History is written by the winners — at least, that’s what internet trolls always say. More often than not, history is written by men.  

Across all historical periods, there are remarkable women whose stories have been ignored or cast aside. Today, we’ll be looking at an extraordinary group of women whose courage, resilience, and genius shone too brightly to be lost to the shadows of history. Join us in celebrating, and most importantly remembering, these unsung heroines and the indelible mark they left on society.  

Kathrine Switzer 

Kathrine Switzer had some men clutching at their pearls when she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. Switzer entered as “K.V. Switzer,” and when race organizer Jock Semple realized that Switzer was a woman (gasp!), he assaulted her. “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers,” Semple yelled after trying to snatch her bib and before getting blocked by Switzer’s then boyfriend, Tom Miller. Pictures of the incident spread, and the Boston Marathon started accepting female runners in 1972.  

Claudette Colvin 

Claudette Colvin was the first black woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus — nine months before Rosa Parks.  

Colvin nearly became the subject of a federal suit to desegregate Alabama’s bus system, but local civil rights leaders (led by Martin Luther King Jr.) ostracized her. Colvin believed this was because her skin tone was too dark and because she became pregnant at 16. NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks became the face of the movement, but Colvin’s refusal stands as a reminder of the power of saying “no.”  

Freddie and Truus Oversteegen and Hannie Schaft 

Freddie and Truus Oversteegen didn’t have a typical upbringing, spending their formative years in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. In 1941, a commander with the Haarlem Resistance Group recruited the sisters, who had been spreading anti-Nazi newspapers and pamphlets for the Dutch resistance. “Only later did he tell us what we’d actually have to do: sabotage bridges and railway lines,” said Truus, “and learn to shoot, to shoot Nazis.”  

The sisters were joined by another young woman named Hannie Schaft, and together, the trio took on sabotage and assassination missions against Nazis and Dutch Collaborators in what could only be described as a Quentin Tarantino movie come to life. On at least one occasion, Truus seduced an SS officer, leading him into the woods to be shot by resistance members. 

Sadly, there’s no happy ending to this story. Schaft was captured by the Nazis and executed in 1945. The sisters were devasted by the loss of their best friend and did their best to move on after the war. “We did not feel it suited us,” Truus said of being an assassin. “It never suits anybody, unless they are real criminals.”  

Jocelyn Bell Burnell 

In 1967, then-graduate-student Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first to notice the anomaly. She was also the first to argue the significance of the strange squiggles in the night sky. Still, her adviser Antony Hewish received all the credit for the discovery of pulsars: a subset of rotating neutron stars that send out pulses of radiation at regular intervals.  

The discovery was announced via a paper in Nature, and wouldn’t you know it, Hewish’s name was the first listed in the study. Burnell’s was second. Hewish received the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery, but Burnell wasn’t bothered. In fact, she was thrilled that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to someone studying physics. Besides, she’d go on to receive about every other honor for the discovery. 

Marthe Gautier 

For decades, French physician Marthe Gautier was denied the spotlight for her role in the 1958 discovery of trisomy 21: an extra copy of chromosome 21 that causes Down syndrome.  

The way Gautier tells it, she shared patient samples with her male colleague Jérôme Lejeune, who offered to have them photographed. Six months later, Lejeune authored “Human Chromosomes in Tissue Cultures,” taking credit for the discovery while listing Gautier as the second author and misspelling her name. The French National Institute has since defended Gautier, stating that Lejeune’s participation in the discovery was unlikely to be of great importance.  

Rosalind Franklin 

James Watson and Francis Crick are renowned for the discovery of the DNA double helix, but now it’s believed they only made the discovery after stealing data from physical chemist Rosalind Franklin.  

Watson was shown an X-ray image of DNA taken by Franklin, without her permission. Known as Photograph 51, the image is “the philosopher’s stone of molecular biology.” Popular culture will have you believe that Franklin couldn’t understand the significance of the image, while Watson understood it at a glance. Uncovered documents reveal that Franklin was an equal contributor to the discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure. 

The Story Continues …  

There’s no shortage of forgotten women in history: women who spoke when they were told to be silent, who stayed sitting when they were told to stand, and who never wavered when told they were wrong. If you like what you’ve read, we encourage you to dive deeper and discover what other secrets history has to offer.  

A History Lesson Awaits 

The University of Texas Permian Basin offers an online Master of Arts in History for anyone interested in uncovering the untold stories that have shaped our world. Courses include: 

  • Progressive Era 
  • Third Reich and Holocaust 
  • Native North America: Contact to Removal 
  • American Revolution 
  • Civil War 

UT Permian Basin’s online MA in history program will equip you with the tools, knowledge, and research skills needed to not only contextualize the impact history has on society but also advance your career and share that expertise with others.  

By understanding the past, we pave the way for a more equitable future. Take the first step toward making history and apply to UT Permian Basin and its online MA in history program today.