Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Hidden Heroines in History

 At the beginning of March, Women’s History Month 2021, I was thinking about little-known women who have made important contributions to our society. I asked my critique group and several non-writer friends if they knew of any such women. They came up with many names, some of whom I had not heard about. Here I have whittled the list to a few who have impacted the world in various fields and historical periods.

Caroline Herschel - U.S. Public Domain

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on March 16, 1750. When Caroline was ten, she contracted typhus. This caused vision loss in her left eye and affected her growth. She reached a height of only four feet, three inches. Assuming she would never marry, her mother decided she should train to be a household servant. Her father, however, thought she should be educated. During her mother’s absences, he tutored Caroline individually and included her in her brothers’ lessons.

Her older brother William became a successful music teacher in Bath, England. In 1772, he brought Caroline to live with him and do the housekeeping. He tutored her in mathematics and trained her as a singer. The siblings gave public musical performances until 1782, when William accepted an appointment to the office of court astronomer to King George III. This position came about after William was credited with discovering the planet Uranus the year before.

While still keeping house for William, Caroline helped with his research by grinding and polishing mirrors for his telescope and executing the calculations related to his observations. Her interest in astronomy grew and she began making her own observations. On February 26, 1783, Caroline made her first discoveries, a nebula that was not previously recorded and a second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In 1786, she became the first woman credited with discovering a comet. The following year, the king gave her an annual salary in her role as her brother’s assistant making her the world’s first professional female astronomer. Over the next ten years she discovered seven more comets.

After her brother’s death in 1822, she returned to Hanover, where she continued her astronomical work, verified and confirmed William’s findings, and produced a catalogue of 2500 nebulae. Her work had gained her the respect and admiration of the general public as well as the scientific  community. In 1828, at the age of 77, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal for revising and reorganizing their work. No other woman would again be awarded a Gold Medal until 1996.

Caroline died in Hanover on January 8, 1848. The C. Herschel crater on the moon is named after her, continuing her legacy into the twenty-first century.


Susan La Flesche Picotte 
Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections

Susan La Flesche was born on June 17, 1865 to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife, One Woman (Mary), on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. Her father was a strong advocate for education. Susan attended school on the reservation until she was fourteen. After a brief period of home-schooling, she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. In addition to her native tongue, she was fluent in English, French, and Otoe. She returned home at age seventeen and taught at the Quaker Mission School on the reservation for two years. A co-worker encouraged her to complete her education and earn a medical degree.

When she was twenty-one, Susan entered the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Philadelphia, one of the foremost institutions for higher education of non-white students in the country. The physician there urged her to attend the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which she did, graduating as valedictorian on March 14, 1889. Susan was the first Native American to earn a medical degree. As a child, she had seen an Omaha woman die because the local white doctor refused to treat her. Later, Susan stated that this heart-breaking experience had inspired her to become a physician so that she could care for her people. She returned to the Omaha Reservation and assumed her position as physician at the Agency Indian School, where she taught students about health and hygiene in addition to providing medical care. Although she was not obligated to treat people outside the school, she made house calls and cared for the sick in the surrounding area. She became a widely trusted community leader.

 In June 1894, she married Henry Picotte, a Sioux man from the Yankton agency. They had two sons. Susan continued to practice medicine after the birth of her children. In her practice, she treated both Omaha and white patients in the town of Bancroft and surrounding communities. Sometimes she even took her children along on house calls.  She worked to teach her community about preventive medicine and other public health issues such as food sanitation and efforts to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Alcoholism was a serious problem on the Omaha reservation, including Susan’s husband. Susan advocated temperance and struggled against disreputable whites who used alcohol to take advantage of Omahas while making land deals. She also worked on behalf of community members in their struggles with the bureaucracy regarding land interests.

Throughout her adult life, Susan had worked for the building of a hospital. In 1913, the first privately funded hospital on a reservation was completed on the Omaha tribal land. It was later named in Susan’s honor, and in 1993 the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Walthill, Nebraska, was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Susan died of bone cancer on September 18, 1915 at the age of fifty.

Shirley Chisholm
Library of Congress

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was an immigrant from Guyana, and her mother was an immigrant from Barbados. She graduated from Brooklyn Girls’ High and Brooklyn College, then worked as a nursery school teacher.

In 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in early childhood education in 1951. By 1960, she was a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care. Having encountered discrimination based on her race and her gender, she became active locally in the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League to counter inequality. She also joined the Democratic Party. 

Shirley ran for the New York Assembly in 1964 and became the second African American in the New York State Legislature, where she served through 1968. Her accomplishments included the granting of unemployment benefits to domestic workers and a program that gave underprivileged students the opportunity to attend college while taking remedial education classes. Both programs continue today. In 1968, she won a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. She represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983, introducing more than 50 pieces of legislation. Throughout her career, she fought for racial and gender equality, tried to improve conditions for the poor, and advocated for ending the Vietnam War.  

Her autobiography, Unbossed and Unbought, was published in 1970. It chronicled her first-hand account of her journey from her childhood in Brooklyn to her position as the first Black Congresswoman. In it she wrote, “Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.”

In 1972, Shirley became the first Black candidate to seek a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Due to discrimination, she was blocked from participating in televised primary debates and, after taking legal action, was allowed to make just one speech. However, she garnered support of students, women, and minorities, entering twelve primaries and winning 10% of the total delegates to the Democratic Convention. While she did not become the presidential candidate, she continued to serve in the House of Representatives.

     Conrad and Shirley divorced in 1977. She kept the last name of Chisholm in her professional endeavors even after she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a New York state legislator, She retired from Congress in 1983, taught at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005 in Florida. President Barack Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.


Maryam Mirzakhani
National Science Foundation

Maryam Mirzakhani was born on May 12, 1977 in Tehran, Iran. She attended an all-girls high school and in 1994 she became the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She repeated the achievement the following year. This recognition of her genius enabled her to pursue a career in pure mathematics, an opportunity rarely accorded to Iranian women. While attending the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, she was involved in a serious accident when a bus she was riding in fell off a cliff. She was one of the few survivors.

In 1999, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Sharif University. That year, she published Elementary Number Theory, Challenging Problems in Farsi with friend and fellow student, Roya Beheshti. While at the university, the American Mathematical Society recognized Maryam’s work, and she traveled to the United States for graduate study at Harvard University. In her doctoral thesis, she connected and solved two long-standing mathematical problems. She was awarded her PhD in 2004.

She accepted a position as assistant professor at Princeton University and as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute. Soon after, she joined the faculty at Stanford University in California, where she was recognized for her work in the fields of hyperbolic geometry, topology and dynamics. In 2008, she became a full professor at Stanford.

Also in 2008, Maryam married Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician. They had a daughter named Anahita.

Working alone and with colleagues, Maryam proved several theories related to simple and complex geodesics, tying together fields including geometry, topology and dynamical systems. In an interview, she characterized her process this way: “It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

On August 13, 2014, Maryam was awarded the Fields Medal. Presented every four years, the Fields Medal is the most prestigious award in mathematics, akin to a Nobel Prize. Maryam was the first and, to date, the only woman to be honored with this recognition since its inception in 1936.

After a four-year battle with breast cancer, Maryam died July 14, 2017. She was 40 years old.

Among the many honors and tributes were accorded to her after her death were having an asteroid and a micro-satellite named in her memory, a documentary featuring her and her work, and recognition by the United Nations as one of seven female scientists who have shaped the world. Beginning this year, the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize will award $50,000 to outstanding women in the field of mathematics who completed their PhDs within the past two years.

Through the millennia, women have made major contributions that have gone largely unrecognized. Hopefully, in the future, our society will do a better job of acknowledging women’s achievements.

 Ann Markim



  1. What a wonderful post, packed with information on truly inspiring women. How telling that Caroline Herschel outshone her brother whilst keeping his home for him!

  2. So true. In that era, she was fortunate to have a father who thought it was important to educate his daughter. An she made the most of it.

  3. Ann, I absolutely love this post that shines the spotlight on these amazing women. I'm so glad their accomplishments were recognized while they were still alive. What courage they possessed to face the opposition they no doubt had in their effort to make the world a better and smarter place.

    1. Thank you. There are so many amazing women. It was hard to narrow the post down to four.

  4. I am glad to see author pushing to reclaim some of our lost heritage. Women did many things, besides father kings, and we need to give them the honor they deserve

    1. It's sad that women have often been left out of the story of our past. They have contributed so much.

  5. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Maryam to obtain a higher education in Iran considering the restrictions on women and education. I am completely impressed by the mathematical accomplishments of Maryam. Ugh--math!
    What a shame she died so young. Her intelligence and math skills could have had such value right now as we explore Mars.
    It's so upsetting to know even in this modern day of supposed enlightenment, women are still cast as secondary citizens.
    Great blog, Ann. Thank you for posting about this remarkable woman.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. There are so many remarkable women like Maryam. It's disappointing that they don't get the recognition they deserve - even in the 2020s.

  6. Impressive women all, Ann. I knew about Caroline but the others are new to me.
    Sadly change comes slowly, espec in politics. Too many old rich men.

  7. You're so right. Hopefully, the change will speed up in this decade.

  8. Hi my friend Rose thanks so much for your accept and am looking for forward to hearing from you

  9. Another wonderful post. Thank you for making sure we don't forget these women and their contributions. Doris