When Divergent actress Shailene Woodley told an interviewer recently that she didn’t call herself a feminist because she “love[s] men,” many people were outraged. But there’s another side to this story: Shailene Woodley doesn’t understand what feminism is, and it’s not necessarily her fault.
The fact is, our educational system is still hopelessly biased towards men. But we need women’s history in the classroom if we want feminism to flourish. “Feminists don’t spontaneously happen,” Soraya Chemaly poignantly responded in Ms. Magazine. It takes education — about women’s achievements throughout history, the patriarchy and the myriad socioeconomic and political hurdles women still face — to help engender a concept of feminism. Without it, we are left to rely on the media’s portrayal of women and gender parity.
Make no mistake: Women were — and are — strong, if overlooked, forces in American history, having influenced politics, medicine, science, literature and much, much more. For decades, researchers have noted such a gender bias in study after study. But while this representation has improved, our educational system still often fails to properly educate our youth about women. Here are a few women probably not discussed at length (if at all) in classrooms across the country, but definitely should be. (Please note, this list is nowhere near exhaustive.)
1. Ada Lovelace
Harriet Tubman was one of the Underground Railroad’s most well-known “conductors.” She helped more than 300 slaves escape to the North during the Civil War. But “Moses,” as she became known, was also a Union spy, soldier and nurse. Talk about your Jane of all Trades! While Tubman’s incredibly courageous life — she endured brutal beatings as a field hand before eventually escaping her masters in Maryland — seems straight out of a Hollywood movie, you won’t see her as the star of the silver screen anytime soon.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Louisiana plantation, Madam C.J. Walker is one of the 20th century’s greatest success stories you’ve never heard of. An uneducated daughter of former slaves, in 1905 Walker founded her own company and began selling a scalp conditioning and healing formula, aptly named Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Three years later, she opened Leila College to train “hair culturists,” and later built a factory to manufacture her products. Walker proved that women could be moguls even when they didn’t have the right to vote.
Long before there was Nancy Pelosi, there was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Notably, Rankin was also one of the few suffragists elected to Congress and the only congressperson to vote against U.S. participation in both world wars. We also have her to thank for this quote: “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” Amen, sister.
We can thank Hollywood powerhouse Mary Pickford for all the great films that have come out of United Artists film studio. She co-founded the institution in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. Eight years later, she helped establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As critics and moviegoers continue to debate female representation in contemporary cinema, it’s important to note that the film industry might not be where it is today without Pickford’s vision and dedication.
Hedy Lamarr, frequently called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film,” was a talented actress who starred opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest leading men of her day, including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. But this silver screen titan wasn’t just easy on the eyes; she was also very smart. In fact, Lamarr patented an idea that later became an essential aspect of both secure military communications and mobile phone technology.
Originally from Alabama, Barnard-educated Zora Neale Hurston left an indelible mark on the Harlem Renaissance. Over the span of three decades, she published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories and several essays, articles and plays. Her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the 20th century’s most important pieces of literature, as it is a sumptuously-written story “of black female survival in a world beset by bad weather and bad men.”
Eleanor Roosevelt is perhaps best known for being the wife of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But she was much more than the president’s wife. The other Roosevelt transformed women’s political participation, proving women could wield influence in matters of both domestic and international importance. Eleanor spent years kicking ass and taking names as an international human rights advocate, serving as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and helping write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her example forged a path for the assertive first ladies who would succeed her, from Betty Ford to Michelle Obama.
Known as the “First Lady of Physics,” Dr. Wu’s work on nuclear fission proved invaluable during World War II. After moving to the U.S. from China to go to graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, the U.S. government asked Wu to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, the U.S. Army’s secret project to develop the atomic bomb, where she helped develop a process that produced large quantities of uranium as fuel for the bomb. After the war, Wu became the first woman elected to the American Physical Society, the first woman to receive the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.
If you’re in any way involved in today’s environmental movement, you have Rachel Carson to thank. A scientist and writer, she began to warn the public about the long-term effects of misusing pesticides after World War II. Her book Silent Spring (1962) catapulted her to center stage — and made her an enemy of the chemical industry in the process — as it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government.
If you’re one of the millions of women who currently, or ever has, used birth control, you owe Margaret Sanger. She campaigned tirelessly for the legalization (yes, it was once illegal) and wide availability of birth control for women (which was also illegal, not so long ago). Her collaboration with Gregory Pincus resulted in the first FDA-approved oral contraceptive. Controversial due to some of her ideas regarding eugenics, many of the criticisms leveled at Sanger by conservative politicians have been dubunked.
Ella Baker helped shape the American Civil Rights Movement. She co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. One of the many unsung heroes of a movement better known for leaders such as King, Julian Bond and Roy Wilkins, Baker’s efforts, as well as those of her female compatriots, were instrumental in the struggle for equal rights.
Like Jeanette Rankin, Shirley Chisholm made congressional history when she became the first African-American congresswoman. She represented New York State in the House of Representatives for seven terms, and went on to run for the Democratic nomination for presidency in 1972. Championing minority education and employment opportunities, Chisholm also campaigned against the draft. During her presidential nomination campaign, she survived three assassination attempts and went on to leave behind a long legacy of outspoken advocacy. “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black,” Chisolm told the Associated Press in 1982. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”
Betty is one badass mother — of feminism. Her book The Feminine Mystique ignited the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s, forever changing the feminist cultural landscape. She also co-founded the National Organization for Women, which is still alive and kicking today and advocates for such high-profile causes as abortion access and closing the pay gap.
Who says girls don’t dig STEM? Dr. Sally Ride defied this stereotype in a big way. She was an astronaut and physicist, perhaps most famous for being the first woman in space and the youngest American to ever orbit Earth, at age 32. After her astronaut career, Ride founded the Sally Ride Science to inspire young women interested in science and math. Touting an impressive list of awards, Ride was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, which gained special significance when it was revealed that she was a lesbian. Not too shabby, eh?
Maya Angelou is one of the greatest voices of contemporary American literature. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings quickly became a best-seller and was nominated for the National Book Award. But she’s much more than a writer. A master of French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti, Maya is a well-traveled poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, professor and civil rights activist. And here’s another fun fact: She was he first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
Lilly Ledbetter is the face of the fight for equal pay. After discovering that she had been paid less than her male colleagues at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Lilly filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and a lawsuit, which made its way to the Supreme Court. Although she ultimately lost that case, Ledbetter’s example continues to inspire those working to close the pay gap.
Sandra Day O’Connor shattered the legal profession’s glass ceiling in 1981 when she became the first female Supreme Court Justice. Her seat on our nation’s highest court has opened the door for other female justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. Among her many accomplishments, the moderate conservative O’Connor was known for carefully considering the facts and staying above the partisan fray. She tended to vote in line with her politically conservative nature, but she still considered her cases very carefully. For example, as Republicans called on the court to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, O’Connor’s vote in favor of upholding the landmark case was the deciding factor.
Angela Davis is a scholar, civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, author and rabblerouser. A member of the U.S. Communist party, she was once jailed for charges related to a prison outbreak, though was ultimately cleared of the charges. One of Davis’ most well-known books is Women, Race & Class, but Davis has spent the second half of her life working for gender equity and prison reform. Davis currently teaches at University of California, Santa Cruz.
A preeminent leader in the feminist movement for decades, bell hooks is the author of numerous books on the politics of race, gender, class and culture including familiar with her work Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which Publishers Weekly named one of the “20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years” in 1992. Outspoken and at times controversial, hooks’ advocacy is a testament to the impressively long-lasting influence of the feminism movement’s academic luminaries.
Dolores Huerta is a labor leader and civil rights activist, who alongside César Chávez, founded the National Farm Workers Association. At 83-years-old, she’s still fighting and advocating for the working poor, women and children. In 2012, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Speaking about the influence of Huerta on women, especially Hispanic women in America, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis noted in a statement that Huerta’s “passion for justice has expanded to include women’s equality, reproductive rights and LGBT issues. Her dancing eyes and sweet voice continue to inspire people across the country and around the world, just like they did for a young girl from La Puente who grew up to be the first Latina in a president’s cabinet.”
Grace Lee Boggs is an author, feminist and lifelong social justice activist. A daughter of Chinese immigrants, she developed a decades-long political relationship with the Marxist, C.L.R. James, and was very active in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Grace’s life is the subject of the award-winning documentary American Revolution.
Ann Dunwoody is the U.S. Army’s first four-star general. She joined the Army in 1974, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps in 1975. Since then, she served at every level of command, until she retired in 2012. Dunwoody’s success serves as a reminder that women are every bit as integral to the armed forces as men are. Women can also rise to the top of the military hierarchy — which is exactly what opponents seek to prevent.
Although more of a household name than many other women on this list, Gloria Steinem is a reminder that young people still don’t understand the important legacy of feminist advocates. As an organizer, journalist and activist, Steinem has played an integral role in the women’s movement for decades. In 1963, she made waves when she went undercover as a Playboy bunny and exposed the exploitative working conditions and sexual demands often made of the “bunnies.” The founder of Ms. Magazine and the Women’s Media Center, where she works to achieve equality for all people, not just women. And a better understanding of the women from this list can only help further this goal.