Updated: Mar 26
Call it the calling card of someone who’s spirit animal is Hermione Granger, but September always feels like the “real” start of the year to me. The leaves begin to turn, the air smells of woodsmoke, and inevitably I get the urge to learn. One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is because I get to do exactly that: learn about different time periods, different fashions and political movements and technologies. I get to dive into the lives of people who actually existed – oftentimes, people whose stories have fallen through the cracks of the historical record. Is it a surprise that so many of them are women? (I wish I could say yes, but… *shrug*)
So in honour of the back-to-school season, here’s a list of some of my favourite women from history:
AGNODICE – A friend of mine sent me a text message several years ago and said, “Hey! Why don’t you write a book about HER?” I looked at her Wikipedia page and resolved that one day I would do exactly that: Agnodice is an absolute badass, because she’s considered the first female physician. According to legend (and there’s no verifiable fact, but I like to think she existed), Agnodice was a wealthy Athenian who lived in the 4th century BCE. As an adult, she was appalled to learn about the high mortality rates for women in Greece at the time – and though studying medicine as a woman was a crime punishable by death, Agnodice dressed as a man in order to become a gynaecologist. The best part of the story? The women she helped knew she was a woman, and specifically asked for her services when they were in labour! When the men of Athens learned that their wives and daughters were requesting this one “male” doctor, she was charged with seducing the women of Athens – and to prove herself innocent, she promptly disrobed in the courtroom. Of course, now she was open to the far graver charge of practicing medicine as a woman and was sentenced to death. But the women she’d helped would have none of it: they stormed the courtroom and demanded Agnodice be set free.
HARRIET TUBMAN – Anyone who learns about Harriet Tubman and doesn’t realize they’re looking at the face of pure, unadulterated heroism is kidding themselves. Not only did Tubman escape from slavery, but she went back into enemy territory to rescue other enslaved people – thirteen times!! Then then during the American Civil War, Tubman was a spy for the Union Army, and was the first woman who lead an armed expedition in the civil war! And THEN (if that’s not enough) she advocated for women’s suffrage later in life! *faints out of sheer admiration*
VIRGINIA HALL – Virginia Hall was an upper crust, one-legged, American member of the British Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, and is best known by the epithet given to her by the French resistance: The Limping Lady. Born in Baltimore, Virginia – a polyglot who hoped to join the Foreign Service – found herself in Paris at the beginning of WWII. Having lost her leg a decade earlier in a hunting accident (she named her prosthetic ‘Cuthbert’), Hall would have been well within her rights to return stateside once France fell to the Nazis, but she made her way to London and joined the British Special Operations Executive – that is, Churchill’s secret network of spies. Hall ended up back in France coordinating resistance efforts, and quickly became the most dangerous woman in occupied France: the Germans reportedly even gave her the top spot on their most wanted list! When the Germans seized all of France in 1942, she escaped to Spain by walking over the Pyrenees. What did I tell you? Legend.
HEDY LAMARR – I’ve always been drawn to Old Hollywood glamour, and when you find someone who not only embodies the best of the silver screen but who’s also a bona fide genius, you can’t help but sit up and take notice. Hedy Lamarr was one of the leading actresses of her time, gaining recognition in her native Europe before moving to the United States and signing with MGM to star opposite leading men like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and James Stewart. But as talented an actor as she was, Lamarr was also a scientist and inventor, who developed a patented frequency hopping system that was an early forerunner of today’s secure wireless communications – I’m talking Bluetooth, WiFi, and GPS! Not bad for a day’s work, is it?
Women in Medicine: Agnodice and Childbirth
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II