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11 Badass Women Your History Teacher Forgot To Tell You About

Caitlin Plummer |
March 6, 2015 | 2:19 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Historically, women have a lot to be proud of — but they don’t always get the praise they deserve in the textbooks. In honor of Women’s History Month, we take a look at the most innovative, brave and generally awesome women who aren’t as famous as they should be.

(Miguel Cabrera/Wikimedia Commons)
(Miguel Cabrera/Wikimedia Commons)

1. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz joined a nunnery in Mexico City at age 16 so she could dedicate her life to studying. She spent most of her time in the convent reading and writing plays and poetry, frequently featuring daring and intelligent women.

She soon garnered disapproval from the Catholic Church for dedicating her time to secular instead of religious studies, and responded by defending women’s education, writing, “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”

Juana Inés de la Cruz died in Mexico City in 1695, but her work reemerged in the late 1900s with the rise of feminism. She is now represented on Mexican currency, attributed with being the first published feminist in the Americas.

(Alexander Kucharsky/Wikimedia Commons)
(Alexander Kucharsky/Wikimedia Commons)
2. Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793)

Olympe de Gouges, born Marie Gouze, was a French writer and social reformer who fought for women’s right on issues like divorce and unmarried motherhood.

In 1791, during the French Revolution, de Gouges published the pamphlet “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen” in response to the corresponding male pamphlet adopted by the National Assembly in 1789. The Declaration stated that women should have equal rights with men, and also the ability to reveal the fathers of their children, allowing the children to be considered “legitimate” in terms of inheritance.

She was executed by guillotine in 1793 for her opinions. A report of her death included the statement, “It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.”

(H. J. Myers/Wikimedia Commons)
(H. J. Myers/Wikimedia Commons)
3. Nellie Bly (1864–1922)

Nellie Bly was an American journalist known who rose to prominence in 1887 after entering Blackwell’s Island Asylum as an undercover journalist to expose the treatment of the mentally ill.

The Pittsburgh Dispatch hired her in 1885 after she submitted a response to a published editorial asserting that women were better served in domestic sphere. However, when the Dispatchmoved her to the women’s page, she left to write for the New York World.

Many of her articles over the years focused on the plights of women, from the insane asylum to the working conditions in a sweatshop. In 1889, Nellie Bly embarked on a journey around the world to discover if she could break the record of Phileas Fogg from the 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She finished her trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, setting the world record.

(Underwood & Underwood/Wikimedia)
(Underwood & Underwood/Wikimedia)
4. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966)

Margaret Sanger is the founder of the American Birth Control League, the organization now known as Planned Parenthood. She dedicated her entire life to women’s rights to birth control because her mother carried 18 pregnancies, 11 of which resulted in children, which took a fatal toll on her body and her health.

Margaret began educating women about sex in 1912 with a newspaper column titled “What Every Girl Should Know,” and opened up the America’s first birth control clinic four years later when contraceptives were still illegal under the 1873 Comstock Act. Then, when a judge repealed the federal ban on contraceptives in 1938, Sanger began her pursuit for an oral contraceptive, which led to the development of the first FDA-approved birth control pill in 1960.

Finally, in 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a right to birth control, meaning the Comstock Act that Sanger had begun fighting in the early 1900s was finally overturned. Sanger died one year later, but numerous health clinics across the nation carry her name and her legacy.

(James S. Davis/Wikimedia)
(James S. Davis/Wikimedia)
5. Grace Murray Hopper (1906–1992)

Grace Murray Hopper completed three degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University, before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 during World War II. She finished training as a lieutenant, and was assigned to Harvard’s Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project, becoming the third person to program the Harvard Mark I computer.

In 1946, she finished her naval duties and went on to work on UNIVAC, the first commercial computer, with the company Remington Rand. She later became Director of Automatic Programming, leading the team that created the first manageable computer software for business.

President George H. W. Bush awarded Hopper with the National Medal of Technology in 1991. She died a year later having earned honorary degrees from 30 universities.

(Fred Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons)
(Fred Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons)
6. Betty Friedan (1921–2006)

Betty Friedan is most well known for writing the hugely influential book “The Feminine Mystique,” but she also co-founded the National Organization for Women and played a key role in overturning outdated laws limiting women.

Friedan graduated from Smith College in 1942 and trained as a psychologist before becoming a suburban housewife in New York. During her college 15-year reunion, Friedan noticed that most of her classmates were also dissatisfied housewives, a discovery that inspired years of research and interviews on the transition from the career-minded women of the 1920s to the postwar housewives that dominated the 1950s.

This research was published in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which went on to spark the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Three years later, she co-founded and served as president of the National Organization for Women, which worked to change gender-segregated hiring practices, unequal pay, and the practice of firing pregnant women over granting maternity leave.

She died in 2006 after publishing several more books and teaching at New York University and the University of Southern California.

(Jerry Mitchell/Twitter)
(Jerry Mitchell/Twitter)
7. Autherine Lucy (1929 — )

Autherine Lucy was the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama by herself in 1956 after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling forced the university to allow desegregation.

Her family began to receive threatening phone calls, and on the third day of her attendance, a mob of angry people gathered to greet her entrance on campus. She eventually was banned from the university on the grounds that it was too unsafe for her.

Thurgood Marshall and Arthur Shores, the attorneys who had petitioned for her entrance from the beginning, submitted a complaint asserting that the university board had conspired with the aggressors. The board used that as a premise to permanently expel Lucy because she had used “false and baseless accusations.”

Lucy continued to work in civil rights, and her expulsion was finally lifted in 1988, when she received her Masters in education along with a scholarship awarded to future students in her name.

(NASA History Office/Twitter)
(NASA History Office/Twitter)
8. Valentina Tereshkova (1937 — )

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to fly into space in 1963 with the Soviet Union. She orbited the Earth 48 times over the course of nearly three days as chief pilot of the Vostok VI.

After her father died as a Red Army soldier during World War II, Valentina and her two siblings were raised solely by her mother. In helping her mother support her family, Valentina did not start school until age 10, and graduated through correspondence courses at the Light Industry Technical School while working at a textile mill. She volunteered for the Soviet space program and reached the position of cosmonaut in 1961.

After her flight, she published an article titled “Women in Space” in the American journal Impact of Science on Society, writing, “…I strongly feel that no work done by a woman in the field of science or culture or whatever, however vigourous or demanding, can enter into conflict with her ancient ‘wonderful mission’ — to love, to be loved — and with her craving for the bliss of motherhood. On the contrary, these two aspects of her life can complement each other perfectly.”

9. Wangari Maathai (1940–2011)

Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for work as a human rights and environmental activist in Africa.

Growing up in British Kenya, Maathai’s family made the unorthodox decision to send her to school at eight years old. She then went on to university and became the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree, graduating with a Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

Six years later, she started the Green Belt Movement, which allowed her to work on reforesting Kenya while helping local women. This program went on to plant 30 million trees while giving 30,000 women the skills and opportunities necessary to provide for themselves.

Maathai became a political activist and joined the country’s parliament in 2002. Two years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai published her memoir Unbowed. She died in 2011 from ovarian cancer.

(Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons)
(Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons)
10. Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 — )

Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work overthrowing the violent military government of Burma to achieve democracy and human rights.

Suu Kyi’s father, the prime minister of British Burma, was assassinated in 1947, leaving her mother to raise her. She attended college in Britain at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1969, and did not return to Burma until 1988 to care for her ailing mother.

When she returned, she witnessed the mass killings of protestors of dictator U Ne Win’s government and began to speak out against the leader. Within a year of her return, the military government put her on house arrest for her efforts and cut off all contact with the outside world.

Suu Kyi refused the leave the country at the government’s request and remained imprisoned. She was released in 1995, but after founding a committee she declared the country’s “legitimate” government, she was placed under house arrest once more in 2000. This time released only two years later, Suu Kyi reentered protests with the National League of Democracy and was arrested again in 2003.

In 2007, Suu Kyi became the first person to receive the Congressional Gold Medal while imprisoned when the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to give her the award. She was finally released in November 2010.

(PersianDutchNetwork/Wikimedia Commons)
(PersianDutchNetwork/Wikimedia Commons)
11. Shirin Ebadi (1947 — )

Shirin Ebadi became the first female judge in Iran in 1975 before establishing herself as a human rights activist twenty years later.

Ebadi was born in a practicing Muslim family and entered school at a young age in Tehran. She completed her law degree Tehran University’s Faculty of Law and went on to earn her doctorate in private law at Tehran University.

She was appointed as the president of one of the benches in Tehran’s City Court in 1975, but only served on the bench for four years before new laws from a conservative religious leader forced her to resign. Ebadi was unable to obtain a lawyer’s license for thirteen years, so she began to teach human rights courses at Tehran University. When she returned to law as an attorney, her focus turned to human rights, founding the Association for Support of Children’s Rights in 1995 and the Human Rights Defense Center in 2001.

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work for democracy and human rights.

Reach Staff Reporter Caitlin Plummer here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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