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Lesser Known Women in History  

Last Updated: Mar 9, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
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"We are the ones we have been waiting for"      

-- June Jordan



Edith Garrud


(1872 - 1971)

It wasn't just that Edith Garrud was the first female martial arts instructor in the Western world.  It wasn't just that this hardcore, pipe-hitting, 4'11" tall chick went out there in an Edwardian hoop skirt and a massive floppy hat and judo-flipped the  armed men who outweighed her two-to-one, that she was one of the first fight choreographers in British film history, or that she kept a bowling pin under her dress and almost always wore three inches of cardboard armor under her dress that was capable of protecting her ribs from a direct hit by a mahogany club.  It's that this martial arts master was using her powers of feminine butt kicking to smash the faces of London police officers who tried to violently break up women's suffrage rallies, and that her skills and techniques were used to train a 30-woman-strong bodyguard of ju-jitsu face-breaker suffragettes who could be assembled at a moment's notice and immediately start pummeling anyone who thought they could stand in the way of a woman's right to vote.

(NOTE This is a PG version of the original article at


Violette Morris

Violette Morris

Olympic Athlete • Automobile Racer

World War I - Heroine

World War II - Nazi Spy

SOURCE: Bouzanquet, Jean François. Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888 to 1970. N.p.: Veloce, 2004. Google Books. Web. 16 Mar. 2014


Dahomey Amazons

Dahomey Amazons - The only full-time all-female combat arms military unit in modern history.

SOURCE: Smithsonian Magazine website


Other Lesser Known Women

Arsinoe II - She almost succeeded Alexander the Great

Banuelos, Romana Acosta -  First Hispanic U.S. Treasurer

Behn, Aphra - Was she the real inventor of the English novel?

Bell, Gertrude - Britain's female Lawrence of Arabia

Besant, Annie - She became an Untouchable for liberating Britain's working poor

Bethune, Louise - America's first lady architect

Blackwell, Antoinette - America's first female minister

Bourignon, Antoinette - The saint banned by the censors

Bradwell, Myra - Barred from the law yet she saved Mrs. Lincoln

Boudicca - The general who gave the Romans their worst defeat ever

Cornelia - Was she the world's greatest mother?

Deborah - Judge, prophetess, & defense minister

Dorion, Marie - Her exploits rival those of Sacajawea

Emma of Normandy - Maker of five kings

Fauset, Jessie Redmon - The mother of black literature

Finnbogadottir, Vigdis - World's first democratically elected female head of state

Germain, Sophie - The amateur mathematician who competed with the pros

Godiva, Lady - She did more than ride on a white horse naked

Goeppert-Mayer, Marie - The young mother who studied nuclear physics for fun

Guggenheim, Peggy - Poor little rich girl who started an art movement,  Unofficial bio.

Hepworth, Barbara  - Mold-breaking sculptor

Herschel, Caroline  - The Cinderella astronomer

Hodgkin, Dorothy  - Nobel chemist

Ivanovna, Anna - The tsaritsa who was nobody's fool

Johnson, Amy  - Britain's Amelia Earhart

Krone, Julieanne  - She just loves horses

Queen Liliuokalani - Hawaii's composer/defender

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace - The Victorians' Bill Gates

Lozen - Apache warrior-psychic

Maria Theresa of Austria - The other 18th-century Great

Seawell, Molly - She fought women's suffrage and lost

Stevens, Nettie - She planted a seed of modern genetics

Vigee-Lebrun, Elisabeth - Europe's portraitist

Wheatley, Phillis - One of our great Revolutionary patriots


1st Female Minority West Point Cadet Command Sergeant Major

Emily Jazmin Tatum Perez,

1983 - 2006

The first female minority Cadet Command Sergeant Major in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point. She died during a deployment to Iraq in 2006 as a Medical Service Corps officer at age 23. A makeshift bomb exploded near her Humvee. Lt. Perez graduated from Oxon Hill High School in Maryland, where she was wing commander of Junior ROTC. She was born February19 1983 in Heidelberg, West Germany, of African American and Hispanic parents in a U.S. military family.



Stagecoach Mary


(1832 - 1914)

"Tough but Tender"
 It was believed that Stagecoach Mary could knock a man out with one punch. At the age of 60, she became the second female and first African American female US postal mail carrier making deliveries by stagecoach.

Though she smoked cigars and wielded a rifle, she was known for her generousity and community-mindedness.

Works Cited

"Mary Fields: Female Pioneer in Montana." History Net Where History Comes Alive. Weider History Group, 12 June 2008. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
"Stagecoach Mary." Ebony Oct. 1977: 96+. Google Books. Web.


The Dragon Empress

Empress Tzu-hsi of China (Dragon Throne)

1835 - 1908


The New York Times described her as "the wicked witch of the East, a reptilian dragon lady who had arranged the poisoning, strangling, beheading, or forced suicide of anyone who had ever challenged her autocratic rule." SOURCE:


Excerpt from  "Tz'u-hsi or Cixi: The Dowager Empress of China

Tzu-Hsi (pronounced "Tsoo Shee"), or Cixi, was one of the most formidable women in modern history. She was famed for her beauty and charm. She was either a great friend or terrible enemy. She was power hungry, ruthless and profoundly skilled in court politics. She would rise from a middle class family to a dowager empress affecting Chinese life forever.

She was born on November 29, 1835. Her given name was Yehonala. She was born to parents of the middle ranks of Manchu society. By the time she turned 17, she was one of the concubines of the Emperor Hsien-Feng. "Tzu-Hsi", meaning kindly and virtuous, was her court name. When the emperor would chose to sleep with her, she would be escorted to his room by eunuchs and left naked at the foot of the bed. This was done in order to insure no weapons were brought into his room. The emperor had many wives and concubines, but only Tzu-Hsi gave him a son. Upon the birth of their son, she immediately moved up in the court and upon the death of her husband she was given the title of Empress of the Western Palace. Tzu-Hsi was now the dowager empress.

However, her relations with the Emperor were never that fulfilling. According to Wu, a noted Chinese historian, the relations between the two were never anything but strained. She resented all attempts on his part to exercise real power. Their fights were always a struggle for power between them. When the Emperor died in 1861, her son, Chih, became the Emperor. She was one of the eight regents named by the emperor to rule during Tung Chih's youth, since he was only 5 years old when he took the throne. The other seven regents could have removed her from power, but she had allies. With the support of Jung Lu and his banner men, revolutionary eunuchs, the empress seized control of the government.

To read the full article, go to:



Sarah E. Goode 
(b. 1850-1905?)


Goode was an amazing entrepreneur and inventor. She was the very first American woman of African heritage to receive a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark office.

Goode invented the first folding cabinet bed designed to replace full-size beds that couldn’t fit in cramped apartments, Goode's space-conscious model served as a desk, stationary shelf and bed. It provided people who lived in small spaces to utilize their space efficiently. When the bed was folded up, it looked like a desk. The desk was fully functional, with spaces for storage. She received a patent for it on July 14, 1885.

Aside from Goode’s birth into slavery, invention and lineage, little is known about her life. Although some biographies indicate that Sarah Goode became a successful owner of a furniture store in Chicago, this has not been confirmed. However, Goode’s father and husband were carpenters, and this could have influenced her knowledge about furniture construction. It is believed that Sarah Goode died in Chicago on April 8, 1905.

(Photo: Courtesy of The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers)


Pioneer Of Stunt Reporting

Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran)  

1864 to 1922

(Pioneer of Investigative Reporting

Travelled around the world in 73 days 6 hours and 11 minutes.. in 1889)

(Except from PBS American Experience article)


The girl who would later take on the pen name Nellie Bly and help launch a new kind of investigative journalism was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. The similarity between her surname and her birthplace was no coincidence: the town was named after its most prominent citizen, her father Michael Cochran, a wealthy landowner, judge, and businessman. He had ten children by his first wife. After she died, he married again and had five more children, the third of which was Elizabeth, considered the most rebellious child in the family.

Her father died when Elizabeth, nicknamed Pink or Pinky, was only six years old. The death was a terrible financial blow, as he left no will to protect the interests of his second family. A year after his death Elizabeth's family had to auction off its mansion and was thrown into hard times.

Elizabeth's mother, feeling the need for some financial security, hastily entered into a disastrous marriage to a man who abused her. When she filed for divorce, Elizabeth testified at the trial. "My stepfather has been generally drunk since he married my mother," Elizabeth told the court. "When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober."

Wanting an independent life, and looking for a way to support her mother, Bly went to the Indiana Normal School at the age of 15 to train to become a teacher, one of the few professions open to women of the time. But after one semester she was told there was no money to continue. She then moved with her mother to Pittsburgh, which would be Pink's home for the next seven years. She helped run a boarding house, yet had a hard time finding full-time work.

Her dream of finding work as a writer seemed distant when she read a series of columns by the Pittsburgh Dispatch's "Quiet Observer," or Q.O., the pen name for Erasmus Wilson, Pittsburgh's most popular columnist. Wilson wrote that women belonged in the home doing domestic tasks such as sewing, cooking and raising children and called the working woman "a monstrosity." Elizabeth, familiar with the many young women who had to work to survive in industrial Pittsburgh, read the column with anger and wrote a letter to the newspaper. The paper, impressed with the spirit of the girl, hired her and gave her the pen name "Nellie Bly," after the Stephen Foster song. 

In a glimpse of her work to come, Bly wrote her first story about the difficulties of poor working girls. In her second, she called for the reform of the state's divorce laws. She then did a series about the factory girls of Pittsburgh. Despite her investigative tendencies, the editors at the newspaper relegated Bly to the women's page and assigned her stories about flower shows and fashion. Bly found a way out by convincing the editors to let her be a foreign correspondent in Mexico, where she observed and then sent back stories about the everyday lives of the Mexican people. When she returned, however, the "Dispatch" again confined her to the women's page.

That was enough. Nellie left a note for Wilson that clearly stated her plans: "Dear Q.O., I'm off for New York. Look out for me. Bly."

For six months, Nellie knocked on the doors of New York newspapers. Finally, she talked her way into the office of John Cockerill, managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer's "New York World." In what was either a bold challenge or a veiled brush off, he asked that she write a story about the mentally ill housed at a large institution in New York City. She did, impersonating a mad person, and came back from Blackwell's Island 10 days later with stories of cruel beatings, ice cold baths and forced meals that included rancid butter.

Her story, appearing with illustrations, was published in the "New York World." Her report of the cruelty stirred the public and politicians and brought money and needed reforms to the institution. At only 23 years of age, Bly had begun to pioneer a new kind of undercover, investigative journalism that her peers, somewhat jealously called "stunt reporting."

In the years ahead, Bly exposed both corruption and the injustice of poverty, revealing shady lobbyists, the ways in which women prisoners were treated by police, the in adequate medical care given to the poor, and much more. The young reporter always sided with the poor and the disenfranchised, as when she went to Chicago in 1894 to cover the Pullman Railroad strike and was the only reporter who told of the strike from the perspective of the strikers. Bly's personality was always part of her stories, and she injected her reactions, feelings and observations into whatever the subject she was covering. Bly's fame also opened up doors of the rich and famous, and she profiled the likes of boxer John L. Sullivan, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and anarchist Emma Goldman.

Perhaps the peak of Bly's fame came when she took a whirlwind trip around the world in 1889 to beat Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days." Traveling by ship, train and burro, she returned back to New York in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes as a celebrity, cheered by crowds of men as well as women.

At the age of 30, Bly married a 70-year-old industrialist named Robert Seaman. She lived as a New York City matron until her husband died ten years later. She ran the business until it went bankrupt and then returned to reporting. She picked up where she had left off, using her forum as a journalist to find homes for abandoned children. She was employed by the "New York Journal" when she died from pneumonia, in 1922, at the age of 57. 


First Female Black Panther

Kathleen Neal Cleaver - Black Power Beauty
(May 13, 1945 - ) 

Cleaver is an American professor of law currently serving as senior lecturer at Yale University. She is known for her involvement with the Black Panther Party.

Kathleen Neal was born in Dallas, Texas. her father was a sociology professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and her mother had a master’s degree in mathematics.

The family moved abroad and lived in countries such as India, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines. Kathleen returned to the United States to attend a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia, George School. She graduated with honors in 1963. She continued her education at Oberlin College, and later transferred to Barnard College.

At a student conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Kathleen met the minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver. She then moved to San Francisco in November, 1967, to join the Black Panther Party. 

Kathleen Neal and Eldridge Cleaver eventually got married on December 27, 1967. Kathleen became the communications secretary and the first female member of the Party’s decision-making body.

She also served as the spokesperson and press secretary. Notably, she organized the national campaign to free the Party’s minister of defense, Huey Newton, who was jailed.

In 1968 (the same year her husband ran for president on the Peace and Freedom ticket) she ran for California's 18th state assembly district, also as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom party.

As a result of their involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Cleavers were often the target of police investigations. The Cleavers’ apartment was raided in 1968 before a Panther rally by the San Francisco Tactical Squad on the suspicion of hiding guns and ammunition.

Later that year, Eldridge Cleaver staged a deliberate ambush of Oakland police officers during which two police officers were injured. Cleaver was wounded and fellow Black Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed in a shootout following the initial exchange of gunfire.

Charged with attempted murder, he jumped bail to flee to Cuba and later lived in exile in Algeria.

Eldridge spent seven months in Cuba and was reunited with Kathleen in Algeria in 1969. Kathleen gave birth to their first son, Maceo, soon after arriving in Algeria. 

A year later in 1970 she gave birth to their daughter Joju Younghi Cleaver, while the family was in North Korea. In 1971, Huey Newton, a fellow party member, and Eldridge had a disagreement; this led to the expulsion of the International Branch of the Black Panther Party. 

The Cleavers formed a new organization called the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. Kathleen returned to promoting and speaking about the new organization. To accomplish this, she and the children moved back to New York. 

The Algerian government became disgruntled with Eldridge and the new organization. Eldridge was forced to leave the country secretly and meet up with Kathleen in Paris in 1973. Kathleen left for the United States later that year to arrange Eldridge’s return and raise a defense fund. 

In 1974, the French government granted legal residency to the Cleavers and the family was finally reunited. After only a year, the Cleavers moved back to the United States, and Eldridge was sent to prison. 

He was tried for the shoot-out in 1968 and was found guilty of assault. He was sentenced to five years probation and 2,000 hours of community service. Kathleen went to work on the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund and Eldridge was freed on bail in 1976. Eldridge’s legal situation was not finally resolved until 1980.

Kathleen went back to school in 1981, receiving a full scholarship from Yale University. She graduated in 1983, summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. 

In 1987, Kathleen divorced Eldridge Cleaver. She then continued her education by getting her law degree from Yale Law School. 

After graduating, Cleaver worked for the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and followed this with numerous jobs including: law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, visiting faculty member at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, the Graduate School of Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College.

In 2005, she was selected an inaugural Fletcher Foundation Fellow. She then worked as a Senior Research Associate at the Yale Law School, and a Senior Lecturer in the African American Studies department at Yale University.

SOURCE:  I LOVE ANCESTRY (Facebook page)

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Etymology of "Woman"

In Old Englishwīfmann meant "female human", whereas wēr meant "male human". Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of "human", corresponding to Modern English "person" or "someone", however subsequent to theNorman Conquestman began to be used more in reference to "male human", and by the late 1200s had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr. The medial labial consonants f and m in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form "woman", while the initial element, which meant "female," underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman ("wife"). It is a popular misconception that the term "woman" is etymologically connected with "womb", which is from a separate Old English word, wambe meaning "stomach" (of male or female). Nevertheless, such a false derivation of "woman" has appeared in print.

A very common Indo-European root for woman, *gen-, is the source of modern English "queen" (Old English cwēnhad primarily meant woman, highborn or not; this is still the case in Danish, with the modern spelling kvinde, as well as in Swedish kvinna). The word gynaecology is also derived from the Ancient Greek cognate γυνή gynē, woman. Other English words traceable to the same Indo-European root include banshee "fairy woman" (from Irish bean"woman" and  "fairy") and zenana (from Persian زن zan).

The Latin fēmina, whence female, is likely from the root in fellāre (to suck), in reference to breastfeeding.

SOURCE: "Woman." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

In Our Collections

Check these links to access Women's History and Young Women's Issues resources in our collections.  (Remember they are already vetted.).


First Female Bank President

Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker 
(July 15, 1867? - December 15, 1934)

Walker was a civil rights activist and trailblazing entrepreneur as well as the first female bank president and the first woman to charter a bank in the United States..

The beloved Black American community leader devoted her life to defeating racism, sexism, and economic oppression. Mrs. Walker chartered a bank, a newspaper, and a store 17 years before American women had the right to vote, and fostered black entrepreneurialism when Jim Crow laws threatened Black American progress. 

From 1905 until her death in 1934, Walker’s “urban mansion” in Richmond, Virginia served as a social hub and family sanctuary to four generations.


Additional information:



1st Internationally Licensed Pilot

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman
(January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926)

Coleman was an American civil aviator. She was the first female African American pilot and the first person to hold an international pilot license.


First African American PhD

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
(January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989)

"Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, born Sarah Tanner Mossell (January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989), was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the United States, the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

She practiced as an attorney from 1927 to 1982. She was the first African-American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. She and her husband were both active in civil rights, and in 1952 she was appointed to the city's Commission on Human Relations, serving through 1968."

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