The Heroines Time Forgot
Women have been jumping hurdles and breaking barriers since time immemorial. Unfortunately, some of these brave and heroic women seem to have slipped the history books. Here, I commemorate some forgotten heroines the world over.
Beyonce may have made the term ‘slaying it’ popular but it seems our Queen Bey was simply emulating many women who have come before her. Women have ‘slayed’ the scene and paved the way for future females to really bring their A-game and give men a run for their money in a variety of fields; be it sport, politics, monarchy or battle, for centuries. However, the history books (which may very well have been written by men) have decided to leave their names aside or relegated them to the side lines.
To this day, there has been a somewhat patriarchal rhetoric in the way women are portrayed both in the media and in the history records. In the recent Olympics, female sporting champions and their achievements have often been referred to as second only to their husbands (who may have coached them but by no means were responsible for their victories) or their fashion choices. Females in positions of power are often berated for their determination to climb their way to the top and are single-handedly dismissed by being referred to as any number of derogatory names.
It saddens me that little girls have a whole album of heroines that they could (and should) be looking up to but these awesome women have simply been ignored, devoiding a whole generation of learning about them and taking inspiration from them. And even as we lament the missed opportunity of having the first female president of the United States, little girls out there must remember their worth. As Hillary Clinton put it, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams.”
And so, I have scoured the internet for some of these heroines that deserve at least a worthy mention and have come up with a list of 5 of my favourite forgotten females who ‘slayed’. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Annie Smith Peck (1850 – 1935)
In her heyday, Annie Smith Peck was as famous an explorer as you can find and she rose to fame when she climbed the Matterhorn mountain in 1895. This was a day and age when women could be arrested for wearing men’s clothing but Annie did the climb in trousers as she thought it ludicrous that women had to conform to wearing skirts when attempting outdoor activities. A lifelong adventurer and supporter of the women’s suffragette movement, Annie defied all the rules and was revered not just in the USA where she was from but also in South America. She was the first woman to scale Mount Huascarán, the highest peak in Peru and even has one of the peaks named after her. She led her own expeditions, didn’t believe in marriage, was an influential scholar as well as continued to climb up to the age of 82! Annie was definitely scaling heights in more ways than one before her time.
2. Lyudmila Pavlichenko (1916 – 1974)
One of my favourite stories that has emerged in recent times is about one of the deadliest women that ever lived. She may have been responsible for an unimaginable amount of deaths but this is one woman defied all convention and took on a job few men would ever have the courage to even think about – that of an expert sniper. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born a Ukrainian and joined the Soviet Union’s Red Army. At 14, upon hearing a boy boast about his prowess at the shooting range, Lyudmila thought to herself that a girl could do just as well and she started to practice her shooting skills. A few years later, when WW2 has broken out and Hitler had set his sights on invading the Soviet Union, the Red Army were hesitant about letting Lyudmila, a girl who looked more cut out to be a model than to be a sniper join their ranks. She passed any test they had set for her and subsequently went on to kill 187 Germans in her first 75 days at war.
Lyudmila soon became so feared as she not only shot German soldiers but also took out some of their most skilled snipers, that the Germans tried to bribe her and often spoke to her directly through loudspeakers trying to coax her to join them instead. Lyudmila stayed true to her army though and by the end of the war had a total number of 309 Nazi kills including 36 snipers. Her reputation was so great that she was also the first Soviet woman to be invited to the White House where she met Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. There she spoke of her incredible journey and in the midst found her voice with the First Lady cheering her on. Lyudmila even took on sexist journalists who were more interested in questioning her about her appearance rather than her accomplishments but she soon found a way to ‘shoot’ them down figuratively!
Read about Lyudmila’s incredible story in illustrations here:
3. Fatima al-Fihri (circa 800 – 880)
Did you know the oldest university in the world was founded by a woman? Fatima al-Fihri was born to a wealthy family who were from Karaouine which is in present day Tunisia. Fatima had one sister Maryam and the family later moved to Fez in Morocco, a bustling city at the time and the perfect place for their father, a member of nobility and successful businessman to expand his business. The girls were both pious Muslims and were committed to giving back to community by patronising the Islamic arts, culture, architecture and religious learning.
As Fatima’s father and husband had both passed away early on, she was bequeathed with a sizeable fortune, she used her financial independence to construct the great Qarawiyyin Mosque. The mosque soon became the religious hub of Fez and around it Fatima had begun to construct schools or madrasas that would attract intelligent minds from all around the land. Soon this became what we now know as the University of Al-Qarawiyyin and is even in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world! The university still stands today in the form of a giant library…What an amazing contribution to education!
4. Murasaki Shikibu (973 – circa 1025)
This heroine was famous for writing on of Japan’s foremost literary works and probably what is believed to be the first written novel in human history! Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji while she was believed to be writing a series of poetry while serving in court. Her father was a scholar and often taught the Chinese language to Murasaki’s brother. Women were not allowed to learn the language in those days as it was considered the language that only men could use and women were not given that privilege. Murasaki however learned it by secretly listening in on the lessons taught to her brother by her father and became highly proficient. She later taught it to the Empress Shoshi whom she served in court. This caused further outrage but Murasaki was determined to expand her knowledge of the arts and literature.
Murasaki continued to be a prolific novelist while serving in court as she found court life to be frivolous and was thought to lament that she wrote so much because there was nothing to do as a lady in waiting! She had started The Tale Of Genji before she served in court but most of the novel is loosely based on her observations while serving under the Empress Akiko.
The most astonishing part about this little known heroine however, might be that for all that has been documented about her, nobody ever really knew her real name! Murasaki was a character in her novel while Shikibu simply refers to the position her father held in court. It was considered normal for daughters of the time to remain anonymous and Murasaki Shikibu was simply a nickname that this heroine had gotten from her literary works.
5. The West Computers (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden)
This group of young, intelligent African American women may now be immortalised in a Hollywood film about their lives but for decades their story was never told and their pivotal roles in science and space exploration may have very well been forgotten. This group of incredibly intelligent women were among the first black women to be employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor to NASA) in the 1940s. Among them were Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectory of the moon landing and was instrumental in many of NASA’s first space programmes, Mary Jackson who was among the first African American women to work as an engineer, Dorothy Vaughan who was the first African American manager at NASA, and Christine Darden, an aeronautical engineer and data analyst who pioneered work on sonic booms.
These women defied all the odds in a time when only 2% of black women went to university and even fewer were employed for jobs other than teachers. The women were employed as human ‘computers’ and were meant to crunch numbers for the development of aerospace technology. Despite both racist and sexist sentiments, the West Computers went on to make significant achievements both in aeronautics and in paving the way for other black women to succeed in a field that was usually reserved for not only men but also whites only.
While many of these achievements have been unrecognised for decades, the recent book Hidden Figures written by Margot Lee Shetterly has now been made into a film and tells of their incredible yet iridescent journey of just some of these pioneering women.
For more interesting information:
- The Unwanted Widows of India
- Agvan Dorjiev: The Diplomat Monk
- Heart to Heart with Teresa Hsu Book Review
- Mr. Sugihara- Conspiracy of Kindness- MUST WATCH!!!
- A Mighty Girl
- Neerja Bhanot – A Selfless Heroine
- Boo! Why Do We Love The Things That Scare Us?
- Why Are Roshi Jiyu Kennett’s Disciples So Reclusive?
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma:
If you are in the United States, please note that your offerings and contributions are tax deductible. ~ the tsemrinpoche.com blog team