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.

12 Facts About Shirley Chisholm, The First African-American to Run For President

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Being the first black woman to serve on Congress would be a significant enough accomplishment for a lifetime, but it wasn’t good enough for Shirley Chisholm. Three years after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Chisholm became the first woman to run for president for the Democratic party. When announcing her intention to seek the nomination on January 25, 1972, Chisholm stated, “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”

Though her campaign was controversial at times, it wasn’t the downfall of her long and noteworthy career. And she's still making headlines. In late 2018, Oscar-winner Viola Davis announced that she would be producing and starring in The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, a biopic chronicling Chisholm's amazing life. On January 21, 2019—nearly 50 years after Chisholm announced her presidential run—California senator Kamala Harris announced her own 2020 presidential run and unveiled her campaign logo, which pays tribute to Chisholm.

Here are a few things to know about this bold educator-turned-politician.

1. She had international roots.

On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill. Her mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados; her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana.

2. She was born in Brooklyn, but had a slight English accent.

In 1928, Chisholm and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados, while her parents stayed in New York and worked through the Great Depression. Chisholm attended a one-room schoolhouse on this island in the West Indies. In addition to receiving a British education, she picked up an accent, which remained slight but noticeable throughout her life.

3. Education had a significant impact on her life.


Library of Congress

Chisholm returned to the U.S. in March 1934 at age 9 and resumed with a public-school education. Following high school, she studied sociology at Brooklyn College and earned her BA in 1946. (She was a prize-winning debater in college, a skill that would serve her well throughout her political career.) She continued her education at Columbia University and earned an MA in early childhood education in 1952. While she was still a student at Columbia, she began teaching at a nursery school and married Conrad Chisholm in 1949. They would later divorce in 1977.

4. Her first career was as an educator.

After working at the nursery school, Chisholm worked her way through the teaching ranks and by 1953 was the director of two day care centers, a position she held until 1959. Her expertise and experience led to her role as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care from 1959 through 1964.

5. Her political career was revolutionary from the beginning.

Chisholm was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League before she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. When she won, Chisholm became the second African-American woman to serve on the state legislature. From 1965 to 1968, Chisholm served as a Democratic member and focused on unemployment benefits for domestic workers and education initiatives.

6. Redistricting inspired her run for Congress.

Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L) between 1960 and 1970.
Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L)
Library of Congress

Chisholm set her sights on Congress when redistricting efforts gave Brooklyn a new congressional district. Not one to shy away from the public, Chisholm used to drive through neighborhoods while announcing, “This is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” She defeated three candidates in the primary election, including a state senator, before defeating well-known civil rights activist James Farmer in the general election. This victory made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and she would go on to serve seven terms.

7. She had a way with words and established herself as outspoken and ready for change early in her first term.

She was known for her bold declarations. After her upset victory in the congressional election, she boasted, "Just wait, there may be some fireworks." And she delivered on that promise. Given her campaign slogan “Unbought and unbossed,” it should come as no surprise that Chisholm quickly made her presence known in Congress. She spoke out against the Vietnam War within the first few months of her arrival and said she would vote against military spending. When she was initially relegated to the House Agricultural Committee, she requested a new assignment, claiming that she didn’t think she could best serve her Brooklyn constituents from that position.

After directly addressing House Speaker John McCormack on the matter, she was reassigned to Veterans’ Affairs, and then moved to the Education and Labor Committee in 1971. True to her desire to bring about change, Chisholm hired all women for her office, half of whom were African-American. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus.

8. Her presidential campaign was unexpected and historic.

Chisholm formally announced her intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in January 1972, making her the first African-American to run for a major party and the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination. During her speech, which she delivered in her hometown of Brooklyn, Chisholm said, "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that...I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Although her campaign wasn’t as well-funded as her competitors’, Chisholm did get her name on the primary ballot in 12 states and won 28 delegates in primary elections. She received about 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth place for the party.

9. The campaign trail was full of challenges.

Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Polly Shulman

Chisholm likely expected challenges during her campaign, and she certainly encountered a fair amount. She received multiple threats against her life, including assassination attempts, and was granted Secret Service protection to ensure her safety. Chisholm also had to sue to be included in televised debates.

There was even controversy where there could have been encouragement. Her decision to run for the Democratic nomination caught many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) off-guard, and they weren’t happy that she acted before a formal and unified decision could be made. But Chisholm was done with waiting; when the subject of the CBC came up on the night she announced her campaign, she told the crowd, “While they’re rapping and snapping, I’m mapping.”

10. She had an unlikely supporter in George Wallace.

Chisholm was well aware that her biggest source of support came from women and minorities and often advocated on their behalf, so it shocked many of her supporters and constituents when she visited political rival George Wallace after an assassination attempt sent him to the hospital—and ultimately left him paralyzed—in 1972. Wallace, who was governor of Alabama, was known for his racist comments and segregationist views, but Chisholm checked on him. She said she never wanted what happened to him to happen to anybody else.

Ultimately, their friendship benefited the public when Wallace came through for Chisholm on an important piece of legislation in 1974. She was working on a bill that would give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage. Wallace convinced enough of his fellow Southern congressmen to vote in favor of the bill, moving it through the House.

11. Following retirement, Chisholm didn’t slow down.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, but leaving the political arena didn’t mean she was done making a difference. Although she planned on spending more time with her second husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr., she also returned to teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and continued to speak at colleges across the country.

Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005 at age 80 in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is buried in Buffalo, New York, and the inscription on the mausoleum vault in which she is buried reads “Unbought and Unbossed.”

12. She continues to garner accolades for her trailblazing work.

Chisholm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service debuted the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. A year later, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now Viola Davis will star in a movie about her life. But Chisholm never doubted what legacy she wanted to leave behind, once saying, “I want history to remember me ... not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2017.

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