Throughout history, there have always been amazing and exceptional women who have reached monumental heights in every sector of human endeavor. From academia, the arts, science, sport, exploration and discovery, business and economics, to groundbreaking works of social reform, women have always had a pivotal role to play.
Unfortunately – unlike their male counterparts – many of these women heroes of humanity have remained hidden in the background.
With International Women’s Day about to be celebrated worldwide on March 8th, and with the entire month of March designated as Women’s History Month, it’s time to lift the lid on many of those unsung heroines who have gone to extraordinary lengths to make the world a better place.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
The story of American journalist Nellie Bly – born Elizabeth Cochran – reads like a swashbuckling tale of adventure. As a journalist of huge integrity, and with a firm focus on social equality she quickly gained the respect and admiration of the top newspaper editors of the day.
Bly was so committed to ‘getting the story’ that while working for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World she had herself committed to an asylum to expose the horrendous conditions which patients were forced to endure. Her report led directly to huge improvements in the field of patient care and treatment.
As if that wasn’t enough for the brilliant young journalist, Bly set about breaking the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg who circled the globe in 80 days. On January 25th, 1880, Bly took her place in the history books having completed the task of circumnavigating the earth in a mere 72 days. Nellie Bly laid the foundations, and the standards, not just for women in journalism, but in the struggle to build a gender-equal world.
Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)
At the age of 30, Mary Kingsley left a life of privilege in Britain behind her and turned her attention to exploring the uncharted lands of West Africa in the hope of completing a book left unfinished by her late father. What’s more inspiring is the fact that in a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote Kingsley decided to undertake the expedition alone.
Having made her way up the Ogooue river she then pioneered a route to the peak of Mount Cameroon, the first European to do so. During her time in Africa, she visited Angola, the French Congo, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea collecting specimens of plants, insects, and insects which she donated to the British Museum on her return. Kingsley was a leading light and determined campaigner against colonialism while expressing strong concerns for the native Africans. Mary Kingsley died while working as a nurse during South Africa’s Boer War.
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
Some people, it seems, are destined to reach great heights, but it often takes an unusual encounter or an extraordinary moment to sow the seeds. One such moment in the life of a young American manicurist, Bessie Coleman, was when her drunken brother arrived at her workplace taunting her about her choice of profession. As a veteran of World War 1, her brother had returned from France where he had witnessed the abundance of greater opportunities for women. Her brother added fuel to Bessie’s desire for success by adding that in France even women could fly planes.
Bessie decided that she would learn to fly a plane, however as a black American woman, her attempts to enroll in US flying schools were thwarted time and time again. In response, Bessie found herself a better paying job, she enrolled in a French-language school before boarding a ship and making her way to France where, in 1921, she did indeed learn to fly a plane and become the first African-American woman to obtain a professional pilot’s license.
She returned to the US and performed flying stunts all over the country while trying to raise awareness and funds for the creation of an African-American flying school. She was killed tragically at the age of 34 while rehearsing for one of her shows but remains as an icon for women pilots, astronauts, and many others to this day.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
As the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai had been a thorn in the side of successive Kenyan governments on the subject of ecology, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. Born in the Kenyan town of Nyeri, Maathai went on to attain a Ph. D – the first woman in East and Central Africa to do so – from the University of Nairobi where she was a professor of Veterinary Anatomy.
As a strong advocate of tree planting to protect the environment, Professor Maathai began the Green Belt Movement a multi-faceted NGO dedicated to protecting Kenya’s natural biodiversity and the communities being affected by poverty. She also lent her strong and much-admired voice to causes such as peace, democracy, and sustainable development. She was globally acknowledged for her selfless struggle in the campaign for human rights and the cause of democracy. Her legacy lives on in the hearts of all Kenyans, and in all those with a strong social and environmental conscience.
Laura Bassi (1711-1778)
When you think of education in the mid-eighteenth century the names of women rarely spring to mind. One notable exception to this sad statistic is the Italian Professor Laura Bassi, the first woman to become a professor at a European university. Encouraged by her father, a wealthy lawyer in Bologna, Laura was home-schooled where she developed a keen interest in the sciences.
At the tender age of 21, she was appointed as Professor of Anatomy at Bologna University. Not long after that appointment, Professor Bassi was rewarded with a position in Philosophy. Still under the influence of a male-dominated academia Bassi installed a laboratory in her own home from where she taught and was a key exponent of Newtonian physics in Italy. She was a leading figure in the burgeoning field of electronics, a subject on which she published many papers. She is also noted with her findings and published works on the subjects of physics and hydraulics. Her influence on the world of physics is still felt across Italy and around the world and as a pioneer of women in higher education, academia, and science in general.
Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
If you ask who was the first man to climb Mount Everest the answer is usually quick in coming – Sir. Edmund Hillary in the company of his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. If you ask who was the first woman to climb the same mountain many would struggle for an answer. The first woman to scale the highest peak on the planet was, in fact, a Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei, who after safely summiting Everest on May 16th, 1975, went on the scale the highest peaks on all seven continents.
As the leader of her newly formed mountaineer club – the Ladies Climbing Club – Tabei led a team of 15 women and 5 sherpa porters to the summit despite having succumbed to being engulfed in an avalanche which buried some of her team. Thankfully there were no fatalities and the team reached the highest point on earth 12 days later. Despite her incredible achievement, Tabei came under fire by some for what they said was the irresponsible and dangerous act of climbing the mountain while leaving her young daughter at home. She then progressed to champion the cause of fighting the impact of garbage being left on the mountains by climbing parties.
Althea Gibson (1927-2003)
Long before women of color reached the lofty heights of sporting greatness, US tennis star, Althea Gibson, was smashing barriers around the world. Gibson became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon, the French Open, and the US National Tennis Championships.
As a black sportswoman, beating her opponents on the court was much easier than the opposition she regularly encountered in 1950s America – racial segregation. Despite the many obstacles placed in her way, Gibson persevered with her talent – along with the voices of many contemporaries – finally seeing her admitted into the ranks of her fellow professionals. It was her fierce determination and her will to beat the odds that paved the way for Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters, and Naomi Osaka to gain acceptance and equality in the world of sport.