11 Hidden Women in History Whose Stories Deserved to Be Told

by Allie Gemmill
Mar 6, 2018 at 7:00 a.m. ET

Winning Women banner

Only recently have we seen an emergence of movies spotlighting the true, amazing stories of hidden women in history. 

It started with Hidden Figures, which became a smash hit at the box office in 2016, telling the incredible story of Christine Darden, Katherine Johnson, Melba Roy and the African-American women called the West Computers. They were human computers who helped blaze a trail for engineers and mathematicians of all races and genders. This year, The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, focused on Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of The Washington Post, who worked to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets.

Both films sparked our curiosity about other women overlooked by history. Are there other stories to be mined from the deep caverns of history that deserve a closer look? Unsurprisingly, there are.

Let's take a look at a handful of the intriguing women whose lives and life's work have helped shape culture and the modern world — from Patsy Mink, the first woman of color to be elected to Congress, to Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot's license.

A version of this article was originally published in March 2017.

1 /11: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

1/11 :Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

British-born American astronomer and Phillips Astronomer of Harvard University, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin paved the way for many future female astronomers. In 1925, Payne discovered that stars are made mainly of hydrogen and helium. She also determined that stars could be classified according to their temperatures. But when she turned in her thesis stating such to her male reviewer, he advised her not to publish it. At the time, it was considered too out of the box and went against the common theories of the time. The male astronomer, Henry Norris Russell, eventually conceded in 1929 that Payne-Gaposchkin was correct.

Thanks to her thesis, which was later called "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy" by astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs, Payne-Gaposchkin received the first Ph.D in astronomy from Radcliffe College because did not grant doctoral degrees to women.

2/11 :Mae Jemison

While the women of Hidden Figures were working on ways to send NASA astronauts into space, it wasn't until 1992 that an African-American woman actually went into space: Mae Jemison

Jemison always had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and excelled in school. She always knew she wanted to go into the sciences; and in her time at school, she excelled in the sciences as well as the arts. While studying medicine at Cornell, she lived and worked in Cuba and Kenya and, for a time, worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. After earning her M.D., she worked as a general practitioner before moving on to work in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There, Jemison not only taught medicine, but also conducted medical research. 

In 1987, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the NASA astronaut training program. According to Jemison's NASA bio, she worked on launch support activities, verification of shuttle computer software and becoming a part of the Endeavour mission. While on board the Endeavour, Jemison was a co-investigator on a variety of bone cell research experiments.

Jemison was able to break barriers while doing the work in the medical sciences that she had trained her whole life to do. She is truly an inspiration to women of color who want to pursue STEM careers and fulfill their own dreams.

3/11 :Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker is, to put it neatly, the first female African-American self-made millionaire. But her worth is measured not only in dollars but also in her contributions to society. For black women in America, Walker returned a level of dignity, beauty and empowerment to her community.

Walker was born to free slaves and spent much of her youth doing menial, back-breaking work like picking cotton and possibly household work. Walker, who'd been orphaned by the time she was 7, moved around in the care of various family members, but it wasn't until she moved to St. Louis with her young daughter to live with her brothers (who worked as barbers) that she found true stability. In St. Louis, Walker worked as a washerwoman and earned enough money to send her daughter to school. In the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp condition that led her to lose much of her hair. This propelled her toward creating a variety of at-home hair treatments to help improve the condition of black hair. 

Walker was a pioneer in the black hair market, creating specially designed tools and products that would help black women properly care for their hair. She was an innovator and entrepreneur in her time and should be celebrated for her work on behalf of black women everywhere.

4 /11: Bessie Coleman

4/11 :Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman should be celebrated for how she changed society's mind about what was possible for a woman and exactly what kind of work women should be doing. Coleman was the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot's license, and with it, she became one of the best aviators and showmen in the world. 

Coleman was determined to be a creator of change from the get-go. As a child, she balanced school with picking cotton to help her family. She saved up her money from working as a teen to go to Langston University (she left after one year when the money ran out). After working as a manicurist and laundress for a brief time, Coleman decided to change course and pursue aviation. It was unconventional in the 1920s, and for black women, it was a career field that was almost unthinkable. For Coleman, it was the chance to do something meaningful with her life.

When Coleman was unable to find a mentor or teacher in Chicago to help her get her pilot's license, she went to France to earn it unburdened by the weight of race and discrimination. She flew all across Europe, performed in air shows and founded an aviation school. Coleman made it her life's work to inspire other members of the black community to take up an interest in aviation. 

5/11 :Patsy Mink

Not only was Patsy Mink was the first woman of color to be elected to Congress, but we can also thank her for the existence of Title IX, the landmark anti-discrimination bill currently being used to defend the rights of men and women everywhere. Mink's name is one we rarely hear in conversation, but her legacy lives on. She was a landmark figure in the 20th century, and we would do well to honor her. 

Mink, a third-generation Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii, was always destined for a life in politics. She won the election to become student body president in junior high, and it's reported that as part of her tenure, she implemented various programs to help mix up the cliques at her school. Ever the Democrat, Mink continued her political work during college, where she worked to end segregation at the University of Nebraska and, despite being in charge of a student organization intended to cater specifically to nonwhite students, worked to end the university's racist and segregated conditions.

After earning her J.D. from the University of Chicago, Mink went on to have a rocky but successful career in law. In 1965, she became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress. She was the co-author of Title IX, which detailed that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Mink's work has been proven invaluable to us; life would be quite different had she not entered politics, that's for certain.

6 /11: Phillis Wheatley

6/11 :Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, the first female African-American poet, gained national fame in the 1770s. After she was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Wheatley found a freedom in writing when she was brought to colonial America. She was educated in Latin and Greek by the family who bought her, the Wheatleys. She published her first poem in 1767, and her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. 

Wheatley was freed from slavery around this time and continued to write while eking out a life for herself in the newly created United States. Wheatley died young, unable to find a publisher for her second volume of poetry. Her work and life remain compelling because of the time and circumstances under which she lived. Wheatley's work and her place in the American literary canon definitely deserve attention.

7 /11: Dolores Huerta

7/11 :Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta was a revolutionary woman who worked on behalf of laborers and children. She was responsible for creating the Agricultural Workers Association and was the co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Huerta achieved this and more while working through discrimination against Mexican-Americans as well as discrimination reserved for laborers and migrant workers. 

Huerta was the daughter of hardworking parents. Her father, Juan, was a union activist and New Mexico assemblyman, which served as inspiration for Huerta's own activist and political activities. Her mother worked to support the family when they moved to California. While she pursued music and dance and was even a Girl Scout in her youth, Huerta endured plenty of racism while living in California. Targeted for her Mexican heritage, Huerta only became more determined in her youth to prevail against this ingrained racism and work on behalf of others.

In 1960, Huerta created the AWA. She organized voter registration drives and even worked with U.S. politicians to allow noncitizen migrant workers access to public assistance and pensions and to provide Spanish-language voting ballots and driver's tests. Huerta was an invaluable activist working on behalf of a community overlooked in America. She remains a powerful voice for the rights of workers and a shining example of female leadership.

8/11 :Ida B. Wells

You may have heard the name Ida B. Wells before, but you may not know her story. Wells was born into slavery at the end of the Civil War and spent her childhood in a newly freed South. In the Reconstruction South, though, racism still prevailed, and Wells' family was faced with a variety of setbacks while trying to build a new life as freed slaves. Wells' experiences with this new world would shape her life and her work in bettering the quality of life for her fellow African-Americans. 

Wells' first brush with the law and activism came when she bought a first-class train ticket from Memphis to Nashville. After boarding the train, she was forced to move from her seat to make room for white passengers. Outraged at the treatment she received, she refused to move from her seat and was forcibly removed from the train. Wells sued the railroad company and won $500 as part of a settlement. 

Wells was compelled to write about her experience and worked as a journalist under the name "Iola." She eventually became the owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Wells became a voice against lynching in the South and remained an outspoken activist for the rights of African-Americans throughout her life. 

9/11 :Betty Holberton

Betty Holberton was one of the first programmers of ENIAC, and yet we still do not recognize her work in computer programming. She remains a hidden figure; that must be changed. 

Holberton rose to prominence during World War II, where she attended The Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she worked as a "computer" alongside "a group of about 80 women [who] worked manually calculating ballistic trajectories — complex differential calculations."

Holberton's work at The Moore School contributed to her being chosen by the U.S. Army to come aboard and work as part of a team of six women programmers who would help run the first all-electronic digital computer. While the men were away fighting, Holberton was working on ENIAC, the first digital computer and the prototype for what we would consider a modern computer. It took up an entire room and required close attention and care. Holberton's keen programming insights helped make ENIAC a true success. Interestingly, the women on this team were not trusted to work alongside ENIAC until it had been completely built. Holberton and the other programmers had to work from blueprints and diagrams in order to program ENIAC.  

Holberton's work, much like ENIAC, has been pushed to the side in historical texts. Isn't it time we changed that?

10 /11: Anna May Wong

10/11 :Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was a truly innovative performer. Wong was the first mainstream Chinese-American film star and the first Asian-American woman to have her own talk show. She began working in silent films at age 17, and that same year, she starred in the first Technicolor film, The Toll of the Sea

Although she was usually cast in stereotypical Asian roles, Wong was able to use her talents as effectively as possible onscreen to soften the potentially racist portrayals of Asian characters she was playing. 

Wong found even greater success in Europe, where she made some of her best films, including Piccadilly, and performed in English-, German- and French-language films. 

11 /11: Dr. Shirley Jackson

11/11 :Dr. Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was an innovative inventor and we can thank her for modern faxing capabilities. Jackson was interested in STEM fields from a young age, choosing to hone her skills in math and science during her formative years. As a result of her passion, Jackson achieved her first "first" in 1973: being the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT. That work and her successive achievements at MIT continued during her time at Bell Laboratories.

At Bell Laboratories, Jackson worked in advancing the telecommunications field. She conducted the amazing scientific research that contributed to the creation of portable faxing, an indispensable technical innovation. Additionally, her research has been used in the perfecting of touch-tone phones, solar cells, fiber-optic cables and the technology responsible for caller ID and call waiting. Without Jackson's work, where would we be? Certainly somewhere closer to the Dark Ages.