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 now celebrated during Women's History Month, 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 is 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.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace
Alfred Edward Chalon, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Susanna Salter
Kansas Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 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 the first woman elected to an Australian Parliament.

Black and white portrait of Edith Cowan
National Library of Australia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Margaret Hamilton at NASA
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Jane Austen's Handwritten Letter About a Nightmarish Visit to the Dentist Is Up for Auction

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

For about $100,000, you could own a tangible reminder that Jane Austen hated going to the dentist, too—even when she wasn’t the patient.

After escorting her three nieces to a dentist named Spence in 1813, Austen was so appalled at the dental practices of the time that she described them to her sister Cassandra in a letter, which could now sell for $80,000 to $120,000 at an auction later this week. Smithsonian reports that the value is so high partially because only 161 of an estimated 3000 letters written by the celebrated author still exist; the rest were destroyed by Austen’s family after her death, possibly to avoid personal matters from leaking to the public.

jane austen letter about the dentist
Bonhams

This letter doesn’t contain anything particularly private, but it does provide some intimate insight into Austen—who famously remained unmarried and childless herself—as a doting aunt and sister.

“The poor Girls & their Teeth!” she wrote. “We were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams.”

While Austen doesn’t speculate about whether or not the work on the aforementioned nieces’ teeth was necessary, she definitely had an opinion about Spence’s treatment of her third (and favorite) niece Fanny.

“Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too—& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely … but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fannys [sic].”

If you think a visit to the dentist is uncomfortable in the age of anesthetics and easily accessible milkshakes, you can imagine that getting teeth filed, filled, and pulled in the early 19th century was a full-fledged nightmare. The main fix for a cavity was simply pulling the tooth out, which the Jane Austen Center explains was often done with a pelican or key, both metal instruments that were braced against the gum and then twisted to tear out the tooth.

In addition to the horrifying dental report, Austen also writes about her mother’s improving health, a visit to a family friend, and a department store shopping trip.

Bonhams will include the letter in their annual Americana and Travel auction in New York on Wednesday, October 23.

Curious to know more about the woman behind Pride and Prejudice? Check out eight intriguing facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

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