Women Hold Up Half the Sky

By John Hertz:  (reprinted from No Direction Home 2)  It’s Women’s History Month in the United States.  Here are some people and events worth thinking about.

Ruth and Esther are the only two women with books named for them in the Bible (i.e. the protocanonical Bible; Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians also include Judith).

Atusa, wife of Darius the Great (522-486 B.C.E.), is credited with inventing the Persian script.

Aspasia of Miletus (470-410 B.C.E.), the partner of Pericles, made her home an intellectual center, and extraordinarily established a girls’ school.

Mary (i.e. the mother of Jesus) is the only woman named in the Koran.

Hypatia of Alexandria (350-415) was the first known woman mathematician.

The first Muslim after the Prophet was a woman, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (555-619).  The person to whom the first compiled copy of the Koran was given to keep and preserve was a woman, Hafsah bint Umar (605-665).

Murasaki Shikibu (973-1014) wrote the first novel in the world, The Tale of Genji (1012).  Kawabata Yasunari (1888-1972) in his Nobel Prize lecture (Literature, 1968) called it “the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature….  down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it….  wide and deep … nourishment for poetry … fine arts … handicrafts … landscape gardening.”  Nine centuries after it was written, the great Arthur Waley (1889-1966) put it into English (1933), earning from Jorge Borges (1899-1986; “The Total Library”, 1939) “Genji, as translated by … Waley, is written with an almost miraculous naturalness….  I dare to recommend this book to those who read me.”  For a guide I recommend The World of the Shining Prince (I. Morris, 1964; the Shining Prince is Genji).

Li Ch’ing-chao (1084-1185) has been called the greatest Chinese woman poet.

We were the guests of those on swaying lotus seats.
They spoke in splendid language
Full of subtle meanings;
They argued with sharp words over paradoxes.
We drank tea brewed on living fire.

Although this might not help the Emperor to govern,
It is endless happiness.

Two of the greatest rulers in history were women, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) of England and Queen Victoria (1819-1901) of the United Kingdom.  Sir John Neale’s Queen Elizabeth (1934; after 6 Feb 52, Queen Elizabeth I) remains unsurpassed.  These two women, not only strong and powerful, but wise, have naturally been splashed by some, but as Elizabeth said (speech to joint delegation of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, 1566), “How have I governed since my reign?  I will be tried by envy itself.  I need not to use many words, for my deeds do try me.”

Jane Austen (1775-1817) has a claim to Greatest Author in History, her six novels against Lady Murasaki and Shakespeare (1564-1616).

“Pride,” observed Mary [Bennet], who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing, I believe.  By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary.  Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.  A person may be proud with-out being vain.  Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us [Pride and Prejudice ch. 5 (1813)].”

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  As senior class vice-president at a high school over 95% black, I thought an Uncle Tom was a toad — then I read the book.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman physician in the U.S. (M.D. 1849).

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), born into slavery, escaped and then on the Underground Railroad in thirteen missions rescued seventy people: William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) called her “Moses”; she never lost a passenger: later, with the Union Army, she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War, guiding the Combahee Ferry raid (1863) which freed seven hundred.  Afterward she was active for women’s suffrage.  She was the first black woman on a U.S. Postage stamp.

Edith Wharton (1862-1967) was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (Fiction; for The Age of Innocence, 1920).

Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (Physics, 1903), and is the only woman so far to win more than one (Chemistry, 1911).

Frances Perkins (1882-1965) was the first woman U.S. Cabinet member (Secretary of Labor 1933-1945, i.e. throughout F.D. Roosevelt’s presidency; The Roosevelt I Knew, 1946).

St. Teresa of Calcutta (“Mother Teresa”; 1910-1997; “Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”) was the first India woman to win a Nobel Prize (Peace, 1979). In 1931 Jane Addams (1860-1935) won the same Prize.  My grandfather worked with her at Hull House.

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) became a U.S. film star with Algiers (J. Cromwell dir. 1938); she made two dozen films; typecast as a glamorous seductress, she employed that fame to sell war bonds; Howard Hughes (1905-1976) discovered her aptitude in science and used her suggestions of streamlining in aircraft design; in 1942 she and George Antheil (1900-1959) developed spread-spectrum technology, eventually used on Navy ships (1962), then in Wi-Fi® (wireless local area networking), GPS (the Global Positioning System), and Bluetooth (short-link radio), winning the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award (1997) and placement in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (posth. 2014).

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (1937-  ) was the first woman in Space.


B.C.E. = “before the Common Era”, used by many who do not care for dates according to divinity in Jesus.

9 thoughts on “Women Hold Up Half the Sky

  1. A fascinating woman I only learned about recently is Nellie Bly (1864-1922), the first person to travel around the world in less than Jules Verne’s 80 days. And that was only one incident in a truly amazing life.

    It’s rumored that Lois Lane was loosely based on her.

  2. St Mother Teresa of Calcutta (born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, now in North Macedonia, f.d. 5 September) was Albanian; but she lived most of her life in India and became an Indian citizen.

  3. nit: “BCE” is also used by people who know that the monk who calculated “BC” and “AD” got them wrong.

    For some reason I keep forgetting that Lamarr invented frequency-hopping rather than a bombsight.

    My favorite less-realized person: Rosalind Franklin, whose work on the structure of DNA was … under-recognized.

  4. I don’t know about best but I believe Agatha Christie is the best selling author of all time.

  5. Enheduanna, high priestess of Ishtar, and the first writer whose name we know. Lived in the 23rd century BCE.

    Emmy Noether, who showed that symmetries in physics result in conservation laws.

  6. The first African-American singer ever recorded was Mamie Smith, and she sang on the first blues song ever recorded, “Crazy Blues.” In 1920.

    First woman to receive an Oscar for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, in 2010.

  7. The actor with the most Oscar wins is Katharine Hepburn, with 4 (out of 12 nominations).

    The woman with the most Oscars is Edith Head, with 11, all for costume design (Walt Disney had 22, but I’m not sure how many people there are in between them.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.