Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer
Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Woman
Lois Jenson: Seeking Justice for Sexual Harassment
c. 350–370 CE–415 CE
Throughout its history, the city of Alexandria had been a beacon of culture and learning. Hypatia’s father Theon was an astronomer and mathematician who made sure that his daughter received a thorough education. She became head of the local university, and students came from far and wide to hear her lectures. According to a contemporary historian, Hypatia "made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time."
Little is known of her personal life, but she was widely praised for being wise, virtuous, and beautiful. But across the Roman Empire, tensions mounted between pagan authorities and the growing Christian church, and Hypatia was drawn into the vicious power struggle. As an influential pagan woman and adviser to the governor, Hypatia became a symbol of everything that stood in the way of Christian supremacy. The fanatics who murdered her saw as a satanic witch, but modern historians celebrate her for being one of the leading thinkers of her time.
Edmonia Lewis was the first African-American and Native-American woman to become a professional artist. She was known for her neoclassical sculptures and paintings of famous abolitionists. Lewis’s mother was a weaver with Ojibwe and African American roots and her father was a Haitian servant. She drew inspiration from her cultural heritage for many of her works.
During the tumultuous days of the Civil War, Lewis attended Oberlin College (one of the first institutions to admit women and African Americans.) While at school, she was brutally beaten by vigilantes for allegedly trying to poison two of her white friends with a dodgy batch of mulled wine.
A few years later, Lewis moved to Rome where she spent much of her career. Sadly, many of her works have not survived. Her towering sculpture The Death of Cleopatra (1876) was a highlight of the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia, but languished in a junkyard for more than a century before being recovered and restored in 1994.
Lewis overcame tremendous obstacles to become an artist at a time when few opportunities were open to people of her gender and skin color.
Rebecca Latimer Felton has a complex legacy. Born in Decatur, Georgia, she was an invaluable asset to her husband’s political career. A sharp and efficient woman, she deftly ran his campaigns and helped him draft speeches and legislation. She was a passionate advocated for women’s suffrage, equal pay, prison reform, and educational opportunities for the poor.
In 1922, when the senator from Georgia died suddenly, the governor appointed 87-year-old Felton as a stand-in. Felton was sworn in on November 21st and although her term lasted only 24 hours, she was officially the first woman senator in the U.S. and is still the only woman to have ever served as a senator from Georgia.
Felton was also a staunch white supremacist. As vocally as she campaigned for women’s right to vote, she opposed the same right for African-Americans, arguing that the more education and social freedoms they had, the more danger they posed to white women. Even for a period rife with intolerance, Felton’s views were exceptionally racist. She deserves to be remembered for her lifelong fight for women’s rights, but her views on race can't be erased from her story.