Little-Known Great Women
Who Challenged the World
A Brit who wrote the first book in English and an Italian grandmaster; a sailor disguised as a man and a round-the-world biker; a war photographer and the first female in space. Ground-breaking pioneers, these women beat the odds and inspired mankind.
Julian and Artemísia, Hannah and Annie, Dickie and Valentina, forged a new identity for women everywhere, one that’s often been at odds with male-dominated institutions, and that only modern age could fully embrace. These were no tamed spirits.
Along the way, the mastery of intellect and mysticism, of great art and entrepreneurship, became one with what all that came after. Each generation that followed had more of their independence of thought, the courage to report, and dare to reach for the stars.
These were no followers either. What each carved on the fabric of their own age still stands now, be it as a spiritual path or pictorial record, a skill for subversion or example of non-conformity, the capture of the battlefield or a flight into the future.
But only six, you may ask, and why them, instead of, say, the other few billion? Well, shortlists keep things moving: room only for names, times, and the life that defined their accomplishments. Ultimately, though, it’s our choice and we’re running with it.
That won’t settle the argument, but hope for a first female U.S. president got a boost Tuesday, and next week is International Women’s Day. Both fitting brackets for a possible breakthrough year in equality, a battle these women fought and won, so now we know their names.
Great humans create entire epochs around their existence, not always acknowledged in time. Many would enlist their own mothers on this roll. Shortlists help to leave them out, or yours would be certainly here. It also beats having to rewrite so many well-known bios.
THE MYSTIC WRITER & THE PROTO-FEMINIST PAINTER
On its way to world domination, 14th century England struggled to survive the wreckage of the Dark Ages. The pestilence and ravaging left in its wake were the cause of much soul searching and exacerbated religiosity. Times were ripe for Julian of Norwich.
After surviving illness, she walked out of public life to become a religious recluse, an anchorite, living her remaining years in closed quarters to ‘speak with god’ full time. While others like her burned at a stake, Her Revelations of Divine Love is considered the first female-penned, English-language book.
Two hundred years after, Rome was at the center of the art and religious world, and artists were busy carving their reputations through the glorious Baroque style. Most were male, but Artemisia Gentileschi would defy gender conventions, even as she was long gone when she was recognized as a grandmaster.
Raped by her tutor, who her family successfully sued – not without enormous public shaming of Artemisia, during the trial – she became a rare female working artist whose talent, and tumultuous relationships, equaled that of established painters, such a Caravaggio, with whom she’s often linked.
THE CROSS-DRESSED SAILOR & THE WORLD CYCLIST
There were few options for a woman to sail the world in the 18th century, and to become a soldier of the Royal Marines was hardly one of them. Hanna Snell managed to do both, even as she concealed her gender under the alias James Gray; heaven knows how she survived those long stretches at sea.
Remarkably, her bravery granted her full military pension, and her story, The Female Soldier, made her into a minor celebrity, no small feats for a woman at the time. Till the end, despite three (more)
* Beautiful Bandit
* Women’s Day
* Sunken Ships
marriages and a number of children, her penchant for overcoming barriers never slowed down.
A century later, life was still hard for strong-willed women, but Latvian Annie Kopchovsky didn’t care about the memo. Growing up in the U.S., she was the first to travel the world riding a new invention, the bicycle, sponsored by a company whose name she adopted. Thus Annie Londonderry was born.
She went to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, before returning to San Francisco and cross-countrying back to New York. She became then a journalist, writing widely-read articles about her travels and the New Woman, who could do ‘anything that any man can do,’ and possibly better. For indeed she could.
THE WAR CORRESPONDENT & THE LEFTY COSMONAUT
1918 marked both the end of WWI and the birth of Dickey Chapelle, an American photographer who captured some of the century’s bloodiest conflicts. She covered Ivo Jiwa, Fidel Castro’s campaign to take Cuba, parachuted into Korea and reported on the Algerian Independence movement.
In over 40 thousand photos, her unflinching eye for the visceral has granted her special status among war correspondents. In 1965, when she became the first U.S. female photographer to be killed in action, a picture of her final moments brought a new focus to the Southeast Asian conflict around the world.
Just two years earlier, Valentina Tereshkova orbited the world herself aboard the Vostok 6, as the first woman in space. At the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was winning the space race. It’d take the U.S. twenty years and two days from that June 16, 1963, to put Sally Ride up there.
Politics aside, Tereshkova was as bright and idealist as every astronaut (and cosmonaut) who’s ever seen the Earth from above, regardless of their nationality. Except that she was joining another elite group, besides that of space people: the sisterhood of pioneers, some of which are evoked by this post.
A BOW TO THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY
We all have a private pantheon of goddesses, real and fictional, who encourage and comfort us during challenging times. They delivered us to the world, and to those lucky enough, remained by our side to share the burden and the rewards, despite our flaws and shortcomings.
Maria Eva, Joyce, Margery, Ligia, Maria, Maíra, Fernanda, Paula, and Margaret, there couldn’t be possibly a world to us hadn’t the grace of their presence be an ever-renewable reality. One day or a lifetime would not be enough to return a fraction I’ve been given.
And yet, one gets spoiled with a hand always ready to catch his falls. Thus a post such as this one, with no accolades or platitudes; just examples to bear witness. Come this time of the year, it’s only fair to remind oneself: many a brave man wouldn’t endure a moment in the skin of a good woman.
(*) Originally published on March 6, 2016.