I love to write about fictional characters whose story challenges them to figure out what they are and who they can be. They can be heroes or villains. But I find inspiration for fictional characters from real-life heroes. On this blog I feature brief histories of women whose accomplishments history ignored for many years. Women who were heroes, big (nationwide or worldwide) or small (in their own community). Today, we’re revisiting a few of those histories and celebrating women of history.
Agnes was an art historian in Paris during WWII. The book about Agnes tells about her life in the days before the Germans occupied her city through her decision to resist, to being betrayed and arrested, and details her life in a concentration camp.
Dorothy (January 5, 1930–June 10, 2018) was born at the beginning of the depression. No one could have predicted the woman she became. Nonviolent, she made a difference in the U.S. civil rights movement and in the world.
One of the most influential American women writers from the 1820s through the 1860s, she was a prolific author, a literary pioneer, and a tireless crusader and champion for America’s excluded groups. With words, she made a difference.
Brant (1736-1796) was an influential Mohawk woman in the American Revolution. A Loyalist, a spy, diplomat, and a clan matron, Brant straddled two worlds. But she kept her native heritage in her speech and dress throughout her entire life.
She threw off her veil and changed the world. Huda Shaarawi (pronunciation) grew up in a harem and became Egypt’s leading women’s rights activist. Also, a philanthropist and founder of the first Egyptian feminist organization, Huda’s defiance still influences the world today.
Women hold up half the sky, yet women across the world still get little recognition for their accomplishments. Most especially those whose accomplishments are small. The housewife, the mother, the office cleaner all deserve recognition for their role in making this world a better place.
I hope you’ve enjoyed and found inspiration in this glimpse of the strong women featured on this blog. Let’s celebrate women of history and women of today all year.
Today I have a special guest, L.D. Fairchild writing a post. L.D. Fairchild is an author of young adult fiction. She’s contributed a post about a strong woman who was nearly forgotten. Please give L.D. Fairchild a warm welcome and comment on her post, She Saved the Moon Landing.
by L. D. Fairchild
It’s July 20, 1969. The world is watching as U.S. astronauts attempt to land on the moon. The lunar module nears the surface of the moon. The world holds its breath.
The computer is overloaded. Fuel is running out. A decision has to be made about whether to abort the landing.
Software engineer Margaret Hamilton is monitoring the moon landing from her lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While engineers and astronauts hold their breath, Margaret Hamilton’s software quickly begins compensating for the overload, focusing on the most important tasks and ignoring the others.
The lunar module safely touches down on the moon, and Margaret Hamilton and the team of software engineers she leads have saved the moon landing.
Who is Margaret Hamilton?
Despite playing a pivotal role in the success of the Apollo program, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and having her own Lego minifigure, you may never have heard of Margaret Hamilton.
Hamilton was born on August 17, 1936, in Paoli, Indiana. Her family moved to Michigan where she graduated from high school and attended the University of Michigan before transferring to Earlham College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
After graduating, she married and a year later, she and her husband moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he would attend Harvard Law School. Her daughter was born in 1959, and Hamilton took a job in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab of Edward Lorenz, best known for his work on chaos theory. Her work on software that could predict the weather introduced her to the work that would become her passion.
In 1964, after working on software that could detect enemy aircraft, she answered an advertisement from the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory that was looking for people to write software to “send men to the moon.” She applied and got the job overseeing the project. She would eventually have 100 people on the team that would develop the software that would eventually save the moon landing.
A Working Mom
As a working mom, Hamilton would sometimes bring her daughter to the lab with her. On one such occasion, Hamilton was running a moon landing simulation. Her daughter, imitating her mother, hit a sequence of buttons that caused the computer to shut down the simulation. After figuring out what her daughter had done, Hamilton realized an astronaut could make the same mistake.
She requested that NASA allow for a change in the code. They told her the astronauts were too well-trained to make mistakes. However, on the Apollo 8 mission, one of the astronauts made the exact same mistake, and while Hamilton and her team were able to get the mission back on track, the code was changed before the next mission.
A Team Leader
In 1964, it was unusual for a woman to lead a team designing software. First, software engineering was a new field (Hamilton actually coined the term “software engineering”). Second, very few female software engineers existed. Third, having a woman in charge was unusual in many fields.
When Hamilton took the position as the team lead, one of her bosses was worried that the men under her might rebel at being led by a woman. However, Hamilton recalls that she had no problems. In an interview with The Guardian she said, “More than anything, we were dedicated to the missions and worked side by side to solve the challenging problems and to meet the critical deadlines.”
When the alarms started blaring in the lunar module, the concern over losing astronauts was real. When the lunar module finally landed, it had only 30 seconds of fuel left. Mission Control had limited time to make a Go/No Go call.
They were able to say “Go” because Hamilton’s software worked exactly as designed. The lunar module had only 72 kilobytes of processing power to work with. Many cell phones today have more than a million times that processing power.
The small capacity for processing meant that the computer could only do a few things at a time. Hamilton and her team recognized those limitations and created software that could decide which things were the most important at that moment, so the computer would use its processing power for the most critical tasks.
An investigation would later reveal that the astronaut checklist was incorrect, and the astronauts had set the rendezvous radar hardware switch incorrectly, causing the alarm. The software was able to recognize that giving processing power to that switch was a low-priority item, so it reallocated its processing power to critical landing tasks, an innovation that landed men safely on the moon.
Our astronauts didn’t have much time, but thankfully they had Margaret Hamilton.”
President Barack Obama when awarding Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Hamilton would continue to work for NASA until 1972 when she left to start her own company Higher Order Software. She would found another company, Hamilton Technologies, Inc., in 1984. Hamilton Technologies developed Universal Systems Language, a tool that helps prevent errors in software based on the patterns she saw during her time developing software at NASA.
In a time when the field of software engineering was in its infancy and female software engineers were nearly non-existent, Margaret Hamilton forged her own path – even when it led to the moon.
L.D. Fairchild is an author and freelance writer who fell in love with all things space-related as a teenager. She is passionate about encouraging young girls to not be afraid to dream big dreams even if they’re unconventional. She writes young adult fiction that features strong, smart heroines saving the world. She also writes a series of children’s mystery books under the pen name Lori Briley that focus on encouraging girls to stand up for what they know is right and to try new things – even if they’re the only girl doing it. You can learn more about her and her books at ldfairchildauthor.com.
In the late nineteenth-century, few women had access to higher education, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Born to a poor immigrant family, Hertha Marks Ayrton let nothing stop her. She was a suffragette, a physicist, a mathematician, and an inventor. She was the woman men wanted to ignore.
On April 28, 1854, Hertha was born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, to a poor immigrant family. The third child of a Polish watchmaker and a seamstress, her parents named her Phoebe Sarah Marks. She went by the name Sarah.
In 1861, her mother was pregnant with their eighth child when her father died. Penniless, her mother returned to work as a seamstress. And seven-years-old, Sarah took over some of the childcare for her younger siblings.
Two years later, Sarah’s maternal aunt invited Sarah to live with her family in north-west London. Since her aunt and uncle ran a school, this gave Sarah an opportunity for education. Her mother approved of that. Her cousins introduced her to science and mathematics. Peers and teachers described her personality as fiery and occasionally crude.
By the age of sixteen, Sarah lived independently and worked as a governess. She became friends with the family of Karl Blind, Jewish-German emigrants. Blind’s daughter, Ottilie, gave Sarah the nickname of Hertha after the title and character name in the poem by Algernon Swinburne. Ottilie and Hertha (formerly Sarah) grew to be lifelong friends.
They attended suffrage meetings together and studied together for the Cambridge University entrance examination for women.
Hertha wanted to go to Cambridge even though Cambridge did not award degrees to women.
Ottilie introduced Hertha to Barbara Bodichon, an outspoken feminist and women’s rights activist. Bodichon’s friendship and mentorship led to a university education Hertha would never have had otherwise.
Bodichon was one of the main founders of Girton College, Cambridge. She encouraged Hertha to apply to Girton, Cambridge’s only all-female college and the first women’s residential college in England. Bodichon also introduced Hertha to another feminist, Mary Anne Evens, whose pen name was George Eliot.
A Little Help from her Friends
Unable to get a scholarship in 1876, Hertha could not afford the £92 a year to attend Girton. (According to this conversion site £92 would be worth about £10,889.34 or $10,889.34 usd in 2021). Her dreams of attending college would have died then, but for the help of friends. Bodichon, George Eliot, Lady Sophia Goldsmid, and others gave her financial aid.
She studied mathematics and began her earliest work on scientific and medical instruments. She founded the college fire brigade, was a leader of the College Choral Society, and with Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematics club.
Coached by the prominent English physicist, Richard T. Glazebrook, she passed the Mathematical Tripos in 1880. But Cambridge only awarded women certificates. So she went to a non-Cambridge source, passed that examination and earned a BSc degree from the University of London, one of the few British universities who granted degrees to women.
In London, Hertha tried teaching in a classroom and found it didn’t suit her. So she took up tutoring (math and other areas), embroidery, ran a club for working girls, and cared for her invalid sister.
Bodichon continued her financial aid and helped fund patent expenses. In 1884, Hertha patented a line-divider instrument. Useful for architects, engineers, and artists, her line-divider was an engineering instrument that divided lines into equal parts and would enlarge and reduce figures. (Remember, this was long before computers made this so easy.) Her line-divider received good reviews but wasn’t a commercial success.
She also started Professor William Edward Ayrton’s evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College.
She married her former professor, William Edward Ayrton, on 6 May 1885. Their daughter was born in 1886. They named her Barbara Bodichon Ayrton after Hertha’s mentor.
Her mentor, Barbara Bodichon, died in 1891. Bodichon left Hertha a sum of money. That money allowed Hertha to support her aging mother and hire a housekeeper. Therefore, she had more time for study and research.
Public lighting by electric arc lights was problematic in the late nineteenth century. No one could explain why they hissed and produced irregular, flickering light. Performing experiments first with her husband, then on her own, Hertha figured it out. She published the reasons in a series of articles for the Electrician in 1895.
In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). She read her paper “The Hissing of the Electric Arc.” Soon she became the first and only female member of the IEE (until 1958).
The Royal Society refused to allow her to read a paper to them. So John Perry read her paper, “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc,” for her in 1901.
In 1902, she published The Electric Arc, a summary of her work on the electric arc.
Unfortunately, her husband’s serious illness required them to move. They had to leave the laboratory where they both worked. Hertha couldn’t continue her electric research. But the family’s coastal retreat gave her a new fascination with ripple marks.
In 1902, Hertha was the first woman nominated to the Royal Society. However, legal counsel advised against approving her membership because the law did not recognize a married woman as a person. Men could ignore her by a law created by men.
She became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society in 1904. Later, the Royal Society published her paper, “The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks.”
The Royal Society awarded her the prestigious Hughes Medal “for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples” in 1906. She was the fifth recipient of that annual award and the first woman ever to receive that award. (The next award to a woman was in 2008.) She never became a member.
Hertha’s husband died in 1908. This severely limited her access to laboratories (she only gained access because of her husband’s access.)
Still, she studied and researched. In 1911, she presented “Sand Ripples and Oscillating Water” to the Société de Physique in Paris. Her friend, Marie Curie, visited with her while she was there.
From 1911 to 1913, Hertha devoted much time and energy to suffrage. She took part in the Battle of Downing Street where policemen dressed in plain clothes repeatedly grabbed her by the throat and beat her and other suffragists.
After the Great War started, she wanted to find a way her research could help Britain’s efforts. She invented the Ayrton fan used to blow away poison gas released in the trenches. She described her device to the Royal Society in 1919. There was little support for her device.
The Ayrton Fan
Despite resistance from the Royal Society and the War Office, Hertha worked through her fan’s operational limitations. Opposition against her invention continued until she received support from A P Trotter, a fellow electrical engineer and member of the IEE who had contacts in British military command. Soon after that, the British military ordered more than 100,000 Ayrton Fans.
Despite a letter of support from Major H J Gillespie, formerly of the Royal Field Artillery, the British Army in France turned the Ayrton Fans down as ineffective in defense against gas in the field.
Hertha continued her studies of vortex. Supported by peers and friends, she was probably the first female professional engineer. She received twenty-six patents before her death.
A bug bite complicated by exhaustion, and other medical issues turned into blood poisoning. She died on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.
Two years after her death, her friend Ottilie (Hancock nee Blind) endowed the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College.
By doing what she was interested in, she proved wrong many of the masculine myths about women of her time. History tried to ignore her, to erase her efforts. Let’s not allow history to ignore women any longer.
In 1851, the state of Illinois opened its first hospital for the mentally ill. The state legislature passed a law to protect people from being committed against his or her will. The law required a public hearing before that person was committed. With one exception, a husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent. All the law required was “the permission of the asylum superintendent” and one doctor who agreed with the diagnosis. In the summer of 1860, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (1816-1897) was a victim of that law. Such was the insanity of inequality.
Betsy Parsons Ware was born in Ware, Massachusetts on December 28, 1816, to Lucy Parsons Ware and Reverend Samuel Ware. The oldest of three children, she was the only daughter. She changed her name to Elizabeth as a teenager.
Her father, a Calvinist minister, made sure all his children were well-educated. Elizabeth studied French, algebra, and the new classics at the Amherst Female Seminary. She became a teacher.
Elizabeth fell ill during the 1835 winter holidays. Doctors treated her with emetics, purges, and bleeding for “brain fever.” But her symptoms (headaches and feeling delirious) continued. Her father believed her condition was from stress and checked her into Worcester State Asylum for several weeks. Some speculate that her symptoms resulted from tight lacing her corset, which caused restricted breathing, fainting, and “poor digestion.”
In 1839, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth married the man her parents insisted she marry. Theophilus Packard, a conservative Calvinist minister was fourteen years her senior. They had six children and lived in Western Massachusetts until September 1954.
They moved to Kankakee County, Illinois. She worked as a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois.
A New Life and New Ideas
Spiritualism and other modern religious movements intrigued Elizabeth, a religious woman. She questioned her husband’s beliefs and started talking openly about her ideas to his parishioners.
Alarmed by her refusal to follow his wishes, Packard questioned Elizabeth’s sanity.
His suggestion worried Elizabeth enough she consulted an attorney. The attorney assured her he could not commit her without a jury trial.
In the middle of her husband’s church service, Elizabeth states she was going across the street to worship with the Methodists.
Packard arranged for Dr. J. W. Brown, masquerading as a sewing machine salesman, to speak with his wife.
She complained to the “salesman” about her husband’s domination and his accusations that she was insane.
The doctor told Packard what she’d said. Packard decided to commit her to an asylum.
Elizabeth came face-to-face with the insanity of inequality on June 18, 1860, when the county sheriff forcibly removed her from her home.
They committed her to the Jacksonville Asylum. At first, she had a private room and could keep clean and healthy.
The superintendent of the state hospital, Dr. Andrew McFarland, saw her several times. When she refused to agree she was insane or to change her religious views, he had her moved to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.
Over the next three years, Elizabeth steadfastly refused to agree she was insane or to change her beliefs. Attacked and harassed daily, she also witnessed abuse other patients suffered. She wrote her thoughts and experiences on scraps of paper she found. And she collected written testimony from other patients.
She maintained good hygiene, routine physical exercise, and cleaned the filthy rooms of Ward 8.
Discharged to Home
Depending upon which source you read, either the hospital decided it could no longer keep Elizabeth or her oldest son turned twenty-one and had the legal authority to remove her from the asylum.
She fought the release. She wanted to finish writing her book, and she was afraid her husband would lock her up somewhere else.
In the fall of 1863, the hospital discharged her with a letter stating she was “incurably insane” and returned to her husband.
Packard had placed locks on everything. Elizabeth could not get food or clean linens without his permission. Before long, he nailed the windows of their former nursery shut and locked her in. She had no fire or warm clothing. Meanwhile, her husband tried to get her committed somewhere else.
Elizabeth Gets Help
After about a month and a half, Elizabeth threw a letter out of the window to a neighbor. A writ of habeus corpus was issued on her behalf.
Judge Charles Starr ordered Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on January 12, 1864. Packard presented Elizabeth to Judge Charles Starr as ordered. He also brought the letter from the Illinois State Asylum that said she left without being cured and is incurably insane.
Packard v. Packard
The Packard v. Packard trial began on January 13, 1864.
Theophilus Packard’s lawyers produced witnesses from his church and family and even Dr. J. W. Brown, the doctor-salesman. All of whom declared Elizabeth was insane for her disobedience and for trying to leave the church.
Elizabeth Packard’s lawyers, Stephen Moore and John Orr, called witnesses who knew the Packards but were not members of her husband’s church. None of them had ever seen any signs that Elizabeth was insane. Her friend, Sarah Haslett, testified about Elizabeth’s confinement in the locked nursery. Dr. Duncanson, a physician and theologian, testified that he had interviewed Elizabeth for three hours, and while he did not agree with her beliefs, he did not call people insane “because they differ with me.”
After seven minutes of deliberation, on January 18, 1864, the jury declared Elizabeth sane.
Elizabeth returned home, but Packard had sold their house, took her money, notes, wardrobe, and their young children back to Massachusetts with him. His actions were perfectly legal under Illinois and Massachusetts law. Elizabeth could do nothing to recover her children and property.
Elizabeth never divorced her husband, but she never returned to him either.
Elizabeth devoted the rest of her life to changing the conditions suffered by the mentally ill. She traveled around the country and campaigned to pass laws that required a jury trial to prove insanity.
She founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and published several books, including Marital Power Exemplified, or Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Belief (1864), Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness in High Places (1865), The Mystic Key or the Asylum Secret Unlocked (1866), and The Prisoners’ Hidden Life, or Insane Asylums Unveiled (1868). Her book sales made her financially independent.
Various state legislatures passed thirty-four bills, which required a jury trial before anyone could commit a person to an asylum. Illinois passed such a law in 1869. In 1880, they formed The National Society for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity, in part because of her influence.
And she didn’t stop there.
Married Women’s Rights
Elizabeth wrote, lectured, and lobbied against the insanity of inequality for married women. She fought for a married woman’s right to own property, sign legal documents, enter a contract, obtain an education, and keep custody of her children.
She won custody of her children when they were teenagers (1873).
After her children grew up, she lobbied for people locked up in mental wards. She got laws changed in Iowa, New York, Connecticut, and then worked on a federal bill. The bill passed.
She spent fifteen years organizing 25 other states. Many laws changed because of her influence.
A Life Story Worth Telling
Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, also known as E.P.W. Packard, died on July 25, 1897. She faced the insanity of inequality, fought it, and won. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people were saved from abuse because of her. She probably saved hundreds of married women from false imprisonment for insanity. If you’d like to read more about this strong woman who fought for women’s rights check out The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore.
It takes a strong woman to face a world that doesn’t value her gender. Some are strong enough to make the world see her, to value her. Historical labels for those who were born one gender but identified as another included monstrous, perverse, or insane. We may never know their truth. Only the tip of hidden history, this is an introduction to unconventional women of history no one taught you about.
December 1394 court records documented the arrest of Eleanor Rykener (also known as John Rykener) London during December 1394 for a sex act with a man while dressed as a woman. She wore women’s clothing and worked as an embroideress, prostitute, or barmaid. Records are incomplete. But to many Rykener was a trans-woman. Wikipedia has a short and fascinating article on Eleanor.
Mary Frith or Moll Cutpurse (c. 1584–1659), royalist, pick pocket, fence, and pimp, had a “boisterous and masculine spirit.” She wore britches, smoked a pipe, carried a sword, and drank in taverns. Learn about Moll.
The Chevalier d’Eon
Declared a boy at birth, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (1728-1810) was the son of a minor aristocrat. His family secured him a position in civil service. He rose quickly through the ranks. Then he left France as a diplomat and a spy. When he returned to France, it was as a celebrity, a writer, and a woman. Was it a trick to save his life or his true gender? Read more about d’Eon.
Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) was an American actress. Some described her as a woman of weird genius, somber imagination, great sensibility.
Jane Adams (1860-1935) was a social reformer and lesbian suffragist, social worker, activist, Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Alan L. Hart
Alan L. Hart (1890-1962), a radiologist, physician, tuberculosis researcher, and writer. Hart discovered how to use x-rays to detect tuberculosis. When he was born, doctors identified him as female and named Alberta Lucille Hart. Besides helping thousands with tuberculosis, he was one of the first female-to-male transgender persons to undergo a hysterectomy in the United States and lived the rest of his life as a man. Oregon Encyclopedia can tell you more about Hart.
Stormé DeLaverie (day-la-vee-ay) (1920-2014), was an entertainer, bouncer, activist, and drag king.
Look for Hidden History
The saying goes that the winner writes the history books. It’s up to us to uncover the hidden history, to learn from the truth, and to grow into better people and better nations. Strong women have been around since the dawn of time. Some of those strong women were unconventional women of history no one told you about. This is a short list. There are many, many more. It’s up to you to overcome prejudice, step out of your comfort zone, and learn. You might surprise yourself and admire some of these women.