For everyone My Favourite Things: Amazing women you’ve never heard of!

Throughout history, there have been countless women who have blazed trails, but nonetheless fallen under the radar. Here are just a few whose stories are worth much more than a side-note.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900–1979)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an astronomer who overcame several hurdles throughout a lifetime of scientific achievements, which included the discovery that stars are composed of hydrogen and helium. Her fundings were initially rejected because they contradicted the scientific wisdom of the time.

Gaposchkin applied for a fellowship at Harvard, where she continued to make a name for herself, although women were barred from becoming professors and so she was referred to as a “technical assistant” for much of her time there. As well as being a woman of science, Gaposchkin was a keen knitter and seamstress, and a voracious reader.

Nellie Bly (1864–1922)

When Nellie Bly was a teenager, she read the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper column ‘What Girls Are Good For’ (housework! looking after children!) and wrote in with a response so impressive that the editor hired her. While she was usually relegated to the women’s pages (fashion, society, gardening, theatre), she did manage an assignment as foreign correspondent to Mexico, where she reported on the lives of the working class.

Back in the US, with rejection after rejection as editors refused to hire a woman, Bly talked her way into the New York World, where she took an undercover assignment feigning insanity to investigate reports of brutality at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. This turned into the book Ten Days in a Mad-House, which caused a sensation and prompted reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill.

Professor Fiona Wood (1958–)

One of Australia’s national living treasures, plastic surgeon Fiona Wood is credited with developing spray-on skin for burns patients, which came into the spotlight after the 2002 Bali bombings. Wood grew up in relative poverty in Yorkshire but graduated from St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery before moving to Western Australia, where she is Director of the Burns Service of Western Australia. No wonder she is an Officer of the Order of Australia and an Australian of the Year. As if all that isn’t enough, she also has six children.


Mary Anderson (1866–1953)

American real estate developer and viticulturist, Mary Anderson is credited with inventing the windscreen wipers in 1903 after frustration at being unable to see out of a trolley car on a sleety day in New York City. The device she patented was a lever inside the car that controlled a rubber blade on the outside – and looks remarkably like the windscreen wipers still in use today.

Josephine Cochrane (1839–1913)

An honourable mention must go to the inventor who has made all of our lives easier: the inventor of the dishwasher! Sick of her dishes being chipped after dinner parties, Josephine Cochrane developed a prototype in a shed at the back of her house in Illinois. Once patented in 1886, perhaps unsurprisingly, her first big customers were hotels and restaurants.

Lee Miller (1907–1977)

Lee Miller was an American model and muse turned photographer and photojournalist. A surrealist before she even knew of the movement, Lee Miller was one of the most groundbreaking photographic artists of the twentieth century.

Also an accredited war photographer, Miller took some of the most famous photos of the atrocities of World War Two, photographing the blitz, the fallout of D-Day, the liberation of Paris, and the US military’s entry into Dachau and Buchenwald. Miller’s photos of Dachau were some of the first to show the true horrors of the concentration camps to allied forces, printed at her insistence in Vogue in June 1945 alongside the caption: ‘Believe it’.

Edith Cowan (1861–1932)

Edith Cowan survived a tumultuous upbringing – her mother died when she was seven and when she was 15 her father was hanged for the murder of her stepmother – to go on to become one of Australia’s leading social reformers who worked for the rights and welfare of women and children, and the first Australian woman Member of Parliament.

Cowan, whose face is on the $50 note, was a campaigner for women’s suffrage, which saw women in Western Australia granted the right to vote in 1899. She was a leading advocate for public education and the rights of children, particularly those of single mothers, was one of the first women to serve on the local board of education, and helped found the Children’s Protection Society. It is no wonder that she has a university named after her.

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