Recently, I finished the book “Who Cooked The Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World” by Rosalind Miles.
This book not only enhanced my understanding of the full influence women have had on the world, and the origin and complexity of the oppression of women throughout history, but it also introduced me to countless female heroines and thinkers and historical figures I had never heard of before. This book eliminated the past, nagging worry in the back of my mind for years and years now that there have been no strong, female leaders in the course of history, that history has been dominated solely by men, that MEN have composed the history of our world. Reading this book quickly showed me how terribly wrong I was. Truly, “men dominate history because men write history”, as is stated in this book.
I read on about the roles and lives of women who tried to break the barriers of their extreme oppression in the past, women who succeeded in impacting the world although they were at risk of torture or death, women who were eager and adamant to learn as much as they could although in most cases, and in most countries, it was illegal for them to do so. It became a fun personal project of mine to record the information this book offered about these women, sometimes a sentence long, and sometimes a whole page.
I look around me in the community and the world that I live in today, and I realize that far too few of these names are known, and far too few of them are ingrained in our heads the same way the names of historical male figures have been ingrained. Since I was able to read, since my first day of school, these names of male thinkers, soldiers, leaders, and educators have been drilled into my mind. But I have known of too little historical female figures. It shocks me that I was unaware of the fact that women, too, have contributed to our history, and to our advancement as a human race – that women, too, although confined, discriminated, oppressed, tortured, humiliated, attacked, silenced; although crowds of men and government after government tried to force them into the four walls of their homes that were almost always occupied by a tyrannical husband, without a book or a second to spare… women TOO have played a part in the history of the world. There are not enough people in the world who know this, and who know the names of few out of many women who lived significant lives but whose names have not made it down in your regular High-School textbook.
And so I decided to put up the 60 or so women whose names and lives are depicted in the book “Who Cooked The Last Supper: The Women’s History of the World” by Rosalind Miles on this blog so it can be easily reached and read. These women should be known, and they should be admired and celebrated in the same way that we admire and celebrate the many countless men who we have named as the Makers of History (although most of the time, these same men were the ones who were contributing to the oppression and discrimination of women). I hope to add on and enhance this list as I learn more and more about feminism and the history of women.
Someday, I hope everyone in the world will know of the unjust blatant sexism that lead to Hypatia’s premature death, and that the first European dramatist was in fact a female, and that the first novel ever was written by a Japanese woman, and that it was a woman named Mary Colinet who perfected the Caesarean section. Someday, I hope the history classes the children of the world will be exposed to will not simply skim through the achievements of male after male after male, but maybe include an inkling of information surrounding what the women did while the men hunted prey in the days of the Stone Age, then fought wars during the Middle Ages, and then more wars in the 20th century. Because, unbeknownst to most, what women did certainly exceeded past the cleaning and sweeping of their homes.
Leader of Israelites 1200 B.C.E.. She was the only female Judge mentioned in the Bible, as well as a counselor, and a warrior. Deborah lead a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera.
The first female Athenian physician, midwife, and gynecologist. She lived in the 1st century BC. Her desire to become a physician was initiated from seeing large numbers of women dying or undergoing painful childbirths. During the course of her life, it was illegal in Athens for women to become doctors, therefore Agnodice cut her hair off and donned male clothing in order to fulfill her dream of helping the women in Athens. She then left to Alexandria, Egypt to study medicine. After she successfully complete her training, she returned to her home still dressed as a male and became popular amongst the women of Athens, who, once they knew that Agnodice was in fact a female, preferred her medical care over that of male doctors. Thus, Agnodice was an epitome of the trust and comfort between women helping women.
Greek mathematician and philosopher. She became the leading intellectual of Alexandria, where she taught philosophy, geometry, astronomy and algebra at the university. She is known to have performed original work in astronomy and algebra, as well as inventing the astrolabe and the planisphere, an apparatus for distilling water, and a hydroscope or aerometer for measuring the specific gravity of liquids. Adored by her pupils, she was widely regarded as an oracle. But her womanhood and the authority she held lead to a terrorist attack of the sort with which women were to become all too familiar. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria in AD 415, incited a mob of zealots led by his monks to drag her from her chariot, strip her naked and torture her to death by slicing her flesh from her bones with shells and sharpened flints.
Aspatia of Miletos
Nicknamed “the first lady of Athens”. She championed the education of woman & used her position as a non-Greek to flout legislation restricting women to their houses. She visited other women in their homes and educated them herself.
Writer of the world’s first novel called “The Tale of Genji” at the beginning of the 11th century. This was a golden age of female creativity in Japan when education for women was a requirement not a stigma. She only became a writer after her husband died and her father placed her at court with orders to “amuse” the emperor.
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim
During a quiet life of prolific endeavor in the 10th century, she made history as Germany’s first poet, first woman writer, and the first known European dramatist.
Hildegard of Bingen
In the year 1105, she was walled up in a convent cell with the last rites at the age of seven, yet she survived to become abbess, founder of a number of other religious houses, and political adviser of Henry II, Frederick Barbarosa, and the Pope. A mystic and visionary, in her private work she distinguished herself in medicine, natural history, mineralogy, cosmology, and theology. A gifted musician, she wrote hymns and the first European opera; her musical legacy alone consisted of 74 pieces. As a writer she produced poems, biography and mystery plays, and was still hard at work when she died in her 80s.
Aethelfaed, Lady of the Mercians
Daughter of King Alfred. She was responsible for the establishments of garrisons in Hereford and Gloucester before 914 and the repair of the old walls of Chester in 1907. She built her own fortress in 910. Since her own husband, the Lord of the Mercians, took no part in the campaign against the Danes, some scholars suggest that she was the real leader of the Mercians. After her husband’s death, she was named the “Lady of the Mercians”, and proceeded to build a series of fortresses in English Mercia. She united England and ruled it in her own right, and thus, she became one of the few English women who have permanently affected the course of history.
Christine de Pisan
A 15th-century Italian scholar equally distinguished in history, philosophy, biography and poetry. Though lionized by kings and enormously successful in her own time, Christine never abandoned her loyalty to her sex, seeking to restore women’s past achievements to the historical record and tirelessly defending women ancient and modern against the woman-haters who attacked her in person, and the sex in general, indiscriminately. Christine’s most passionately held belief was in woman’s right to education which she argued with the clarity that made her quoted and translated for generations to follow: “If it were customary to send little girls to school and to teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences. Indeed, maybe they would understand them better, for just as women’s bodies are softer than men’s, so their understanding is more sharp… there is nothing that teaches a reasonable creature so much as experience of many different things.”
An Italian classicist hailed as “the Divine Isotta” for her intellectual brilliance at 18. However, she had only two years to enjoy her work before she was subject to a brutal reminder of her sexuality. In 1438 she and her sister Ginevra, also famous scholar, were falsely accused of promiscuity and incest. Broken, she abandoned her studies, fled to Verona and lived thereafter in total seclusion in her mother’s house.
Ninon de l’Enclos
French author, courtesan, freethinker, and patron of the arts, however, she was locked up in a convent in 17th century France because her study of Epicurean Philosophy showed a “lack of religious respect”.
An English nun who attempted to found an institute for the education of women. For this she was imprisoned in a tiny, windowless cell from which the rotting body of a dead sister had only just been removed, and almost died herself as a result. Before her imprisonment Mary had been a great traveler in pursuit of her mission.
Although she was a skilled healer, the fact that she was a female lead to her trial by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris for “illegal practice”. Six people testified that she had succeeded where university trained physicians had failed, one even stating that she was a better physician and surgeon than any of the French physicians in Paris, but the court “reasoned that it was obvious that a man could understand the subject of medicine better than a woman because of his gender”, and Jacoba was banned from ever practicing medicine again.
A pioneering 11th century physician and gynecologist, she established the first medieval center of scientific learning not under control of Church. Some of her theories were equally radical – she suggested that infertility could be as much due to the male as the female, for instance. But her definitive work, “The Diseases of Women”, was not superseded for generations.
Marie Colinet of Berne
A 16th century Swiss surgeon who perfected new techniques of cesarean section, which in the hands of male surgeons had made virtually no progress since the days of the eponymous Julius. She was also the first to use a magnet to extract a piece of metal from a patient’s eye, a breakthrough technique still in use today. This successful innovation was subsequently attributed to Marie’s husband, even though the only record of the operation was her husband’s description of watching her perform it.
The first woman known to have made a living as a professional writer, selling her work and supporting herself on the proceeds of it. During her creative career of almost twenty years, this bold and brilliant woman, ex-governess, former spy and world traveler, conquered the theater, previously an all-male domain; she wrote 10 plays in the 1680s alone, in addition to several long narrative poems, five translations from French, and five novels, thereby laying claim to another “first”: the first novelist in English.
Mary Ludwig Hays
Won the nickname “Pitcher Molly” for her courage in bringing water to the cannoneers at the height of the battle. When her husband, a barber-surgeon turned artillery sergeant, was struck down, Mary took his place at the cannon, where her coolness passed into legend. After a cannonball passed between her legs, tearing away her petticoat, she merely looked down and “observed, with unconcern, that it was lucky it did not pass higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else; and so continued her occupation”.
Théroigne de Méricourt
A gifted singer whose voice had been trained in London & Naples, a successful courtesan who had made a fortune in pre-Revolutionary Paris, she was the woman who led the storming of the Bastille dressed as an Amazon, and later in the same year, the women’s March to Versailles; at the assault on the Tuileries 3 years later in 1792, she commanded a battalion of “Amazons”. Yet de Méricourt was much more than a “she-soldier”. An idol of the political clubs, she contributed vociferously to revolutionary discussions, and through her foundation of a number of women’s political clubs, drew the previously disregarded female “citizens” into the debate. Eventually though, she sacrificed her wealth and risked her life for a cause that eventually betrayed her; espousing the moderate faction at the height of the Terror, she lost her popularity and was attacked and severely beaten by the Parisian revolutionary women she had championed. The shock destroyed her reason, and she was confined to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her life.
Marie le Jars de Gournay
Adopted daughter of Montaigne, Marie was a staunch defender of women’s right to education and a remorseless campaigner against any ideas of women’s “natural” inferiority. Her independence and refusal to adopt “feminine” frills and furbelows or submissive, ingratiating manners also mark her out as a proto-feminist, as do her books “Egalité des Hommes et des Femmes” (1622) and “Grief des Dammes” (1626).
Susie King Taylor
A Black woman and a former slave, she knew how to load and reload for firing, how to clean a gun, and how to dismantle and reassemble it. She had learned her skill with firearms while serving with a Union regiment for four years during the Civil War without receiving a dollar. Susie’s duties included nursing as well as fighting so the army had double value from what it was getting for nothing in the first place.
A Scottish missionary to Nigeria who tackled tribal abuses like human sacrifice and twin-murder with such vigor and success that the government made her a ruling magistrate. Though single, she also became the mother of no less than 12 pairs of the twins she had saved from the ritual sacrifice.
A Creole of slave ancestry, and a Jamaican businesswoman, traveler, gold prospector, writer, and “doctress”. She left a thriving business in Kingston to follow the British army to the Crimea, where she became nationally famous for her dedication in provisioning the troops.
Transported to Australia as a convict in 1790 at the age of 13 for stealing a horse, she became in time a hotelier, grain trader, importer, shipping magnate and property developer: Australia’s most successful businesswoman in the history of the island.
Among the first to force the revolution in thought that had not yet learned to call itself feminism. In outline, Mary’s story was no more than might have happened to any other poor and friendless girl: employment as the “companion to a lady”, an unsuccessful attempt to start a school, travels in France, a love affair with a man who abandoned her with their illegitimate child. But out of this stuff of penny dreadful romance, Mary forged in 1792 one of the most powerful and assured of feminist critiques, her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman”. Mary’s starting point was her uncontrollable anger at the “baleful lurking gangrene” of “the tyranny of man over woman”. From this she traced all the social evils she had suffered herself, the lack of education, the denial of fulfilling work, and the sexual double standard that rewarded a man for being “a luxurious monster or fastidious sensualist”, while making a whore of a woman for one indiscretion. She saw existing relations between men and women as damaging and exploitive – “man taking her body, her mind is left to rust” – and scornfully rejected the conventional idea of female behavior: “How grossly do they insult us who this advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!” With its trenchant demands for education, for work and for equal companionship with males, the Vindication both articulated some of the enduring concerns of feminism, and threw down the gauntlet in a way that could not be ignored: for after its dramatic exposé of the viscous stupidity and perverted childishness in which women fretfully languished, few could continue with the fiction that the “members of the fair sex” were happy with the lot enjoined in them by God and man.
One of the key figures of the European suffrage struggle. She and her friends began to meet regularly in the 1850s to discuss women’s rights, and became “The Ladies of Langham Place” which became one of the first organized women’s movements in Britain. She also funded feminist publications, and helped to found Girton College, Cambridge, which is distinctive for being Britain’s first residential college for women.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
First British female doctor, quoted as saying “I should naturally prefer £1000 to £20 a year.”
Sarojini Naidu and Abala Bose
Both campaigned against both widow burning and campaigned for women’s education in India during the early 1900s.
She led the fight against regulated prostitution that held thousands of Japanese women in virtual slavery in Japan. She also founded the Japan’s first woman’s suffrage organization, the “Woman’s Suffrage League of Japan” in 1924. In 1945, Ichikawa’s efforts resulted in full suffrage for women.
She was an American abolitionist, writer, and member of the women’s suffrage movement. After seeing a female slave savagely flogged at the age of four and never forgetting it, she spent her life passionately fighting for the rights of Blacks to education and freedom. Sarah, to the anger and shock of her wealthy, privileged parents, spent Sunday afternoons teaching Bible classes to the young slaves on the plantation. After she was found out, she settled with just teaching her personal slave to read and write for which she was eventually flogged herself. Sarah was aware of her inequality to men from a young age, as her brother was exposed to higher and more fulfilling education than she was. While her parents acknowledged her remarkable intelligence, they refused to allow her to obtain a substantive education in order to complete her dream of becoming an attorney, since this was considered “unwomanly”. Later in life, her father told her that if she had been a man, she would have become the greatest lawyer in South Carolina. After moving to Philadelphia in the 1820s, Sarah and her sister Angelina spent the rest of their lives speaking out against slavery and for women’s rights in crowds varying from small to large, in churches and parlors, and eventually their speeches reached thousands of people. They joined the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, yet their intense loathing of slavery and passionate rhetoric as well as their refusal to hesitate to publicly debate with men who disagreed with them incited many harsh attacks on their womanhood. Even fellow abolitionists began to see them as “too radical”.
Quoted as saying: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask is that they take their feet from off our necks”
She was Holland’s first woman doctor, and opened the world’s first birth control clinic. She was also a women’s suffrage activist and inventor.
First an unknown schoolgirl who thrust her arm through a plane of glass rather than give the Nazi salute, she later was employed to censor letters to and from Norwegian prisoners in Zuchthaus, a prison in Hamburg. Instead of censoring the mail, however, she added messages urging the recipients to send food or warm clothing. She also began smuggling food, medicine, and writing materials to the prisoners. As the war in Europe started to end, Zassenhaus learnt of “Day X”, or the day when all political prisoners were to be killed. She passed on this information to the Red Cross and the Swedish Count Bernadotte, which subsequently aided them to free and transport 1200 Scandinavian prisoners out of Germany. In 1978, Hiltgunt was featured in a TV series entitled “Women in Courage” about four women who defied the Nazis.
Joined the British army in 1693 to find her husband who had been press-ganged, and subsequently fought the French so successfully that she was promoted to the cavalry.
Received twelve wounds fighting at the British naval assault on Pondicherry in 1748, and then extracted a ball from her groin herself to prevent the discovery of her sex (it was illegal for women to become soldiers).
Filipina who fought against the Spanish in all the key engagements of the Philippine Revolution after 1895. She used her reputation as a warrior-heroine to set up hospitals for the wounded, where she was known to the men simply as “Ina” (Mother).
A brave Russian Bolshevik soldier, who suffered from experiences of childhood prostitution and later in life, a gynocidal spouse. After outstanding military service rewarded by many decorations for valor, Bochkareva founded an all-woman crack corps of 2,000 high-grade volunteers in a “Woman’s Battalion of Death”. These shock troops were so successful that similar units were organized all over Russia, with as many as 1,500 women enlisting in one night, so great was their eagerness for the fray.
Latin American female who created and ran an underground network of women during the Mexican War of Independence, but died after government arrest and torture in 1817.
Chinese revolutionary and conscious feminist who took Joan of Arc as her model when she launched herself into the struggle against the Manchu dynasty in 1898. After the failure of her planned uprising, Ch’iu Chin’s life work seemed to be destroyed with her execution in 1907. But her network survived, through her heroic resistance to her torturers (she refused to implicate anyone else, writing only the seven Chinese letters: “The autumn wind and rain sadden us.”) and her bravery in itself inspired her successors and helped to ensure the final victory of the cause for which she died.
Women who fought for the education of women:
Learmonth White Dalrymple in New Zealand (1827-1906)
Kalliopi Kehajia in Greece (1839-1905)
Pandita Ramabai in India (1858-1922)
Marya Trubnikova in Russia (1835-1897)
The source for all of the pieces of information above is “The Women’s History of the World” by Rosalind Miles.