Woman's History Month: Forgotten Heroines

Wednesday, March 24

By Piper Rae Davidson

Woman's history month brings the yearly wave of empowering stories of girls who changed the world. Yet, there are too many women left out of March's inspiring commercials and instagram infographics. Here are just five of the many women too often ignored and forgotten by history books and modern media. 

Vitka Kempner 

Eight months after fleeing Nazi-occupied home of Poland, Vitka Kempner was taken from her place of refuge - Vilnius, Lithuania. Like so many other jews, she was thrown into a ghetto under German control. During WW2, the United Partisan Organization was amongst the most renowned Jewish partisan groups. While in the ghetto, Kemptner made connections with Rozka Korczak and Abba Kovner, and established a role within the United Partisan Organization. The organization was incredibly successful, until they were driven out of Vilnius after a failed ghetto revolt. Kemptner, Korczak, and Kovner then went on to assume leadership roles in a break-off militia known as the Avengers. This group continued to sabotage countless Nazi operations, destroying Vilniuses water and power systems. They were based out of Rudniki Forest, where they lived for nine months. Post-war, Kemptner continued her fight against Nazis, helping hundreds of jews evacuate to British Palestine. Her efforts in the war were far from unimpactful, and her imprint should not be forgotten. 

Cornelia Sorabji 

Cornelia Sorabji was a trailblazer in the history of women in academia and law. After becoming the first female graduate of Bombay University in 1888, Sorabji sought out a path to continue her education. Sorabji’s connections to influential figures across Britain and India allowed for her to move to England, and in 1892 she was given special permission by Congregational Decree to take the post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford. She was the first woman to ever do so. She began her legal career returning to India, where she was involved in social work on the behalf of women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world -- known as the Purdahnashins. Unfortunately, it was not until 1923 (when women in India were allowed to practice law) that she would be recognized as a barrister.  However, she spent over 20 years advising women and minors in a court setting, as well as advocating for the legal rights of women. She spent five years on the high court, before her retirement in 1929. She spent her life paving the way for the women that would follow her, and heavily advocating for India legal reform in regard to the position of women. 

Mary Patten 

The story of Mary Patten is one of perseverance and leadership. At 15, she married a young captain named Joshua Patten. He was offered command of a merchant vessel “Neptune's Car”, and took the role after demanding he take his wife with him. The Patten’s spent their first 17 months on board the ship sailing across the globe - to San Francisco, China, London, and back to their home of New York. In 1856 the boat once again began its journey from New York to San Francisco. However, Joshua fell ill with tuberculosis. A series of peculiar events led to both the first and second mate incapable of navigating the ship, leaving Mary the most qualified individual on board to lead the journey. It should be noted that at this time, Mary was 19 years old, and pregnant. She successfully led the ship for 54 days, despite her pregnancy, an attempted mutiny, and simultaneously caring for her ill husband. This made Mary Patten the first female commander of an American merchant ship, and by all definitions, a heroine. 

Anacaona (The Poet queen of Haiti)

Anacaona was a chief and religious expert of  Xaragua. Xaragua was one of five kingdoms that made up the island that is now modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti. Under Anacaona’s rule the people of Xaragua and spanish settlers were able to peacefully coexist and intermarry. However, in 1503 the spanish island governor Nicolas Ovando feared insurrection, and traveled to Xaragua. Despite Anacaona’s peace offerings, Ovando incited violence against the island natives. Anacaona was arrested and hanged. Historians continue to express confusion over the events of 1503 and the story of Anacaona, yet they can all agree that she died defending her land and her people. She stood for the rights and beliefs of her community, and strived for peace despite the inherent violence that seemingly came with european colonization. 

Bessie Stringfield 

Bessie Stringfield led a life that was complicated, difficult to track, and above anything, inspiring. The story of her early life is quite muddled, but most believe that she was adopted and raised by an Irish woman near Boston. She was of Jamacan-American descent, but her birthplace remains unconfirmed. At 16 years old Stringfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle, and at 19 she began her first journey across the United States. She rode through 48 states, multiple countries, facing the world's challenges along the way. She was often denied accommodations due to her race, and she was denied prize money in racing competitions due to her gender. The majority of her income was gained from performing bike tricks at various carnivals and shows. Her talents were then used in the second world war, when she transported government documents between army bases. She went through rigorous training , and yet despite her efforts she continued to face severe racism and sexism. She was repeatedly targeted by local police, as well as civilians who believed that a black woman should not be riding a motorcycle. She never backed down in the pursuit of what she loved, and continued to ride until her death in 1993. 

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