Five Significant Women You Have Never Heard About

March is Women’s History Month. Like other special months such as Black History Month and Hispanic American Heritage Month, Women’s History Month places an emphasis on the contributions to the history of our world by a particular group of people.

Also like other special celebratory months, teaching about women’s gifts to humanity should not be limited to March, but included in your regular everyday curriculum.
We are all familiar with many female historymakers — Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Florence Nightingale, Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams (there are more resources to teach about famous women listed later in this article)  — but there are so many lesser known women whose accomplishments should be trumpeted.  We’ll look at five women you may have never heard of whose contributions to history are significant.

The List

Finding your way with Gladys West

It’s become a staple of any trip we take.  Global Positioning Systems have revolutionized the way we travel.  People of a certain age (like me) will recall the days before GPS when we pulled out the road atlas, employed a magnifying glass to see the tiny print, and carefully mapped out a route to our vacation destination.  The back of the atlas had a chart listing distances between major cities, but for the obsessive compulsive among us (also like me), we would attempt to tally up the miles between tiny arrows on the map’s roadways.  Invariably, we would lose count and have to start all over again!

Well thanks to Dr. Gladys West, we now can do all that in just seconds with an app on our mobile phones.  The work of Gladys West was instrumental in developing the mathematics behind the GPS.  She started her career in 1956 as a programmer of large-scale computers at what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia.  Just one other black woman and two black men worked alongside her.

Dr. West was also a project manager for data-processing systems used in satellite data analysis.  She built altimeter models of the Earth’s shape, managed the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans, programmed a computer to spit out precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth.  Dr. West’s data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System.

Born in 1930 in Virginia, West’s family had a small farm, and she had to work in the fields with them.   Many of the families around them were sharecroppers.  Not satisfied with a life picking tobacco or working in the nearby cigarette factory, she realized education would be the key to her moving up in the world.  At her school, people at the top of the class were offered university scholarships, and since her family was poor, she worked hard in her studies to win one to Virginia State College.  Eventually Dr. West earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D.  West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.

Britain’s Boudica

In a world dominated by men, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe during the Roman occupation of Britain c. 60 CE, united different tribes in a Celtic military revolt against Roman rule.  Queen Boudica led an army of about 100,000 soldiers and succeeded in driving the Romans out of what was then the capital of Roman Britain (now modern-day Colchester), Verulamium and Londinium.  Boudica’s success forced the Roman emperor Nero to consider withdrawing his forces from Britain entirely.  However, the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in a battle in the West Midlands.

Known as the scourge of the Roman Empire, Queen Boudica was a flashy figure.  Primary material about her comes from the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio who describes Boudica as a tall tawny-haired woman whose tresses hung down below her waist.  She had a harsh voice and a piercing glare.  Dio says she customarily wore a large golden necklace, a colorful tunic, and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.  Her name derives from words in the various Celtic languages for “victorious”.

When Boudica’s husband King Prasutagus died, the Romans took the opportunity to increase their power in western Britain, but Boudica would have none of it.  The rebellion was fomented by a Roman assault on Boudica’s people whose homes were pillaged by centurions.  The assault included a Roman whipping of Boudica, and the raping of her two daughters, plus the confiscation of the estates of the leading Iceni men.  According the Tacitus, Boudic’s inspiring words to her army led them to victory: “It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, and the outraged chastity of my daughters.”

Viva la Vera!

Vera May Atkins, CBE (16 June 1908 – 24 June 2000) was a Romanian-born British intelligence officer assigned to France during the Second World War.  Among her accomplishments in the war effort was the evacuation of Polish Enigma codebreakers into Romania.  These Polish linguists were instrumental in helping the Allies break Nazi Germany’s military secret code which gave them a great advantage on the battlefield.  Atkin’s work in German-occupied France was made even more dangerous by the fact that her parents were Jews.  Prior to World War II, she also traveled clandestinely throughout Europe gathering intelligence on Nazi Germany for Winston Churchill.

Atkins was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a branch of British Military Intelligence assigned to train and send agents overseas.  At the end of the war, as a member of the British War Crimes Commission, Atkins embarked on a mission to find out what had become of the over one hundred special agents who had not made it back to Britain.  She was able to trace all but one.  Atkins was given the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and made a member of the French Legion of Honor in 1987.

Warren’s Writings on the War of Independence

The leading female intellectual of the American Revolution and early U.S. republic is hardly remembered today.  The published poet, political playwright, satirist, historian, and outspoken commentator Mercy Otis Warren engaged with the leading figures at a time when women were expected to keep silent on political matters.  She corresponded often with three presidents: Washington, John Adams, and Jefferson.

Despite having no formal schooling — as was common for women in colonial times — Warren displayed her talent for writing in her poetry, histories of the Revolutionary era, and politically scathing plays published serially in a Boston newspaper.  She did more than just write, hosting protest meetings at her home that led to the establishment of the Committees of Correspondence.  After independence, Warren was a staunch republican whose Observations on the New Constitution, published in 1788, held forth her opposition to the new constitution because she felt it gave too much power to a central government.

Wall Street’s Siebert

Known as the “First Woman of Finance”, Muriel “Mickie” Siebert was a bold Wall Street broker who was also the first woman to become a member of the New York Stock Exchange.  Although she did not have a college degree, Siebert was the first woman to become the superintendent of banking for New York State.

In the mid-1950s, when Siebert moved to New York City from her home in Cleveland, the only women working on Wall Street were secretaries and support staff.  Ten years later, after moving from job to job because she was not getting paid the same as men for an equal amount of work and responsibility, Siebert applied for, and eventually bought, to the tune of nearly half a million dollars, a much coveted seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Seibert eventually founded her own investment company, and for ten years remained the only woman out of over 1,300 men on the NYSE.

Eventually, Seibert’s financial prowess was recognized by New York’s governor Hugh Carey who appointed her the state’s banking superintendent.  She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and then returned to Wall Street.  Despite her success as an investor, she still suffered indignities in the workplace.  Even as late as the mid-1980s, there was no ladies bathroom on the seventh floor of the New York Stock Exchange building.  Threatening to put a portable toilet in the building if there was no bathroom for women, she successfully campaigned to have a proper one installed.

Seibert was recognized for her philanthropic work and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.  Her impact on Wall Street was memorialized at the NYSE when a room was named after her marking the first time in the exchange’s 200 year history that a room was named for a person.

Resources for Teaching about Famous Women in History

Help Teaching has created many educational resources for Women’s History Month.

KidsKonnect.com has worksheets and factsheets about these famous women:

So dive in and learn more about incredible women who’ve shaped each and every aspect of modern life!

Image sourced from Free Library of Philadelphia

Try HelpTeaching out today for free.

No credit card required.

Try it for free!

Leave a Reply