5 Little-Known Women in History You Should Know

What Would Cleopatra Do?
Text and illustrations from “What Would Cleopatra Do?” (Scribner, November 2018). By E. Foley and B. Coates, editors and bestselling authors based in London. @FoleyCoates. All illustrations by Bijou Karman, an artist and illustrator from Los Angeles. @bijoukarman

In their new book, What Would Cleopatra Do? (Scribner, November 2018), writing team Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates offer us “life lessons from 50 of history’s most extraordinary women.” When we get overwhelmed by daily challenges and injustices, stopping to say hi to the most impressive and resilient women of the past can be the best source of inspiration. Here are a few we’d like to introduce you to.

Illustration of Enheduanna by Bijou Karman.
Illustration of Enheduanna by Bijou Karman.

Enheduanna (c. 2300 BC)

Take it way, way back to Mesopotamian times and meet Edheduanna, the high priestess of the holy city of Ur (in present-day Iraq). Incredibly, Edheduanna is the first recorded author in history—male or female. Her role was at once religious, artistic and political: her father, the king, tasked her with bringing people of different cultures together. She wrote several hymns, adopting a confident first-person in “I have given birth to this song for you,” while her epic poem, “Exaltation of Inanna,” praises the goddess and describes the author’s difficult period of exile. Just think: over 4,000 years have passed, and Enheduanna’s voice still lives on.

 

 

Illustration of Sheila Michaels by Bijou Karman.
Illustration of Sheila Michaels by Bijou Karman.

Sheila Michaels (1939–2017)

Take Michaels’ initials, flip them, and you get her most enduring contribution to our female lives: the abbreviation “Ms.” Michaels was “looking for a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man” when she discovered “Ms.,” which had been around since the early 1900s but had never caught on. She took to the radio in 1969 during the height of the second-wave feminist movement and brought the now-ubiquitous term into the limelight. That radio spot influenced another feminist pioneer, Gloria Steinem, who adopted “Ms.” as the name for her groundbreaking magazine.

 

 

Illustration of Rosalind Franklin by Bijou Karman.
Illustration of Rosalind Franklin by Bijou Karman.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)

Rosalind Franklin led a short but movie-worthy life. The young British savant studied at Cambridge before doing a research stint in Paris. At age 31, she joined a team in London working to uncover the structure of DNA. Franklin and her student took a pivotal X-ray image that, along with their data, led to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the double helix. Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 38—with all of the credit for the team’s discoveries going to the three men of the group. To add insult to injury, one of the other scientists (remember Watson from “Watson and Crick”? Yeah. That guy) published a book about “their” discovery that included personal put-downs of the late lady scientist. However, the book did lead the science community to say, “Rosalind who?” and to eventually recognize her pivotal role in our understanding of genetics.

 

 

Illustration of Fe Del Mundo by Bijou Karman.
Illustration of Fe Del Mundo by Bijou Karman.

Fe del Mundo (1911–2011)

Fe del Mundo was born in Manila among eight siblings—four of whom died in childhood or infancy. Those tragedies motivated del Mundo to become the doctor who could make a difference. Among her many incredible accomplishments: beginning college to study medicine at 15, becoming the first woman to be accepted into Harvard Medical School (the admissions department thought she was a man), protecting hundreds of children during World War II, occupied Manila, and setting up a leading pediatric hospital that promoted immunization programs, family planning, and breastfeeding. Until the very end of her long life, del Mundo did hospital rounds, even when she was in a wheelchair. Now that’s dedication.

 

 

Illustration of Akiko Yosano by Bijou Karman.
Illustration of Akiko Yosano by Bijou Karman.

Akiko Yosano (1878–1942)

Japanese poet and essayist Akiko Yosano wrote sensual, frank poetry about the pleasures and challenges of womanhood, garnering outrage and admiration from the (largely male) Japanese literary establishment. Her life’s story is also a reminder that feminist magazines have been around for a long time. Yosano worked with the magazine Seito (or “Bluestocking”), comprised of a group of radical women who “were slammed for wearing Western dress, going out together, and smoking.” Carry on, sisters!

Let’s give Yosano the last word:

Pressing my breasts
I softly kick aside
the Curtain of mystery
How deep the crimson
Of the flower here.