Women's History Profiles

Some Familiar Names… and Some You May Not Yet Know 

As we celebrate Women’s History Month at FRCC, it’s important to look to our past—as well as to the future. In that vein, a colleague and I spent some time researching a number of pioneering women and their achievements.  

We encountered some very familiar names, but also found some that we didn’t know much about (or hadn’t heard of before). As a society, there is always more we can learn about women’s history—and, of course, we can and should do that year-round. 

As a step toward getting started, below we feature 10 great women and their remarkable accomplishments. The idea is to spark your interest, in hopes that you might be inspired to learn more on your own. We start with some historical names from the past—and work our way up to modern times. 

Mary Somerville—Mathematician, Scientist, Writer

Mary Somerville (née Fairfax) was born in 1780 in Scotland. Somerville’s mother taught her to read but saw no need for her to be able to write. Somerville started educating herself by reading every book she could find. Many of her family considered this unladylike and she was encouraged to focus on supposedly more appropriate skills.  

With this in mind, Somerville was given lessons by the artist Alexander Nasmyth who, unintentionally, led Somerville to become interested in mathematics. Nasmyth explained to another pupil that Euclid’s Elements could help them understand perspective in painting, as well as in astronomy and other sciences. On overhearing this, Somerville decided to study Euclid’s book. 

Somerville married Samuel Greig. She quickly found that her husband didn’t understand her desire for knowledge. Greig died 3 years into the marriage, leaving Somerville with two young children. In 1812, Mary Somerville married again, to William Somerville, who was supportive of her desire to study. 

In 1826, Somerville published her first of many papers. In 1827, Somerville translated Laplace’s “Mécanique Céleste”, adding detailed explanations of the mathematics. In 1834, she published a book that considered the existence of a planet that was later discovered and named Uranus.  

In 1835, she joined Caroline Herschel in being the first women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville died in 1872 at the age of 91.  

Her interest in mathematics and support for women’s education is still acknowledged. For example, one of the women’s colleges at Oxford University is named Somerville College, there is a Somerville Room in the Scottish Parliament and she has appeared on Scottish £10 notes. 

Ada Lovelace—World’s First Computer Programmer 

Augusta Ada Lovelace (née Byron)—who eventually became known as Ada Lovelace—was born in 1815. Her parents separated when Lovelace was only a few weeks old. Her father, the famous poet Lord Byron, left England a few months later and never saw his daughter again. 

From an early age, Lovelace showed a talent for numbers and language. At around 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, and the two became friends. Babbage is known as the father of the computer. (He invented the two large mechanical computers designed to handle complex mathematical calculations.) 

In 1842, Lovelace was asked to translate an article on Babbage’s analytical engine from French to English. While doing this, she added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine—and the appendices she wrote ended up being three times longer than the original article. Her work was published in 1843, but Lovelace was only credited by her initials A.A.L. 

In these notes, Ada Lovelace gave a detailed method for calculating a sequence of numbers known as Bernoulli numbers. Unfortunately, the analytical engine was never actually built—but it is thought that Lovelace’s method would have run correctly. This method is recognized as the world’s first computer program. 

Lovelace’s work attracted little attention while she was alive. Her contributions to computer science were not really discovered until the 1950s, 100 years after her death in 1852. Since then, Ada Lovelace has received many honors for her work: The United States Department of Defense uses a computer language named Ada and the British Computer Society now awards the annual Lovelace Medal

Amelia Earhart—Aviation Pioneer 

Amelia Earhart was a pioneering American aviator and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She clocked up many more firsts in aviation but was lost during a round-the-world flight in 1937. 

Earhart went on her first plane ride in 1920 – an experience that prompted her to take flying lessons. In 1921, she bought her first plane, a Kinner Airster, and two years later, she earned her pilot’s license. 

In 1928, Earhart was invited to take part in a historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean. She was the navigator of the flight, along with pilot Bill Stultz and co-pilot Slim Gordon. They made the flight in an airplane called Friendship.  

On June 18, 1928, after 21 hours of flying, the plane landed in Wales. She was the first woman to make the flight across the Atlantic. However, Earhart wanted to make the same trip solo. 

On 20th May, 1932, she took off from Newfoundland, but plagued by bad weather, she had to cut the flight short and landed in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, Earhart became only the second person, after Charles Lindbergh, to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. 

Earhart still wasn’t satisfied and wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world. On June 1, 1937, she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, took off from Miami, Florida. They flew a number of flights, eventually getting all the way across Africa and Asia to New Guinea in the South Pacific.  

On July 2, they took off from New Guinea to fly to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, but they were never seen again and eventually were both declared dead. 

Anne Frank—Fighting for Dignity in the Face of Extraordinary Persecution

Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929. When she was young, her parents moved the family to Amsterdam in the hope of finding safety from the rising antisemitism in Germany.  

For her 13th birthday in 1942, Anne received a red plaid notebook with a metal lock from her father, Otto. While in hiding, she wrote a narrative of her life, filling the pages with everything from daily happenings and complaints about her family to musings on life and the nature of humanity, addressing each letter to her imaginary recipient, ‘Kitty.’  

After the start of the World War II in 1939, the rights of Jewish people in the Netherlands were steadily revoked. In July 1942—a day after Anne’s sister received a call demanding she report to a German work-camp—the family went into hiding.  

The Franks, along with the Van Pels family (and later dentist Fritz Pfeffer), moved into the “secret annex” above Otto’s office—a set of hidden rooms, complete with a movable bookcase blocking the entrance. In preparation for a life in hiding, her parents had been secretly sending furniture, supplies, blankets and food to the annex.  

They had to be careful to be silent during working hours, as people continued working in the office, and only a few of the employees knew the Franks were there. In September 1944, the Annex was stormed by German police.  

The Franks were sent to a transit camp, and then to the concentration camp Auschwitz. The next month, Anne and her sister were transported to another camp, Bergen-Belsen. In early 1945, she died during a typhus epidemic, just months before the camp was liberated by British and Canadian troops.  

After the tragic deaths of Anne, her mother, her sister, the Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer, Anne’s father found the diary, and eventually published it. Since then, the book has been read by millions of people, and Anne has been listed as one of the icons of the 20th century for her fight for dignity in the face of extraordinary persecution. 

Katherine Johnson—NASA’s Mission Critical Human Computer 

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia. From a young age, Katherine loved math. She even started high school early, when she was just 10 years old, and started taking college classes to become a mathematician at 15. 

Katherine first worked as a teacher, but when she was 34, she heard that NACA (later called NASA) was hiring African American women to solve math problems, as ‘computers.’ (At this time, the word ‘computer’ didn’t yet refer to electronic machines, but to people who carried out calculations.)  

Katherine applied for one of the jobs, but they were already taken. She applied again the next year—and this time, she was hired. She worked with other female African American mathematicians on topics such as aerodynamics. 

America had yet to put a human into space, and NACA was still trying to figure out the math behind calculating a safe trajectory—all the factors that affected a flight so that the astronaut could land safely. Katherine’s skill with mathematics—particularly geometry—made her ideal for this work. However, racial segregation between white and African Americans was still legally enforced at this time. 

Katherine’s assertiveness and mathematical abilities helped her overcome some of these barriers, and she was reassigned to work on guidance and flight control in a group staffed by white male engineers. 

Katherine continued working for NASA (after it was formed from NACA). She calculated the trajectory for the first American in space—and when electronic computers were first introduced, she double checked their calculations. (In fact, astronaut John Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine had checked the results). 

She helped calculate the trajectory of flights to the moon, including Apollo 13. She continued working for NASA until 1988. 

Aretha Franklin—Singer and Performer Extraordinaire

Aretha Franklin grew up singing gospel music, touring with her father, a Baptist preacher. A gifted pianist, she was mostly self taught—and many considered her a child prodigy.  

Franklin gave birth to her first son at age 12. (She would eventually have three more boys.) She was 14 when she recorded some of her earliest songs and released her first album in 1956. 

Aretha achieved her first number one in the pop and R&B charts in 1967 when she released her single ‘Respect.’ The song was a powerful anthem and led Franklin to be recognized as a symbol for feminism and civil rights. She received her first two awards for the song.  

In 1987, Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This was a huge achievement and a major step for women in the recording industry—as well as official recognition for her phenomenal contributions to modern music.  

During her career, Franklin won 20 awards, including one for lifetime achievement. She has won 18 Grammy awards, making her one of the most honored singers in history. 

Patricia Era Bath—Doctor Who Revolutionized Cataract Surgery

Patricia Era Bath grew up in a poverty-stricken area of New York City where children, especially girls, did not often continue into higher education or professional careers. The closest high schools to her home only allowed boys or wealthy White families to attend, so Bath had to travel outside of her neighborhood to continue her studies.  

Bath received a degree in chemistry, then began a doctorate degree at Howard University College of Medicine. Most doctors and medical students at this time were men.  

Female students faced additional restrictions, such as not being allowed to sit in the front row during lectures. Despite the discrimination she faced, Bath graduated with honors in 1968.  

Bath returned to New York to undertake an internship at Harlem Hospital Center. While working in the eye clinic, she noticed that Black people were losing their eyesight at higher rates than people of other ethnicities.  

Her research showed that Black people were twice as likely to suffer from blindness as White people and eight times as likely to suffer from glaucoma. Bath thought that these high rates were likely due to poor access to eye care, leading her to develop systems to offer preventative eye care and treatment to people living in deprived areas.  

In 1973, Bath became the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency at New York University. A year later, she became the first full-time female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute.  

In 1981, Bath began working on a device to remove cataracts using a less painful method than the one that was being used at the time. She completed her invention in 1986. In 1988, she became the first Black female doctor in the USA to receive a medical patent. 

Mae Jemison—Engineer, Physician, Astronaut

In high school, Mae Jemison became interested in biochemical engineering—and at the age of 16, she enrolled at Stanford University to study this subject. In 1977, she was awarded degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies.  

During her college years, Jemison also devoted time to theatre and dance. Her passion for dance meant that she would eventually have to choose between being a doctor or a professional dancer.  

Having chosen to be a doctor, Jemison went on to attend Cornell University where she gained a doctorate in medicine. She began work as a general practitioner in a medical center.  

Her real interest lay in international medicine, and she worked for two years as a medical officer for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  

Jemison eventually decided to follow her dream of travelling to space. She applied to NASA’s astronaut training program—and in 1987, she became one of only 15 people admitted from more than 2,000 applicants. She was the first Black woman to be admitted.  

In September 1992, she became the first Black woman to go into space. aboard the Endeavour space shuttle. Mae Jemison spent eight days in space aboard the shuttle Endeavor, along with six other astronauts.  

She was a mission specialist, carrying out experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. In March 1993, Jemison retired from NASA.  

Today, she runs her own research and development technology company: The Jemison Group. Her company’s projects focus on improving healthcare and technology in the developing countries of the world.  

Her incredible achievements have led her to have the honor of being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame

Malala Yousafzai—Human Rights Activist & Nobel Laureate

Malala Yousafzai was just 15 years old when she was shot because she had spoken out for the right of girls to be educated. Now she helps girls all over the world to go to school.  

Yousafzai was born in 1997, in Mingora, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She is now a human rights activist who fights for the rights of girls and women to receive an education. She is the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.  

Her father was a teacher who ran a school for girls, which she attended. However, many Pakistani girls did not attend school.  

When the Taliban—a fundamentalist religious movement—began to take control of the area where Yousafzai lived, they demanded that all girls’ schools be shut down. Women were no longer allowed to vote or to have jobs.  

All women and girls were to stay home. If they went out, they had to wear a burqa (a garment that covers the head, face and body) and be accompanied by a blood relative.  

In 2009, Yousafzai began to write a blog about the closure of more than 100 girls’ schools in Pakistan. She became famous for writing her blog, and she began speaking publicly against the Taliban. Despite the Taliban threatening to kill her, she bravely continued fighting for the rights of girls and women to receive an education in Pakistan.  

In 2012, Yousafzai was on her school bus when a masked gunman got onto the bus and asked, ‘Who is Malala?’ He said he would shoot everyone on the bus if they did not tell him. When Malala’s scared friends looked her way, the gunman shot her.  

The bullet passed through her head, missing her left eye and her brain. Miraculously, she survived. While she was in intensive care in a British hospital, people worldwide began supporting her cause. 

Greta Thunberg—Climate Activist

Born in Sweden in 2003, Greta Thunberg is one of the youngest people to speak on a global stage about the need for climate action. She is an avid and vocal environmentalist.  

At age 15, in August 2018, Thunberg began skipping school to sit in protest each day on the steps of the Swedish parliament. She carried a hand-painted sign that read ‘skolstrejk för klimatet’ (school strike for climate), which has since been translated into dozens of languages. By December of that year, more than 20,000 students from many other countries had joined her to protest. 

Thunberg could not have imagined how loud her voice would become—nor how far her message would spread. Her one-person stand has started a global movement. She now travels worldwide to address heads of state—most notably crossing the Atlantic in 2019 in a solar-powered racing yacht in an effort to neutralize her carbon footprint. 

In addition to her world-renowned speeches and talks on the environment, Thunberg has written or co-written three books. The 19-year-old has more than 23 million followers on her Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts (combined).

FRCC Director of Student Life Mindy Kinnaman assisted in compiling the information for this post

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