There’s no shortage of trailblazing, boundary-breaking women who never got their due. But to truly understand our history—from art and music to science and politics—we have to make sure we recognize and appreciate the tremendous impact these lesser-known figures have had on the world. To that end, here are 22 influential women you probably didn't learn about in school.
1. Amelia Edwards
Mountaineer, explorer, and cultural preservationist Amelia Blanford Edwards is known as the “Godmother of Egyptology.” In her early life, she found some success as a popular novelist; her spooky ghost story “The Phantom Coach” is still widely read in anthologies. But Edwards really made her mark as an adventurer, completing ascents in Italy’s Dolomites and writing about her alpine activities in her bestselling travelogue Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873).
With her romantic companion Lucy Renshaw [PDF], Edwards then embarked on a cruise of roughly 1000 miles up the Nile to Wadi Halfa, becoming spellbound by the monumental sculptures and necropoli of ancient Egypt. But she was dismayed to see how looters and unethical collectors were destroying cultural heritage.
Back in England, she devoted the rest of her life to studying Egypt. She founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) with British Museum curator Reginald Stuart Poole, wrote extensively on Egyptian art and history, and endowed Britain’s first professorship in Egyptology. The first person to hold this position was Flinders Petrie, whose contributions to archeology—including the creation of sequence dating—helped revolutionize the field (though he's also the subject of controversy in the science community today, thanks to his embrace of eugenics). Despite doubts from some EEF committee members, Edwards also appointed Petrie to a position heading up an excavation of the Nile Delta region, including the Wadi Tumilat and San el-Hagar, starting in 1884.
Upon her death in 1892, Edwards's archaeological collection was given to the University College London, where it would form the core of the Petrie Museum.
2. Mrs. Henry Wood
When talking about the most successful authors of the second half of the 19th century, the name Mrs. Henry Wood doesn’t often come up anymore. But make no mistake about it, Wood wasn’t just successful—she was a sensation.
Ellen Wood (née Price), who wrote under the name Mrs. Henry Wood, was a prolific writer with more than 30 novels and 100 short stories to her credit. Her most popular novel was 1861’s East Lynne, a romantic melodrama that was printed in five editions by the end of 1862 and sold around 500,000 copies by 1900, according to her publisher. It was most notably adapted into a 1931 film that earned itself an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Wood’s influence stretched far beyond one bestseller—she was also known as a force in the mystery and crime genres, and she was the owner/editor of the highly influential literary magazine Argosy.
3. Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull’s origins were straight out of a Horatio Alger story: She was born in 1838 in extreme poverty and had very little formal education. To make money, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, performed spiritualist work, fortune-telling, and séances, at the behest of their father. It didn't directly amass her a fortune, but it helped contribute to it. The sisters moved to New York in 1868 and met Cornelius Vanderbilt, who gave them access to stock tips in exchange for Woodhull's services as his personal clairvoyant. In this role, Victoria held séances for Vanderbilt to contact his late wife and passed along financial advice from his dead partners. Tennessee, meanwhile, provided Vanderbilt with "magnetic healing"—she claimed her hands could pass positive and negative magnetic waves over a patient's troubled area to ease their pain—and later became his mistress.
In 1870, Vanderbilt helped to finance Woodhull, Claflin, & Co., a Wall Street brokerage firm founded and operated by the sisters (making them the first women to do so). That same year, the pair established a radical leftist paper, which was the first to publish The Communist Manifesto in America. Two years later, Woodhull became the first woman to run for president, though she wasn’t yet the Constitutionally required 35 years old. She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, "free love," abolition of the death penalty, and other left-leaning ideals. Her bid was ultimately unsuccessful, and she later relocated to England, where, among other deeds, she ran a magazine and helped with the upkeep of Sulgrave Manor, George Washington's ancestral home in Northamptonshire.
4. Sophia Duleep Singh
As the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, it would have been easy for Princess Sophia Duleep Singh to settle into a life of comfort and leave the moral crusades to everyone else. But Singh was a fighter, dedicating her life to gender equality in the United Kingdom and becoming known as a staunch advocate for women’s suffrage.
Singh was known to drum up publicity for her causes by selling copies of The Suffragette newspaper outside of the Hampton Court Palace, and as a member of the Women’s Tax Reform League, she openly defied taxation for women until they were granted the right to vote. When she didn’t pay her share to the government, Singh was brought to court and fined.
During one such visit to court, Singh said, “When the women of England are enfranchised and the State acknowledges me as a citizen I shall, of course, pay my share willingly towards its upkeep." Thanks to crusaders like Singh, many women over the age of 30 in the UK were granted the right to vote in 1918, and by 1928, that was extended to all women over 21.
5. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published her first volume of poetry at the age of 20—and it wouldn’t be the last time that the forward-thinking Black author and political activist broke down barriers in the course of her lifetime. Her parents were both free—a relatively rare thing when she was born in 1825—and after they died, she was taken in by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was an abolitionist who established his own school and helped Watkins Harper discover the power of education and activism.
Watkins Harper went on to write poetry for antislavery papers, become the first woman teacher at an Ohio-based school for free African-Americans, and publish Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, which included an introduction by famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In 1866, she spoke out on the importance of inclusivity for Black women in the women’s suffrage movement at the National Woman’s Rights Convention—and along with Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, and other Black woman activists, she later co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896.
6. Virginia Hall
What a different world it would have been without the efforts of Virginia Hall, a Baltimore native who became one of World War II’s most celebrated spies. Despite losing her left leg in a hunting accident, the resourceful Hall managed to spend years in France spying on German movements and assisting French resistance fighters with planning attack locations. When Nazis were close to finding her, she fled through the mountains to Spain on an arduous 50-mile trek on foot (including a prosthetic one). After the war, she went to work for the CIA. It was a job that, considering Hall’s experience, she probably found rather tame.
7. Mary Church Terrell
Born in 1863 as the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Mary Church Terrell went on to become a significant figure in the Black civil rights and suffragist movements. Education was at the forefront of much of Terrell’s work: She was one of the first Black women to earn a Bachelor’s degree and embarked upon a career in teaching after graduating. Struck by the tragic lynching of her friend Thomas Moss in 1892, Terrell—by then living in Washington, D.C. and married to future judge Robert Heberton Terrell—moved toward social activism and joined anti-lynching campaigns.
In 1896, Terrell helped to co-found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and became one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Still an ardent activist at 86, she fought a segregated restaurant that denied her service in 1950. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor—a groundbreaking moment for the emerging Civil Rights Movement and one that helped to cement Terrell’s status as one of the most preeminent Black activists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
8. Lillian Moller Gilbreth
Lillian Moller Gilbreth dedicated herself to making life easier for the rest of us. With a Ph.D. in psychology, she went to work with her husband Frank as a consultant in the field of worker efficiency, studying everything from the best motions to use to improve productivity to how an employee suggestion box could help get workers more involved in their jobs. Often, the couple tested their methods on their 12 children, carefully studying the best way to give them baths and picking the right chores for each age group. If there was a way to make menial tasks more efficient, Gilbreth would find it.
After her husband died, Gilbreth continued her work while caring for the couple’s children. In addition to writing books on raising families and managing a home, she also helped engineer an improved layout to kitchens—which included everything from shelf height to a flow that minimized wasted motion—that’s still followed today. In 1948, two of Gilbreth’s children turned their unconventional home life into the hit semi-autobiographical novel (and later, a series of movies), Cheaper by the Dozen.
9. Maria Anna Mozart
Was Wolfgang really the most talented musician in the Mozart family? Some historians think that honor might actually belong to Maria Anna Mozart, the gifted pianist and elder sister of the celebrated Wolfgang Mozart. It was Maria who father Leopold crowed about in letters, dubbing her “one of the most skillful players in Europe” at the tender age of 12. Later, she toured with Wolfgang, and many Mozart historians theorize that their time together could have fed Wolfgang’s talent, inspiring him or perhaps even igniting a bit of sibling rivalry.
Despite her abilities, Leopold insisted she stop touring at age 18. Wolfgang went on to play at concert halls and in front of royalty, garnering widespread acclaim for music we still hum today like "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and the pieces from his opera The Magic Flute. Meanwhile, Maria composed music primarily for her own amusement; all of her compositions have been lost to time.
10. Mary Somerville
It was in a review of Mary Somerville's popular book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, that the word scientist first appeared in print. In her book, Somerville, a Scottish polymath, describes the “hard” sciences—astronomy, physics, meteorology, and more—at an exciting stage in their development, when each field was becoming more specialized. Yet Somerville’s thesis unified the different disciplines into one great quest for knowledge—and when William Whewill was looking for a term to describe those seeking knowledge across different science disciplines in his review of Somerville's book, he proposed scientist. (He did not, however, coin it specifically for her, contrary to popular myth.)
The book was a best-seller, and Somerville, an almost entirely self-taught scientist and writer, became a celebrity, hobnobbing with the leading thinkers of the 19th century—even though, as a woman, she was barred from membership in the Royal Society. She also campaigned for women’s suffrage and against slavery. A friend once said of Somerville, “while her head is up among the stars, her feet are firm upon the earth.”
After the death of her brother, King David Kalākaua, in 1891, Lili‘uokalani—born Lydia Kamaka‘eha in 1838—became Hawaii’s first queen and last monarch. In 1887, her brother had signed the “Bayonet Constitution” (at gunpoint, hence the name), which based the right to vote on property ownership, essentially transferring power from the Hawaiian people and monarchy to plantation owners and other wealthy businessmen. When Lili‘uokalani tried to reverse this imbalance, the aforementioned businessmen deposed her.
In 1895, Lili‘uokalani was put under house arrest for allegedly helping stage an insurrection to restore the monarchy, and she agreed to officially abdicate the throne in exchange for pardons for the insurrectionists. Though she worked ceaselessly to keep Hawaii independent, the Americans eventually won out, and President William McKinley annexed the territory in 1898. Lili‘uokalani lived the rest of her days in her Hawaii home, Washington Place, where she died in 1917. In addition to being a political leader, Lili‘uokalani was also a talented musician and prolific composer. Her song “Aloha ‘Oe,” known in English as “Farewell to Thee,” has been covered by Bing Crosby, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and more.
12. Kenojuak Ashevak
Kenojuak Ashevak’s colorful, dynamic drawings and prints portray the animals and people of her homeland, Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Born in 1927, she lived among seasonal camps in the Inuit tradition, where she began drawing and carving along with her husband, Johnniebo. In the 1960s, the family moved to Kinngait (then known as Cape Dorset), a permanent settlement where her children could attend school, and where Ashevak started producing prints of her artwork as the first woman member of the community’s printmaking shop.
Her inventive and captivating works depicting birds, seals, and human/animal beings immediately caught the art world’s attention, launching a renewed interest in Inuit art and highlighting the Cape Dorset artists. Ashevak’s most famous work, 1960’s The Enchanted Owl—which showed an owl with dramatic feathers reminiscent of a Matisse cut-out—was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1970. She continued to produce prints, drawings, and sculptures until her death in 2013, and today she's revered as one of Canada’s most important graphic artists.
13. Althea Gibson
Tennis star Althea Gibson has a lot of firsts next to her name. Not only was she the first Black competitor in the U.S. National Championships in 1950, but she went on to become the first Black player to win the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon. She was also the first Black athlete to be named the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year in 1957, and the first Black woman to play golf with the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1963.
Gibson’s barrier-breaking sports career garnered her comparisons to Jackie Robinson, and she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. When Venus Williams was named the world’s top-ranked tennis player in 2002—making her the first Black person to achieve the distinction—she shouted out Gibson, who played before official world rankings were part of the sport. “It would be foolish to forget Althea Gibson,” Williams said. “She was the first.”
14. Mary Anning
In the early 19th century, a time when paleontology was still a burgeoning field, Mary Anning collected fossils from the coastal cliffs and beaches of Lyme Regis in the southwest English county of Dorset. Her most famous finds include the first nearly complete plesiosaur skeleton and the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton, the latter of which she came across when she was 12. Though most of the credit for her contributions went to men while she was alive, she's regarded as a pioneering figure by paleontologists today.
15. Jackie Mitchell
On April 2, 1931, the New York Yankees made a pit stop in Tennessee after spring training and played an exhibition game against a minor league squad named the Chattanooga Lookouts. The first-inning relief pitcher was Jackie Mitchell—a 17-year-old girl who proceeded to strike out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. To this day, some people argue that it must have been faked, but others give Mitchell her due. “Think about a pitcher coming in they’ve never seen before,” Leslie Heaphy, author of Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, told The New York Times. “She’s a lefty with a very deceptive pitch from all accounts.”
In 1933, Mitchell joined the House of David, a touring baseball team whose games were more about theatrics than competition, à la basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. After four years, she returned to Chattanooga and took a job in her dad’s optometry practice. Mitchell’s admirable commitment to her craft during a time when women in baseball weren’t taken seriously helped paved the way for future women players. And she, at least, always maintained that her two famous strikeouts were the real McCoy. “Why, hell yes, they were trying, damn right,” Mitchell is quoted as saying. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me … Why should they’ve been any different?”
16. Susan La Flesche Picotte
When Susan La Flesche Picotte was growing up on the Omaha Reservation, she witnessed a sick Native American woman die after a white doctor failed to show up to help, despite sending numerous messages that he would arrive soon. This incident inspired her to study medicine in order to care for members of her tribe, and she became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree when she graduated from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889. As a physician, she served more than 1300 people from her community and beyond, and opened a hospital in Walthill, Nebraska, located within the Omaha Reservation.
If you’ve ever seen The Good Place, you know why a chance to chat with Hypatia would be a huge deal. Hypatia lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th and 5th centuries. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, she is “the first female Greek mathematician of whom we have substantial information,” and was also an astronomer and philosopher, following the Neoplatonist school of thought. Students came from throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to study with Hypatia. She was also a pagan—and was brutally murdered by a Christian mob that blamed her for preventing Orestes, the Roman prefect, from reconciling with Cyril, the city’s Patriarch.
18. Queen Nzinga Mbande
Queen Nzinga ruled over two kingdoms—Ndongo and Matamba in modern Angola—at a tumultuous time in South West African history. In the 17th century, the Portuguese empire was expanding across the continent and the Atlantic Slave Trade was growing. She spared her people from enslavement by negotiating with Portugal and becoming an ally against their shared enemies in the region.
When the country later betrayed Ndongo, the Queen and her people fled west and took over a new kingdom at Matamba. She built up Matamba's military power by offering sanctuary to formerly enslaved people and Portuguese-trained African soldiers. Throughout her reign, Nzinga successfully maintained Matamba's independence and won back part of her original kingdom from the Portuguese, making her queen of both Ndongo and Matamba at the time of her death in 1663.
19. Mary Ross
It’s hard to overstate how much of a boundary breaker Mary Ross proved to be throughout her life. She was born a member of the Cherokee Nation in Park Hill, Oklahoma, and by 16 had enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers' College, where she earned her Bachelor’s in Mathematics in 1928. That alone would have been notable for a woman at the time—but Ross was far from done. She went on to work as a teacher and as a statistical clerk, eventually getting her Master’s in mathematics on the side in 1938.
Soon, Lockheed hired her to work as a mathematician and eventually made her the only woman to be part of the top-secret Skunk Works team dedicated to designing fighter jets for the military. As part of Skunk Works, Ross also consulted NASA on a number of projects and co-authored the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, detailing the logistics of space travel to Mars and Venus.
20. Georgia Gilmore
After losing her job at the National Lunch Company due to her outspoken activism, Georgia Gilmore began cooking food for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Members gathered and dined in her kitchen, where Gilmore and a clandestine group of cooks known as the “Club From Nowhere” whipped up delicious grub, which they sold to raise money for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Gilmore died in 1990 while preparing food to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
21 and 22. Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall
Finely feathered hats were all the rage in the late 19th century. But what was great for fashion was terrible for birds: People’s desire for feathers nearly drove entire species to extinction. Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, a Boston socialite, and her cousin, Minna Hall, launched a movement to end the feather trade. They invited wealthy women to tea parties, where they educated them on the industry’s alarming avian impact. Hemenway and Hall’s gatherings paved the way for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The organization was part of the effort that spurred the creation of legislation that helped end the commercial feather trade.