Important Women You Might Not Have Learned About in School | Of Mercer

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Career and Life

Important Women You Might Not Have Learned About in School

In honor of Women's History Month, we wanted to share several influential women who have changed the course of history.

Some women in history have become household names: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Susan B. Anthony, this list goes on. These women have had a significant influence on our history and live on inside our textbooks, classrooms, etc. But many other women are frequently erased from history. This month, we wanted to highlight several important women who have influenced the world that you may not know about. Hopefully, in sharing their stories, you learn something new about an incredible woman!

Hedy Lamarr 

Hedy Lamarr

          Hedy Lamarr was the epitome of beauty and brains. A famous actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lamarr was often referred to as ‘The Most Beautiful Women in Film.’ Though born in Austria in 1914, Hedy Lamarr moved to the United States in 1937 after fleeing her possessive Nazi husband. Her filmography spanned over 30 movies in a 28-year career where she gained wide-spread fame.

          However, Lamarr was much more than just a beautiful actress; she was brilliant and loved to invent things. At the height of her film career during World War II, Lamarr co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping. This system would allow torpedoes to go undetected by Nazi troops. While it did not get used in World War II, in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the system was installed in U.S. navy ships. Her invention also paved the way for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s efforts weren’t credited until 1997, when she was awarded the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

          Katherine Johnson was an incredible American mathematician who worked for NASA for over three decades (you may recognize her name from the film Hidden Figures). Her significant mathematical calculations led to the success of the first and the subsequent space orbit trips. 

          Born in 1918, Katherine always loved math and excelled in school. She attended graduate school at West Virginia University, becoming the first black woman to do so. Johnson later applied to NACA (NASA’s predecessor) in 1952 but was not offered a position. However, she didn’t give up and re-applied in 1953, securing her place at NACA. She worked in a group of “computers’- women that were responsible for solving calculations. Johnson was assertive and eventually became the first woman to attend NASA meetings that were previously only for male engineers. 

          Johnson’s calculations of orbital mechanics were pivotal in the Space Race; her work successfully allowed Alan Shepard to become the first man in space and helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 flight to the moon.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

          Rosalind Franklin’s work in science was vital for understanding the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Unfortunately, her contributions toward DNA went largely unappreciated until after her death.

          In 1951, Franklin began to study DNA. When she started her research, very little was known about the chemical makeup or structure of DNA. She quickly discovered the density of DNA, and more importantly, the helical structure of the molecule. Her work is best known for the famous Photo 51, a clear X-ray image of DNA structure, which allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to suggest that the structure of DNA is a double-helix polymer. Watson and Crick never clearly credited her until after her death and were awarded a Nobel Prize that largely depended on Franklin’s work.

          Her contributions to science have been significant, and though her life was tragically cut short in 1957 due to ovarian cancer, she is now finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

          Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797, but she did not let that define her. In 1826, Sojourner escaped from slavery with her daughter, leaving her other children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order. Her five-year-old son was then illegally sold to an owner in Alabama, which led Truth to successfully sue to gain her son back. Thus, becoming the first black woman to win a legal case against a white man.

          She began giving speeches speaking out against slavery and women’s discrimination, allowing her to meet other notable figures, such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and President Abraham Lincoln. In 1851, at a Women’s Rights Conference, she delivered her famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” where she spoke about the challenges she faces as a black woman. Her speeches and contributions heavily influenced the abolitionist and women’s suffragist movement, making Sojourner Truth one of the most notable leaders in her time.