“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less,” said educator and writer Myra Pollack Sadker. Women’s studies seeks to address and remedy the lack of women in mainstream approaches to US history by understanding their many contributions.
This effort is more than informational; it’s actionable. The US’ National Women’s History Alliance asserts, “The impact of women’s history might seem abstract to some, and less pressing than the immediate struggles of working women today. But to ignore the vital role that women’s dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us – and those remarkable women working among us today. They are part of our story, and a truly balanced and inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society.”
While there’s no possible way to know every world-changing thing women have done, we are aware of many of their amazing accomplishments. Whether you are majoring in women’s history or simply interested in learning more about the history of 50 percent of the population, here are eight interesting and inspiring facts about women and women’s history.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt held women-only press conferences.
Celebrated for her involvement in a multitude of humanitarian causes, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a leader in her own right. One of her many trailblazing accomplishments was holding the White House’s first press conference for women reporters in March of 1933 -- an especially noteworthy move given women were largely excluded from the media at that point in history. Over the next 12 years, she held 348 such press conferences, all covering subjects “of special interest and value to the women of the country,” according to WomensHistory.org.
And while Roosevelt initially avoided topics considered to be within the political purview of her husband, the scope of these weekly sessions quickly broadened to include everything from defending affordable housing to supporting equal pay for equal work. The subsistence homestead program, old age pensions, and the minimum wage were also topics of discussion.
2 In the UK, the suffragette movement secured rights for men too.
While we often think of the impact of the suffragette movement in terms of its impact on women, men also came out ahead.
The Telegraph reveals, “Prior to the Representation of the People Act 1918, not all men could vote. Working-class men who didn’t own property were denied the right to vote - until the Suffragettes kicked up a fuss. [...]After the 1918 Act was enshrined in law, the voting franchise was extended to an extra 5.6 million men.”
3. “The Empress of the East” was one of the most powerful women in history.
This nameless woman just might be the most powerful and influential woman you’ve never heard of. Called “Roxelana” by the Europeans, she ascended from slave girl to harem member and trusted advisor of one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest leaders, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But she wasn’t content to just be in the harem. Even though no sultan had legally married in more than 200 years, Roxelana not only became Suleiman’s wife, but also a free woman through that marriage.
“Having overturned centuries of traditions, Roxelana exerted extraordinary influence over her husband, the most powerful man in Ottoman history,” concludes the New York Times of her legacy -- detailed in the book, Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire, by Leslie Peirce.
4. “Theodora-from-the-Brothel” fought for sex workers’ rights.
While Theodora’s story is not widely known, it was is well documented in Procopius’s Secret History, which was was written shortly after her death in the sixth century but not published for centuries later.
Described by The Guardian as a “kind of Mrs. Machiavelli,” Theodora led an adventurous life. After the death of her father, who was the bear-keeper of Constantinople’s hippodrome, she eventually became a performer there herself. By her 15th birthday, she was a star. Just three years later she walked away from her career to become a mistress to Hecebolus, governor of modern-day Libya. When that relationship broke up, she joined an ascetic community and converted to Christianity. Eventually, she returned to Constantinople, where she met Justinian, a farmer’s son and future-emperor.
This turn of events found this former hippodrome act and “lady of the night” becoming empress of Rome. But what “Theodora-from-the-Brothel” did with her power was equally if not more remarkable. She worked ardently for women’s marriage rights and anti-rape legislation. She also banished brothel-keepers from the empire’s major cities and set up houses where prostitutes could live peacefully.
5. The first British women police served during the First World War.
The First World War opened up many opportunities for British women. One change that occurred when the men went off to the frontlines? The Women’s Patrols were born.
Led by Edith Smith, the first woman to be sworn in as a police constable with official powers to arrest in 1915, approximately 4,000 women across the UK joined voluntary patrols responsible for ensuring orderly behavior in public spaces.
Says Dr. Louise A. Jackson for the UK’s history of government blog, “The appointment of the first female police officer in 1915 was undoubtedly an important precedent. It enabled women to show that they could undertake a policing role effectively and professionally.” Despite Smith example, however, it wasn’t until more than a half-century later that women were admitted to policing on the same terms as men.
6. Vietnam also has its Joan of Arc.
A warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders in the third century BCE, Triệu Thi Trinh has been called the “Vietnamese Joan of Arc”. She’s also larger than life -- at least if you believe the legends claiming that she was nine feet tall, fought in more than 30 battles, and rode an elephant.
Her famous words are as powerful today as they were in her time. "I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse,” Trinh declared.
7. Ancient Egyptian women had equal right to the throne.
While men had higher social status in ancient Egyptian civilization, women enjoyed many of the same legal rights, and were largely viewed as equals in the eyes of the law. Not only that, but the family line in ancient Egyptian derived from the mother’s side, not the father’s.
And while female rulers were in the minority, they could ascend to the throne -- and exerted considerable influence when they did. Look no further than the likes of Queen Merneigh during the Early Dynasty Period, Queen Sobekneferu during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, and Hatshepsut during the 18th Dynasty, who boasts a spot not only among the ranks of the ancient world’s most powerful women, but also on the list of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.
8. Beer-making has historically been the domain of women.
Beer-making may have a reputation as a boy’s club, but for generations it was dominated by “alewives”, or female beer brewers. The oldest known description of beer-making dates all the way back to a Sumerian hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. At that time, women brewed beer for daily food rations as well as for religious ceremonies, and beer was often associated with female iconography. The ancient Egyptians worshipped a beer goddess, while Baltic, Slavic, and Finnish mythologies also included beer goddesses in their pantheons.
During most of human history, beer (and other fermented beverages) served as an alternative to water -- and the deadly diseases it carried -- due to the sterilizing fermentation process. Beer was an essential resource in most households and women maintained their position as ale-makers into the Middle Ages because beer brewing was considered “women’s work.” Eventually, women began sharing their surplus beer with other households, which evolved into the professional work of selling their brewed beer for profit. In fact, alewives were the most visible medieval female workers, according to Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia.
The craft of brewing beer was brought from Europe to colonial America, where women maintained their roles as brewers and tavern keepers. And while Thomas Jefferson is often heralded as the “Founding Homebrewer,” historians maintain that it’s actually his wife, Martha, who should get the credit. Eventually, as hopped beer - which kept longer than traditional ale and could be made in larger batches - became the staple, beer-brewing became an industrialized process, dominated by men. But as home and micro-brewing becomes more popular, women are returning to the process.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about this list? There are so many other groundbreaking moments making their way into the history books every day. Women’s history students can not only help discover these stories but can also play a pivotal role in making sure they live on for posterity.