History texts and classes are often dominated by male figures, yet women have played and continue to play a major role in the world’s economy, politics, culture and discoveries and deserve their fair share of recognition as well. March is Women’s History Month and there’s no better time to celebrate their contributions. Here are some fascinating facts about women’s history that will showcase some standouts, accomplishments, impacts and just how far they have come.
By the Numbers
Here you’ll find some amazing stats about women in the world today.
- Today, 71% of moms with kids under 18 work. In 1975, fewer than 47% did. Once upon a time, the idea of women working outside of the home was frowned upon and most women who did so worked as maids, seamstresses, took in laundry or worked in one of the traditionally female fields. Today, more women not only work outside the home, but hold a wider variety of jobs, with some even making it to the top of business, technology and science fields.
- Women currently hold 17% of Congressional and Senate seats and 18% of gubernatorial positions in the U.S. While women are still underrepresented in political life, the current state of things is a far cry from a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote — a mere 90 years ago.
- In almost every country in the world, the life expectancy for women is higher than men. For virtually all causes of death at all ages, mortality rates are higher for men. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why this is the case, but believe it might have to do with the presence of estrogen in the body improving immune function.
- Approximately 14% of active members in the U.S. armed forces today are women. In 1950, women comprised less than 2% of the U.S. military. Today, women play an active role in serving their country through military service, but many in years past would simply disguise themselves as men in order to gain access to the battlefield, including well-known examples like Frances Clayton in the American Civil War.
- Over 60 percent of college degrees awarded in the U.S. every year are earned by women. In fact, women are more likely than men to get a high school diploma as well, and the numbers are only expected to rise in the coming years.
- The two highest IQs ever recorded, through standardized testing, both belong to women. One of these high IQ women is the columnist and author Marilyn vos Savant. Of course, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as IQ tests aren’t perfect in measuring intelligence, but it does help show that women aren’t inferior to men in intelligence – as was claimed for centuries.
- More American women work in the education, health services, and social assistance industries than any other. It seems that while women are moving into the workforce in large numbers, they’re still taking on traditionally female positions like teaching, nursing and social services. These three industries employ nearly one-third of all female workers.
Check out these facts to learn more about women in sports throughout recorded history.
- No women or girls were allowed at the first Olympics, but the Games of Hera, featuring footraces for women, were held every four years. In fact, women were not even allowed to watch the Olympic games or encouraged to participate in athletics (with the exception of the Spartans) so that the games existed at all is surprising. At their inception, the games only included that one event.
- At the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, the only event open to women was figure skating. Only 15 women participated in these games, something that would change drastically over the decades.
- Women were not allowed to compete in track and field events at the Olympics until 1928. The ancient Greeks and Romans may have let women run in footraces in the Heraen Games, but when it came to the Olympics, both ancient and modern, these events were off limits to women until 1928. Unfortunately, some of the events were too much for the untrained female athletes, and because many collapsed after the end of the 800-meter race, it was banned until 1960.
- Roberta Gibb was the first woman to run and finish the Boston Marathon in 1966. Of course, she didn’t get official credit for it, as women were not allowed to enter the race until 1972, but her wins, in ’66, ’67, and ’68 seriously challenged long-held beliefs about the athletic prowess of women.
- Virne “Jackie” Mitchell, a pitcher, was the first woman in professional baseball. While women still don’t have much of a presence in baseball today, Mitchell proved that it wasn’t because they couldn’t play. During an exhibition game, she struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Her performance probably played a part in baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banning women from the sport later that year.
- Mary, Queen of Scots is reported to be the first woman to play golf in Scotland. Golf today is still seen as a man’s sport, but this powerful and scandalous queen couldn’t have cared less. In fact, she even went out to play golf a few days after her husband Lord Darnley’s murder.
- Donald Walker’s book, Exercise for Ladies, warns women against horseback riding, because it deforms the lower part of the body. While this book was published in 1837, the views it documented about women doing any kind of exertion or exercise were to hold throughout the Victorian era and beyond.
Learn more about the role women have played in art, music and literature from these facts.
- The world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was published in Japan around A.D. 1000 by female author Murasaki Shikibu. It is still revered today for its masterful observations about court life and has been translated into dozens of languages.
- In 1921, American novelist Edith Wharton was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She won the award for her novel The Age of Innocence, a story set in upper-class New York during the 1870s.
- Women often wrote under pen names in times when it was not seen as appropriate for them to contribute to literature. Even some female authors who are highly acclaimed today had to resort to fake names like Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Mary Ann Evans (perhaps better known by her pen name George Eliot), and Louisa May Alcott.
- In the early years of the blues, from 1910 to 1925, the vast majority of singers were women. It might go against the common idea of just what the blues are or what they should sound like, but new research has found that some of the biggest players in the form of music were actually women.
- In an era when female painters had to struggle for acceptance, Artemesia Gentileschi was the first female to be accepted by the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. A follower of the style popularized by Caravaggio, her work is often particularly adept at bringing to life the passion and suffering of mythological and biblical women.
These amazing women make for some pretty inspiring facts, perfect for Women’s History Month.
- Marie Curie is the only woman to ever win two Nobel Prizes. Her first award was for physics for her work on spontaneous radiation with her husband, with her second being in Chemistry for her studies of radioactivity.
- Hatshepsut was one of the most powerful women in the ancient world and the one and only female pharaoh in recorded history. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt after taking over as a supposed regent for her son and reigned for over twenty years. While accounts seem to paint her reign as a favorable one, her images have been defaced on temples and inscriptions as though they meant to wipe her existence from history.
- Queen Victoria ruled one of the largest empires in the history of the world, at one point controlling land on nearly every continent.This included countries like including India, Australia, Egypt, Kenya, Canada, and British Guiana promoting the saying that the sun never sets on the British empire.
- Martha Wright Griffiths, an American lawyer and judge, pushed through the Sex Discrimination Act in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights Act. This act has helped protect countless women on the job and in everyday life from discrimination based on their gender.
- Journalist Nellie Bly put Jules Verne’s character Phileas Fogg to shame when she completed an around the world journey in only seventy two days– quite a feat before the invention of the airplane. Bly is also well-known for her expose on mental institutions, a project for which she had to fake psychological illness to gain access to the facilities.
- Jane Addams was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of her work with the Hull House, the public philosopher, writer, leader and suffragist went down as one of the most influential and prolific women in American history.
- Upon her husband’s death, Cherokee leader Nancy Ward took his place in a 1775 battle against the Creeks, and led the Cherokee to victory. After the victory, she became head of the Woman’s Council and a member of the Council of Chiefs, playing a key role in social and political changes to the Cherokee nation throughout her life.
- In 1777, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington raced through the night to warn New York patriots that the British were attacking nearby Danbury, CT, where munitions and supplies for the entire region were stored during the heat of the Revolutionary War. While Paul Revere gets all the glory for nighttime rides, her journey took her twice the distance and helped the troops prepare and repel a British attack.
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony spent their lives fighting for women’s suffrage, but neither lived long enough to see the Amendment granting them the right to vote. Stanton passed away in 1902, decades before women finally won out, and Anthony in 1906 only a few years later.
- African-American performer Josephine Baker was working in France during WWII, but not only as a singer, dancer and actress. She was also helping the war movement, smuggling numerous messages to French soldiers. She often hid messages inside her dress or concealed with invisible ink on her sheet music. Baker’s work in the war is only part of what makes her such an amazing figure, as she was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture, perform in a concert hall and played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Paving the way for generations to come, these women took down barriers to become the first of their kind in a wide range of fields.
- In 1853 Antoinette Blackwell became the first American woman to be ordained a minister in a recognized denomination. Impressive, considering there are still only a handful of female ministers nationwide today.
- The earliest recorded female physician was Merit Ptah, a doctor in ancient Egypt who lived around 2700 B.C. Many historians believe she may be the first woman recorded by name in the history of all of the sciences, making her achievement all the more impressive.
- The first woman to rule a country as an elected leader in the modern era was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who was elected as prime minister of the island nation in 1960 and later re-elected in 1970. She is still one of only a handful of female heads of states, though numbers are growing with female leaders being recently elected in places like Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rice, Lithuania and Gabon.
- In 1756, during America’s Colonial period, Lydia Chapin Taft became the first woman to legally vote with the consent of the electorate. While all women didn’t enjoy this privilege until 1920, Taft was allowed to vote because her husband, a powerful local figure, had passed away right before a major town vote. She was allowed to step in in his stead.
- The first woman to run for U.S. president was Victoria Woodhull, who campaigned for the office in 1872 under the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. While women would not be granted the right to vote by a constitutional amendment for nearly 50 years, there were no laws prohibiting one from running for the chief executive position.
- The first female governor of a U.S. state was Wyoming governor Nellie Tayloe Ross, elected in 1924. Wyoming was also the first state to give women the right to vote, enacting women’s suffrage in 1869, making it a surprising leader in women’s rights.
- The first female member of a president’s cabinet was Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under FDR. She remained in office for the duration of FDRs terms and helped put together the labor programs needed for the New Deal to succeed.
- The first person to make the daring attempt to go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel was a woman. On October 24, 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a forty-three-year-old schoolteacher from Michigan plunged over the falls. She survived with only a small gash on her head, but swore to never take them on again.
- Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was the first woman elected to serve in Congress. She was elected in both 1916 and 1940. A lifelong pacifist, she was the only member of Congress to vote against entering WWII.
- On May 15, 1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U.S. patent issued to a woman for inventing a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. Before then, most women inventors didn’t bother to patent their new inventions because they couldn’t legally own property independent of their husbands. Few could get the support necessary to turn their ideas into a reality.
Learn more about women in history from these interesting facts.
- Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote. It was also the first state to elect a female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross.
- The first country to grant women the right to vote in the modern era was New Zealand in 1893. In this same year, Elizabeth Yates also become major of Onehunga, the first ever female mayor anywhere in the British empire.
- In 1770, a bill proposing that women using makeup should be punished for witchcraft was put forward to the British Parliament. The use of makeup was frowned upon during this period for the effect it would have on men, and women who were thought to be luring men in with scents, makeup, wigs or other cosmetics were thought to be performing the devils’ work by inciting lustfulness. Even the Queen took a hard stance on makeup, calling it “impolite.”
- On Nov. 26, 1916 birth control activist Margaret Sanger was arrested for distributing birth control information. While Sanger’s views on race are questionable, her efforts to provide women with control over their reproduction were not. Birth control is still a hot issue among many, with some conservative groups condemning it altogether.
- Think that factory work was always done by men? In fact, during the 19th century, factory workers were primarily young, single women. Men and married women stayed home to work the farm or manage the house.
- Until 1846, the practice of obstetrics was a female-dominated field. It was then that most medical colleges decided women could not attend and the newly founded American Medical Association barred women. Legislation intended to regulate the medical profession also made it nearly impossible for young women to pursue a medical career. Today, however, obstetrics is a female-dominated field once again.
- Betsy Ross probably didn’t make the first American flag. While she may have been a flagmaker, patriot and businesswoman of note, there is little evidence to suggest that Betsy Ross actually made the first flag. In fact, the first retellings of this story didn’t happen until years after her death.
These women came up with new and innovative ideas well worth reading about.
- In 1903, Mary Anderson was granted a patent for the windshield wiper. It would become standard equipment on cars by 1916. She isn’t alone in her inventiveness. Women have also invented such things as industrial lathes, white out, bras, non-reflective glass, the dishwasher, disposable diapers, petroleum refining methods and much, much more.
- Amelia Jenks Bloomer didn’t invent the bloomer, but she helped popularize this new article of clothing in the early 1850’s, which now bears her name, that would help women be more active and free in their movement. Unfortunately, the style was much ridiculed and Bloomer had to revert to traditional dresses by 1859, but she remained an active member of suffrage movements throughout her life.
- 40s movie actress, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t just a pretty face, she was also an inventor. Hoping to find a way to contribute to the war effort during World War II, Lamarr developed a radio-controlled torpedo device which used “frequency hopping” to prevent the signals from the torpedoes from being jammed. While the technology wasn’t adopted for WWII, it was used in subsequent conflicts.
- Susan Kare developed most of the interface elements for Apple Macintosh. You might not think that women have played a huge role in the development of computer technology, but in this case you’d be wrong. Kare helped develop the bulk of those little icons early Mac users clicked on every day. Kare left Apple in the 80’s, and is still working with innovating new technologies and improving design.