Behind Every Man: The Hidden Women of History

Women in history, behind every man

We all know the saying “Behind every great man is a great woman.” But the quote may be more appropriate as “Every great woman has a man step in front of her and take all the credit.” It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but is certainly true. History is full of women forgotten and discredited by their male peers. Here’s a list of ten (thankfully unruly women) that barely scratches the surface of the great women of history overlooked for their contributions.

Hedy Lamarr

The Austrian starlet pushed buttons with her risqué work in films like Samson and Delilah and Ecstasy. Though she’s easily remembered today as one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history, she should be revered for getting your wireless network to function. In 1941, Hedy and her friend George Anthiel invented a “Secret Communication System” that manipulated radio frequencies to create an unbreakable code to prevent covert messages from being intercepted. At the time, the military didn’t find use for the technology and downplayed Hedy Lamarr’s work, giving most of the credit to Anthiel. Yet this “spread spectrum” technology has lead to all wireless communication.  So, every time you steal your neighbors wi-fi, you should be thanking Hedy Lamarr.

Mary Edwards

In 1773, John Edwards started working as a human computer for the British Almamac. Now, human computer wasn’t some kind of steam punk android, it was the term at the time for “person who computes,” and in John’s case, he calculated the position of the sun, moon, and stars. When he died, Mary Edwards asked if she could take over, which was an easy task because she was doing most of her husbands calculations while he was employed at the Almanac. She gained a reputation as an excellent computer, worked full time as one of very few women in the world employed in the scientific fields, and trained her daughter Eliza, who took over after her mothers death. Mary was a pioneer of science and is the coolest person to be called a human computer.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Yes, there is another exceptional Mary Edwards. This Mary Edwards was a nurse for the union in the Civil War and taken by the South as a prisoner of war. Historical rumor has it that Mary was purposely captured to act as a spy for the Union, though this is unconfirmed. In 1865, she was the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but God forbid a woman get her due. In 1917, the criteria for the Medal of Honor was changed and Dr. Walker’s was revoked. Though they asked for the medal back, Mary refused and wore it proudly until her death two years later. In 1977, her honor was posthumously reinstated making her the only woman in the history of the United States to get the Medal of Honor. Maybe we can get that number up to two women in the next 150 years.

Margaret Keane

In the 1960’s, a boom of paintings with children with cartoonishly large eyes and sad faces took America by storm and Keane became one of the most successful artists of the time. Yet, all the credit went to Walter Keane, the husband with no artistic talent who took all the money and acclaim. After a divorce, Margaret went public that she was the real artist behind the Big Eyes phenomenon. She sued her ex-husband, where the judge insisted they have a paint-off in court to prove who was telling the truth. Walter claimed he couldn’t paint due to shoulder pain. The fact he couldn’t think of a less lame excuse should have been proof enough, but Margaret painted a signature child in 53 minutes and won her case and $4 million in damages. Of course, a woman couldn’t get away rich, as an appeals court upheld that Margaret was the true artist but overturned the monetary award.

Edith Wilson

First Lady Edith Wilson was a rich widow, who before she married Woodrow Wilson, made waves in Washington D.C. by being the first woman to drive a car. She fell in love with a widowed Wilson and married three months after meeting, right as he was ending his first term in office. Sadly, Woodrow Wilson suffered a terrible stroke. After the stroke, Wilson was bedridden and Edith became the conduit to all information for the President. All papers, matters, and advisors had to go through her and she alone would decide if the matter was important enough to go to the President in his diminished capacity. For all intents and purposes, Edith acted as President for the last year and a half of Wilson’s term.  Sadly, little is taught about Edith, possibly to make more time to learn about Jackie O being so pretty and how First Ladies make such nice hosts for the important men of the world.

Mary Anderson

Another amazing Mary. One day, Mary Anderson noticed street car drivers having to stop and remove snow from their windshields during a storm and she was struck with a brilliant idea. In 1903, she got a 20-year patent for windshield wipers. She tried to sell the idea at the time, but experts felt it wasn’t necessary for the auto industry and it was never sold. When the patent ran out in 1920, the consumer automobile industry started to boom and her now free idea was quickly adapted. Though she is an example of another forgotten woman, the man who invented the intermittent windshield wipers also got completely screwed, so maybe the auto industry is terrible to everyone.

Trota of Salerno

The idea of a female doctor in the 11th century already sounds incredible, but Trota of Salerno was an accomplished OBGYN and wrote a seminal work on women’s health during the Middle Ages. Known as the Tortula, the three-part text is one first medical works focusing on women. Though Trota wrote one of the parts and even refers to the author as a woman, many assumed it was written by a man due to it’s frank medical discourse. A lady couldn’t possibly discuss such gross things! Though little else is known of Trota, it is well known that her contributions were overlooked and claimed by others making her a pioneer of getting shafted.

Cecilia Payne

Science has not been kind to women. In 1925, Cecilia Payne discovered what elements made up the stars. When she turned in this paper to her male reviewer, he advised her not to publish it because it went against the common theories of the time and would certainly be ridiculed. Somehow, he had a change of heart because four years later he published a paper about the composition of the sun that came to her exact conclusions. Despite being disregarded and having her ideas stolen, Cecilia continued her work and paved a way for many future female astronomers.

Margaret Rossiter

Why were so many female scientists side lined? Margaret Rossiter leans towards  the Matilda Effect, “is the systematic repression and denial of the contribution of woman scientists in research, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues.” Rossiter came to this conclusion when she began to study the history of female scientists and found how many were overshadowed, discredited, or had their work abjectly stolen. She published a book about this phenomenon and despite great reviews, no one in science or history seemed to care. After years of studying the history of this neglected group, writing more acclaimed papers and books and winning a MacArthur Grant (you know, the Genius Grant), she still couldn’t get tenured position at any University. It seemed the Matilda Effect was applicable to Margaret, too. Luckily, the University of Georgia was smart enough to hire her and create a History of Science Department with Rossiter as the chair.  Now it’ll be pretty hard for a male colleague to take credit for work in a department that she created.

Alice Bradley Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jr.

Many female authors of history have used male pen names to hide their real identity and enjoy some of the fruits of being men. Even J.K. Rowling had to go with J.K., so little boys wouldn’t freak out at the idea of reading words that a lady wrote. Alice Bradley Sheldon was a graphic designer, artist, and member of the Air Force who began to write science fiction. Known most for her short stories, her work was acclaimed in the late 60’s and 70’s. But why the pen name? She once said, “ A male name seemed like good camouflage…I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” So Alice wanted to do something the easy way for once by giving the credit to a fictional man.  Her real identity wasn’t discovered until after her death. Though her pseudonym lives on, now everyone knows James was really Alice as James Tiptree Jr. is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and an award in her name is honored every year for science fiction works that expand our ideas of gender.

For these ladies, life was a lesson in paving roads unfettered that left a wonderful piece of history for the rest of us. It’s tiring always being a pioneer and we often forget the hardships these brave women faced being amongst the first of their field, not to be forgotten and certainly not uninspiring!

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