From the woman who discovered DNA to history’s most successful pirate
Throughout history, women have been overlooked, underrepresented, and underappreciated. From science to sport, art to activism, let's celebrate ten pioneering women who deserve to be remembered for their incredible achievements.
1. Rosalind Franklin
One of the most important scientists of all time, Franklin played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She was an expert in X-ray crystallography, and in 1952, a research student supervised by Franklin captured a clean and concise picture of DNA.
Known as Photo 51, the image exposed the secrets of DNA and allowed Francis Crick and James Watson to unravel its structure. However, when Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962, there was no mention of Franklin whatsoever. Learn more.
Born in the 23rd century BCE, Enheduanna is the first named author in history. A high priestess to the goddess Inanna – one of the most powerful deities in Mesopotamian culture – Enheduanna lived in the Sumerian city state of Ur, in modern-day Iraq.
Her writings were discovered during excavations in 1922 and 1934, with archaeologists unearthing a carved alabaster disc as well as several clay tiles engraved with poetry. Altogether, there are around 42 hymns, three poems, and three short stories attributed to her. Learn more.
3. Roberta Gibb
When Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb tried to sign up for the Boston Marathon in 1966, she was told by the Boston Athletic Association that women were "not physiologically able" to run long distances.
Undeterred, the athlete snuck into the race anyway, completing the course in just 3 hours and 21 minutes, faster than half of her male competitors. Following in Gibb's footsteps, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the course the following year. Learn more.
4. Artemisia Gentileschi
Born in 1593, Artemisia is one of the few female artists from the Renaissance whose work survives to this day. At the time, women had very few opportunities to pursue their artistic ambitions and those who did faced huge challenges in a world dominated by men.
Artemisia became the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Her work, which focuses on women and strong female characters, was sold internationally in her lifetime, and she is finally being recognized for her work today. Learn more.
5. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
Ransome-Kuti may be remembered around the world as the mother of pioneering Nigerian musician Fela Kuti but her life was so much more than this. She was a remarkable educator, suffragist, and political campaigner, leading protests of up to 10,000 people on women's rights.
She was also the first female admitted to the Abeokuta Grammar School and later drove the creation of the Nigerian Women’s Union, fighting for women's rights to vote and setting an example for future activists. Learn more.
6. Roberta Cowell
Born in 1918 in London, Roberta Cowell led an extraordinary life as a racing driver and pilot. Against the odds, she sneaked into Brooklands racing circuit dressed as a mechanic and eventually competed in the 1939 Antwerp Grand Prix.
Enlisting in the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War II, Cowell became a pilot and served in the front-line Spitfire squadron. After the war ended, Cowell returned to racing competitively. Learn more.
7. Maria Firmina dos Reis
Known as the 'Mother of Afro-Brazilian Literature' Maria Firmina dos Reis was an anti-slavery campaigner and educational activist who dedicated her life to teaching the country’s poorer population and opening people’s eyes to the scourge of slavery.
Throughout her life she wrote a number of short stories and literary works that, until recently, were little known outside her hometown. Her most famous book Úrsula was published in 1859 and is the first known novel by a Brazilian woman. Learn more.
8. Jennie Ross Cobb
Born into the Cherokee Nation in 1881, Jennie Ross Cobb is the first known female Native American photographer. Her incredible photos reveal a world very few people outside of the Nation will have seen.
Cobb began taking pictures around 1896 and attended the Cherokee National Female Seminary, one of the first institutions of higher learning for women west of Mississippi River. Her invaluable archive has been preserved in Hunter’s House, the Ross family home. Learn more.
9. Fe del Mundo
Fe del Mundo was born in Manila in 1911. Thanks to her medical breakthroughs, her creation of the Children's Foundation, and her work in immunizations and preventable diseases, del Mundo revolutionized healthcare in the Philippines throughout the 20th century.
Her work gave millions access to better medical care and saved countless lives. She went on to be named Outstanding Pediatrician and Humanitarian by the International Pediatric Association, and was the first Filipino woman to be named a National Scientist. Learn more.
10. Zheng Yi Sao
You've heard of Blackbeard, but what about the legendary pirate Zheng Yi Sao? Operating the South China Sea during the Qing dynasty, she is considered one of the most successful pirates in history.
Marrying a local pirate, Zheng Yi's life at sea began. However, when her husband died, she quickly took over operations. Following her succession, she is thought to have had personal commanded over 24 ships and 1,433 pirates, all by the age of 35! Learn more.