Women have been refashioning the world for centuries. But it can be hard to find their stories or any details on their contributions and the changes they initiated.
The Ladies First collection in Enya’s Attic celebrates six women who changed the world in a variety of different spheres – writing, education, science, medicine, law and aviation.
Through their lives and the passions they pursued, these women defined possibilities for all those who came behind.
Aphra Behn, Marie Curie, Fatima Al-Fihri, Charlotte E. Ray,Raymonde de Laroche, Marie Josefina Mathilde Durocher– Here’s the lowdown on who they were, what they did and why we need to sing their names.
Aphra Behn – First Known Professional Writer in England
Aphra Behn, was a dramatist, fiction writer, and poet of the Restoration Era (c.1660-85). She was the first Englishwoman known to earn her living by writing.
At a time when paid female scribes were practically unheard of in Britain, badass Behn never concealed the fact she was a woman writer.
And, as it turns out, she was one of the most prolific writers of her time, known for her comedic plays and her pioneering work in prose narrative.
She also penned well-rounded portrayals of prostitutes, widows and – gasp! – older women for the stage, and skilfully explored the idea of equal opportunities for women in her books and other writing.
As if that wasn’t barrier-breaking enough, Behn was a spy for a short while. This astonishing fact likely made her the first lady to be a secret agent of the British Crown.
Marie Curie – First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize and First Person in the World to Win It Twice
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and it obviously felt so good she decided to do it twice.
The pioneering Polish(and naturalized French) scientist, picked up her first Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1903, along with husband, Pierre Curie, and in 1911, was awarded it again in chemistry.
This made her the first person – woman or non-woman – in the world to win the award twice.
But these weren’t her only firsts. Nope.
Curie was also the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate degree in scientific research, and the first female lecturer and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
And, she did it all while raising two daughters, one of whom, Eve, became a writer and war correspondent, while the other, Irene, followed her mama’s footsteps and bagged a third Nobel Prize to tag to the Curie name in 1935, in chemistry.
Eve also wrote a biography about her mother’s extraordinary achievements in science and life, which I would wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning more about the incomparable Madame Curie.
Fatima al-Fihri – Founded the World’s First University
There are many extraordinary female pioneers in the field of education. But there aren’t that many that set up their own universities. Particularly ones that have been bustling with students for over 1,000 years, and house some of the most important books in world history.
But that’s the story of Fatima Bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, an Arab Muslim woman and something of a smart cookie.
In the year 859, Fatima founded al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which today has the distinction of being the oldest university and library in the world.
Though there are few details of Fatima’s early life, it is known that, somewhere in the early 9thcentury,she migrated with her wealthy merchant father and sister from Qayrawan in Tunisia to Fez in Morocco.
Upon the death of her father, she inherited a large fortune, which the altruistic Fatima used to establish a mosque and university for use in her local community. With a nod to where she’d come from, she named the educational institution after her Tunisian birthplace – Qayrawan.
Over time, the institution grew in rep and respectability, establishing the concept of a university as we know it today.
Fatima’s vision for a center of education that cherished and cultivated continued learning, was particularly influential in medieval Europe. It led advances in science, maths and philosophy at a time when this neighbouring continent was burrowed down under the Dark Ages.
But it also provided the blueprint for Europe’s own great institutions of learning including the University of Bologna (founded 1088) and the University of Oxford (founded around 1096).
With doors still open today, Al-Qarawiyyin continues as an important hub of learning.
The mosque became the largest in Africa, with a capacity of 22,000, while theuniversity library houses a 9th-century Quran manuscript in original binding, along with an additional 4,000 rare texts and ancient manuscripts.
Impressive? I think, yes. And it’s all thanks to one astonishing woman.
Charlotte E. Ray – First African-American Female Lawyer
During the 19th century in the U.S., women were predominantly forbidden from practicing law. Even in those rare states where they could obtain licences to practice, they were often excluded from the associations that would allow them to advance in their careers.
This didn’t stop many fierce females from trying. And one such woman? Charlotte E. Ray.
That Charlotte was female made the road that she had chosen a difficult one. That she was black, made it remarkable.
The truth was, Charlotte’s parents were pretty progressive and wanted the best for their daughter.
Her father, Charles Bennett Ray, was a leading abolitionist and clergyman, and editor of The Colored American, one of the first newspapers published by and for African-Americans.
They ensured she got a good education, which led to Charlotte enrolling in Howard University, in Washington D.C, as a teacher trainee.
But this determined woman’s dream was to be a lawyer, not a teacher.
In Howard, she was able to take law classes. And even though women weren’t allowed on the bar of the District of Columbia, where she wanted to practice, she ended up taking her bar exams and applying anyway.
Surprisingly, she did get admitted. And though it’s not quite clear how that happened, according to Lelia J. Robinson (the first American woman to be admitted to the bar) Charlotte secured her admission by sending her name in with her classmates as the non-gender specific, C.E. Ray.
In any case, however it happened – it happened!
And her acceptance made her not just Howard’s first black woman legal graduate, but one of just a small handful of women in the whole country practicing law.
Unfortunately, though Charlotte had some successful cases the prejudice against her was eventually too much.
Finally, with few clients on her roster, she was forced to close her practice. She moved to New York and became a teacher.
Still, this inspiring woman remained active in the women’s suffrage movement and in the fight for equality for black women.
And though, black women still face difficulties in practicing law today (a paltry 5% of ALL U.S. attorneys are black), Charlotte’s achievements continue to spark a small but bright light of hope.
Raymonde Deroche – First Woman in the World to Solo Pilot a Plane & Receive a Pilot’s Licence
Born in 1882, the daughter of a plumber from Paris, France, Elise Raymonde Deroche, became a pilot and the first woman in the world to receive an aeroplane pilot's licence.
In the early 1900s, Paris was buzzing with excitement over Wilbur Wright’s 1908 demonstrations of powered flight which had taken place in the city.
Raymonde, friendly with a number of aviators, including artist-turned-aviator Leon Delargrange (with whom she had a son, André), was as fascinated as the next person about the idea of human flight.
Another pilot pal was the well-known aviator, Charles Voisin. And so on 22 October 1909, Raymonde travelled out to the Voisin brothers' base of operations at Chalons, just outside Paris, to take her first flying lesson.
Voisin's aircraft was small and could seat only one person. Raymonde settled herself inside, operating the plane by herself while Voisin stood outside, shouting up instructions.
After she mastered taxiing around the airfield, she lifted off and flew 300 yards. A small distance in flight, it was a massive distance for women as it actually made Raymonde the first woman in the world to fly a plane solo.
A year later, in 1910, Raymonde passed the flight test of the Aero Club of France, six years after the first flights of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright.
She didn’t remain the world’s only woman pilot for long, as more and more women took to the skies as licence pilots in the months that followed.
However, as a daring and determined young woman, she did much to prove the much-disputed ability women had as pilots. She took part in air shows and competitions and in 1910, was the only woman to fly in the Aviation Week at Heliopolis, where she achieved sixth place in the Egyptian Grand Prix.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Raymonde applied to join the French air force but was turned down (as were all other women.)
After the war, though, she showed her prowess in the skies once again, becomingthe first woman to reach an altitude of 12,869 feet.
She later flew to 15,700 feet (4,785 metres), breaking the world altitude record for women set by the American Ruth Law.
In the summer of 1919, at the age of 32, she volunteered as a co-pilot for the test flight of a new aircraft at Le Crotoy in Picardy, northern France. The aircraft crashed and both the pilot and Raymonde de Laroche were killed.
Though her life ended far too early, Raymonde is remembered as an inspiration to other women who dreamed of becoming pilots. “Flying,” she once said, “Is the best thing women can do!”
Marie Josefina Mathilde Durocher – First Female Physician in Brazil and the Americas
In the 19thcentury, across the Americas (North and South), women's formal participation in the profession of medicine was largely prohibited.
Females who did practice medicine either did it surreptitiously, in the role of caregiver, or as a helper to male doctors.
In Brazil, the largest country in South America, this was certainly the case. Until, that is, Marie Josefina Mathilde Durocher changed it all.
Though there isn’t much information on how this widowed mother of two came to be the first woman to be granted a medical degree from the Medical School of Rio de Janeiro in 1834, the fact is that she did – And it made her the first female professional doctor both South and North of the continent.
Marie was the daughter of French immigrants. She was born in Paris and moved to Brazil with her parents at the age of eight.
She dreamed of working in the medical profession, and when, at the age of 24 she found herself in need of supporting her two young children, she did what any woman in her situation would do.
Oh, wait. No. In fact, she did the exact opposite!
She enrolled in the obstetrics course in Rio de Janeiro’s recently founded first medical school.
When she graduated in 1834, she hadn’t just made a new life path for herself and her family, she had made history.
And this extraordinary woman continued to make history. Active for 60 years as an obstetrician, midwife and physician, she also became the first female member of the Academia Nacional de Medicina in 1871.
One of the most curious habits that Marie had was dressing in men's clothes. She claimed this was practical on two levels.
Firstly, it enabled her to physically move more freely which was necessary for her line of work.
And secondly, it made her patients – and their male partners - who were used to being attended by male doctors, more comfortable in her presence.
Certainly, it didn’t harm her career; she counted among her many, many patients the grandchildren of Emperor Pedrio II of Brazil.
And when she finally retired in her eighties, she had attended over 5,000 births.