It’s Women’s History Month! Though I typically take a Morgan Freeman-like stance on this issue (just like black history, women’s history is just history and we shouldn’t need a specific month to recognize feminine contributions) I thought this might be a good time to share my Top 10 Women Outliers of History.
A lot of women of history lists focus on women who specifically contributed to women’s roles, such as the suffragettes. Though I would never downplay the importance of these women, I didn’t want to fill my list just with women who fight/fought for women’s rights. In our unequal world, I think it’s important to share the women of history who, despite the odds, dedicated themselves to male-dominated roles and were so successful that they became well-known, in spite of the fact that they’re women.
This list should serve as a reminder that there have been strong women fighting for their right to be considered equal to the other 50% of the human race throughout history, not just since the suffrage movement. This list should serve as a reminder that, despite societal constrictions, women are strong and can do anything they set their minds to. Even in times when women were considered property, several strong women fought for their voices to be heard. They fought for the right to live their lives the way they wished, not just at the leisure of a man. A few of the women who fought for their rights were successful, and serve as inspiration for myself and many other contemporary feminists.
So let’s get started!
1. Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc is pretty darn cool. First of all, she was born in France in 1412, so she basically lived right in the middle of male-dominated Europe. When she was 13, she began hearing voices, which might have had her institutionalized today, but Joan determined that the voices were St. Michael the Archangel, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Catherine of Alexandria. The voices were telling her that it was her mission in life to save France.
Despite being a woman in the 1400s (and quite possibly schizophrenic), Joan managed to convince the Dauphin Charles of France that saints really were speaking to her. She did such a good job that he sent her with an army to Orleans. Joan defeated the English in 1429 and followed her victory with several more against the English. She did not lose until the battle of Paris, which she only lost due to not having significant supplies. Because of Joan’s military operations, the Dauphin became King Charles VII of France.
In 1430, she was captured during battle and sold to an Englishman. She was then put on trial for sorcery and heresy because, you know, a woman can’t successfully lead an army unless she’s in league with the devil, and was convicted by the Inquisition. The Dauphin made no attempt to rescue her, though it’s believed that the English would have accepted a ransom. So, basically, a man decided not to acknowledge how important she was to his reign, so Joan was sentenced to death. In 1431, she was burned at the stake, though a first-hand account indicated that Joan requested a cross be held in front of her eyes, holding steadfastly to her faith even in the face of death.
Joan of Arc’s conviction was overturned in 1456. She was considered Venerable in 1904 and in 1908 was recognized as Blessed. In 1920 she was canonized and now has her own holiday. Though she might be best known for being a religious martyr, I want to say again: Joan of Arc convinced a rich guy to give her an army in the 1400s and proceeded to use that army to win back France from England. A woman in the 1400s is directly responsible for the political geography of France. That’s why Joan of Arc earns a place on this list.
2. Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in the mid-1800s as one of eleven children. She was beaten repeatedly beginning at the age of five for her strong will, even receiving a fractured skull at the age of thirteen for defending another slave from their master. When she was in her teens, she attempted to escape with her brothers, but they were discovered and returned to their masters.
In 1849, Harriet traded a quilt for information on the Underground Railroad and managed to escape from her master and slavery to Philadelphia. For Harriet Tubman, though, freedom alone was not enough. Until the Civil War, Harriet managed to help free over 300 fugitive slaves. Many were brought over the border to Canada. Her efforts caused her to be a highly-wanted fugitive, having as much as $40,000 offered for her. She was never captured.
During the Civil War, Harriet worked as a scout, nurse, and spy. She died in 1913. Today, she is considered the “Moses of her people.” So let’s be clear here: a black woman, living at a time and in a country which devalued and dehumanized both African-Americans and women, managed to not only maintain enough willpower to escape slavery, but had such fortitude that she fought to save hundreds of others. This woman had her freaking skull bashed in because she was strong enough to not give in to her masters and allow people to be hurt. When all the odds were stacked against her, Harriet Tubman fought for her rights, and the rights of all African-Americans, as basic human beings.
3. Mary Wollstonecraft
I’ve got a great love for Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in the 1750s, Mary noticed her father’s abuse of her mother and his favoritism towards her brother and knew it was wrong. She decided at an early age that she would not live a life subservient to her husband and said that she’d never get married. At 19 she was a paid companion, which I’m fairly certain is code for “escort.” Mary also managed to rescue her sister from a miserable marriage and worked as a governess to save money for seven years.
So that all seems fairly normal, and you might be wondering why Mary has earned a spot on this list. Mary wasn’t just a strong woman who believed in equal treatment regardless of gender, she was also an accomplished author. At 28, she’d written her semi-autobiographical novel, Maria, and by 1790 wrote an essay entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which focused on the humanitarian ideal of the French Revolution of 1789. She followed this with A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Mary also worked as an editor and professional writer, specializing in women and children. She was also not shy of romance, despite her convictions and the social ideals of the time. She had a daughter by a man she never married in 1794, and in 1796 began a relationship with novelist William Godwin. They married in 1797, and Mary gave birth to their daughter, Mary Shelley. Sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft died due to labor complications and was never able to finish her novel The Wrongs of Women: or Maria. Her husband wrote Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women after her death in her honor.
So not only was Mary Wollstonecraft a proponent of women’s rights, she was an accomplished author and independent women who had the strength to acknowledge the pitfalls of marriage and also change her mind on it when the right guy came along. There’s no shame in changing your mind when new information is presented, and Mary managed to find a guy in the 18th century who supported her right to be her own entity. In addition, she is credited with, possibly, my favorite quote about women’s rights: “Justice for one-half of the human race!”
4. Madame Curie
Marie Curie is the bomb! That seems like an accidentally inappropriate joke…
Anyway, Marie Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. She studied at Floating University and began her training in the sciences while still in Warsaw before following her sister to study in Paris. Madame Curie became a naturalized French citizen and conducted her primary research in Paris. She created the theory of radioactivity (her own term), discovered two elements, and created techniques for isolating isotopes. The world’s first studies for the treatment of neoplasms were conducted under her direction, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Warsaw and Paris and established the first military field radiological centers during World War I. She named her elements polonium, for her native Poland, and radium.
Madame Curie is the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physics, received in 1903, with her husband, Pierre Curie, and fellow physicist Henri Becquerel. Madame Curie went on to win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She’s the first person, and only woman, to ever have been awarded the prize more than once. She’s also the only person to have won the prize in multiple sciences. The Curie family legacy has earned five Nobel Prizes to date.
Madame Curie was also the first woman professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris on her own merits. She died in 1934 due to aplastic anemia, a condition brought on by exposure to radiation.
5. Emily Dickinson
So, poetry might not be for everyone. I get that. However, I’m a huge fan of poetry. I practically consume the stuff, especially 19th and early 20th century American poetry. So, yeah, the great Emily Dickinson will always make my list of great women.
Here’s one of the reasons I love Emily so much: she was a recluse for most of her life. She didn’t court fame, fortune, or anyone really. She had one true acquaintance, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who published Emily’s poetry after her death. That’s right, Emily never shared her poems in life. She never went out, tried to become published, or worked to achieve fame. She didn’t want fame.
What I respect about Emily Dickinson is that she wrote her poems for herself. She was passionate enough about her poetry that she took the time to perfect each poem, wrote them down in booklets, but never intended for them to be seen by anyone else. She was passionate about her craft for the sake of the craft.
Emily became obsessed with death and grew even more reclusive in the last years of her life. She died of Bright’s disease in 1886, leaving behind over 2,000 poems. Over 2,000 examples of Emily’s love for her craft which now allow her to live on, even though she probably wouldn’t be too happy to know how famous she’s become.