried to tell her to march at the back but you can take a guess on whether or not she listened to them.

46. Edith Wharton. She may finally be getting her due as entering the canon a great American writer, but most people don’t know about how she lead her life. She was born Edith Jones, and to an old New York family so rich and established they are literally the ones referred to in “keeping up with the Jones.” Her life was obviously not one of financial poverty, but emotional.

Her mother decided she was too ugly to make a good match, so they married her off to a much older man who was, literally, insane. He was abusive and she did something almost totally unheard of in her circles: she got a divorce. This expelled her from polite society and what little sympathy she might have had from her old connections was lost when she did something just as unacceptable – she decided to have a profession as a writer.

Eventually, she could not bear the shunning of the US and became an expat living in Paris where she felt she could start again. During her lifetime, she was never considered to be a writer of equal intellectual status to her male contemporaries, such as Henry James, however, she made a good living and lived by herself by her own rules.

The tragedy of her life really was not her expulsion from “society” but that she never was able to find love, and it was what she wanted more than anything. I think she felt she had too many things against her – a professional, tainted by divorce, and just too ugly (as her mother had reminded her many times).

All you need to do is read her books and see both how much she longed for romantic love, and that she cannot bear to see even her characters have what she was denied. She shared a lover with Henry James, actually, Morton Fullerton, and people think of him as Wharton’s great love and she was very devoted, but the feelings weren’t really mutual.

Wharton’s big lucky break in life was that she had a father who loved her, and he valued her intellect and allowed her to, rather secretly, educate herself in his library and develop her mind in ways that were unacceptable for women at the time. I think she was a badass.

47. Irena Sendler. She smuggled dozens of babies out of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. She would write down their names and keep them in a jar, then using her job as a Social Worker would make them fake papers and place the children in orphanages, willing Polish families, convents, and just about anywhere else where they would be safe. She was eventually caught by the Gestapo and withstood torture to keep the names and locations of those children safe, and was sentenced to death but luckily managed to escape thanks to some last-minute bribery. During the end of the war she worked as a nurse under a different name, and was even shot at one point by a German-deserter looking for food.

When the war ended she became the head of the department of Social Welfare in Warsaw, and set about trying to reunite all the children she had saved with their parents (most of which had been sadly executed in the Treblinka Concerntration Camp), and those which she couldn’t get united with their parents she smuggled to Israel so they could at least be safe out of Poland.

After that she continued to have a few high state positions, as well as be deputy director of two medical schools in Warsaw.

She died in 2008.

48. Emmy Noether. Noether’s Theorem is one of the most important and fundamentally beautiful results from the 20th century in math/theoretical physics, and that’s just one of the many impressive things she accomplished. Yet seemingly nobody outside of those who studied those fields in college has heard of her.

49. Bessie Coleman. Saved up money from being a manicurist and chili slinger try to go to aviation school. Was denied for being female and black, and eventually was financially backed to travel to France to earn her aviator’s license, which she did in 1921. She came back to the US as the first woman of black and Native American descent to earn an aviation license and the first person of black and NA descent to earn an international aviation license.

To make a living as a civilian aviator, she became a barnstormer and exhibition aviator. She died five years later when the plane she was flying went into a spin and she was thrown out at 2000 ft.

50. Irena Sendler (1910-2008). She saved 2,500 children during the Holocaust from the Warsaw ghetto. Even when she was arrested and tortured, she wouldn’t reveal the identities of those children or the people she was working with. Later, after her escape, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. TC mark

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January Nelson is a writer, editor, dreamer, and occasional exotic dancer. Her work has appeared on Facebook, ... Read more articles from January on Thought Catalog.

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