11 Forgotten but Important Moments in Women's History

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

From Sojourner Truth speaking about equality to Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing the Declaration of Sentiments, women have fought for respect and equal rights throughout history. Most textbooks cover pivotal moments in women’s history, such as Marie Curie being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and Susan B. Anthony working to get women the vote. But there are a wealth of lesser-known yet incredibly important moments in women’s history that you might not know about.

1. ADA LOVELACE RECOGNIZES THE POWER OF THE COMPUTER.

Soon after Ada Lovelace was born, her mother and her father—the poet Lord Byron—separated. Determined that their daughter would not grow up to be like Byron, Ada's mother made sure she spent her time studying math, logic, and science. As a teenager, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician who conceptualized the first automatic calculator, which he called a Difference Engine. In the early 1840s, Lovelace helped him translate (from French to English) an article about another idea of his, a digital computer that he dubbed an Analytical Engine. But Lovelace did more than translate. She also added her own extensive notes and wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. While historians still hotly debate how much of this was her work versus Babbage's, it's agreed that she was the one who recognized that what they were working on could be more than a calculator and is credited with the movement from calculation to computation.

2. SEPTIMA CLARK PETITIONS ON BEHALF OF BLACK EDUCATORS.

We’re all familiar with Rosa Parks’s status as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. But historians consider Septima Clark, an educator who helped pave the way for Parks and other Civil Rights activists, to be the movement’s grandmother. Born in Charleston, South Carolina to a former slave and a laundress, Clark earned her teaching credentials. But as an African American, she was not allowed to teach in Charleston’s schools. In 1919, she successfully petitioned to allow black teachers and principals to work in the city's black schools, collecting enough door-to-door signatures from black parents that the ban was overturned the following year. Clark later worked with the NAACP to secure equal pay for black teachers and teach literacy workshops to African Americans, all while battling racism, getting fired, and being arrested on false charges.

3. FIRST LADY EDITH WILSON TAKES CHARGE OF PRESIDENTIAL DUTIES.

Although the U.S. has yet to have a female president, First Lady Edith Wilson essentially ran the country for 17 months after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a severe stroke in 1919. Because Wilson's Vice President didn’t take charge (the 25th Amendment wasn’t passed until the 1960s), FLOTUS stepped up. With her husband partially paralyzed and bedridden (but still lucid), she served as the gatekeeper for all incoming communications and gave orders on his behalf relating to important matters such as the Treaty of Versailles. Although some contemporary critics disparaged Edith, calling her role in the White House a "petticoat government," others praised her solid work for the Executive Branch.

4. SUSANNA SALTER IS ELECTED THE FIRST FEMALE U.S. MAYOR.

By Unknown photographer (Kansas Historical Society), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Susanna "Dora" Salter was a 27-year-old wife and mother living in Argonia, Kansas. To share her belief that alcohol has deleterious effects, she became a prominent member of Argonia’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Before Argonia’s April 1887 city election, a group of men who opposed the movement decided to play a nasty joke on the WCTU. They secretly nominated Salter for mayor, thinking that the notion of a female mayor was so preposterous that it would make a mockery of the WCTU and its message. On Election Day, Salter was shocked to see her name on the ballot, but a group of supporters decided to make the most of the stunt by actually voting for Salter, thereby turning the tables on the men who nominated her. Salter won the election, banned hard cider, and served her one-year term as Argonia’s mayor.

5. FATIMA AL-FIHRI FOUNDS THE WORLD'S OLDEST UNIVERSITY.

Fatima al-Fihri lived with her wealthy family in Fez, Morocco during the 9th century. After her father, brothers, and husband died, she decided to use her inheritance to make a positive impact on her community. In 859 CE, al-Fihri funded the construction of the Al Qarawiyyin mosque and an adjoining madrasa, which became a locus of scholarly and religious activity. Besides personally overseeing the extensive building project, she attended and graduated from the university, which would have Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish students. Today, the University of Al Qarawiyyin is the world's oldest continually operating, degree-granting university, and visitors can see al-Fihri's wooden diploma in the school's library, which was renovated in 2016.

6. WYOMING PASSES THE FIRST WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE LAW IN 1869.

Ratified in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave all female U.S. citizens the right to vote (in theory, if not in practice). But women in the territory of Wyoming had been voting since 1870, when approximately 1000 women there voted in their first election. In 1869, Wyoming’s legislature passed laws giving women the right to vote, sit on juries, and own property, as well as equalizing male and female teachers' pay. The reasons that Wyoming’s legislature, led by William Bright, gave women these rights half a century before the 19th Amendment are complex. Perhaps the territory’s lawmakers wanted to attract more women settlers (men greatly outnumbered women and children) or they were responding to the almost-ratified 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Some historians think Democrats passed the law as a partisan prank, hoping to humiliate the Republican governor. Still others argue that Bright, influenced by his wife Julia, genuinely believed that women were just as capable as men. Regardless of the reasons that the law was passed, Wyoming (which became a state in 1890) is fittingly nicknamed The Equality State.

7. DAISY BATES PROTECTS THE LITTLE ROCK NINE.

With her husband, Lucius, writer Daisy Bates founded The Arkansas State Press in 1941. The weekly newspaper focused on African-American civil rights issues, and the couple published editorials supporting immediate desegregation of Arkansas schools. As a president of the Arkansas NAACP and vocal opponent of segregation, Bates faced threats and abuse from the community, but she didn’t let that stop her. In 1957, after the courts ordered the Little Rock School District to integrate its schools, Bates helped the Little Rock Nine—the nine black students she recruited to enroll at Central High School—enter their new school safely, despite being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. She arranged for ministers to escort and protect the children, helped parents enroll their children in the school, and provided her home as a safe place where parents could bring their children before and meet them after school. After the Little Rock Integration Crisis, Bates moved to Washington, D.C. to fight poverty in President Johnson’s administration, and today Arkansas has a state holiday dedicated to her memory.

8. KATHARINE BLODGETT INVENTS "INVISIBLE" GLASS.

Whenever you look through non-glare glass, you can thank Katharine Blodgett. As the first female engineer at General Electric's Research Laboratory, Blodgett pioneered ways to transfer monomolecular coatings onto glass in the 1930s. Her technique for creating "invisible" glass involved applying a coating that canceled out reflections coming off the glass. Her glass coating was used to improve cameras, cinematography lenses, eyeglasses, and military periscopes. Besides working with glass, Blodgett also made breakthroughs in smoke screen technology and meteorology.

9. EDITH COWAN IS FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO AN AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT.

Born in 1861, Edith Cowan experienced tragedy as a teenager when her father was executed for murdering his second wife. Transforming this experience into good, Cowan devoted her life to fighting for women’s and children’s rights. She helped to found the Karrakatta Club, an Australian women’s group, and she founded the Children’s Protection Society, a group that helped create juvenile courts, so children wouldn’t be treated as legal adults. In 1921, Cowan became the first woman in an Australian Parliament when she won a West Perth Legislative Assembly seat in the Western Australian Parliament. In her elected role, she built on her previous work by supporting legislation that benefited women and children.

10. CATHAY WILLIAMS ENLISTS IN THE U.S. ARMY.

Born to a free father and an enslaved mother, a young Cathay Williams worked on a plantation in Missouri and in a support capacity for the Union Army. In 1866, Williams enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry, becoming the first documented African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army. Because of the military’s requirement that all enlistees be male, Williams posed as a man named William Cathay. Although it’s unclear how she passed the army doctor’s examination, she served for almost two years alongside her male cousin and friend, who kept her gender a secret. Williams, who enlisted to earn income and be independent, was discharged after a doctor treating her discovered she was female. In 1876, she told her story to a journalist, who publicized her account in a Missouri newspaper. Around 1890, shortly before her death, Williams applied for a military disability pension, but her application was denied, despite her nearly two years of service.

11. MARGARET HAMILTON WRITES CODE THAT ALLOWS HUMANS TO LAND ON THE MOON.

Born in Indiana in 1936, Margaret Hamilton studied mathematics and became a programmer, writing software for military and weather-related projects at MIT. But it was her work as the lead software engineer for NASA’s Apollo program that cemented her legacy. She and her team wrote the code and algorithms for the spacecraft’s in-flight software, which included instructions for everything from how to run it to how to detect and troubleshoot problems. Hamilton’s work contributed to Apollo 11's safe moon landing, and she also coined the term software engineering before the field was a respected, discrete discipline. After her work for NASA, Hamilton founded her own tech companies and, in 2016, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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