I have a confession to make: I am a history nerd. There is something so invigorating to me about historic sites and history museums. From the musky smells of aging leather-bound books and oxidizing wood to ghostly photographs and abandoned textiles, I love it all.
March is Women’s History Month and I’ve decided to pay tribute to five lesser-known female heroes that I have come to know and love over the years. Though their names may not be commonplace, these bold and innovative ladies helped shape the world we know today.
Amy Thompson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. Not only did she set multiple distance records in flight during her dabblings in aviation, but she also flew in World War II as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). In 1934, she became the youngest president of the Women’s Engineering Society. That same year, she flew with her husband in record time from England to India. Amy flew during the same time period as Amelia Earhart and why her name is lesser known is beyond me. Tragically, she met a similar fate, “disappearing” during an ATA ferry flight. The circumstances surrounding her death are still subject to dispute, rumor, and speculation.
Lucy Burns was the middle child of eight children. This certainly did not stop her from making noise, as Ms. Burns would go on to serve more time in prison than any other American woman suffragist. Fortunately, her father believed in education for all children equally, so Lucy was permitted to attend college. She studied at Vassar College and Yale before forming the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913. She is known for her “fiery” protests and fearless displays of activism, which undoubtedly contributed to the ratification of the Nineteen Amendment in 1920. She then retreated from the public eye. But, true to form, the The Lucy Burns Museum, commemorating the women’s suffrage movement and the history of the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, where Burns and other suffragists were confined in 1917, was opened on the site of the former prison in 2020.
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman to own a bank. She was born on July 15, 1867, during a time when “Black Code” laws limited the freedom of African Americans to maintain white supremacy. Defying the odds against her, in 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank becoming the first woman of any race to charter a bank in the United States. By 1924, the Penny Savings Bank had spread to other parts of Virginia and included more than 50,000 members. Throughout her life, she served as a leader in the Richmond African American community and she fought arduously for women’s rights and education.
Anna Freud is the perfect example of men getting all the credit. She was the youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychoanalysis,” but it was actually Anna who constructed and defined the famed 10 defense mechanisms including denial, repression, projection, compartmentalization, and more. Her work on psychoanalysis, in my humble opinion, merged crucial elements of scientific grounding and common sense with her father’s earlier work, making his theories more palatable to the general public. Anna has also been described as the founder of child psychology. She founded the Hamstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic in London, where she also served as director for 20 years.
Grace Banker was coined as one of America’s “hello girls,” a force of women telephone operators for the US Army Signal Corps during WWI. It is generally assumed that women were not permitted to fight in combat during the first World War, but these women would have been seen on the front lines managing 50 phone lines connected to the Army’s Operations Section. It was government policy to hire women “only when men were unavailable,” but desperation produced an elite force of educated, independent, (typically) single women. Grace led 33 women telephone operators and she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with commendation in 1919.
This month I challenge everyone to Google a lesser-known woman hero. It’s insane how many of them there are still tucked between the lines of the accomplishments of men. Despite their mysterious nature, I believe you will find these hidden figures quite compelling. Happy Women’s History Month to all of the under-celebrated but remarkable women… like you.