5 Of The Coolest Women In History

0.5%!?! That’s roughly how much of over 3,000 years of recorded human history is devoted to women, according to professor of history, Bettany Hughes. Women’s stories are all too often left out of history books, which is why, when I was scrolling through our Inclusion Calendar for March, Women’s History Month seemed like the perfect subject to dive into.

But to summarise the history of half the people who have ever lived and do justice to their struggle for equality and recognition in a mere thousand words or so seems like a different kind of injustice. So instead, in no particular order, here are five of the coolest women who ever lived (in my honest opinion).

Daphne Oram

December 1925 – January 2003

Mind-bendingly ahead of her time, Daphne Oram was both pioneer and prophet of the electronic music that is now globally ubiquitous. A gifted child musician struck by the idea of playing the notes between the keys on her piano, she began a lifetime of experimentation with machine composition. Declining a position at the Royal College of Music aged 17, she instead joined the BBC as a junior studio engineer.

Woman in a studio creating electronic music

By the mid 1940’s she’d composed ‘Still Point’, a conceptual piece which would require double orchestra, live electronics and turntables to perform, widely considered the very first composition to utilise live electronic sound manipulation. This revolutionary work was buried for 70 years until the London Contemporary Orchestra revived it for its debut performance in 2016.

Daphne didn’t stop there. During the 1950s, she established the iconic BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and invented the Oramics machine, a revolutionary device that transformed visual drawings into musical sounds, meaning users could literally sketch out the music they envisioned on 35mm film. How cool is that?! She also authored an unpublished manuscript in the late 1970’s titled ‘The Sound of the Past – A Resonating Speculation’, which established theories, later backed by research, that neolithic sites like the Great Pyramid of Giza possess acoustic properties which suggests they could’ve been designed as large resonators. Er, excuse me while I unboggle my brain.

Oram died in 2003 in relative anonymity. To this day, most of her music remains unavailable. Apple Music has a nice collection to get you started.

Bessie Coleman

January 1892 – April 1926

Bessie Coleman flew under my radar (pun intended) until last year when I happened to listen to a random episode of the excellent ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’ podcast. Now this woman was a trailblazer with a big dream: she wanted to fly. But being of both African-American and Native American heritage in an era of intense discrimination, no flight school in the U.S. would give her the time of day. That didn’t stop her though!

B&W image of a woman pilot stood on the wheel of her plane

Intrepid and courageous, Bessie learned just enough French to get her application through to French flight schools, and secured her spot on an aviation programme. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to step off that boat in 1920, landing in France without knowing the language? Eventually, Bessie soared into the skies, gaining her licence in 1921 (two years before her more famous contemporary, Amelia Earhart). She headed back to the States to teach, hoping to raise enough money to open the first aviation school for black pilots in US history with the money she raised by performing death-defying aerial stunts.

Tragically, it was one of these stunts that would claim her life, when her plane went into a spin and she was thrown out at an altitude of 3,000 feet. In 2023, the US mint commemorated her lifetime achievement by releasing a Bessie Coleman stamped quarter.

Nellie Bly

May 1864 – January 1922

Nellie Bly’s story is nothing short of incredible. A pioneering journalist in the 1890s, Nellie undertook a daring assignment to expose the horrific conditions inside the women’s ‘lunatic’ asylum on Blackwell’s Island, sparked by allegations of patient mistreatment.

B&W photo of woman holding up a hat in her right hand

To gain access, Nellie ingeniously feigned insanity, leading to her commitment to the asylum. Upon her release, she penned a groundbreaking exposé titled “Ten Days in a Mad-House” for the New York World, shedding light on the abhorrent treatment of patients. Her fearless reporting not only brought huge attention to the plight of the asylum’s inhabitants but also marked a monumental moment in the field of investigative journalism, showcasing the profound impact of immersive reporting on social reform.

Oh, but her story doesn’t end there! In 1889, inspired by Jules Verne’s famous novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” Nellie Bly also embarked on a global journey, completing her trip in just 72 days – setting a new world record (until it was beaten months later by George Francis Train).

Zheng Yi Sao

1775 – 1844

If you’ve ever watched the second season of Our Flag Means Death, you’ll know that Zheng Yi Sao is one helluva cool woman. In the Qing Dynasty’s China, Zheng Yi Sao climbed the ranks to become one of history’s most notorious pirates. Her story is so legendary, it makes Blackbeard’s adventures look like child’s play!

Woman Pirate on a ship with 3 men in the distance and several other ships following

Starting her journey as a sex worker, her sharp business skills caught the eye of Cheng I, the master of the Red Flag Fleet. Their marriage plunged her into the piracy game. Despite being known as Ching Shih, or “Cheng’s widow,” her pirate reputation soared even higher than her late husband’s. After Cheng I’s death, Zheng Yi Sao didn’t just fill his boots – she outsmarted his would-be successor and partner, Cheung Po Tsai, taking the helm of the fleet.

It’s said she commanded 1,800 ships and 80,000 pirates – dwarfing Blackbeard’s relatively modest crew. With a fierce set of rules, she kept her massive fleet in line, ready to chop the head off anyone who dared defy her. Facing off against the likes of the East India Company and Portuguese fleets, Zheng Yi Sao never tasted defeat. She eventually hung up her pirate hat in exchange for amnesty, cementing her status as an absolute LEGEND.

Leonora Carrington

April 1917 – May 2011

Leonora Carrington’s life story is almost as surreal as the short stories and artworks she famously created. Born in 1917 in Lancashire, she turned her back on a privileged, debutante existence after she was expelled from two schools and refused to be married off to a wealthy man, as was expected by her family. Instead, she started a relationship with the surrealist painter Max Ernst and moved with him to Southern France.

Female artist sat in art studio in front of her artwork
Kati Horna, Portrait of Leonora Carrington in her studio, opposite her painting Nunscape at Manzanillo, 1956 © Norah Horna

After fleeing Nazi occupied France for Spain, she suffered an emotional breakdown and was imprisoned in a psychiatric facility in Santander for six months. Upon her release, she fled to New York and moved across the border to Mexico City where she lived out the rest of her life as a renowned artist, much to the chagrin of the male dominated art scene.

At that time, many of the men in the Surrealist movement saw women’s role as subject and inspiration, not artist. But Carrington successfully shrugged off this image to forge her own path, working with other women artists in Mexico to create a lifetime of Surreal art that was entirely original and distinct from that produced by her male contemporaries. In her lifetime, she learned two languages (French and Spanish), wrote a series of very weird short stories (which I personally love), mingled with Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp in Paris, and shook off a humdrum and comfortable existence for a life less ordinary.

Countless women across the globe have etched their names into the archives of history, often without the fanfare they truly deserve. Whose stories have ignited a spark within you? Who continues to inspire you day after day? Join us on our Instagram page and let us know!

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