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Maud Gonne

4 forgotten women from history

These women have all made considerable contributions to the world, but have sadly seen their achievements forgotten by society or, worse still, attributed to men.

Image: Maud Gonne | Public Domain

Countless women in history have made massive achievements in science, literature, politics and so on, but a lot of their achievements have largely been lost to time. In this article, we’ll go over some of the most important women whose contributions had gone relatively unnoticed.

1. Hatshepsut

While there have been many significant female Pharaohs who are ingrained into our culture, think Cleopatra or Nefertiti, Hatshepsut was one of the first and most significant female Pharaohs in Egypt’s history.

Hatshepsut assumed the role of queen regent after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, with their son, Thutmose III, sitting on the throne. However, Hatshepsut took on the full role of Pharaoh around seven years into her son’s reign, ruling alongside the boy king.

This wasn’t entirely unprecedented. There had been female Pharaohs before, though Hatshepsut was forced to wear a traditionally male royal garb and potentially even a false beard when facing the public.

During her reign, Hatshepsut commissioned several major architectural projects, many of which stand to this day, such as monuments in the Temple of Karnak. She also commissioned the restoration of the Precinct of Mut, a temple complex dedicated to the Egyptian mother goddess.

Hatshepsut's reign is also notable for being relatively peaceful. Most of her efforts were put into establishing trade with, rather than conquering, the surrounding Kingdoms. Though it’s possible she led some expeditions into Nubia and the Semitic Kingdom of Canaan.

However, after her death, many of the records of Hatshepsut's achievements were erased or attributed to other Pharaohs, including her husband. Through modern methodology, some of these erasures have been recognised, though many of her achievements are still unknown.

2. Ada Lovelace

Lord Byron is one of the most renowned poets in the English-speaking canon, so it’s a shock how relatively unknown his first daughter is considering what she achieved. While Byron was disappointed at his first child being a daughter, having desired to have a ‘glorious boy’, what Ada Lovelace achieved in life can only be described as glorious.

Ada was a talented mathematician. While mathematics is still unfortunately a male-dominated sphere, it was nearly unheard of for a woman to study mathematics in her day. Despite this, she was a devoted student of the polymath Charles Babbage.

Under Babbage, Ada learned about the potential of computing engines. While Babbage created the proposal for how such an Analytical Machine could work, it was Ada who published notes explaining how the machine could be used to compute complex sums, essentially making her the first computer programmer.

The machine itself was never actually built, but Ada's detailed notes went on to inspire and inform future inventors and mathematicians to develop more complex computing machines.

Ada’s life was cut short by ovarian cancer in 1852 when she was 36 years old, the same age as her father. Her written works have inspired mathematicians and engineers for centuries, so it is only fair that she be given the same appreciation as her legendary father.

3. Maud Gonne

Another very significant female figure best remembered for their attachment to a prolific male poet, Maud Gonne is known as an object of intense romantic affection for W.B. Yeats. Yet she was much more than that. She was one of the most significant figures in Ireland’s revolution against Britain.

Maud was an actress by trade and often portrayed powerful or tragic female heroines, including Cathleen ni Houlihan in Yeats’ play of the same name. In this role, she portrayed an old woman lamenting the loss of her four provinces to the British.

Maud’s political agitation didn’t end at the stage, however. She was one of the founding members of the National Council in 1903, an organisation set up to spread and inflame nationalistic sentiment across the country. It was within this organisation that the Sinn Feinparty was formed.

Maud was also very active in stoking support for Catholic tenant farmers who were oppressed by their Protestant landlords and spoke in support of the Boer republics during the Second Boer War, encouraging Irish men not to fight. Maud joined the Irish White Cross to help victims of violence.

She also protested against street violence, though this didn’t prevent British soldiers from opening fire on Irish civilians. For her involvement in republican activism, Maud’s home was ransacked in 1922 by British soldiers and she was arrested in 1923.

Maud was an incredibly important figure in Irish culture, a revolutionary and a volunteer worker all at once. She is remembered as one of the most important people in Ireland’s revolution. She died in 1953, living long enough to see her dream of an independent Ireland come true.

4. Mary Sidney

The final woman on this list is also associated with a famous English poet. Mary Sidney lived from 1561 to 1621 and was the brother of Sir Philip Sidney. While her brother is known as one of the preeminent poets of the time, Mary’s literary achievements are largely swept under the rug.

Mary married Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke in 1577. She took responsibility for her husband’s many estates, including Wilton House, where she would spend most of her time, and Baynard’s Castle in London, where she once entertained Queen Elizabeth I at dinner.

During her life, Mary was a great patron of the arts. She turned Wilton House into a haven for poets, leading to the formation of the ‘Wilton Circle’. This group of poets included famous names such as Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Michael Drayton. And there are some suggestions that Wilton House was the site of the premiere of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Mary herself wrote a great deal, her most well-known work being Antonius, a translation of the French play Marc-Antoine, as well as penning a great number of poems, including an elegy for her brother after his death on campaign against the Spanish.

She is known for reviving the soliloquy as a common literary practice in playwriting, something that inspired Shakespeare and other playwrights. Mary is accredited as one of the most significant literary figures of her age by anthologist John Bodenham.