Competition! Win a free subscription to HerStoria online

// 28 September 2010

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herstoriacover-1.jpgHerStoria magazine has passed along three free subscriptions to their new online version to give away!

HerStoria magazine specialises in “History that puts woman in her place”, as in, right back in the centre of the story.

The latest issue includes features on the myth and reality of Lady Godiva, fashion and exploitation in the 19th century hair trade, the ‘romantic friendship’ between the Ladies of Llangollen and an interview with Nell Leyshon (the first woman playwright to have a performance at the Globe theatre, with her farce Bedlam).

To win a free online subscription to HerStoria, just use the comments to tell us about your favourite underrecognised woman in history and why you like her. Points for originality.

No more than 250 words please. The competition closes on Tuesday 5 October, 9pm (a week from today).

Comments From You

ccj // Posted 29 September 2010 at 11:00 am

As a female physicist, I’m partial to stories about underrecognised women in science, of whom there are plenty. My favourite story though is that of Emilie du Chatelet, a long term lover of Voltaire, physicist and mathematician. She not only translated Newton’s principia into French (hers being the reference French version for centuries) but also translated his mathematics; rederiving and recasting his results in terms of the new calculus. Newton had invented the calculus but wrote his principia in terms of geometric proofs, perhaps because it was more “classical.” du Chatelet also did important experiments on the conservation of mass. She died in her early forties, having written up her notes and research during a pregnancy she recognised as a death sentence. I have a PhD in physics but only learnt her name when reading a book specifically about women in science.

Kate // Posted 29 September 2010 at 5:43 pm

All too often, the study of history focusses solely on the privileged few. It does not acknowledge that our world has been shaped by the lives of ordinary people. Not one of us is insignificant; every person helps mould the course of history.

As an example of everywoman, I would like to nominate my maternal grandmother, Agnes Maguire. Despite being a bright student, she had to leave school aged 14 to work at her local Co-op and help support her family. In her late 20s, she married and had 6 children, raising them on her husband’s tiny miner’s wage. In her 50s, when the children had grown up and moved away from home, Agnes went to college and trained to be a primary teacher. While she was working, my grandparents continued to live on the miner’s wage and saved what money she earned, later using it to buy a house when they retired.

In retirement, Agnes became an active member of a local communities group, Opportunities In Retirement, and attended many classes, taking up new activities such as yoga, Tai Chi, carpet bowls, painting, writing and scrabble. Now 92, she is still a fiercely independent and active woman. I find her an inspiration.

Charlotte // Posted 30 September 2010 at 4:18 pm

My favourite under-recognised woman in history is the Belfast social reformer, anti-slavery activist, and philanthropist, Mary-Ann McCracken.

These days Mary-Ann is primarily remembered for being the sister of one of martyrs of the 1798 Irish Rebellion, Henry Joy McCracken. Ever since he was hung in the Rebellion, Henry Joy’s memory was often invoked to help swell sentiment against English authorities. Sadly, in the midst of all this heroic memorialising, the actual, material good that was done for the city of Belfast by Henry Joy’s sister Mary, who survived her brother by over 60 years, is continuously overlooked, even to this day.

After her brother died, (Mary attempted to resuscitate him for up to five hours afterwards) she volunteered to raise his illegitimate daughter Maria. This was a bold move for a woman in eigtheenth-century Ireland. She dedicated a large chunk of her life the Belfast Ladies Committee and through its efforts it was able to look out for the interests of the local poor house, where Mary-Ann even managed found a school and a nursery to educate the city’s orphans, personally going about the task of finding and appointing a suitable teacher.

Another of her passions was the anti-slavery movement. Even when she was well into her 80s, Mary-Ann was often to be seen at Belfast’s docklands handing out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants headed for the United States, where it was still practiced.

Mary-Ann was 96 years old when she died in 1866. She was a remarkable, intellectual, compassionate and dedicated woman whose memory deserves every bit of recognition, if not more, than her brother’s.

Carla O'Neill // Posted 1 October 2010 at 12:55 pm

Louise May Alcott: she supported her entire family as a writer. That’s saying something.

Lisa Elliott // Posted 2 October 2010 at 7:22 am

I would like to nominate the nuns of the Paris Hotel-Dieu from the time of its creation through to the 17th century. These women were responsible not only for the daily spiritual and medical care of anywhere between 200-1,500 ‘pauvres malades’, they also slaved away in the laundries washing the sheets and linens. And for their troubles they received constant criticism from the hospital’s governors and had to deal with public perception that they were little more than tarts who entertained men in the hospital and neglected their patients. My studies have left me thinking these dedicated, hardworking and under-appreciated women were nothing short of saintly!

Victoria // Posted 5 October 2010 at 10:48 am

Olympe de Gouges was one of the earliest women’s rights activists. She wrote her polemic ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen’ in 1791, in response to the new French constitution (a year before the publication of Wollstonecraft’s ground-breaking ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’). She was driven by frustration and disappointment at the constitution’s exclusion of women’s suffrage.

Born into a working class family in 1748 and without an education she rose to be a famous playwright. She was a courageous political activist and thinker who campaigned for many causes, writing numerous pamphlets, manifestos, plays and essays. She championed issues such as democracy; abolishing slavery and capital punishment; rights for illegitimate children; income taxes; help for the poor; ending political persecutions; and the French Revolution. She was passionate about gender equality, including rights for abused and abandoned wives; custody of children; sexual freedoms; divorce; and legal and property rights for married women. Olympe memorably stated, “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.”

After her divorce she did not marry again but chose to live with her partners, defying the convention of the time. Ridiculed for her poor, provincial background and her ‘extreme’ views she was slandered as a ‘libertine’ woman.

Her advocacy of progressive issues and her criticism of Robespierre and the Terror resulted in her arrest and execution in 1793. Radical and fearless to the end, Olympe was ahead of her time.

Emilie // Posted 5 October 2010 at 1:43 pm

Henrietta Lax. The original HeLa cells were grown from a biopsy taken from her. I cannot even begin to estimate the difference her cells have made to science and medicine.

Sue H // Posted 5 October 2010 at 3:09 pm

I vote for Caroline Herschel and I’ve totally copied all of the following about her from Wikipedia.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848) was a British astronomer, the sister of astronomer Sir Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel with whom she worked throughout both of their careers. Her most significant contribution to astronomy was the discovery of several comets and in particular the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name. She was the fourth of six children.

Early life

Caroline was born in Hannover to Isaak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen of Hannover. At the time, the crowns of England and Hannover were united under George II., meaning that all citizens of Hannover were also British citizens. Isaak led a musical family, and Wilhelm twelve years Caroline’s senior, became an army oboist in his teens. After seeing combat and deciding on a new career Wilhelm decided to go to England, moving there in 1766 at the age of nineteen. Upon Isaak’s death in 1767 Caroline was left working in the family kitchen, and when an invitation to join Wilhelm arrived she moved to join him in 1772.

By this point Wilhelm had established himself as an organist and music teacher at 19 New King Street, Bath, Somerset (now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy). She took several singing lessons a day from Wilhelm, who had become the choirmaster of the Octagon Chapel. Wilhelm was busy with his musical career and became fairly busy organizing public concerts. Caroline was the principal singer at his oratorio concerts, and acquired such a reputation as a vocalist that she was offered an engagement for the Birmingham festival which she declined. But it appears that Caroline did not blend in with the local society and made few friends.[1]

Astronomical work

A telescope that Wilhelm Herschel made for Caroline 1795William’s interest in astronomy started as a hobby to pass time at night. At breakfast the next day he would give an impromptu lecture on what he had learned the night before. Caroline became as interested as Wilhelm, stating that she was “much hindered in my practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various astronomical contrivances.”[1] Wilhelm became known for his work on high performance telescopes, and Caroline found herself supporting his efforts.

In 1782, Wilhelm accepted the office of King’s Astronomer to George III and moved to Datchet and subsequently to Observatory House near Slough (then in Buckinghamshire, now in Berkshire). The new job proved to be a mixed blessing; although it left him with ample free time to continue his astronomical observations, it also meant a reduction in income and being called upon by the king for entertainment at any time. During this time Wilhelm perfected his telescope making, building a series of ever larger devices that ultimately ended with his famous 40-foot (12 m) focal length instrument. Caroline was his constant assistant in his observations, also performing the laborious calculations with which they were connected. During one such observation run on the large telescope in 1783, Caroline became caught on an iron hook and when she was helped off “…they could not lift me without leaving nearly 2 ounces [60 g] of my flesh behind.”[1]

In 1788 Wilhelm married a rich widow. Although his new wife made every effort to stay on friendly terms with Caroline it seems her life was considerably upset.[1] Through this period she continued her observations on her own, and made many of her discoveries. She later reconciled with the couple, and took great delight in her new nephew, John Herschel.[1]

During her leisure hours she occupied herself with observing the sky with a 27-inch (690 mm) focal length Newtonian telescope and by this means detected a number of astronomical objects during the years 1783 – 87, including most notably an independent discovery of M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. During 1786 – 97 she also discovered eight comets, her first comet being discovered on 1 August 1786. She had unquestioned priority on five of the comets[2] and had rediscovered Comet Encke in 1795.[3] In 1787, she was granted an annual salary of £50 by George III for her work as Wilhelm’s assistant.[4]

In 1797 William’s observations had shown that there were a great many discrepancies in the star catalogue published by John Flamsteed, which was difficult to use due to its having been published as two volumes, the catalogue proper and a volume of original observations. William realised that he needed a proper cross-index in order to properly explore these differences but was reluctant to devote time to it at the expense of his more interesting astronomical activities. He therefore recommended to Caroline that she undertake the task. The resulting Catalogue of Stars was published by the Royal Society in 1798 and contained an index of every observation of every star made by Flamsteed, a list of errata, and a list of more than 560 stars that had not been included.[4]

Caroline returned to Hanover in 1822 following her brother’s death, but did not abandon her astronomical studies, continuing to verify and confirm Wilhelm’s findings and producing a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996.

In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. In 1838 she was also elected as a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846 at the age of 96, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.[5]

Caroline Herschel died at Hanover on 9 January 1848. She is buried at 35 Marienstrasse in Hanover at the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde.


The asteroid 281 Lucretia (discovered 1888) was named after Caroline’s second given name, and the crater C. Herschel on the Moon is named after her. Adrienne Rich’s 1968 poem Planetarium celebrated Caroline Herschel’s life and scientific achievements.

Clair // Posted 5 October 2010 at 11:25 pm

Queen Latifah! She is such a strong, focused woman who made herself something after being raised underpriviledged. She is proud to be herself and doesn’t conform to standards that are set for women within her work industries. She is strong enough and brave enough to push those boundaries. She is a massive inspiration and I think she is hugely under-rated. Her autobiography ‘Ladies First’ is really inspiring and heart-warming.

Jess McCabe // Posted 6 October 2010 at 5:37 pm

OK, thanks for entering everyone :-) Winners will be announced shortly.

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