22 Fascinating Historical Women to Learn about in 2022 (and Beyond!)
Happy Women's History Month! Although I've done a lot of writing and podcasting about women in history over the years, there are always more that I'd like to study. Some I may already know a lot about, but want to know more, while others I have only encountered in passing and they really deserve a deep dive. My list keeps growing, too, because every time I study a new area of history I uncover more people I want to learn about in the future.
For this post, instead of telling you about women whose lives I have already covered elsewhere, I've selected 22 women I hope to learn more about in the future. Maybe you know all about some of them and can tell me where I should look to learn more, or maybe they will be new to you, too, and inspire future research. Every woman (or group of women) on this list is fascinating in her own right, and I am happy to have this platform to mention them even if I still have a lot of work to do to learn more about them myself.
Which historical women do you wish you knew more about?
Samsui Women (1930s+) A few years ago, a friend of mine from Singapore who knows I love Starbucks bearistas sent me an adorable bearista figure made to hang off the side of a mug. The bear wore red on her head and was carrying a basket. My friend told me that she was a Samsui woman, an important part of Singapore's history. Of course, I was intrigued, and ever since I've wanted to learn more. Samsui women were women who went from China to Singapore, largely beginning in the 1930s, often living communally and working in construction. My friend called them 'the women who built Singapore' (a sentiment shared by the BBC), and the red headgear on my little bearista is a depiction of their trademark clothing.
(Dihya) al-Kahina (600s) The Museum of the Jewish People calls (Dihya) al-Kahina the 'Jewish Khaleesi', which was enough to pique my interest for sure. al-Kahina was a 7th-century Berber Queen and to learn about her one needs to try and separate fact from legend. A prophetess and a strong leader, she defended her lands from encroaching opposition and then expanded her own holdings, but ultimately passed away in battle against the persistent caliphate. According to Medievalists.net, her defeat did little to tarnish her reputation and she is an icon to many groups touched by her life story.
Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine (1652-1722) The television series Versailles is one of my favorite historical dramas. I've watched it all the way through multiple times. Although I've always had interest in Louis XIV of France and those around him, it wasn't until I watched that program that I gave much thought to the woman called Liselotte. Liselotte was the second wife of Louis XIV's brother Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Despite having three children together, their marriage was not a great success, however, very significantly, she was an extensive and detail-oriented writer which gave historians important insight into life at court. Her husband may not have appreciated her, but I certainly do.
Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Consort of Prussia (1776-1810) Louise (or Luise) was only thirty-four when she passed away, but she was a queen consort who had displayed significant influence with her husband (King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia) and was as respected for her intelligence and determination as she was admired for her beauty. Louise has been in the realm of my awareness for a long time, as she pops up in every biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, where it is always noted that she met with him at Tilsit on behalf of Prussian interests and severely hated him. I spend a great deal of my time researching the Bonapartes, but of all Napoleon's opponents, she may be the one who intrigues me the most.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1895-1915) At the end of last year I came across the story of Susan La Flesche Picotte, and was annoyed that I hadn't learned about her earlier. Susan is regularly recognized as the first Native American to receive a medical degree (she graduated first in her class in 1889 from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania). A member of the Omaha tribe, Susan brought her medical knowledge back to her home region and eventually opened a hospital there in 1913. That hospital is now the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Center, "a community center and wellness clinic for the Omaha tribe and the residents of the Walthill area."
Marian Anderson (1897-1993) When I was first learning how to sing, my voice teacher told me that for every musical theater song I wanted to undertake, I had to counter it with a classical piece. As a result, I've always enjoyed looking into the lives of opera singers, and contralto Marian Anderson is one of them. Every year I tweet about her being the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which she received for her dedication to the performing arts and humanitarian issues. She famously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and was the first African American to sing a leading role with the Metropolitan Opera. Calling her an impressive barrier breaker is an understatement.
Emma Azalia Smith Hackley (1867-1922) E. Azalia Smith Hackley is the woman whose life I encountered most recently. I came across her when I was reading about Marian Anderson, because she was mentioned as one of Marian's voice teachers. A talented performer and teacher, E. Azalia graduated from the Denver University School of Music, was also an activist (she founded a branch of the Colored Women's League in Denver) and served as an editor for the Statesman. Notably, E. Azalia was a major supporter of emerging African-American composers who also dedicated her life to preserving jubilee songs and spirituals and the Detroit Public Library has honored her by giving her name to the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts.
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1889) My introduction to Rosa Bonheur came years ago when I was reading a biography of France's Empress Eugenie. The connection was that Eugenie decorated Rosa with France's Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur), making her the first female artist to receive it. Bonheur was a lover of animals, which showed in her artwork (she became particularly known for her depictions of horses) and according to London's National Gallery she, "lived unconventionally – she wore her hair short, smoked, and lived with her female companion, Nathalie Micas."
Astrid of Sweden, Queen Consort of Belgium (1905-1935) I came across Astrid while looking up items for Footnoting History's twitter account and I was immediately intrigued. Born Stockholm, Astrid was married to Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium in the 1920s. Astrid became known for her interest in the social issues impacting her people and the couple ascended to the Belgian throne in 1934, but the following year, she was killed in a car accident.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the most famous American poets to ever live, I know. But poetry has never been a big interest of mine (in truth, it's probably the last thing I choose to read). Then, in 2014, I saw Joely Richardson play Emily in an Off-Broadway one-woman show called The Belle of Amherst. It was the first time I ever encountered anything beyond her famous poems, and I was fascinated by her later years, in particular. Plus, as someone who suffered with a horrible bout of iritis in 2005 that caused me extreme pain when exposed to any light, I was really enthralled when I learned that it might have been the cause of her eye issues.
Kalama Hakaleleponi Kapakuhaili, Hawaiian Queen Consort (c1817-1807) Many times, in the course of my work for Footnoting History's social media pages, I have come across information about Hawaii's Queen Emma. Then, one day, I went down a rabbit hole, clicking my way through short biographies of the royals and landing on Kalama, Queen consort to King Kamehameha III. From what I've read, their marriage was scandalous because it was a love match, and she was not considered the best choice. Kalama outlived both her husband and the nephew they adopted as heir (King Kamehameha IV, Emma's husband). She was immediately added to my must-research list.
Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948) Many years ago, I attended the premiere production of Frank Wildhorn's musical Waiting for the Moon (later reworked and renamed more than once, I believe). It featured absolutely stunning music and told the story of Zelda Fitzgerald, largely known in the modern day as 'F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife'. But, Zelda was (unsurprisingly) fascinating and had enough drama in her life to, well, fill a whole musical. I've always meant to do a deeper dive into her story, and to read her novel, Save Me the Waltz.
Joan of Wales (d. 1237) One of the main reasons I went to grad school for medieval history was because I read Sharon Kay Penman's novel Here Be Dragons. In it, you encounter Joanna (Joan), the illegitimate daughter of King John of England, who was married off to Welsh prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llewelyn Fawr (aka Llewelyn the Great). In the novel she is a wonderful, fleshed-out character, and that made me interested in the real woman, who appears to have been just as complex as her fictional counterpart. We know that Joan was regularly an intermediary between her husband and father, and later her husband and half-brother King Henry III. Further, she is often referred to by her Welsh name (Siwan) and a man was executed in 1230 for having an affair with her.
The Women Soldiers of Dahomey (1800s+) In western Africa, Dahomey (now Benin) was home to "the only female soldiers in the world who then routinely served as combat troops." The women were technically married to the king, but Smithsonian Magazine pointed out that he never touched them, which meant they were supposed to be celibate. It's impossible not to be wowed by these women who often entered the service in their teens, were considered more impressive than their male counterparts, and lived in isolation - devoted entirely to the art of war. If you want to know how fierce they were, in the late 1800s, when the French defeated them, "each allowed herself to be seduced by French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet." Badass.
Jaymala Shiledar (1926-2013) Performing artists are some of my favorite people, and always a source of great interest to me. When I agreed to write a series of monologues for 365 Women a Year, Jaymala Shiledar was one of the women assigned to me as a topic, and I am so glad she was. I jumped into reading about her and learned that she had been given an award for her life's work dedicated to Marathi music/theater. When she received the Padma Shri, she said, "I am overwhelmed by the honour. It is the acknowledgment of my contribution to theatre and I feel happy because the recognition has come from the Union government. I consider this a national recognition of Marathi theatre." She was a performer, a mentor, and an educator dedicated to the preservation and continuation of Marathi theater.
Julie Le Brun (1780-1819) In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a beautiful exhibition of the works of artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. I was excited to go and see some of her pieces that I had only ever seen on the internet (like portraits of Marie Antoinette and Caroline Murat) but once I was there the source of my fascination were the paintings of Julie Le Brun, Elisabeth's daughter. There were multiple, depicting her at various ages (including the one of child Julie shown here) and I spent a long time studying them, because while Elisabeth is very famous, one almost never hears about Julie. Maybe there's a reason for it. Julie went against her mother's wishes when she married, and the two sometimes had a contentious relationship.
Isabel Neville (1451-1476) I've done extensive research on Anne Neville, Queen consort of King Richard III of England, both out of general personal interest and for Footnoting History. There are major gaps in what we know about Anne's life, and just as many (honestly, more) regarding her elder sister, Isabel, who was married to Richard's brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Most of what you hear about her comes from her relation to George or Anne, and she doesn't even have a solo entry in the Dictionary of National Biography...but if ever a full biography of her is written, I would happily read it.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) My introduction to China's Empress Dowager Cixi came from reading numerous articles about Jung Chang's Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China when it was published in 2013. Almost every time I encounter her name, it is attached to the word 'controversial', which always sparks my interest. Cixi began, as the book's subtitle suggests, as one of the concubines of the Emperor. As the only woman out of his wives and concubines to give him a son, when the boy became the new Emperor, she rose with him and ruled as regent during his tenure and, after he passed, during her nephew's as well. Suspicious deaths and curious circumstances surround events in her adult life, but there's no questioning that she was a force to be reckoned with for about 50 years. Who wouldn't want to learn about that?
Constance Lloyd Wilde (1858-1898) In 2016, I was in Dublin for the centennial of the Easter Rising and I visited Merrion Square Park. While there, I saw the Oscar Wilde Monument, an impressive three-sculpture piece by Danny Osborne. The main focal point is a lounging Oscar Wilde, the incredibly quotable writer, but the piece that drew my eye was of Wilde's wife, Constance. She is kneeling, nude, and pregnant, gazing over her shoulder at her husband. According to the artist, "It is significant that Oscar's first homosexual encounter occurred when she was at this stage of pregnancy with her second child. Here the figure is complete and realistic, and represents the tyranny of fact, and Oscar is not looking at her but beyond her." Although it has been several years now since I encountered this sculpture, I think of it often, and it certainly sparked my interest in the life of the woman who married Oscar Wilde.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) The same friend who sent me the Samsui woman bearista unintentionally introduced me to Tove Jansson. My friend had this sweet little plush that looks somewhat like a white hippopotamus but not exactly, and she carries a purse. I thought she was so lovely that I had to ask about her. She is a Moomin, specifically she is Moominmamma. Unfortunately, Moomins are not huge in the US (yet?), but I had to investigate them. They are popular characters in books and comics created by award-winning Finnish writer-artist Tove Jansson. I think Moomins are so wonderful, that I am eager to learn more about their creator.
Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi (1827/1828–1858) I decided a few years ago that I wanted to know more about Indian history, and that led me to India's warrior queen, Lakshmibai (alternately, Lakshmi Bai). She was a leader during the rebellion against the British Raj in 1857, and according to ODNB, one example of her leadership is that, "during the battle...at Kotah-ki-sarai on 17 June 1858—Lakshmi Bai, now entrusted with the command of the forces, mounted on horseback, and clad in her usual military uniform—a red jacket, trousers, and a white turban—encouraged them throughout the day." Later, Lakshmibai became a symbol of India's independence movement. During the Second World War, the Indian National Army chose her name to attach to its women's regiment. Pretty epic, if you ask me.
Clara Bow (1905-1965) Known as Hollywood's original 'It' girl, Clara became famous as the star of silent films. However, according to ANB, "Bow had long feared that she might inherit her mother’s mental instability, and with the onset of talking motion pictures she began to suffer nervous breakdowns." Though Clara did appear in several 'talkies', she never returned to the level of fame she had during the heyday of the silent era, when she was often viewed as a sexual icon and the quintessential flapper.
Do you love learning about women in history? I have so much more to learn about all of these complicated ladies, but now I want to know: who do you love to study and who do you want to learn more about?