March is Women’s History Month, and there’s no shortage of important women to celebrate. From fierce warriors to beloved poets, political activists to fearsome pirates, many women have made their mark on history, even if they aren't household names. To celebrate the many achievements of women, here are 15 incredible women you may not know about, but probably should.
1. EDMONIA LEWIS
One of the first internationally famous African American artists, Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 and studied art at Oberlin College before becoming a professional sculptor. She was known for her marble busts of famous abolitionists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Greeley, and her patrons included President Ulysses S. Grant.
2. ANYTE OF TEGEA
One the great poets of Ancient Greece, Anyte (3rd century BCE) was one of the earliest poets to write primarily about the natural world and not the supernatural, focusing on plants and animals instead of the gods. Anyte was famous for writing epitaphs, many of which were humorous in tone. In one, she satirized the seriousness of most human epitaphs by commemorating the life of a cicada kept as a pet by a little girl. She wrote, "Myro, a girl, letting fall a child's tears, raised this little tomb for the locust that sang in the seed-land and for the oak-dwelling cicada; implacable Hades holds their double song." More of Anyte's works survive to this day than any other female Greek poet.
3. JEANNE BARET
Botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1766, the 26-year-old French woman boarded a ship disguised as a man named “Jean” and proceeded to sail around the world, collecting and studying plant samples with her paramour, the botanist Philibert Commercon. Her true gender was finally discovered somewhere in the South Pacific, and she and Commercon were kicked off the ship in Mauritius. Baret finally returned to France nearly a decade later, where she was lauded by the government as an “extraordinary woman” for her botanical work.
4. SARAH GUPPY
British inventor Sarah Guppy received 10 patents during her lifetime for a truly eclectic range of inventions. From a coffee maker that used its excess steam to boil eggs and warm toast to a device for removing barnacles from the bottoms of ships (for which the British Navy paid £40,000), Guppy was an unstoppable force in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And her designs can still be seen: the stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol would not have been possible without her 1811 plans for piling the foundations on either side of the Avon Gorge.
5. SAYYIDA AL HURRA
Sixteenth-century Islamic pirate queen Sayyida Al Hurra was both the governor of the city of Tétouan in Northern Morocco and a legendary pirate who ruled much of the western Mediterranean Sea for nearly 30 years, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1515 and 1542. Though her real name is unknown, the honorary title "Sayyida Al Hurra" translates to "noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority." She was also the last woman to hold the Al Hurra title.
Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a 16th-century Indian poet who wrote numerous bhajans (prayerful songs) to the Hindu god Krishna. Mirabai was born into a wealthy family, but she eschewed her aristocratic life, devoting herself fully to the worship of Krishna and the singing of bhajans.
7. APHRA BEHN
Seventeenth-century playwright, novelist, poet, and government spy Aphra Behn may have been the first woman in England to earn her living as a professional writer. Though many men of her time vocally disapproved of female writers in general—and of the often risqué content of Behn’s writing specifically—her theatrical works were popular with audiences. Behn worked for most of her adult life as a writer, but took a brief break from the literary world from 1666 through 1667 when she traveled to Antwerp under the name "Astrea" to work as a spy for Charles II.
8. TRIỆU THI TRINH
Sometimes called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Triệu Thi Trinh (3rd century BCE) was a warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders. Legend has it that she was 9 feet tall and fought over 30 battles against the Chinese, sometimes riding an elephant. When someone tried to discourage her from fighting, she famously said, "I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse."
9. HARRIET POWERS
Harriet Powers's pictorial quilt. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers became known as one of the greatest Southern textile artists in United States history. Throughout her life Powers used intricate quilts to tell stories, stitching stunning and elaborate images from Bible stories, myths, and celestial phenomena while also drawing on West African artistic traditions. Only two of her quilts survive today; one is held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the other by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
10. SARAH MOORE GRIMKE AND ANGELINA GRIMKE
Abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were 19th-century orators and educators who traveled America lecturing on the horrors of slavery, and who penned numerous abolitionist tracts. They also spoke frequently on behalf of women’s rights, and were considered radical for arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but in support of genuine racial and gender equality.
11. FANNIE FARMER
Nineteenth-century culinary expert Fannie Farmer is often called the "mother of level measurements." Farmer, who was born in Boston in 1857 and whose cookbooks are still in print over a century after their initial publication, helped standardize the cooking measurements which we now take for granted.
A great Apache warrior, Lozen rebelled after she and her family were forced onto a reservation in the 1870s. Together with her brother Victorio, she led a band of warriors, raiding the lands that were taken from them by settlers. "Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy," Victorio famously said of his sister. "Lozen is a shield to her people."
13. QIU JIN
Chinese feminist, revolutionary, poet, and eventual martyr, Qiu Jin fought for women's access to education and against foot binding, founded a feminist journal, and fought against the Qing Dynasty before being executed in 1907 at age 31 after a failed uprising. She often wrote poetry about current events and historical female warriors and is considered a national hero by many in China.
14. MARGARET E. KNIGHT
Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret E. Knight went from working in a factory to inventing a product that would change the world—or, at least, the way we package groceries—forever: the paper bag. Knight created a machine that could mass-produce paper bags with flat bottoms (while earlier paper bags existed, they were more like flat envelopes). Her creation not only had a huge impact on the paper industry at the time, but machines based on Knight’s original design are still in use to this day.
15. CAROLINE HERSCHEL
British astronomer Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750 and spent her early years doing housework for her parents (she once called herself the "Cinderella of the family"). She later moved to England to help her astronomer brother run his household and became a great astronomer in her own right. Not only was Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was the first woman to have her scientific writings published and to be paid for her work.