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Peseshet circa the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BCE)

Art by Katie (tumblr, instagram)

Peseshet is one of the earliest known female physicians.  Like Merit-Ptah before her, Peseshet lived in Egypt.  Peseshet was referred to as the “lady overseer of the female physicians” proving that there were a number of female medical professionals working at the time.  Peseshet is believed to have been involved in gynecological and obstetrical training at the ancient Egyptian medical school at Sais.  

Peseshet is buried with a senior court official named Akhethetep who is likely her son.

Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Hatshepsut - phantom pharaohs. 

I just feel like these three would be bffs in the afterlife. 

Martha Minerva Franklin (1870-1968)

Art by Anna Rüth (instagram

The daughter of a black Union solider, Martha grew up in Connecticut.  She graduated from the Women’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in December 1897.  She was the only black student in her class.  Minerva began her career working as a private nurse in Connecticut.  

In 1906, Martha surveyed more than 500 black nurses.  She discovered that while the prestigious American Nurses Association was technically open to all races, many black nurses were effectively barred from the national organization because it required membership in State Nurses Associations, many of which refused to admit black members.

Martha organized a national meeting of black nurses in New York City.  The attendees formed the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and Martha was elected president.  The organization’s goals were to improve training for black nurses, reduce racial inequality in the nursing profession, and cultivate leaders from within the black nursing community.

In 1928, Martha moved to New York City and enrolled in a post-graduate course at Lincoln Hospital.  After graduation, she qualified as a registered nurse and began working as a school nurse.  After her retirement, Martha moved to New Haven to live with her sister.  She died at the age of 98.

The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses flourished during World War II.  The need for wartime nurses combined with the organization’s activism expanded employment and training opportunities for black nurses.   First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Congresswoman Frances Bolton provided strong support for these changes.  After the war, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses voted unanimously to join the American Nurses Association.  The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses disbanded in 1951.

Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi  (1910-1971) 

Art by  Φ (tumblr)

Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi was the first female physician in Nigeria.  She studied medicine in Dublin, graduating in 1936.  Elizabeth specialized in gynecology and obstetrics. She eventually became Medical Director of the Massey Street Hospital in Lagos and a Senior Specialist for the Nigerian Ministry of Health.  Elizabeth was also president of the National Council of Women Societies, an important non-governmental organization in Nigeria.  

Maria Cunitz (1610-1664)

Art by Maya Escobar (personal tumblr, library tumblr)

Maria Cunitz was one of the most important astronomers of her age.  The daughter of a Silesian physician, Maria was educated at home.  From a young age, she was interested in astronomy and as a teenager she recorded the movement of the planets.  

During the Thirty Years War, Maria and her husband took refuge in a convent where Maria wrote Urania propitia, sive Tabulae Astronomicae mirè faciles. Written in both German and Latin, the book was published in 1650.  It was a simplification of Johannes Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables which calculated the position of a planet in its orbit.  The book was groundbreaking and made Maria an international leader in science.

Hortensia circa 42 BCE

Art by Lacey (tumblr)

After the death of Julius Caesar, Rome’s leaders proposed a tax on the city’s  1400 wealthiest women to fund a campaign against those responsible for Caesar’s death.  The women were outraged by the tax and chose Hortensia as their spokesperson.  Hortensia was the daughter of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, a well-known Roman orator.  Hortensia gave a rousing speech, questioning the government’s right to levy taxes on women who, by virtue of their gender, had no voice in government. 

According to the Greek historian Appian, Hortensia asked Rome’s leaders: 

You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you… if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing? Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the state-craft, for which you contend against each other with such harmful results?”

In the end, the tax was limited to 400 women and expanded to include all men who owned more than 100,000 drachmas. 

Eleanor of Arborea (1347-1404)

Art by Amanda Allen Niday (tumblr, instagram)

Eleanor of Arborea was the daughter of Timbora de Rocabertí and Marianus IV of Arborea.  Medieval Sardinia was divided into four zones ruled by hereditary judges.   Marianus IV of Arborea was one of those hereditary judges.  At the time of Eleanor’s birth, Marianus IV ruled over a third of Sardinia and fought to maintain his region’s independence.  After Marianus’s   death in 1376, his son Hugh III took power.  In 1388, Hugh was assassinated.

After Hugh’s death, Eleanor proclaimed herself judge.  She sent her husband to Spain in hopes of currying favor with Peter IV of Aragon, but her husband was taken hostage by the Aragonese who demanded the couple’s sons.  Eleanor refused to hand over her son and worked to solidify her power in Sardinia.  Eventually Eleanor negotiated her husband’s release without giving up Sardinia’s independence or her sons.  

Eleanor’s greatest achievement was the Carta de Logu, a set of civil and penal laws which served as the basis of Sardinian law until 1827.  Based on a previous set of laws created by Marianus IV,  the Carta de Logu attempted to enshrined the equality of all people.  Regardless of social class and nationality, all people were subject to the same punishments under the Carta de Logu.  It protected women’s property rights and the inheritance rights of orphans.  Daughters were given the same inheritance rights as sons.  Rape was severely punished.  The Carta de Logu also regulated hunting and the times at which farmers could implement controlled fires.

Eleanor died in 1402. She was succeeded by her son Marianus V.

Maria Pita (1565-1643)

Art by dftbalicia11 (tumblr)

England and Spain were intermittently at war between 1585 and 1604.  In 1589, the English Navy lay siege to A Coruña in northern Spain.  On May 4,   English forces breached the defenses of the old city.  Maria Pita’s husband was killed in the siege and Maria led a charge against the English.  Inspired by Maria, other women joined the battle and eventually forced the English out of  A Coruña.

Clotilde (475–545)

Art by Kyra Liggett (tumblr)

In the third century, the Roman Empire stretched from Great Britain to Egypt.  By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had fallen to the barbarians.

The Franks were one of the most important tribes of this era.  A confederation of Germanic peoples, the Franks first appear in Roman sources in 257.  A tribe of powerful pagan warriors, the Franks quickly accumulated land and power.  The turning point of their transition from pagan raiders to Western European rulers can be seen in the life of Clotilde.

Clotilde was the daughter of Chilperic II, KIng of Burgundy.  Around the time of Clotilde’s birth, Chilperic II submitted to Roman authority.  When Clotilde was a teenager, her uncle seized power and killed Chilperic II.  

Fratricide was not unheard of among the Franks.  Around this time, Clovis rose to power.  Like Clotilde, he was the teenage child of a Frankish king.  And like Clotilde’s uncle, Clovis killed family members to consolidate his power.  Clovis eventually married Clotilde, further strengthening his position among the Franks.

When Clotilde and Clovis married, she was a Christian and he was a pagan.  Although Clovis was initially hostile to Christianity, he converted following the Battle of Tolbiac on Christmas Day 508.  Clovis’s conversion helped spread Christianity throughout Gaul.  After her death, Clotilde was canonized.  She is a patron saint of queens, brides, people in exile, and adopted children.

Clotilde and Clovis had five children together.  Their descendants would be known as the Merovingians and include Charlemagne who would eventually united much of Western Europe.

Abigail Fillmore (1798-1853) and Mary Abigail Fillmore (1832-1854)

Art by Cicero Profacto (tumblr)

Abigail Powers was born in Saratoga County, New York in 1798. Her father died when she was very young and her mother moved the family to the less settled and therefore less expensive Finger Lakes region.  

In 1819, twenty one year old Abigail took a teaching position.  Her eldest pupil was 19 year old Millard Fillmore. The two soon fell in love, but because Millard’s family was very poor, they waited until 1826 to marry.  By that time, Millard had qualified as a lawyer.

Abigail taught for two years after their wedding, making her the first First Lady to hold a job after marriage.  She retired from teaching after the birth of her first child Millard Powers Fillmore in 1828.  That same year, Millard was elected to the New York State Assembly.  Over the next 22 years, Millard would serve in Albany and Washington between stints in private practice.  While he was away, Abigail and Millard exchanged frequent letters.

In 1842, Abigail injured her foot and while her condition eventually improved she had trouble walking and standing for the rest of her life.  In 1848, Abigail’s health further deteriorated as she developed headaches and backaches.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor died suddenly and Vice President Millard Fillmore ascended to the Presidency.  Always an academic, Abigail invited writers such as Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray to the White House. The White House library is often credited to Abigail, but it is unclear exactly how involved she was.

An eighteen year old schoolteacher when her father took office, Mary Abigail Fillmore lived at the White House with her parents and often served as hostess when her mother was unavailable.  Mary Abigail spoke five languages and played three instruments.  

Abigail caught a cold at the outdoor inauguration for Franklin Pierce. The cold turned into pneumonia.  Abigail died just 26 days after leaving the White House, the shortest post-Presidential life of any former First Lady.  Mary Abigail died a year later from cholera.  

Past Cool Chicks from History posts about First Ladies can be found here.

Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948)

Art by Mattie Hinkley (tumblr, instagram)

Edith Roosevelt was the first First Lady to employ a full-time, salaried social secretary.  Although Edith was not an activist First Lady, the addition of paid staff dedicated to the First Lady elevated the position and paved the way for First Ladies like Edith’s niece Eleanor.  

Although Edith was not an activist, she did serve as a go-between and convey information about the Russo-Japanese War to Teddy.  Teddy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.  

With a family of six children, Edith and Teddy needed more space than most First Families.  Edith hired architects and petitioned Congress for funds to separate the living quarters from the offices.  The result was the creation of the West Wing.

Past Cool Chicks from History posts about First Ladies can be found here.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

Art by histoireinsolite (tumblr)

Born into obscurity, Aphra Behnbecame one of the most important dramatists of the seventeenth century.  Prior to beginning her writing career, Aphra served as spy for Charles II during the Anglo-Dutch Wars.  She also spent time in debtor’s prison and the need for financial security was a driving force in her writing career.  Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced in London in 1670 when she was approximately 30 years old.  

A prolific writer, Aphra wrote plays, novels, poems, and short stories, in addition to translating works from French and Latin.  Her writings often alluded to sexual desire including same sex attraction, controversial themes for a seventeenth century female writer. Her best-known work today is Oroonoko, a sympathetic story about an enslaved African man.

Aphra Behn’s career created opportunities for later female writers.  In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”