International Women's Day 2022: The Heroes Of History

It’s International Women’s Day! Today we acknowledge and celebrate the enormous, and often unsung, achievements and contributions of women all over the world, while recognising the injustices dealt to them throughout time and the struggle for equality that millions are still fighting for today.

As our users know, we love a good life story at Iternal and what better day to highlight the stories of some incredible women throughout history than today?! We’ll be showing off the women who pushed boundaries and defied odds; paving the way towards a fairer world and triumphing in the face of prejudice.

Constance Baker Motley

Many people know the names of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but there were many who were instrumental in the movement and enduring struggle for equality; many of whom were women (who were still subject to sexism; even within the movement). One of these women was Constance Baker Motley, who went on to be one of US most influential judges and the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.

As an activist lawyer she defended Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama; helped to argue Brown vs. The Board of Education; and played a critical role in vanquishing Jim Crow laws in the South.

She was state senator, and Borough President of Manhattan in New York City before becoming a United States federal judge. She was the first Black woman to argue at the Supreme Court and argued 10 landmark civil rights cases, winning nine. She was a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, aiding him in the case Brown v. Board of Education. Motley was also the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary, serving as a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Dorothée Pullinger MBE

A pioneering engineer and businesswoman, Dorothee was instrumental to Britain’s efforts in WWI where she oversaw over 7,000 (mostly female) workers making munitions for the war, at the age of 20. Born in Saint-Aubin-sur-Scie, Seine Inférieure, France, she was the eldest of the 11 children of engineer Thomas Charles Pullinger.

She continued to champion women post-world war when the factory was re-converted to an automobile factory; there she offered training and apprenticeship to a largely female demographic.

At 25, became one of the founding members of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919, a life-long member and active in the society’s Council. She was awarded an MBE in 1920 for her work as a manager during World War I at Vickers munitions production.

Bessie Coleman

A true trailblazer, not just for women, but people of colour, Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot licence. She earned her licence from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921, and was the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s licence.

African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight training opportunities in the United States, so she saved and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school. Upon returning to America and setting up her airshow, she became a media sensation.

She dreamed of creating a school for women and African-Americans to learn how to fly; away from the prejudices they would be victim to elsewhere. Unfortunately, she died before she could bring her dream to reality, but her impact on the communities she belonged to was firmly felt.

“Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings (1934) – dedicated to Coleman – “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”

Annie Jump Cannon

You may not have heard of Annie Jump Cannon, but without her unprecedented work in the field of astronomy, we would not have the understanding of our universe that we currently have. It was Cannon’s own mother, Mary Jump, who first taught her about the constellations. 

She excelled in mathematics and physics, but her true passions lied in the stars. Despite women being largely blocked from academic studies of such calibre, Annie went on to study at Wellesley College in Massachusetts; then Radcliffe College, just off the Harvard College campus. She received her masters degree in 1907. 

She gained access to the Harvard College Observatory as an assistant to renowned astronomer Edward C. Pickering. It was this first in a sequence of events that allowed her to remodel the Harvard Classification System, that allowed her to accurately identify and classify thousands of stars. This system is still relied on today. 

Not only was she a suffragist and a member of the National Women’s Party, but the first woman to receive the Henry Draper Medal and to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

Irena Sendler

From 1935 to October 1943, she worked for the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health of the City of Warsaw. During the war she pursued conspiratorial activities, such as rescuing Jews, primarily as part of the network of workers and volunteers from that department, mostly women.

Sendler participated, with dozens of others, in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then providing them with false identity documents and shelter with willing Polish families or in orphanages and other care facilities, including Catholic nun convents, saving those children from the Holocaust.

In post-war communist Poland, Sendler continued her social activism but also pursued a government career. In 1965, she was recognised by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. Among the many decorations Sendler received were the Gold Cross of Merit granted her in 1946 for the saving of Jews and the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.

Henrietta Leavitt

The American astronomer. Like Annie Jump Cannon, she worked at Harvard, but being female was not permitted to work with real telescopes, neither was granted the status of full researcher. Despite being relegated to data analysis, she discovered a method of measuring astronomical distances on the inter-galactic scale.

Her work at the time was largely ignored, and it was not until after her death that the famous male astronomer Edwin Hubble used her findings in his work showing that the fuzzy nebulae were in fact distant galaxies, and that the universe was expanding.

Hubble himself said of Henrietta Leavitt that she deserved the Nobel prize for her work. He had the famous telescope named after him, but his work would not have been possible had it not been for Henrietta’s discoveries.

Rosalind Franklin

If you’re not too familiar with the history of the studies into DNA, you may be forgiven for thinking that the three men who received a Nobel Prize for their work on DNA in 1962 did all the work. Rosalind Franklin, whose data and photographs led to their discovery, unfortunately passed away before she could receive her own.

After joining King’s College London in 1951 as a research associate, she discovered the key properties of DNA, which eventually facilitated the correct description of the double helix structure of DNA.

As ​her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely unrecognized during her life, she has been variously referred to as the “wronged heroine”, the “dark lady of DNA”, the “forgotten heroine”, a “feminist icon”, and the “Sylvia Plath of molecular biology”.

Ellen Sirleaf

Internationally known as Africa’s ‘Iron Lady’, Ellen Sirleaf’s life is nothing short of an empowering tale of determination and strength in the face of adversity. Born in Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf went to the United States to study economics and business administration in 1961. After obtaining a master’s degree (1971) in public administration from Harvard University, she entered government service in Liberia.

She served as Finance Minister to her native government under two regimes before being exiled for 12 years due to her constant clashing with both heads of state. From Kenya, she became an influential economist for the World Bank, Citibank, and other international financial institutions. From 1992 to 1997 she was the director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme.

In 2006 was elected president of Liberia (2006–18), becoming the first woman to be elected head of state of any African country. She broke through centuries of patriarchal rule, assuming a role that few thought possible. Sirleaf was mother of four, a victim of domestic violence, an international banking executive, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Betty Pack

Arguably one of the world’s best and most pivotal espionage agents, and a ‘dazzling American beauty’, the woman born as Amy Elizabeth Thorpe became an Allied spy during World War II, working for Britain’s MI-6 and America’s OSS.

Many of her exploits are still classified information with held from the public, but we do know that along with her sharp wit and intelligence she weaponised her femininity and used it to seduce diplomats in search of ciphers. She was instrumental in helping crack the enigma code; breaking in to embassy safes, and even discovering the notebooks that were key to Alan Turing’s success.

On one occasion she snuck into a Vichy French embassy with her French lover and got into the safe where the code books were kept. She wore nothing more than her heels and pearls to throw off the security guards if the two were discovered…

Marie Curie

A two times Nobel Prize winner and receiver of many other awards and honours, Marie Curie pioneered modern research into radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. 

Her husband, Pierre Curie, was a co-winner on her first Nobel Prize, making them the first ever married couple to win the Nobel Prize and launching the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was, in 1906, the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.

She discovered the elements polonium and radium, and invented techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. During World War I she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.

Inspiration for every generation

Inspiring or what?! These are just a select few of an endless list of incredible women who not only changed the world, but did so in a world that was working against them from the start. 

While these achievements and exploits are all truly awe-inspiring, we cannot forget the inequality that women all over the world still face everyday. This inequality must be challenged whenever and wherever it appears; so tell their stories; inspire the next generation and be vocal when met with discrimination. 

What women do you know who deserve to be on this list? Have you got a story that should be told? Give that story a place to live on forever, with Iternal.

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