History Bloggers' 10 Notable Women from History

If you had to round up ten women in the history of humanity that were notable in some way and made a special contribution, who would you choose? 

It's not as easy as you'd first think, and even more difficult to narrow it down to a short list. We've had warrior queens, rebel nuns, military defenders and wealthy land owners. We've had women who have stood out in the fields of medicine, engineering, education, culture and the arts. 

To mark Women's History Month, I asked ten history bloggers to recommend their top notable women from history and the contributions they made. The results were mind-blowing. There are suffragettes, medical innovators, queens, philosophers - and a rocket engineer. 

Read on to find the stories of some incredible women from history - and find yourself some new bloggers to follow, too...

Credit: All Public Doman, Wikimedia Commons, except Nicholaa de la Haye (Sharon Bennett Connolly) 
and Margaret Pole (National Portrait Gallery NPG2607)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (Katie, The Creative Historian)
Medical Innovator. 1836-1917

"I think my favourite woman from British history has to be Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The first British woman to become a medical doctor, I love that Elizabeth's story is one of frequently exploiting loopholes, albeit ones that were often closed behind her as the male medical community closed ranks and tried to prevent others from following her. The problem of course is that once someone has done something once, others will inevitably follow, and soon you're faced with an onslaught that you can't defend yourself from!

We do need to acknowledge her immense privilege - she was a woman who was in the right place at the right time, with a wealthy father who was willing to financially support her and a family who offered significant emotional support. There will have been women before her who could have done the same thing if they had had the resources available. But that shouldn't deflect from the fact that once she achieved her goal, she then turned around and did her best to help women up the same ladder, rather than punching down. She co-founded a teaching hospital for women Sophia-Jex Blake, and paved the way for others to follow.

Not only that, but she opened up medical access to poor women, who may have been uncomfortable discussing their physical problems (especially gynaecological ones) with wealthy, upper-middle class men. The dispensary that she originally opened for poor women to access medicine ended up becoming a hospital dedicated to helping women from all backgrounds with gynaeological complaints, where they could be treated by female medical practitioners.

Looking back on it in the 21st century, it's easy to forget the battles that had to be fought to give us rights to healthcare. So much of women's history for that time focuses on the suffrage movement, and rightly so. But the right to medical training and medical treatment is also not something that we should take lightly. It also involved a similarly lengthy battle, and is one that continues in some countries along other battles for women's rights."

Visit The Creative Historian blog for more. 

Emily Hobhouse (Tom, The Ministry of History)
Welfare Campaigner, Feminist. 1860-1926

"Emily Hobhouse was an Englishwoman primarily known for shedding light on one of Britain's more dubious inventions - the Concentration camps. Born to a liberal family in Cornwall (her brother, Leonard, was an early champion for universal suffrage) in 1860, she spent some of her younger years in America supporting newly arrived British immigrants, helping to find shelter and work for them. By 1899 she was back in Britain, and that year the empire went to war with the Boers, South Africans of Dutch descent who resented British presence in the area. 

With Britain capturing most key Boer towns, and then adopting a scorched earth policy on Boer lands, thousands of Boer people (mostly women and children) were displaced. It was decided that the army would construct temporary camps to accommodate them, but a mixture of sheer incompetence and indifference to the plight of the displaced people ensured the camps quickly became scenes of starvation and death. 

After hearing rumours about the camps, Emily Hobhouse set off to see them for herself. Arriving in Cape Town in December 1900, she blazed her way through the camps (by now there were around 30 of them) and managed to improve the conditions in each one. She forced the army to provide soap for the camp occupants, to organise their food supplies more efficiently and to generally do more than the bare minimum to keep the occupants alive. She saved countless lives by doing this. She then infuriated the British establishment by publishing a book which detailed the horror of the camps, excerpts of which were published in the Manchester Guardian in 1902. People were outraged and demanded action be taken, and the British government was forced to sheepishly open an enquiry.

Hobhouse spent the first world war helping displaced families in central Europe, before retiring to London, were she died in 1926." 

Interested in more? Visit Tom's blog post about Emily Hobhouse

Anne Boleyn (Helene, TudorBlogger)
Queen of England. c1501-1536

"Anne Boleyn was an incredible woman in sixteenth century England as the second wife of the infamous Henry VIII. Some describe her as a modern woman, but she was very much a woman of her time. Her greatest wish was to have a son for the king, which was very typical, but her marriage to the king was itself exceptional and atypical. Her end was the first time that an English queen had been executed – in the words of Thomas Wyatt “about the throne the thunder rolls”.

Anne Boleyn was a catalyst for the English Reformation. Without her, I don’t believe that England would have had a Reformation in the sixteenth century and we certainly wouldn’t have had one of England’s greatest monarchs – Elizabeth I. Although she is one of six wives of Henry VIII, she tends to be the best-known and the most controversial, and the fact that Henry VIII fell in love with her changed the course of English history."

Read more about the Tudors - and the Wars of the Roses - at TudorBlogger.

Aethelflaed (Emrys, The Historian Circle)
Lady of the Mercians. 870-918AD

"Æthelflæd (870-918 AD), Myrcna hlæfdige (Lady of the Mercians) was the daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and a ruler in her own right of the Kingdom of Mercia after the death of her husband, Æthelred, in 911. 

Born in the latter half of the ninth-century, Æthelflæd lived in a world under constant strife in terms of skirmishes between the Norsemen (Vikings) and the Anglo-Saxons. Although public historiographical traction for the Lady of the Mercians has witnessed a growing audience (courtesy of the The Last Kingdom series), very few know the extent to which she contributed to the building and moulding of Mercia. She founded and fortified sites such as Bremesburh in 910 and Tamworth in 913. She was involved in military strategizing during three invasions by the Norseman; and reclaimed Derby. 

In the Three Fragments (Annals of Ireland), it is pronounced that Æthelflæd led Northumbrian English and Scots against the Norseman. Though the Three Fragments as a source is largely questionable, it is difficult to deny that Æthelflæd had involvement in military advancement. Æthelflæd died in 918 at Tamworth, and was succeeded by her and Æthelred’s daughter, Ælfwynn. Unfortunately, Ælfwynn was deposed by her uncle, Edward the Elder."

Visit Emrys' blog for more on history and a great article about Anne Boleyn, too. 

Annie Kenney (Tom, The Ministry of History)
Suffragette, Feminist. 1879-1953

"Annie Kenney was a suffragette who campaigned alongside the famous Pankhurst women but has not been as well remembered as them. Born to a working class family in Manchester in 1879, Annie was forced to work in a mill from an early age and even lost a finger to an industrial accident when she was ten. She continued to work in the mill for another 15 years, during which time she developed a sense of solidarity with her fellow women who were expected to do a full day's work and then come home and do the housework with very little help from their male relations. She also developed a sense of class solidarity with her fellow workers of both genders, and was involved in Trade Union and early Labour politics.

It was at a Labour party meeting that she met Christabel Pankhurst. Kenney was immediately won over by Pankhurst's energy and charisma, and the two of them started wreaking havoc on the male political establishment that refused to give women the right to vote. Kenney served the first of many prison sentences in 1905, and was given an increasingly prominent role in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She ran the branches of the WSPU in Bristol and east London, before being left in charge of the national organisation when Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris to escape arrest. Kenney was influential in organising the militant tactics of the WSPU, including the bombing of the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (it was made sure that no one was inside the home before the bomb was detonated), and the prison hunger strikes.

When the first world war broke out in 1914, Kenney and the WSPU through their weight behind the war effort, calling on all women to do their duty for the nation. Kenney worked closely with David Lloyd George, who was minister of munitions at the start of the war and then became Prime Minister in 1916, to encourage women to take jobs in munitions factories during the war. Though women would probably have got the vote without the war, the active participation of women and the WSPU in the national war effort got rid of any lingering doubts. Property-owning women were given the right to vote in 1918, and all men and women were given the right to vote in 1928. 

Annie Kenney mostly retired from public life after the first world war. In 1920 she settled in Hertfordshire with her husband and son, writing to the Pankhursts and agreeing to occasional interviews, but mostly keeping a low profile. She died in 1953."

Interested in more? Check out Tom's post about Annie Kenney

Aethelflaed (best-selling author Annie Whitehead)
Lady of the Mercians. 870-918AD

"Those who know of my writing won’t be surprised by my choice! Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex, was one of only a few females to lead a pre-Conquest kingdom in their own right. She was married to the Lord of the Mercians to cement an alliance with Wessex, at a time when only those two kingdoms still had any hope of pushing back the ‘Viking’ onslaught. She continued the fight during her husband’s long illness and then, after his and her father’s death, worked alongside her brother, Edward, in a campaign of strategic burh-building (fortified towns) and the retaking of occupied settlements.

She was barely mentioned by contemporary chroniclers (although the Welsh and Irish annals called her a queen). Maybe those in Wessex were keen to stress Edward’s strong kingship and minimise her contribution, but it’s clear that Edward himself was happy to work with her. The Mercians obviously were, too; they had no kings by this stage and could easily have elected another ealdorman when her husband died. But even in that period of continual war with the Vikings, they opted to keep her as their leader. Indeed, she was, albeit briefly, succeeded by her daughter; a woman would not succeed a woman again until Tudor times."

Annie Whitehead is a best selling author and writer. Check out her book Women of Power in Anglo Saxon England for more information about inspiring Anglo Saxon women. 

Margaret Cavendish (Danielle, Voyager of History)
Philosopher, Writer, Poet, Playwright. 1623-1673

"Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a woman ahead of her time. She was highly educated and was a prolific writer with an interest in science, art and philosophy. Sadly her intelligence in these areas meant she was nicknamed 'Mad Madge' by critics. Thankfully her husband, William Cavendish, saw her as his intellectual equal and encouraged her to participate in these activities she proved to be adept in. She is perhaps best known for The Blazing World, a work of fiction which has been credited as a forerunner to the science fiction genre.

Her scientific work meant she was one of the only women in the country actively using her own microscopes. Her expertise in using the scientific instrument meant she was openly critical of the use of them in the Royal Society, especially the less effective lens that could be used in certain models. This was used by many people as a way to rubbish her opinion, meaning women were excluded from the Royal Society after Margaret until 1945."

Danielle has written a more detailed post about Margaret Cavendish, if you'd like to find out more about this fascinating woman. 

Nicholaa de la Haye (Sharon, History...The Interesting Bits)
Landowner, Constable of Lincoln Castle. 1150-1230

"Few women have done so much for England with so little recognition. Nicholaa de la Haye lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, the reign of King John, the Magna Carta crisis and invasion by a French army. She was hereditary castellan of Lincoln Castle and successfully defended the castle in no less than 3 sieges – the last against the invading French under Louis, Dauphin of France, when Nicholaa was a widow in her 60s. Nicholaa was first called on to defend Lincoln Castle in 1191 when Richard I’s justiciar, William Longchamp laid siege to it while Nicholaa’s husband was at Nottingham Castle with Prince John. Instead of surrendering, Nicholaa held out for 6 weeks, until Longchamp gave up and went home. She is said to have conducted the defence ‘without thinking of anything womanly.’ (Source: Richard of Devizes). 

The second siege occurred in 1216, when the castle was surrounded by a rebel army led by
Gilbert de Gant; Nicholaa paid the rebels to lift the siege and go home. In March 1217, Nicholaa de la Haye faced a combined force of English rebels and their French allies. Prince Louis personally asked for Nicholaa’s surrender but was rebuffed. The French and rebel forces, under the command of the Comte de Perche, then settled in for a long siege, which was violently lifted on 20 May 1217, when William Marshal led an English army against the city and routed the rebels. In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa’s position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle. Not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and the castle."

Sharon Bennett Connolly is a best selling author of various history books, and wrote Ladies of Magna Carta, which examines the influence certain women had on the making of Magna Carta. 

Beatrice Shilling (Steven, Val's Historyonics)
Aeronautical Engineer. 1909-1990

"Beatrice Shilling was a keen motorcyclist and engineer, she got her first Royal Enfield motorcycle at the age of fourteen. This was the start of a long career of engineering work and riding motorcycles for leisure. Having worked as an apprentice electrician Shilling went on to study Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester in 1929, she was supported by the Women’s Engineering Society and was one of just two women accepted for the course that year. She soon put her engineering expertise to good effect in motorcycle racing, gaining a Brooklands Gold Star and setting a record for woman’s fastest lap that still stands today. In 1936 she joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough she would work for the company until retirement in 1969. It was while at RAE that she developed an ingenious device to fix one of the few flaws in the Spitfire, a tendency to cut out in negative G manoeuvres. Shilling’s solution was a small disc with a hole in the centre placed in the engine to stop it from flooding. The device was officially known as the RAE Restrictor or more colloquially as the Shilling diaphragm or orifice. The Restrictor could be installed in the engines of Spitfires at the airfields without them being dismantled or taken out of service, indeed Shilling herself, usually on a souped-up motorcycle or car, and a small team travelled across the country fitting the device. By coming up with such a simple solution Shilling removed the Bf-109s main advantage over the Spitfire with minimal cost or downtime which in turn helped the Spitfires turn the tide of the Battle of Britain.

Shilling was recognised for her vital work with the award of an OBE in 1948 but she did not rest on her laurels as she continued to work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment after the war. In 1955 she became RAE’s Senior Principal Scientific Officer and would later work on the oxygen tanks of the Blue Streak missile. Originally intended as a replacement for the V-Force of nuclear bombers, Blue Streak was eventually repurposed to be used in the European Space Agency’s Europa Satellite. After she retired she was often seen driving her Triumph Dolomite Sprint, which had of course been converted to increase its power and speed."

Find out more about Steven's work and have a browse of all the blog posts there, at Val's Historyonics

Margaret Pole (Laura, For the Love of History)
Countess of Salisbury. 1473-1541
"Margaret Pole is sometimes an overlooked woman from the 15th century. Born of royal blood she was a pawn from the death of her father in 1478, but was no meek woman in the background. Married to Richard Pole, who was loyal to the Tudor cause she would go on to bear him at least five children – it seems the two were happy until his death. Margaret would never remarry, not from lack of suitors but through choice. She negotiated the restoring of her executed brother’s lands making her one of only two women of the time to be a Peeress. She arranged successful and powerful marriages for her children. A close friend of Catherine of Aragon even thought it was Catharine’s marriage to Prince Arthur that was the reason for her brother’s execution.

She even entered into a debate with the king on the ownership of some lands and argued that they were hers, she was certainly no yes woman. Even though Margaret met an awful end on the executioner's block she was strong willed and unashamed of who she was."

Interested to learn more? Find more of Laura's blog posts over at For The Love of History

Activist, Feminist. 1857-1933

"Clara Zetkin, born in Saxony, Germany in 1857, was a central figure in the international socialist women’s movement of the 20th century. At the Second International socialist party congress in 1910, she proposed for the establishment of a Women’s International Day to honor the all women garment workers strike that took place in New York City on March 8th, 1857. Although Zetkin was the mother of Women’s International Day, a day which is associated with the feminist movement, Zetkin herself has been known to be an antifeminist. Zetkin highly opposed feminism because she perceived it as a bourgeois notion and movement. 

Nonetheless, Zetkin contributed not only to the socialist movement of her time, but to feminist theory beyond her time. In her analysis, Zetkin linked motherhood and unpaid domestic labor with women’s oppression. Zetkin further identified the role of the state in family life and the emancipation of women. She saw women’s economic dependency on men, women’s reproductive role, and domestic labor as hindering women’s full labor participation and self-actualization, and called for state intervention in domestic life, such as through state supported day care. Zetkin believed that women needed freedom from household work as well as access to training and aid to enable them to participate in productive labor."

Liza has written a blog post about Clara Zetkin, if you'd like to find out more. 

Who would you choose to be on your list? Did you discover anyone new here? Have we missed anyone? Let me know in the comments below! 

I've collated a whole list of Women's History Posts especially for Women's History Month - click here to view them all. 

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