I Know a Woman: Four Pioneering Women Who Shaped Our World

When we think of historical heroines, typically, our thoughts turn to iconic artist Frida Kahlo, miracle-worker Marie Curie or the whimsical works of writer Virginia Woolf, and rightly so, these wonderful women were instrumental to shaping society—and feminism—as we know it. But what of the women behind the scenes? In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re turning the spotlight onto the contributions of women in history whom you may not know. Women who have made major advancements in technology, risen above racial prejudices and defied gender norms.

Taken from Kate Hodges’ I Know a Woman: The inspiring connections between the women who have shaped our world, a beautifully-illustrated book which celebrates the most influential and inspirational figures of womankind, ahead, we’ve rounded up the stories of incredible women in history who deserve to be better-known.

Ada Lovelace 1815–1852

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, and is widely regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Considered one of the worst-dressed women of the nineteenth century – she was unapologetically scruffy – her lateral thinking was crucial in making her big breakthrough; she worked out that her friend Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine could be used not just to crunch numbers, but also to manipulate symbols and music, thus giving it life outside the dry world of higher mathematics.

Isadora Duncan 1877–1927

Isadora was gloriously eccentric and determined to live life on her own terms—she rejected the conventions of formal ballet dancing, and pranced and leaped to a fame achieved in the drawing rooms of Europe. Her bohemian life—she was bisexual, an atheist and a communist—was studded with tragedy; her three children were drowned when their nanny drove into the Seine river. She famously died when her long silk scarf became entangled in the wheels of her open-top car.

Bessie Colman 1892–1926

‘Queen Bess’ soared above racism, gender discrimination and poverty to become the first American to gain an international pilot’s licence. Born into incredible poverty, she used her determination to escape her sharecropping life, becoming a stunt flyer. She refused to perform at airshows that denied admission to black people and encouraged her peers to aim for the skies. Over 20,000 people attended her memorial services. She was a working-class, black feminist who never backed down on her principles, and deserves to be more widely known.

Claude Cahun 1894–1954

Claude Cahun’s surreal art is fixated firmly on Claude Cahun. But if you were a Jewish, Marxist gender-neutral woman in love with your step-sister, your art would probably be surreal and self-reflective too. Claude ran with the Paris surrealists, exhibiting in a major show in 1936, but was never accorded the acclaim given to others. When the Nazi shadow fell over Europe, the lovers escaped to Jersey, and when the island fell to the Germans, resisted them through defiant art-propaganda. Way, way ahead of her time, Claude’s pioneering work is finally being recognised by the establishment.

Want to read on? Pick up your copy of Kate Hodges’ I Know a Woman, here.