Thought of as hidden figures, it’s time to uncover some of the great women who changed the world.
Open any history book and you’ll discover that most of the tales they tell are centered around various men and their accomplishments. And while some women do make headlines, their achievements celebrated, many more remain unnoticed, unrecognized, essentially hidden. In part one of this series, we revealed seven women history dared to overlook. In this article, we plan on revealing five more. And so, without further ado, here are five exceptional women who changed the world without you knowing.
Enheduanna (c. 2300 BC)
As we’re examining women in history, it’s only fitting that the first exceptional lady on the list takes us on a trip to one of the oldest human civilizations, ancient Sumer. Born to King Sargon the Great, Enheduanna was appointed high priestess in the city of Ur (modern-day Iraq). As her father’s empire grew, uniting northern and southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria), she was tasked with bringing people of various cultures together.
Now, if that isn’t impressive, Enheduanna’s also history’s first recorded author. She wrote a collection of 42 hymns and three epic poems, using the written word to express emotions and personal thoughts as opposed to how it was used then, simply writing for the sake of record keeping and transcription. Definitely a prime example of the term ‘triple threat’. Princess, priestess, and writer, Enheduanna’s words still greatly impact today, influencing not only literature but also modern astronomy.
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
Now for the art lovers, Edmonia Lewis is someone you might want to sit down and read about. While not really mentioned in art history books, Lewis played a significant role in shaping modern art. What else could be expected by the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition? But the journey was far from easy.
After facing racism and discrimination during her time at Oberlin College, even being accused of poisoning two fellow classmates (she was proven innocent), Lewis decided to move to Boston and follow her dream of becoming an artist, a passion she believes to have inherited from her mother. After working and selling pieces, she was able to finance a trip to Rome, where she stayed and gained recognition.
Although many of her sculptures haven’t survived to this day, Lewis was known for representing her dual African American and Native American ancestry in her art.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Pioneering journalist Nellie Bly not only raised awareness about mental health and treatment, but her work also altered how investigative journalism was conducted. But to tell her story, we must go back to the beginning. After moving around the United States to find a place to settle down, Bly landed in Pittsburgh. It was there, in her search for work to help support her family, that she came across an article criticizing the presence of women in the workforce. Deciding to write an open letter protesting this view and calling for more work opportunities for women, Bly’s piece caught the eye of a newspaper editor, and found herself working as a reporter.
However, after being confined to women’s issues only, she decided to move to New York in hopes of writing on matters that affect both men and women. And in her search for a new job, she found herself challenged by editor Joseph Pulitzer to investigate Blackwell’s Island, one of New York’s most notorious mental asylums. And so, Bly decided to go undercover, committing herself to the asylum for a full 10 days, resulting in some horrific discoveries. It was only after publishing her exposé Ten Days in the Madhouse did she become recognized. She later went on to travel the world, documented her journey, and reported World War I from Europe, always shedding light on major issues that impacted women.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Next comes another remarkable woman who made history by becoming the first self-made female African-American millionaire. Born to formerly enslaved parents and orphaned at seven, Walker didn’t have an easy childhood. Yet, that didn’t stop her from taking on the beauty industry and completely transforming it. After developing a scalp condition that led to hair loss during the late 1890s, Walker began her journey in the cosmetics business, leaving behind her washerwoman days to create and perfect her own homemade haircare products.
Although there were other hair products targeted at African-Americans, they were usually created by white businesses. Walker set herself apart by emphasizing the importance of the customers’ health, personally selling directly to women to win their loyalty. Soon as her business expanded, Walker made sure to use her fortunes to not only inspire but actually help others. She opened a beauty school and factory. Furthermore, the Madame C.J. Walker Company offered job opportunities to many, frequently encouraging other women to join the organization’s sales force.
If you’re interested in this entrepreneur’s story, then you might be happy to find out that Netflix’s mini-series Self Made revolves around her life and the founding of her business, with none other than actress Octavia Spencer playing Madam Walker herself!
Fe del Mundo (1911-2011)
While women and their discoveries have significantly impacted various medical fields, Fe de Mundo should very well be an established name in pediatrics. After being born into a family with seven other siblings and witnessing several die during their childhood or infancy, del Mundo decided that she was going to become a doctor and help make a difference. Spoiler alert she certainly did!
If you thought entering the University of the Philippines at the age of 15 and earning a medical degree with the highest honors was impressive, you’re in for a ride as that was only one of the first of her many achievements. As she continued her education, obtaining a master’s degree and completing a two-year fellowship at Harvard, del Mundo grew skillful in the field, persistent in using her knowledge to help those in need. Her research ultimately led to the invention of an improved incubator and a device to treat jaundice.
Moreover, she sold her house to build the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines. After it was established, she continued to make her daily rounds even when she was in a wheelchair during her last years.
Photo: Mary Long/Shutterstock
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