Famous Women

Despite the perceived lower position and lesser education of women, throughout history prominent women have defied the confines of the societal role prescribed for them and left an indelible mark. Whether writers, political rulers, scientists, first ladies, queens, poets or artists, these notable women brought a new flair and innovation to their position, setting the stage for feminist empowerment that would develop hundreds of years later.

In the arts, women harnessing the female powers of intuition and expressiveness shone and elevated their subjects, creating masterpieces that captured the human condition at both its best and its worst. As early as the 16th century, at the height of the Renaissance in its capital, Italy, Sofonisba Anguissola -- the daughter of a local nobleman -- was trained as an artist. Her paintings and sketches gained international acclaim and her work was praised by Michelangelo himself.

The most famed sketch during her lifetime of a boy being bitten by a crab was inspired by a suggestion by Michelangelo and later served to inform Caravaggio's acclaimed painting titled "Boy Bitten by a Lizard." Later, as word of Anguissola's talent got out, she was personally invited to be a painter in the court of King Phillip II of Spain and later grew to be the queen's lady in waiting. Anguissola continued to paint until her death in 1625.

Her contemporary, Lavinia Fontana, also gained recognition in Italy for her artwork, primarily portraits, and was commissioned to paint the royal family on an altar piece. The final product is still considered a timeless masterpiece. Approximately 30 of her paintings have survived and can be viewed today.

In the literary arts, daring women took initiative and utilized their verbal capacities to their greatest advantage. Elizabeth Cary, better known as Lady Falkland, born in 1585, was the first documented woman to have authored a play, the first to have a biography of her life published posthumously and the first to write a historical chronicle. In the 18th century, Elizabeth Timothy became the first woman newspaper publisher and editor and grew to be known as the "first known woman in American journalism."

The political arena was not devoid of women either, as many rose to great power and success. In the 12th century, Melisende, in the years after the first Crusade, ruled Jerusalem when her mother Queen Morphia failed to produce a male heir. Despite her marriage to King Fulk and the birth of a son, Baldwin, Melisende continued to rule for more than 30 years. When her son spoke out, stating that his mother would not permit him to rule, the kingdom was split. In 1150, Baldwin invaded Jerusalem, yet his mother, despite the siege, retained rulership over Nablus until the debilitating stroke that shortly preceded her death.

Other queens, such as Blanche of Castille in France, Mary of Hungary and Raziya the Sultan wielded inestimable influence and exerted their power to advance their countries' political and social well-being.

With the creation of the United States of America, a new political position for women was established: the role of first lady. Though the title did not anticipate any sort of official role, many confident women rose to the limelight as influential spokeswomen and cultural icons. One of the most prominent examples is Eleanor Roosevelt, who was particularly involved in politics even after her husband's death and served as a social leader to the women of the United States, encouraging them to be proud, confident and assertive. Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of John F. Kennedy, during her time as first lady, was a noted fashion icon. Her popular social events and hosting skills as well as her numerous projects, such as restoring the White House, led to national adoration comparable to that of her husband.

Many women contributed to the areas of science and mathematics as well. Marie Curie, the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, discovered the elements radium and polonium. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a nuclear physicist from Germany, was the second female laureate to receive the Nobel Prize after Curie for her research on the atom. The two remain the sole women awarded in physics, while seven other women have won in other areas to date.

Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean war, furthered the study and application of statistical graphics, directly contributing to sanitation improvements in India.

Other women -- such as Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic -- made their mark in an unconventional way. Yet all of these famous women, from the medieval period until the present, gained acclaim due to striking talent, unbridled assertiveness and fierce dedication to their craft.

Famous Women: Selected full-text books and articles

We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth-Century America By Madeleine B. Stern University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves; Jo Eldridge Carney; W. M. Spellman; Gwynne Kennedy; Stephanie Witham Greenwood Press, 2000
First Ladies By Betty Boyd Caroli Oxford University Press, 1995 (Expanded edition)
Great Women of the Press By Madelon Golden Schilpp; Sharon M. Murphy Southern Illinois University Press, 1983
FREE! Eminent Women of the Age: Being Narratives of the Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation By James Parton; T. W. Higginson; J. S. C. Abbott; James M. Hoppin; William Winter; Grace Greenwood; E. C. Stanton; Horace Greeley; Fanny Fern; Theodore Tilton S.M. Betts, 1869
Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction By Hallie Q. Brown Oxford University Press, 1992
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