The Women That History Left Behind

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By Devin Morrissey 

The women erased from history still haunt us. They live on in their accomplishments, their inventions, and those groundbreaking moments that forever altered history. But, as long as there have been women contributing to the world of science, math, technology, art, and more, there have been men who are not only devalue women’s contributions, but are also taking credit for women’s accomplishments.                                                  

Today, more women are entering typically male-dominated fields, even with sexism running rampant. We are still a long way from any degree of real equality. Especially in fields like STEM, and the military, where omen are actually leaving these fields. In an effort to recognize our fellow women who are making strides in the world, we must celebrate and spread awareness of women from the past. The contributions of these women not only devalued or erased, men took credit for them.

When we are able to incorporate efforts to praise and acknowledge undermined women of history, we can pave a better future for women and girls.

Out of the Kitchen

Women’s “decided role” since the dawn of time has predominantly been about having and raising children. In more recent history, that role extended to being a homemaker: making sure the kids were clean and fed, house was sparkling, and dinner was on the table. That role is exactly what got Margaret Hamilton criticized in the 1960s—specifically because she used her time to write the software code used for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission. Hamilton is also responsible for coining the term “software engineering.”

Luckily, Hamilton, despite the sexist criticisms, wasn’t robbed of her hard work like Rosalind Franklin. Mistaken as an assistant rather than the head of her own project, Franklin, a physical chemist, made breakthrough DNA discoveries with her x-ray diffraction studies. However, her work (known as Photo 51) was used by men without her knowledge and later went on to receive the Nobel Prizes for their discoveries, despite the fact that Franklin had actually been the one to first decipher DNA structure with her x-rays. Eventually the men admitted in 1968 that Franklin was actually the genius behind the discovery but sadly, Franklin had already passed away 10 years earlier.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Other influential women of history had to work under a male alias or disguise. Deborah Sampson is one example, when she enlisted in the military during the American Revolution under the name of Robert Shurtliff. At one point during a battle, she was shot and forced to remove the bullet herself or else be discovered. Her story has a happier ending: being honorably discharged after her commanding officer eventually discovered her secret.

Sarah Emma Edmonds is another who had to turn to disguise to avoid her abusive father, and she too joined the military, under the name Franklin Thompson. As a mail carrier in 1862, she had to ride hundreds of miles through dangerous territory to relay important messages between the Union command and the front lines. Near the end, she contracted malaria in 1863 and was forced to abandon her job in order to keep her secret hidden, resulting in “Franklin Thompson” being charged with desertion despite all of her important, heroic work. Later in life she was able to receive recognition for her work and was even admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic.

History Especially Leaves Behind Women of Color

Despite some of these happy endings, these women are still not the war heroes you hear about in school. Furthermore, women of color are especially left out of history books and important movements, because white men wrote the history books to favor their own “history”. You might hear about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman (who made immense waves in history), but it’s likely you haven’t heard of women such as Frances Harper, who helped escaped slaves up to Canada, was part of the suffragette movement, was an author, and refused to give up her seat to ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in 1858—nearly a century before the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu is another left without credit or acknowledgement for her contributions. Wu grew up with a father who strongly believed in women’s education, giving her brilliant mind the opportunity to flourish. As National Women’s History Museum explains, “In 1956 two of Wu’s male colleagues, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, asked for her help in designing experiments to test their theory that the Law of Conservation of Parity did not hold true during beta decay. Wu’s experiments proved Lee and Yang’s theory and helped them earn the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, however she was not acknowledged or credited for her contributions simply because she was a woman. Throughout her career Wu struggled for gender equality, correcting people who called her by her husband’s name, and fighting for equal pay.” It’s also worth mentioning that Wu went on to become president of the American Physical Society, but she still remains part of the group of women snubbed by a sexist and racist society.

Of course, there are thousands of more women who deserve credit and recognition, especially members of the LGBTQ community and many more with marginalized identities. So, how can we rectify the situation? It’s important for us to actively seek out alternative historical texts, share letters and other correspondence from the past, and include tributes to these women in relevant festivals and events. It’s also imperative to acknowledge that many of the noted “first woman to…” accomplishments are likely overlooking women who did things in secret, disguise, or just weren’t given credit.

It’s unfortunate that so much work and effort has to go into finding these historically important women (and that obfuscation was likely done on purpose by the white men who stole their work), but collectively we can begin giving these influential women of history due credit and praise. We owe it to future generations of scientists, architects, artists, technicians, astronauts, and more.