From inventors to adventurers and a warrior nun: Kate Mosse on 10 forgotten women who helped shape the world

What is history? Who decides which people deserve to be remembered, lauded – or vilified – and those who will be forgotten? Why is it that some documents and reputations are preserved, cherished, and others are lost or allowed to fade into silence?

Women and men have built the world together, so why is it that women’s achievements and contributions have been so routinely neglected, or overlooked, or misattributed? In science, it’s known as the “Matilda effect”, after a tract by US suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage about the deliberate suppression of the contributions of female scientists within research, as well as the frequent crediting of their work to male counterparts. US science historian Margaret W Rossiter, who coined the phrase in 1993, believes that because few male historians were willing to write about female scientists, or their achievements, it meant that even if a woman was visible within her lifetime, her work quickly became invisible after her death.

There is also the pervasive idea of the occasional unique or extraordinary woman – so yes, the story goes, although it’s true Joan of Arc existed, she was a lone wolf. Or, although everyone has heard of the brilliant Polish-French scientist Marie Curie – and she was brilliant: the first female physics professor at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win any Nobel prize, the first person and only woman to win a Nobel twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences, physics and chemistry – the impression given is that Curie was a rare female scientist in a man’s world.

But what about Gerty Cori, who helped revolutionise treatment for diabetes, or the Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, or the great 18th-century German comet-hunter Caroline Herschel, or the so-called “Chinese Marie Curie”, Chien-Shiung Wu, or the English electrical engineer Caroline Haslett, one the founding members and first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society?

Sustained change, genuine equality between women and men, lies in telling the story of all those who made a contribution, not just a few chosen as figureheads. So, for example, in the suffrage movement, we should remember Southend’s Rosina Sky, Glasgow’s Helen Crawfurd Anderson and Oldham’s Annie Kenney alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Ethel Smyth.

Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World is an attempt to put back some of the women missing from history. There are more than 1,000 women in the book, though it is no more than a beginning.

Here are 10 trailblazers to get you going.

Enheduanna (2285-2250BC)

Did you know that the first named author in history is a woman? The high priestess to Inanna – one of the most powerful Mesopotamian goddesses, associated with love, war, sex and political power – Enheduanna lived in the 23rd century BC in the Sumerian city state of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). Excavations in 1922 and 1934 turned up an alabaster carved disc, as well as clay tiles with poetry attributed to her. Her catalogue includes a collection of 42 temple hymns, three long poems to Inanna and three poems to the moon god. If women cannot write, are denied the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own voices, then half of our human story is lost.

Egeria (4th century AD)

Egeria (sometimes Etheria) was an early Christian writer and traveller, originally from Galicia or Gaul (Spain or France). Her detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land c AD381–386, The Travels of Egeria, was written in Latin and is the earliest extant account of a Christian pilgrimage. Only one incomplete manuscript has survived, transcribed into the 11th-century Codex Aretinus, and it begins in the middle of a sentence. Eleven short quotations were also found in a ninth-century manuscript from Toledo. But these fragments give a flavour of her voice. Egeria is a wonderful narrator, detailed and curious. She stayed in Jerusalem for three years, visiting Jericho, travelling to the tomb of Job in modern-day Oman, to Mount Nebo, to the Sea of Galilee. Just imagine her courage – a woman travelling alone to Constantinople, Jerusalem and Mesopotamia, and home again. A great travel correspondent.

Rabia Balkhi (10th century AD)

A renowned Afghan poet-princess of the royal court, she was born in Balkh, an ancient city in northern Afghanistan known as the “mother of cities”, and is one of very few female writers of medieval Persia to be recorded by name (she also wrote in Arabic). Her legend is that she fell in love with her brother’s Turkish slave. Disapproving of her choice, her brother incarcerated Balkhi in the hammam and ordered her wrists to be slit. Her last poems to her lover are said to have been written on the walls of her tomb in her own blood.

Balkhi’s tomb was a much-visited site in Balkh and many hospitals and universities are named in her honour. The portrait of her wearing a blue khimar with a book, inkwell and quill was everywhere in Afghanistan. A long-term symbol of independence for Afghan women, as of August 2021 her legacy is under threat. A female student, who had fled as the Taliban swept into Kabul, wrote in a US newspaper of how, when her university was summarily closed to female students and tutors, she witnessed a painting of Balkhi being erased from the wall. This is not “silence in the archives”, but rather a deliberate eradication of a great poet from Afghanistan’s history.

Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem (1105-1161)

You must guard against eulogising any aspect of Crusader history – they were bloody religious wars of conquest and devastation – but Melisende is a woman I admire. Though she was contemporaneous with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Melisende is inexplicably almost completely absent from the history books despite her extraordinary life and achievements. The eldest of the four daughters of Baldwin II, she was raised to succeed her father and, though married to a wealthy crusader, Baldwin held a coronation ceremony investing the kingship of Jerusalem three ways – between Melisende, her husband and his grandson, in the hope that his daughter would be granted the same power and seniority as her husband.

Baldwin II died in 1131 and, as he had clearly feared, her husband, Fulk, refused to accept Melisende as his monarchic equal. Rather than tolerate this, she went to war against him to secure her rights and – again, extraordinarily for these times – the clergy and nobility of Outremer (the Crusader states) supported her. They were reconciled by 1136 and she appears genuinely to have mourned him when he was killed in a hunting accident in 1143. Melisende ruled as queen from 1131 to 1153, and again as regent for her son when he was on campaign from 1154 until 1161. She endowed many convents and religious institutions, commissioned works of art and literature, yet despite this, there is no major mausoleum or tomb dedicated to her. It’s a salutary reminder of how easily even the most famous women can disappear from history if their legacy is not protected.

Khutulun (c1260-c1306)

Khutulun was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, whose Mongol empire was starting to splinter. By 1260, her father, Kaidu Khan, was in dispute with his uncle, Kublai Khan. As she came of age, his most trusted military adviser and general was not one of his 14 sons, but his beloved daughter. She was also a famous wrestler, and this is where the lines between legend and fact become blurred. Legend has it that she said she would only marry someone who could beat her in a wrestling competition. If she won, they had to present her with 100 horses – some versions of the story say 1,000 – and it is said that is how she built up her own herd of 10,000 horses. Kaidu failed to secure his daughter’s succession as grand khan and little is known of her after his death.

For centuries she was forgotten, until the early 18th-century French orientalist and traveller François Pétis de la Croix wrote a story inspired by her life story – Turandot, or the Daughter of Turan – though rather than wrestling her suitors, his princess sets them riddles. That story inspired others, not least Puccini’s 1924 opera.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

An enslaved woman originally from west Africa – possibly the Gambia or Senegal – she was taken to North America on a slave ship as a child and bought by the Wheatley family in Boston. Recognising her talent – though, of course, any success she achieved would benefit them – they set about helping her to find an audience for her writing. Bigotry and racism in America sent them to Britain, where the Methodist evangelist and abolitionist Selina Hastings helped secure a London publisher. Phillis Wheatley was forced to appear before 18 men to prove that she had written her poems – shades of Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431 – but by 1771, her work was circulating in London. Her best-known poem – On Being Brought from Africa to America – is a searing protest against racism. She was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poems and among the first published African-American poets.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877)

Every woman going through a divorce in the UK owes a debt to the English poet, pamphleteer and justice campaigner Caroline Norton. Norton’s husband accused her of adultery and, though he lost the case, he not only refused to grant her a divorce, but denied her access to her three young sons and even continued to claim her earnings from her own writings. Norton used her personal experiences to work to change the law, which she saw as state-supported domestic violence, coercive control and injustice against women. Her dogged and meticulous campaigning led to the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, three pieces of legislation of enormous significance to women’s lives. She also found the time to publish several novels, plays, poetry collections and political pamphlets.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

“I still vote civilisation a nuisance, society a humbug and all conventionality a crime,” wrote one of the greatest Victorian adventurers, Isabella Bird. A naturalist, explorer and writer – she was the first woman elected a fellow of the British Royal Geographical Society – Bird climbed mountains in Hawaii, rode more than 800 miles of the Rocky Mountains in the US on horseback, and travelled through China, Japan and Malaysia taking extraordinary photographs. Her letters to her sister during her US expedition formed the basis of perhaps her most famous book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Then, as if she had not achieved enough, she studied medicine so that she could work as a missionary. Bird arrived in India in February 1889, in her late 50s, full of enthusiasm and curiosity. She visited missions and founded a hospital, travelled to the border with Tibet, then on through Persia, Kurdistan, Armenia and Turkey. In 1897, now in her 60s, she sailed the Yangtze in China and the Han River in Korea, then saw in the new century during a last trip to Morocco, where she became ill. Bird returned home and died in Edinburgh in October 1904, having lived life on her own terms. Magnificent.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913)

In Chicago in the late 1880s, presumably after a particularly large family gathering, the US inventor and businesswoman Josephine Cochrane went to a shed in her back garden and designed the first … automatic dishwashing machine. Developing her invention with the help of mechanic George Butters, who became one of her first employees in the Garis-Cochrane Manufacturing Company (Garis was her birth name), Cochrane’s patent was issued on 28 December 1886 and she never looked back. Cochrane is just one of many enterprising female inventors including fellow American Mary Anderson, who patented the first windscreen wiper in 1903, and German pioneer Melitta Bentz, who, having spilt coffee on her son’s blotting paper while he was doing his homework, patented the first paper coffee filter system in 1908.

Ani Pachen (1933-2002)

In 1958, the Buddhist nun Ani Pachen led a force of about 600 fighters against the Chinese invasion of Buddhist Tibet, resisting the resulting genocide during which many hundreds of monasteries are believed to have been destroyed. Though Pachen was captured and kept in some of the harshest prisons in China for the next 20 years – for nine months, she was shackled and in solitary confinement – she never lost her Buddhist faith. She was released in 1981, during a slight thawing of relations between China and Tibet, but continued to protest against the genocide and Chinese occupation. In danger of being rearrested, the courageous Pachen fled on foot through the Himalayas to Nepal in 1988. She died in exile in India in 2002, a warrior nun to the last.

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