Inspiring women from history
- Alex Johnston
- 6 March 2015
Celebrating International Women's Day with a diverse selection of historical role models
When you've got all of history to choose inspiring female role models from, the question is really who to leave out. In the end, these eight women were chosen for their combination of guts, inspiration and determination.
Artemisia I of Caria (fl. 480 BC)
Artemisia was the queen of a Greek city-state, whose bravery and honesty impressed even her enemies. When the Persians invaded Greece, she fought on the Persian side. When Persian king Xerxes asked her if he should risk a naval battle with Greece, she told him not to, because the Greeks would win. He fought it anyway, at Salamis, and the Greeks won, just as she'd predicted. Artemisia was determined to get her fleet out safely, but her way was blocked by friendly ships. She rammed one of them, sank it and broke through the gap, preserving her forces and sealing forever her reputation as a deeply pragmatic badass.
Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
Isabella Baumfree was born a slave in rural New York. She escaped from slavery with her infant daughter. In 1843 she renamed herself Sojourner Truth, just because, and in a famous impromptu speech she linked the cause of abolition to that of women's suffrage. She spent the rest of her long life preaching for abolition and women's rights, befriending Susan B Anthony, among others; she remains a feminist heroine.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)
Born Ada Byron, daughter to none other than the poet Lord Byron. At 17 it was obvious that she was brilliant at math, but when she translated a monograph on the Analytical Engine of inventor Charles Babbage, she specified a method for the engine to calculate a particular sequence of numbers. As a result, she's usually credited as being the first ever computer programmer. She's also the heroine of a glorious (if fictional) webcomic.
Nellie Bly (1864–1922)
There's awesome, there's crazy awesome, and then there's Nellie Bly. As a 23-year-old journalist on her first story, she pretended to be mad so that she'd be put in an insane asylum. Her account of the place so shocked America that it provoked a grand jury investigation. A couple of years later, inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, she travelled around the world by herself in just seventy-two. She later became a successful industrialist and inventor.
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
Curie didn't so much discover radioactivity as figure out that it was radioactivity; in collaboration with husband Pierre, she gave the first theory of it, and as a result she was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (Physics). Pierre died in 1906 but Marie went on to be the first person ever to win a second Nobel Prize (Chemistry, this time.) She also designed mobile X-ray units for use in WW I.
Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and Marcel Moore (1892–1972)
Born as Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, these French stepsisters became lovers and artistic collaborators, providing an intriguing LGBT perspective on the usually macho Surrealist movement. Cahun was a gifted writer and Moore a designer, and they took remarkable photographs of each other (especially of Cahun). During WW II they risked their lives by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. Their work wasn't rediscovered and celebrated until the 90s.
Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000)
A German-born Hollywood star who was marketed by MGM as 'the world's most beautiful woman', Lamarr also happened to be a talented inventor and a huge geek. One night at a party, she expounded to a stranger her idea for a way to protect radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed. The stranger was composer George Antheil, he helped her develop it, and together they filed a patent. Their invention eventually contributed to Bluetooth and mobile technology, and towards the end of Lamarr's life, she was delighted when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured her for her contribution to computer communications.