Happy International Women’s Day! This celebration happens every year, and its purpose is to “celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality” (find out more on the official website).
I love doing my bit to celebrate each year, like this blog post where I joined a few other bloggers to discuss some of our favourite female authors. This time, I thought I’d tell you about some awesome women of history that I think everyone needs to know about. Their stories are incredible, but sadly, they’re not as widely known as they deserve to be!
In case you don’t know, I’m the creator and co-host of a podcast called Let’s Learn About… where my friend Ellie and I teach you things you didn’t really need to know, but you’re glad you now know them. One of our favourite topics to cover is awesome women of history, so I’ll be linking to some of our episodes throughout this post if you want to listen to them and learn more. (You can listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere you get your podcasts!)
Julie d’Aubigny: Cross-Dressing, Bisexual Duelist & Opera Singer of the 1600s
Are you ready for this? Julie d’Aubigny was a French bisexual opera-singing sword fighter from 17th-century France. Known as one of history’s greatest rascals, she led a life so wild – complete with duels, grave-robbing and burning convents – that she had to be pardoned by the King of France twice.
Julie’s father was an accomplished swordsman who trained the court pages at Versailles, so while training the boys, he also taught Julie dancing, reading, drawing, and fencing. It was because of this that Julie excelled in fencing from a young age… and it was also because she trained alongside the boys that she discovered her love for dressing in boy’s clothing.
After being forced to marry young, Julie ran away with her fencing instructor. They just scraped a living by performing fencing demonstrations at fairs and in taverns. Julie didn’t conceal her sex, but she still dressed in men’s clothing. At one of these demonstrations, a man refused to believe she was really a woman because she was too good at fighting. To prove them wrong, she took off her blouse and the crowd fell silent. Apparently, this was a recurring habit for her — if she was in men’s clothing and other men didn’t believe she was a woman, she would take off her shirt and continue fighting topless.
She was also a skilled sword fighter and had a successful career as one of the most renowned opera singers of the time. But quite possibly my favourite story about her is when she attended a society ball where a beautiful woman caught her eye. Concealed as a man, she proceeded to kiss the lady, much to the shock and outrage of three noblemen who had their own eyes on this same lady. All three of these men challenged d’Aubigny to duels. She accepted — and she swiftly beat all of them in one go, and returned to the ball.
Yae Yamamoto: Skilled in Gunnery, Master of Tea Ceremonies, and a Founder of Several Schools
Yaeko Yamamoto was born just before Japan’s civil war. She was the daughter of the gunnery instructor to an Aizu samurai, and her older brother was an accomplished warrior and academic, studying ‘rangaku’ and military science. Yae was interested in firearms from a young age and despite it being unheard of for a female to use such a weapon, she trained with her father and older brother and became extremely proficient. Her favoured weapon was a Spencer repeating rifle, which could fire up to seven shots in succession before it needed reloading.
In 1872, Yae began working as a weaving instructor at a girls school in Kyoto. At this time she also began to study tea ceremony and flower arranging in Kyoto’s famous establishments, Urasenke and Ikenobo, and she got a tea master qualification in 1894 and was certified to practice flower arranging in 1896.
She also served as a volunteer nurse in Hiroshima during the Sino-Japanese War, where she led a team of 40 nurses to care for the wounded soldiers while working to improve the social status of trained nurses. Her efforts were recognised by the Japanese government, and she was awarded her first Order of the Precious Crown in 1896. On top of this, she also founded several schools alongside her husband.
Nellie Bly: the American Feminist Who Transformed Investigative Journalism
Nellie Bly was an American 19th century feminist who transformed the face of investigative journalism by infiltrating a New York asylum in order to get her dream job as a journalist. Nellie was born Elizabeth Cochran, in 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her father died when she was only six, leaving the family with a ton of financial difficulties.
Her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh, and in 1885, a series of sexist articles called What Girls are Good For, was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. In response, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor. She went on to write an article on how divorce affected women, in which she argued for the reform of divorce laws at the time. This article got her a job on the Dispatch and a chance to set forth her own view – that girls were every bit as smart as boys, and in many cases even smarter. All girls lacked, she insisted, was opportunity.
She went on to have an incredible career that changed the face of investigative journalism forever. Some of her stints included living in an asylum so she could report on the awful living conditions from the inside; going to Mexico to report on the lives and customs of the Mexican people, and being threatened with arrest after writing about the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government; and turning Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into a reality by circumnavigating the globe on her own in just 72 days.
Wang Zhenyi: Making Science & Maths Accessible to All in 18th Century China
Wang Zhenyi truly understood the importance and maths and science in a person’s education. She had a genuine love of her subjects and believed that the key to learning was accessibility. As well as her interest in maths and astronomy, she wrote poetry (including poems about gender equality), was an excellent equestrian, and was also skilled in martial arts — and she did this in a time when customs made life as a woman very restrictive.
At this time, a male mathematician Mei Wending published a text called The Principles of Calculation. Wang was a fan of this text, but it was written in very aristocratic, hard-to-understand language – so Wang rewrote it as The Simple Principles of Calculation in a style that was clear and much easier to follow. She did the same with highly academic volumes on the Pythagorus theorem and trigonometry.
As well as her academic achievements, she was also an avid experimenter. At this time, lunar eclipses were thought of as a sign of the gods’ anger. But Wang created what she called the Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse – a fun and straightforward visual explanation of this astronomical event, which is still considered pretty accurate today. In her demonstration, she set up a round table in a garden pavilion to represent the earth, with a lamp hanging from the rafters to represent the sun, and a round mirror for the moon. By mimicking the conditions of an eclipse, she showed that they occur when the moon passes into the earth’s shadow, and it had nothing to do with the gods being angry.
Unfortunately Wang died at the age of 29 from illness. But in her short life, she showed that science can be exciting and mysterious, and most importantly, accessible. She also showed that you don’t need to be pigeonholed into being either artsy or academic – you can do both.
So, there are just a few of my favourites that we’ve learnt about so far on the podcast, and there are so many more on our list. Who are your favourite women throughout history who deserve more attention? Let me know in the comments below!