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10 Incredible Historical (and Modern) Women You Should Know About
Throughout the ages, men have (mostly) written the history books. And there’s certainly no shortage of famous, accomplished men in those pages. Of course, that’s not to say men haven’t done incredible things. But across eras, virtually all the focus has been on just one gender. The fairer sex deserves credit for extraordinary achievements too! If you’re a history buff, you likely know all about women like Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart. But do you know about Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington? What about Gerda Taro? Ever heard of Amelia Edwards?
Today, we’re going to shine a light on the stories of ten incredible women who changed history. Sadly, these women aren’t household names. They aren’t usually focused on in a history curriculum. But when you learn about what they did, you’ll realize they should be!
10 Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington
Edith “Jackie” Ronne had no idea she was going to Antarctica in 1947 until the trip had already begun. Her husband, Commander Finn Ronne, was leading an expedition to the South Pole and brought her along. But Jackie was up for the adventure. Thankfully, she was also up to be the group’s leader! Not long after the trip began, an accident stalled the team. Finn returned to the U.S. to pick up a new plane to help with mapping operations.
While he was gone, he put Jackie in charge. She was ordered to keep the trip on schedule—and she went above and beyond. When Finn rejoined the crew weeks later, his wife was running the show. Finn was so impressed with Jackie’s logistical capabilities that he made things official. He drafted legal documents making her the 23rd member of the historic expedition. And he proved he trusted her, too: Finn declared that if anything happened to him on the trip, she was to be in charge.
By the end of it, Jackie became the first American woman in Antarctica and the first to spend the winter there. She also made history as the first female working member of an expedition to the continent. Her work managing the team of researchers and handling public relations was critical to the trek’s success. But she wasn’t the only woman on the trip!
Jennie Darlington, the wife of the expedition’s senior pilot Harry Darlington III, was also along for the ride. Unlike Jackie, Jennie did not legally have a position in the crew. But like Jackie, Jennie also decided to go at the last minute. It’s a good thing she did. Years later, expedition members recalled how Jennie’s soft touch was critical in smoothing tensions during the passage. As the explorers quarreled on the arduous journey, Jennie was there to calm things down. Her capable demeanor and cool head limited feuds and kept things running smoothly.
9 Carol Kaye
Are you a fan of the Beach Boys? Have you ever heard the theme song from Batman? Well, guess what? An amazing woman was behind those iconic sounds. Carol Kaye was the bassist for a group of studio musicians in the 1960s called The Wrecking Crew. That band isn’t one many casual music fans know. But they were legends in the industry for working in-house at all the major studios. They recorded backing music and vocals on songs for countless world-famous singers and performers.
In total, Carol played bass on more than 10,000 songs during her career. And yes, that included the Batman theme and most of the Beach Boys’ prolific output. But while that alone would have been enough, Kaye didn’t just play the hits. She wrote them too! The world-famous female bassist created the rhythm structure for songs like the theme from Shaft. She also laid claim to the beat on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and many, many more.
As is often the case with musicians of this ability, Carol Kaye was a natural. She began working as a professional musician when she was just 13 years old. While still a teenager, she was already teaching other people how to play guitar and bass. She loved them both, but bass gave her a big break. In 1963, she was asked to step in to play on a Capitol Records session after a studio musician flaked out. Immediately, producers recognized her talent and versatility. From there, the rest was truly history.
Carol was consistent, reliable, and talented. For decades, she sat in as A-list crooners showed up to record. The whole way through, she was sought after by the biggest stars. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson called her “the greatest bass player I’ve ever met.” Still, to this day, she’s a living legend revered in the music industry.
8 Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sri Lanka’s first female prime minister may be one of the most important lesser-known women in history. In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike broke the south Asian country’s glass ceiling when she was elected to lead its people. The year before, she’d endured unimaginable heartbreak. Her husband, who was the prime minister himself at the time, was assassinated. After his death, Bandaranaike took control of the political party he founded. She worked to steady tensions after his murder.
A year later, the people responded by electing her prime minister of Sri Lanka. She left office in 1965 but was later elected to two more terms decades apart. She returned to the government role in 1970 and then again in 1994. Through it all, she was decisive and fiercely loyal to her country.
Bandaranaike’s time running Sri Lanka wasn’t without controversy. She made some forceful decisions while in control in Colombo. Once, she changed university admission policies in the country to favor one ethnic group. She also pulled Sri Lanka back from its global diplomacy. Eschewing international relations, she favored domestic social policies. Still, the people responded strongly to her leadership. Her two further re-elections decades apart attest to that. And recently, her daughter served as prime minister and president.
While Bandaranaike’s political decisions were sometimes divisive, no one can debate her legacy. “After her husband died, there was so much confusion, and the party was almost collapsing,” historian KM De Silva wrote of Bandaranaike. “She was an untried leader. But she not only survived, she sustained the party and the family in politics.”
7 Lady Mary Heath
From the beginning, Lady Mary Heath had a unique life. Tragedy struck in 1897 when she was just a year old. That year, her father murdered her mother. He was found guilty but insane and committed to custody. So the Irish-born Heath was raised by her aunts. They were strong women, and they encouraged her to get an education. After excelling in school, the call of World War I came.
Most women weren’t doing wartime duty on the battlefront, of course. But Heath wasn’t like most women. She worked as an emergency dispatcher for wounded soldiers and drove an ambulance on the front lines. And being near the war exposed her to cutting-edge aerial military tactics. Heath was fascinated by the high-flying airplanes and daring pilots. When the war ended, she knew what she wanted to do: fly.
In those days, there were very few female pilots. Heath predated even Amelia Earhart, who was a pioneer in her own right. But when Heath experienced sexism and chauvinism in early flight lessons, it only made her double down even harder. Not long after she first started learning how to pilot a plane, the Irish firecracker was flying solo. Over the next few years, she started breaking all kinds of records. Notably, she became the first woman to fly solo from South Africa to London. And she proved women can do everything men can do.
At the time, women were barred from holding jobs as commercial pilots. Airline executives were worried about menstruation affecting decision-making. They considered it a “disability.” Knowing that was wrong, Heath went in front of an all-male aviation board and proved her piloting prowess while menstruating. She passed with flying colors—and she opened the door for generations of female pilots to follow her pioneering lead.
6 Lhakpa Sherpa
By this point, thousands of people have climbed Mount Everest. When Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay did it in 1953, it was groundbreaking. Today, Everest is practically a tourist spot for (admittedly hardcore) weekend adventurers. We’re not kidding about that, either: by the end of 2021, more than 6,000 people had reached Everest’s apex! Some have done so dozens of times.
So all the pioneering moments on the mountain have been claimed, right? Wrong! In fact, one woman is dominating nearly everybody else out there. Lhakpa Sherpa lives in the United States with her two children. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her modest apartment, but the Nepalese woman is one of the world’s best mountain climbers. In fact, she’s scaled Everest more than any other woman in history. Like, a LOT more!
Years ago, Lhakpa met her future husband on Everest while both were on an expedition to climb the mountain. They had children, but they did not live happily ever after. The relationship descended into domestic abuse. Wanting something better for her girls, Lhakpa fled. She remained in Connecticut and took a dishwasher job at a local grocery store. For years, she would wash dishes, raise kids, and climb mountains. She climbed eight months after giving birth to her first daughter. A few years later, she did it again while two months pregnant with the second girl.
“Climbing is my way out of washing dishes,” Lhakpa told The Guardian in 2019. “It is the way to make a better life for the girls. I want to show the world I can do it. I want to show all the women who look like me that they can do it, too.” And she continues to live out those values. In 2022, she successfully topped Everest for the tenth time.
5 Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro was 23 years old in 1933 when she was arrested for speaking out against the Nazis. The German woman was quickly released, but she could see what was happening in her home country. So she fled to Paris and hooked up with other refugees trying to stay away from Nazi power. One of those refugees was Hungarian-born Endre Friedmann. He and Gerda quickly fell in love. They also stood fast to their beliefs. And they had the photography skills to showcase them.
In 1936, the couple left Paris to travel to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. There, they worked as photojournalists. Together, they documented the horrors of the war and the dangers of fascism. While Friedman—who was more infamously known as Robert Capa—was a force, Gerda more than held her own. She was truly a pioneer in photojournalism. At the time, she was one of the very first women to ever work on the battlefield as a war correspondent.
On July 25, 1937, she shipped off another series of war photos to newspapers for worldwide distribution. After filing these new shots, she jumped on the running board of a car to hitch a ride away from a conflict. She never made it out. The car crashed into a tank. Gerda was crushed between the two massive chunks of metal. She died the next day. For the rest of his life, Capa regretted that he wasn’t there to say goodbye.
Her memory lives on in her work, though. Taro’s powerful photos and close connection to Capa and his legendary career have made her an immortal icon for journalists. In addition to pioneering in life, she also pioneered in death—as the first female photojournalist to die in combat.
4 Christine de Pisan
Christine de Pisan had a privileged childhood. Her father was Tommaso da Pizzano, a noted royal astronomer who served King Charles V of France. So when Christine was born in 1364, she was afforded more opportunities than most women of her time. The foremost of those was education. Her father made sure she received the same education as his sons.
From a young age, Christine wowed teachers and family members with her brilliance. Even early on, she crafted beautiful, long poems. But at the time, gender roles were rigidly defined. As was typical, when she was just 15, Christine got married. For a while, it seemed like motherhood would be her fate. She gave birth to three children and raised them for years. But in 1389, both her father and husband died. Suddenly, Christine was at a crossroads.
Traditionally, most women in that situation would have remarried. The financial security of having a provider husband was paramount. But Christine refused to give in to the customs of the day. Instead, she leaned on her writing talents. The newly-widowed woman took a job managing a scriptorium. In addition to overseeing all the manuscripts produced in that monastery, she also reignited her poetry dreams. She began writing hundreds of poems. She shipped each one off to influential figures in Europe and prayed one would become her patron. Soon, she found success. Multiple patrons replied, including King Charles VI, Phillip II of Burgundy, and Queen Isabella of Bavaria.
In addition to poems, Christine published some of the world’s first and most outspoken pieces of feminist literature. In the late 1420s, de Pisan also produced the only piece of literature written about Joan of Arc that was published during her lifetime. Christine died in 1430. But even now, six centuries later, she leaves an amazing legacy as the world’s first female professional writer and poet.
3 Amelia Edwards
Much like Christine de Pisan, Amelia Edwards loved to write from a young age. Amelia was born nearly five centuries after Christine in 1831. But few things had changed for women in the publishing world—or any professional setting. Nevertheless, Amelia persisted. When she was just seven, she submitted a poem to a literary journal.
As she grew up, she fell in love with travel writing. She went to rough-and-tumble places all over the world. Legend has it Amelia would dress up and disguise herself as a man. That way, she could gain access to places that were off-limits to women, like gambling dens, brothels, and bathhouses. For years, Edwards’ love for story and clear voice brought her success in the literary realm.
While her early career was defined by work in Paris, Egypt is where Amelia made her name. She went there by accident after an ill-fated trip planned for Italy. But once there, she found her purpose. Edwards became the first woman to travel the length of the Nile River. She wrote an amazing in-depth account of it. She even illustrated it with her own watercolor paintings. Soon, she saw Egypt as the gateway to the past—and the future.
Edwards was an advocate for the preservation of Egyptian artifacts. She founded the still-active Egypt Exploration Society. When she died in 1892, Amelia handed over her entire collection of Egyptian artifacts to the University College London. That gift and other donations helped found their Egyptology department. Her name endows the chair. The booming interest in Egyptology worldwide in the past several decades can be credited to Amelia Edwards’s unwavering persistence and masterful storytelling.
2 Marion A. Frieswyk
While World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific, the United States was frantically putting together an intelligence-gathering service. Today, we know that outfit as the Central Intelligence Agency. Back then, it was called the Office of Strategic Services. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as what we know now, either.
The organization had about 13,000 employees during the war. About a third of them were women. Many worked as spies, forgers, and translators. There were some notable women in the small group. Famed cooking queen Julia Child helped develop a shark repellent for the OSS during the war! But even the culinary superstar couldn’t compare to the organization’s first female intelligence cartographer.
Her name was Marion A. Frieswyk, and she had a preternatural gift for making maps. She had been planning to be a schoolteacher in New York when the war broke out. Marion knew she had “a knack for numbers,” as she later put it. And she felt the pull to help her country while men were off fighting. So she joined the OSS. As part of her duties, Frieswyk developed 3D topographic maps of European sites based on spy and scout information. This was decades before Google Earth, of course. So Marion was working blind!
Having been given remarkably small bits of information, she had to map out terrain patterns as best she could. But she was really good at her job. She created a topographic map of Sicily that ended up being a dead-on match for the island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff used it to plan an invasion. American troops on the ground found it reliable, and their surge succeeded. She may not have been on the battlefield, but her work was critical to winning World War II. Having found her calling in life, Frieswyk stayed on with the CIA after the war ended.
1 Jeanne Baret
Jeanne Baret was well on her way to fulfilling her botany dreams when she turned 26 years old in 1766. She had been studying under world-famous naturalist Philibert Commerson. So when he was hired for an expedition to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, he wanted to bring people he trusted. Baret was at the top of that list. There was just one problem: she was a woman. At the time, ships flying the French flag were not allowed to have women working on board. So Commerson and Baret found a way around the law. They dressed her as a man, called her “Jean,” and passed inspection undetected.
After a long journey at sea, the ship reached what is now known as Bougainville, part of present-day Papua New Guinea. The ship’s captain, Louis Antoine de Bougainville—for whom that island is now named—docked in the bay at Buka and let the botanists go to shore. Commerson had been sick for much of the voyage, so he handed the reins to Baret. Immediately, Baret took charge on the island and led a fruitful scientific expedition.
But later in the trip, something terrible happened. Bougainville’s men somehow discovered Baret was a woman. As it’s told today, the ship was reportedly on its way home when it docked in Tahiti. There, natives supposedly discovered Baret’s secret and relayed it to Bougainville. Journals from contemporary crew members claim the discovery happened earlier when the group was still in Papua New Guinea. Regardless, Bougainville’s men were horrified at the secret. They assaulted Baret and Commerson.
When the ship once again docked at Mauritius, the botanists were stranded there. Soon after, Commerson died on the island. Baret enjoyed a better fate, eventually marrying a French soldier and returning to her homeland. But while her journey was a difficult and tragic one, her work remains impactful. Today, the botanist is credited with collecting and documenting more than 6,000 species of plants. Bougainville’s remote location and unique climate made those rare finds critical. For centuries, biologists have built off Baret’s pioneering plant work.