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Influential Women You Haven't Heard Of

Updated on August 31, 2014

Women in History

How is it that even in the modern day, when equality is expected and history is valued, we do not know the names of most of the women who have influenced our lives and our histories in profound ways? Sure, we have all heard of Harriett Tubman and Betsy Ross (although poor Betsy's relevance has been called into question recently), but what about the women who pioneered medical research, modern journalism, warfare, weaponry, aviation, and equal rights? Here you'll find a list, a very short list, of some influential women that I find absolutely fascinating. Each and every one of them brought something to the table, and all of them deserve to be recognized.

Myla Racine ca. 1943

Myla Racine

5. Myla Racine - This woman was truly amazing. In the summer of 1943, living in the Italian occupation zone in France, Myla took command of a secret organization affiliated with a youth organization called Hanoar Hatzioni. While in command, Myla smuggled hundreds of people - primarily families and children - across the Swiss border and out of the reach of the Italians. She was caught by the Italians on October 21, 1943 while she was attempting to smuggle more children across the border. She was tortured, inprisoned, and later sent to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria where she was later killed in an allied air strike.

The life work of Myla appears a lot like the work of Harriett Tubman, another woman who devoted everything she had to helping people escape from injustice.

Finding information on Myla turned out to be nearly impossible, with only a few references to her or her accomplishments showing up on any of the major search engines. For the families that she helped and the lives that she saved, however, this World War II heroine deserves to be remembered.

Ada Fisher meets with her council
Ada Fisher meets with her council
Ada's graduation photo
Ada's graduation photo

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher

4. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher - Born in Chickaha, Oklahoma, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was the daughter of a minister who grew up in a world plagued by intense racial segregation. She planned to attend law school at the University of Oklahoma and wanted to use her degree to fight against institutionalized segregation. In 1946 Ada was denied admission to law school based on her race, but she didn't let that stop her from pursuing her dreams. Ada filed a lawsuit against the university, citing the separate but equal law and claiming that there was no comparable school for African Americans in the area. She lost the suit in state courts, but remained undeterred. In the Supreme Court case Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, the ruling of the state court was overturned and it was decided that Ada should be allowed to attend the university. However, Oklahoma had a different idea. In order to 'comply' with the federal ruling without sacrificing segregation, the state created a separate law school, Langston University of Law, to be used for African American education. More law suits proved that the school was inferior to that at the University of Oklahoma. It wasn't until 1949 that Ada was finally admitted into the University of Oklahoma Law School. She was the first woman of color to do so.

Ada's case set the stage for the later, more wide-sweeping Brown v. Board of Education. She was a pioneer of Civil Rights and is a woman who should be celebrated for her strength in the face of adversity and determination to see equality and justice in an era where these were not so easily found.

Caroline Norton

3. Caroline Norton - Caroline Norton had a rough adult life. From the time she married in 1827, she was the victim of domestic violence. Her husband, George Norton, did not like the fact that his wife disagreed with him publicly on matters of politics. In the Victorian Era, this kind of dissent between husbands and wives was unheard of. Women weren't even supposed to have opinions on politics, let alone voice them in public places. Caroline ran away from home several times in an attempt to escape from her husband's abuse, but she always ended up going back to be with her children. Following allegations of infidelity, Caroline's husband threw her out and refused to allow her access to her children.

Caroline quickly realized that she had no legal rights. In fact, she, as an adult woman with children, had the same social rights as a child or a crazy person. She could not hold property and she did not have the right to see or raise her own children. There were only three ways for a marriage to be nullified. The first was in cases of incest or impotency. The second was in cases of extreme physical violence, sodomy, or adultery. In this case, the women were not allowed to remarry, but were permitted a separation from their husband. The third way in which a divorce could be permitted by the church was for the wife to prove infidelity, separate, and then sue their spouse for adultery. This was the only way to divorce, be allowed to remarry, and allow your children to remain legitimate. However, even when these conditions were present, the process was far more expensive than the average person could afford.

Caroline was outraged by her lack of legal protection and set out to change divorce laws. The most important change she wanted to make was allowing mothers the right to have custody of their children. If they had not been convicted of adultery, Caroline asserted, women should be allowed to keep custody of their children, even in cases of separation or divorce. In 1958, the bill that she had fought for so vehemently passed. In addition to allowing women custody of their children, this bill allowed men to divorce women on the grounds of adultery and allowed women to divorce men on the grounds of adultery if there was also physical violence, incest, sodomy, rape, bestiality, bigamy, or a two year period of desertion along with it.

While this wasn't a perfect equality, it was the first step toward a comprehensive divorce law that allowed equality on the part of both parties.

What is the nerve growth factor used for?

The nerve growth factor (NGF) has been shown to:

- prevent neuron degeneration in animals. These promising results on animals subjects have led to clinical trials on humans. NGF could potentially be used to treat Alzheimer's, dementia, depression, bulimia, autism, schizophrenia, Rett Syndrome, and Bipolar Disorder.

- accelerate wound healing.

- effect pain and inflammation levels in endometriosis patients.

- play a role in coronary diseases such as atherosclerosis.

- promote myelin repair.


Rita Levi-Montalcini Quote
Rita Levi-Montalcini Quote

Rita Levi-Montalcini

2. Rita Levi-Montalcini - A Jewish Italian, Rita defied all odds. In her young life, Rita defied her father - who believed that all women were destined to be wives and mothers - by refusing to marry and entering the University of Turin. She graduated in 1936 with a degree in surgery and medicine and began a career with the university doing research on nerve cells. In 1938, Mussolini began enforcing anti-Semitic laws that prevented Jewish people from working in medicine or education, causing Rita to lose her position. Rita didn't give up her work. She moved into her bedroom, making a laboratory equipped with surgical instruments made out of household objects like sewing needles. She used chicken embryos which she grew and harvested herself to perform most of her research. After the war, she worked in a refugee camp and later returned to the University of Turin before being invited to visit the University of Washington in St. Louis, MO.

She worked alongside fellow scientist Viktor Hamburg researching nerve growth. She later began to work with Stanlet Cohen and, eventually, the pair was able to isolate the nerve growth factor (the protein that spurs nerve growth and development in cells). The pair received the Nobel Peace Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1986. In addition to holding a Nobel Peace Prize, accomplishments attributed to Rita include the establishment of three educational institutes and involvement in several medical foundations. Up until the day she dies, at age 103, Rita continued her research.


Nellie Bly

1. Nellie Bly - Nellie Bly was a pen name used by one of the most innovative American Journalists of all time, Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Hired by the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885 following the submission of a very heated letter in which Elizabeth denounced an article entitled "What Women Are Good For" in which the author called the working woman a monstrosity, the young journalist's career quickly took off. At first, Elizabeth's work primarily covered social issues like labor laws and the unfair treatment of women. Shortly after beginning her work with the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth was sent to Mexico as a foreign correspondent.

Her work in Mexico did not last very long, as she quickly exposed a huge scandal in which the Mexican government was fighting to keep their population subjugated and impoverished. It didn't take long for the Mexican government to expel her from their country after she outed them for their corruption. After this little fiasco, her editors began keeping her on a very short leash, and she soon tired of her work and left for New York.

Almost immediately, she was hired to work for Joseph Pulitzer at his newspaper. It was here that Elizabeth really began getting into what is now called investigative journalism. Perhaps one of her most important pieces was her expose on the conditions inside Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum. To get in, Elizabeth feigned psychosis. After her admission, however, Elizabeth claimed that she made absolutely no effort to maintain the characteristics of a lunatic, citing that the more normal and level-headed she acted, the more supervision she was given by doctors and nurses. During her 10 days at Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum, Elizabeth experienced physical cruelty, cold baths, forced meals of old food, and a variety of other horrors. Her writing led to political action and a movement to reform asylums.

Other injustices that Elizabeth exposed with her investigative journalism included a piece in which she got herself thrown into jail in order to expose the mistreatment of incarcerated women and a stint in which she worked in a sweatshop in order to show the poor working conditions of laborers.

Her most famous feat, however, was her trip around the world. Reminiscent of Jules Verne's character from the novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She completed the trip in seventy two days and later published a book about her travels.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, pen name Nellie Bly, was a strong and independent woman with a real flare for journalism. Her reports led to many social and labor reforms and prompted the next generation of journalists to do the same.

Nellie Bly Quote from "Ten Days in an Asylum"
Nellie Bly Quote from "Ten Days in an Asylum"

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    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 2 years ago from USA

      You are right. I never heard of any of these woman. This is an interesting hub. Thanks.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Wow! What an impressive collection of trailblazers. Voted up, interesting and sharing!

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      I knew about Nelly Bly, but the rest of these woman were new to me. I found Ida Lois Sipuel Fisher's story particularly interesting. I wasn't aware of this earlier case before Brown vs. the Board of Education. Though, it makes sense that there were legal fights prior to the big decision.

      Thanks for the interesting read!

    • RobertConnorIII profile image

      Robert Connor 2 years ago from Michigan

      Nice read!

    • Theresa Franklin profile image

      Theresa Franklin 2 years ago from Hemphill, TX

      I enjoyed this article. Looking forward to more. I love history and especially women in history.

    • profile image

      Leilani Allmon 2 years ago

      Wow. I liked that you chose to write about really inspirational women that most people have never heard of. This was very fresh. Thanks for posting.

    • Katya Drake profile image

      Katya Drake 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      This a great Hub ashlee0406! I learned a lot about women I had never heard of before. People like this really inspire me to be better and the help others who are in need, whatever that need may be.

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 2 years ago from East Central Florida

      This is a fabulous piece. Nice vignettes of all five women you chose to write about. I can't help but think that the stories of Myla Racine and Elizabeth Jane Cochran would both make great movies.

    • Sparrowlet profile image

      Katharine L Sparrow 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Excellent hub! These women certainly do deserve more exposure than they have gotten in the telling of history. You describe each woman's accomplishments clearly and in an entertaining way that is purely enjoyable as well as informative. Good work!

    • Sweetpea Flur profile image

      Sweetpea Flur 2 years ago from Philippines

      This is an interesting hub. A great piece of history to share to my friends.

      I never thought there are still amazing women in the past whose influence is truly remarkable to admire.

    • pan1974 profile image

      April 2 years ago from Columbus,Ga

      I my God I love this hub. I never heard of any of these women. I really like the story about Nellie Bly. Thank God for Caroline Norton.

    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 2 years ago from County Durham

      A great hub for expanding ones knowledge in this area. It is good that many more women are finding the fame now that they should have received at the time.

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 2 years ago from Jaipur

      Amrapali, Gayatri Devi, Yashoda and Kosha were very influential women from India and the western world knows little about them.

      I appreciate your effort to bring lesser known women in to light. Rated up and interesting!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub outlining the amazing lives of these 5 impressive women. I also had never heard of them. Great job.

    • profile image

      missirupp 2 years ago

      Awesome Hub. I am always curious about unknown strong women in history who made a difference. Hope this gets a lot of traffic.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 2 years ago from California

      Ada Fisher and Nelli Bly are the only ones I 'd heard of. Good job.

    • electronician profile image

      Dean Walsh 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

      You're right - I hadn't heard of any of these. When I read the title the arrogant contrarian in me said to myself 'I bet I've heard of some of them' so that was a nice surprise. Very interesting read!

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 2 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is such an interesting article on amazing women, thanks for the history lesson ashlee0406. Voted up, interesting and shared!

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 2 years ago from Tennesee

      I really enjoyed reading about these determined women! I had already learned about Nellie Bly; her courage is legendary. Thanks for sharing the info - voting up!

    • profile image

      Ibidii 2 years ago

      Wonderful historical information! I really enjoy history!

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 2 years ago from New York

      When I was a child riding in the family car to visit an aunt in Brooklyn NY, we used to pass a small amusement park named "Nellie Bly." (On rare occasions, my brother and I persuaded our parents to stop and go on the rides.) I had no idea she was such a formidable person. Thank you for this most interesting article.