16 Amazing Women Who Made History — That You've Never Heard Of

Update: In honor of Women's Equality Day, we're sharing this slideshow on 16 history-making women you've probably never heard of. Ahead, a look at the barriers they broke in supporting rights for all women.

This story was originally published on March 8, 2016.

It’s a pretty great time to be a woman. A lot remains to be done to support women’s rights around the world, but more women now have access to education, economic opportunities, and leadership roles than ever before.

This progress is thanks to many generations of brave and brilliant women who shaped the course of history. So why don't the names of these history-making women roll off of our tongues as easily as those of history-making men? In school, we rightfully learn to celebrate Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., but we rarely hear about the work of women like Grace Hopper or Cecilia Payne.

Women like Hopper, Payne and many others had to push back against the social norms of their day, breaking down the barriers of what society thought women could do. They were often excluded and marginalized along the way. Some of them were even demonized for making choices that would have been seen as commonplace for men. In the face of these huge challenges, they still managed to make groundbreaking discoveries, advocate for human rights and change the world. To be clear, none of these women were perfect, and many of them had notable flaws, but there is still plenty to celebrate in their remarkable lives.

We owe it to these hardworking women to start repairing these gaps in our history and raising our voices about their amazing accomplishments. To celebrate International Women's Day, Refinery29 has compiled a list of the under-recognized women you absolutely should know about.

Women accounted for only 13% of the directors on the 700 top grossing films in 2014 — and only 7% of the top 250 films. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.

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Photo: Louis S. Glanzman/National Geographic/Getty Images.
Sybil Ludington: Female Paul Revere

Paul Revere is one of America’s most beloved folk heroes. Songs, poems, and even beer bottles commemorate his midnight ride, but few people know that a 16-year-old girl performed a similarly heroic feat.

In 1777, Sybil Ludington rode nearly 40 miles—more than twice Revere’s distance—to warn her father’s militiamen that the British were coming. Late one the evening, a messenger warned the Ludingtons that the British were looting Danbury, Connecticut. Young Sybil volunteered to rouse the scattered militia, and rode from 9 p.m. until dawn on a man’s saddle with nothing but a stick to ward off bandits—just think of that next time your quads are burning at SoulCycle.

While the militia was too late to save Danbury, they eventually drove the British back to their ships. Locals and General George Washington thanked Sybil for her role, but it wasn’t until 1935 that a statue was erected in her honor in Carmel, New York.
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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG/ Getty Images.
Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, one of England’s most famous poets. Her parents separated shortly after Ada’s birth, and Byron left England. He died in Greece a few years later. Although she never knew her father, Byron's legacy greatly influenced Ada’s upbringing. Her mother was paranoid that she would inherit her poet father's erratic temperament, and made sure that she was tutored in mathematics and science.

When Ada was 17, her mentor Charles Babbage showed her the prototype for his ‘Difference Engine,’ the world’s first computer. In 1842, Babbage asked Lovelace to help translate an article about the plans for his newest machine, the ‘Analytical Engine.’ She appended a lengthy set of notes to her translation, in which she wrote an algorithm that the engine could use to compute Bernoulli numbers.

While the extent of her original contribution is disputed, her code is now considered the world’s first computer program. Lovelace theorized that the machine might eventually do far more than calculating numbers. Babbage’s engine was never built and her code was never tested, but many of her insights about the future of computing proved to be true.
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Photo: ITV/ REX/ Shutterstock.
Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Woman

Polio. Cancer. Cloning. Scientists researching these and many other areas have one thing in common: the human cells they use in their tests all come from a young African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a 30-year-old farmer and mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. While she was being treated at John's Hopkins, a sample of cancerous cells was taken form her cervix without her consent. A researcher soon discovered something remarkable about them: they wouldn’t die.

It’s incredibly difficult to grow human cells in a lab. Most die quickly or multiply only a few times once removed from the body. For reasons unknown, Lacks’ cells could be multiplied perpetually. Although Lacks passed away in 1951, her ‘immortal’ line of cells (known as HeLa) became integral to some of the most important medical research of our time, including the development of vaccines, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. Lacks’ children and grandchildren were not made aware of HeLa until the 1970s; raising important ethical questions about genetic research.

In 2013, the National Institute of Health signed an agreement to protect the family’s privacy and acknowledge them in future publications. 62 years after her death, the scientific community finally recognized Lacks’ invaluable contribution to biomedical research.
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Photo: Courtesy of MetroActive.com.
Lois Jenson: Seeking Justice for Sexual Harassment
Born 1948

Lois Jenson came from a family of miners in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In 1975, she and three other women became the first female employees of Eveleth Mines, deep in one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world.

The hostility was immediately palpable. The women were groped, threatened, stalked, and called ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches.’ They would sometimes find semen on the clothes left in their lockers. "You fucking women don’t belong here," they were told. Outnumbered 600 to four, they had little recourse and needed the income and benefits that the mine offered. After 9 years of this treatment, Jenson filed a complaint with the state, never imagining it would turn into a 14-year legal battle.

In 1991, on behalf of all the mine’s female employees, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the country. Seven years later, the company settled with the women for millions. Jenson struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress and regretted not seeing the case through to trial. Nevertheless, it led to widespread changes: mining companies implemented sexual harassment policies, and Jenson herself became an inspiration and source of support for working women all over the country.
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Photo: Interim Archives/ Getty Images.
Amelia Bloomer: Activist and Trendsetter

Amelia Bloomer was a 19th-century woman’s right’s activist responsible for transforming the way American women dressed. Born in upstate New York, Amelia was working as a governess when she met her future husband, Dexter Bloomer. After they married, she began writing for his newspaper. Dissatisfied with the lack of dedicated material for women, she established The Lily, one of the first newspapers written, edited, and published by women.

The Lily supported women’s suffrage and the temperance movement; according to Bloomer, the consumption of alcohol was a women’s issue because: "Intemperance is the great foe to her peace and happiness." Though this attitude may be hard to process today, Bloomer lived at a time when temperance was touted as the solution to many social ills, from poverty to spousal abuse.

Bloomer also advocated for women’s clothing reform, and said that women should abandon corsets and petticoats for looser tops and shorter skirts with pants underneath. While she didn’t invent the undergarments, she popularized them and they came to be known as "bloomers." Throughout her life, she worked tirelessly to support women’s right to vote. And it paid off: her activism helped secure Ohio women the right to vote in 1873.
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Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dorothy Lawrence: The Woman in the Trenches

In the summer of 1915, the valley of the Somme was the last place anyone wanted to be. The Western Front cut through it, with German and Allied armies entrenched only a few dozen yards apart.

A brave 19-year-old English girl named Dorothy Lawrence headed straight for it. Lawrence longed to be a war correspondent and convinced a pair of British soldiers to smuggle her a uniform, piece by piece. She flattened her chest with a corset, lopped off her hair, and darkened her complexion with shoe-polish; a razor raked over her cheeks simulated a shaving rash. A British Royal Engineer named Tom Dunn helped her find a job installing mines.

Lawrence stayed undercover in the trenches for almost two weeks, but the physical and mental stress wreaked havoc on her health. She revealed herself to her superiors, who arrested her and accused her of being a spy or a prostitute. Her story was one of tremendous bravery but Lawrence was forbidden from writing about it. Her 1919 memoir was highly censored by the government and sold poorly. Penniless and alone, Lawrence was committed to an asylum and spent the rest of her life in care.
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Photo: British Library/Robana/REX/Shutterstock.
Wu Zetian: China’s Only Female Ruler
624 CE–705 CE

Wu Zetian was the only woman ever to rule China in her own right. Rising to power at the height of the glorious Tang Dynasty, she improved agricultural production, lowered taxes, reduced the size of the army, challenged Confucian prejudices against women, and kept a tumultuous country at peace.

Nevertheless, imperial chroniclers portray her as a monstrous, bloodthirsty nymphomaniac. At 14, she became a concubine to the aging Emperor Taizong. After his death, she was expected to wither away in a Buddhist monastery, but Wu maneuvered her way back into the palace as consort of the new emperor, Gaozong. The liaison was taboo (he was her stepson) but this did not stop her from superseding her rivals.

As legend has it, a week after giving birth to a daughter, Wu smothered the child, accused the Empress Wang of infanticide, and had her imprisoned, mutilated, and drowned in a vat of wine. After her husband died, Wu usurped the throne from her own four sons.

According to contemporaries, she was responsible for the deaths of her sister, brothers, cousins, and mother. Although it would certainly have taken pragmatism and ruthlessness for a woman to rise her position in medieval China, it’s hard to say how much of Wu’s bloody legacy was fabricated by her critics. A modern biographer argues, "Without Wu, there would have been no long-enduring Tang dynasty and perhaps no lasting unity of China." Ultimately, she was a remarkable figure who continues to capture the imagination of critics and advocates alike.
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Photo: Archive Photos/ Getty Images.
Mary Frith: The Roaring Girl
c. 1584–1659

In a popular 17th century play, a feisty character named Moll Cutpurse teaches a lustful suitor a valuable lesson about consent: "Thou art one of those that thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore if she but cast a liberal eye upon thee," are among her famous lines.

Playwrights Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton based this character on a real-life contemporary of theirs named Mary Frith, who was notorious in London for swearing, pipe-smoking and dressing as a man. It didn’t take much to break the rules as a woman in early modern London. Even speaking too loudly was often enough to get a girl labeled a "whore"—a slur that could be ruinous and difficult to shake. Women were banned from being actors, and laws of apparel governed exactly what they could wear.

When Mary Frith unapologetically took to the streets of London in men’s breeches or climbed on the stage of the Fortune Theater with her lute, she became a symbol of defiance. The details of Frith’s life have become inextricably tangled with the myths of Moll Cutpurse, but records show that she was repeatedly punished for her outlandish behavior. On one occasion when she was forced to publicly repent for her crimes, a witness said that though she "wept bitterly and seemed very penitent," it was later discovered that she had downed some wine before her performance. #SorryNotSorry.
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Photo: Popperfoto/ Getty Images.
Nellie Bly: Journalist and Globetrotter

When 21-year-old Elizabeth Cochran wrote a scathing reply to a chauvinistic op-ed in a Pittsburgh newspaper, she never expected to become a journalist. The paper’s editor, however, noticed her talent and offered her a job and the pen name ‘Nellie Bly.’ Bly wrote eloquently about labor laws, women’s rights, and political corruption in Mexico.

Later, while working for The New York World, Bly had herself committed to a mental institution for 10 days to investigate the conditions. Her shocking report on the facility’s rotten food, vermin infestation, and horrific abuse of inmates led to public outcry and helped reform the care of the mentally ill.

In 1889, Bly had the newspaper send her on a race around the world inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. With a tiny travel bag and one dress, Bly made her way by ship, train, horse, and rickshaw from England to Italy, Egypt to Singapore (where she bought a monkey). When she arrived home on January 25, 1890, Bly set the record for circumnavigating the world in 72 days. She later married and became an inventor, registering several patents under her name.
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Photo: Alamy Stock Photo.
Cecilia Payne: Astronomer Who Touched the Stars

When Cecilia Payne was a student at Cambridge University in 1919, scientists believed that the sun and stars were made of the same stuff as the Earth. Trading Cambridge, UK, for Cambridge, MA, she became the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (Harvard’s sister-school). In her doctoral thesis, Payne determined the actual temperatures of the spectral classes of stars and showed that they are mostly made of hydrogen and helium.

This conclusion was so radical in 1925 that Payne was dissuaded from publishing it, but astronomers later called her work "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy." In spite of her brilliance, astronomy was still very much a boys club and Payne spent 11 years as a lowly technical assistant at Harvard. In 1938, she was given the title of “Astronomer.” In 1954, she became the first woman in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to be promoted to full-professor and later became the first woman to head a department at Harvard. Through years of quiet dedication, she paved the way for many women astronomers and scientists after her.
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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG/ Getty Images.
Rosalind Franklin: The Woman Who Unlocked the Structure of DNA

On February 28th, 1953, Francis Crick strode into The Eagle pub in Cambridge and announced that he and James Watson had uncovered "the secret of life"—the double-helix structure of DNA. No mention was made there (or in their Nobel Prize acceptance speech) of Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose work had made it all possible.

Cracking the structure of DNA was a three-way race between Watson and Crick at Cambridge, Linus Pauling at Caltech, and, at King’s College London, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins (who couldn’t stand each other). Franklin used her expertise in X-ray crystallography to obtain remarkably clear photographs of DNA diffraction patterns.

In January of 1953, Wilkins showed Watson one of these images without Franklin’s permission. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson later wrote in his memoir. With the help of this clue, he and Crick published their results shortly afterward.

The structure of DNA was one of the most significant discoveries in the history of science, but Franklin died unacknowledged for her role in it, succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. Four years later, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize.
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Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.
Grace Hopper: Rear Admiral “Amazing Grace”

In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Grace Hopper felt compelled to enlist, but the 37-year-old associate professor barely made the age cutoff for the Navy. Hopper had earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and was teaching at Vassar at the time. The Navy assigned her to a project at Harvard, where she helped program the Mark I, the first computer in the country. When a moth shorted out the Mark II, Hopper joked that they had to "debug" the computer. The term stuck.

In 1952, she and her team created the first compiler, which helped translate source code written in one computer language into another. Compilers are now essential to programmers but at the time, "Nobody believed that," she said. "They told me computers could only do arithmetic."

Hopper helped develop the COBOL programming language and in 1983 was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half). Upon retirement, she was awarded the highest level of distinction for non-combat personnel. At age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the Navy. Hopper loved training young people, and gave lectures until she passed away. Her invaluable work helped expand the scope of modern computing.
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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG/ Getty Images.
Edith Cavell: The Selfless Nurse

At dawn on October 12, 1915, British nurse Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad in Belgium. Her death provoked international outrage and rallied support for the Allies. A wave of recruitment propaganda portrayed Cavell as an innocent women destroyed by the barbaric German enemy. The daughter of a Norfolk vicar, Cavell was recruited to manage a Belgian nursing school in 1907. She launched a journal called L’infirmière and trained nurses throughout the country.

In 1914, Cavell was visiting family in England when war broke out; she insisted on returning to Belgium. As war raged around them, Cavell and her associates tended to the wounded from both sides and helped hundreds of Allied soldiers stranded behind enemy lines to escape. Cavell was betrayed by a Belgian collaborator and arrested for being a spy. Although diplomats tried to intervene, Cavell was convicted and executed. For years, it was believed that the charges of espionage were false; however, in 2015 the former director of MI5 revealed that Cavell’s organization had been smuggling intelligence back home. Although we may never know the extent of her participation, Cavell should be remembered for her tremendous bravery and selflessness.
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Photo: Universal History Archive/REX/Shutterstock.
Hypatia of Alexandria: Philosopher and Mathematician
c. 350–370 CE–415 CE

In 415, a mob of religious fanatics attacked a woman in the streets of Alexandria, stripped her naked, and savagely hacked her to death with shards of tile. Her name was Hypatia, and she was a philosopher and mathematician admired throughout the ancient world. For some, her death signaled the end of classical antiquity itself.

Throughout its history, the city of Alexandria had been a beacon of culture and learning. Hypatia’s father Theon was an astronomer and mathematician who made sure that his daughter received a thorough education. She became head of the local university, and students came from far and wide to hear her lectures. According to a contemporary historian, Hypatia "made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time."

Little is known of her personal life, but she was widely praised for being wise, virtuous, and beautiful. But across the Roman Empire, tensions mounted between pagan authorities and the growing Christian church, and Hypatia was drawn into the vicious power struggle. As an influential pagan woman and adviser to the governor, Hypatia became a symbol of everything that stood in the way of Christian supremacy. The fanatics who murdered her saw as a satanic witch, but modern historians celebrate her for being one of the leading thinkers of her time.
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Photo: Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Edmonia Lewis: Ground-breaking Sculptor
c. 1844–1907

Edmonia Lewis was the first African-American and Native-American woman to become a professional artist. She was known for her neoclassical sculptures and paintings of famous abolitionists. Lewis’s mother was a weaver with Ojibwe and African American roots and her father was a Haitian servant. She drew inspiration from her cultural heritage for many of her works.

During the tumultuous days of the Civil War, Lewis attended Oberlin College (one of the first institutions to admit women and African Americans.) While at school, she was brutally beaten by vigilantes for allegedly trying to poison two of her white friends with a dodgy batch of mulled wine. A few years later, Lewis moved to Rome where she spent much of her career. Sadly, many of her works have not survived. Her towering sculpture The Death of Cleopatra (1876) was a highlight of the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia, but languished in a junkyard for more than a century before being recovered and restored in 1994.

Lewis overcame tremendous obstacles to become an artist at a time when few opportunities were open to people of her gender and skin color.
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Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.
Rebecca Latimer Felton: First Woman Senator in the U.S.

Rebecca Latimer Felton has a complex legacy. Born in Decatur, Georgia, she was an invaluable asset to her husband’s political career. A sharp and efficient woman, she deftly ran his campaigns and helped him draft speeches and legislation. She was a passionate advocated for women’s suffrage, equal pay, prison reform, and educational opportunities for the poor.

In 1922, when the senator from Georgia died suddenly, the governor appointed 87-year-old Felton as a stand-in. Felton was sworn in on November 21st and although her term lasted only 24 hours, she was officially the first woman senator in the U.S. and is still the only woman to have ever served as a senator from Georgia.

Felton was also a staunch white supremacist. As vocally as she campaigned for women’s right to vote, she opposed the same right for African Americans, arguing that the more education and social freedoms they had, the more danger they posed to white women. Even for a period rife with intolerance, Felton’s views were exceptionally racist. She deserves to be remembered for her lifelong fight for women’s rights, but her views on race can't be erased from her story.

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