6 lesser known women who made international history

Happy International Women's Day 2017! Today honors and celebrates women across the globe, throughout time, that have made, influenced, and authored history, impacting our present as we know it today, and continuing to inform future generations to come. 

It is in this vein of celebration and recognition that I present to you 6 lesser known women who made international history, and some suggested reading to go along. These women deserve our applause but more so, they deserve our attention. Studying pockets of history on and about women that aren't written in textbooks, reading or listening to stories that haven't been widely broadcast, or learning about actions that aren't nationally celebrated, we see just how much work women have done, continue to do, and all the work that is still left to be done in the pursuit of justice and equality for all. I look to biography and memoir to inform my understanding of moments in history more than I do other, perhaps more obvious genres, because lived experience will always win out against the cool, objective teachings of a historian or anthropologist instructing me on the ways of a past they are equally removed from.

These women will captivate, challenge, and surprise you. They'll make you re-think things you thought you knew and they'll get you to think about things you've never thought of.  May they inspire you as they continue to for me. 

1. Anna May (Liu Tsong) Wong 

Born in 1905 in LA, Liu Tsong Wong dreamed of being an actress from a young age. Adopting the stage name "Anna May" in her teens, Wong is the first Chinese-American movie star and the first Asian-American actress to gain international stardom. Leveraging her fame as a platform to voice her values and political beliefs, Wong was outspoken against racist stereotyping and casting practices for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, and also spoke out against Japan's relations to China in the 1920's and 30's. At 17 Wong starred in her first film, The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was based on the opera Madame Butterfly. Despite her fame and talent, Wong continued to fight being type-cast as one of two roles given to Asian-American actresses: the submissive butterfly or the scary dragon-lady. To circumnavigate mainstream Hollywood's problem casting more complex roles for Asian-American actresses, Wong began to star exclusively in lesser known B-movies where she could play a smart, strong, leading lady. While there aren't any GREAT biographies of Wong, The Tool of the Sea: The Life and Times of Anna May Wong is an informative read on this 1920's starlet, whose sparkle and influence we sometimes miss against the din of fandom still surrounding Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. 

 2. Queen Nzinga 

Born in 1583 in what is present-day Angola, Nzinga was queen to the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in Africa. Most famously known for the alliance she drew with the Dutch to stop Portuguese advancement into her lands in the 1600's, Nzinga is a remarkable historical figure that put women into high ranking government and military positions during her reign. She also organized a powerful gorilla army and had an instinct for innovative military tactics; a legacy the people of Angola paid homage to in 2002 when President Santos named a street after her in Luanda, and placed a large statue of her in a plaza for all to admire. Nzinga: African Warrior Queen is a fictional biography by Moses Howard that pays tribute to the influential and powerful African Queen and her community of women.

3. Catherine Helen Spence

Known today as the "Grand Old Woman of Australia," Spence's prolific figure comes from a life dedicated to feminism, writing, social work & advocacy, and politics. Born in Scotland in 1825, Spence moved to Australia with her family in 1839 due to financial hardships back home. There, Spence became Australia's first female political candidate in 1897. She remained active in working for destitute and orphaned children all her life, never having any of her own. She penned her first novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, in 1854, and her writing remained relatively unknown until after her death; the case with so many talented writers and artists. Ever Yours, C. H. Spence: Catherine Helen Spence's An Autobiography (1825–1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894–1910) gives wonderful insight into the inner thoughts and writings of Spence during her lifetime, and it's a truly enjoyable read. 

4. Corazon Aquino 

The 11th President of the Philippines, Corzaon Aquino was not only the first female to ever hold that office, but she is also the first female President in all of Asia. Born in 1933, Aquino served as the country's President from 1986-1992, where she had the very difficult task of restoring democracy in a country that had been under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos for 21 years. An international speaker for women's rights and equality, Aquino's political engagement didn't stop after her term ended in 1992, and she remained an engaged and active political figure until her death in 2009. Corazon Aquino: The Story of a Revolution is a vibrant biography that beautifully tells of Aquino's charisma and perseverance. 

5. Anu Tali 

World renowned as one of the most innovative and creative conductors of today, Anu Tali is the co-founder of the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra, and dreamed of being a conductor since she was 4. Born in 1972 in Estonia, Tali is a strong advocate for the arts, supporting music education and international unity through music initiatives throughout her life. The most recent figure in my list of international women who made history, I include Tali as an example of a modern day woman who is making history. Years from now we will look back at Tali as a pioneer in her field, who brought international attention to Estonian and Baltic music while supporting and utilizing music as a way of unifying groups of people. While there aren't any biographies or memoirs of hers out there (yet), you will enjoy this article from the New York Times that interviewed her in 2005; Call me Madame Maestro portrays Tali's passion for music as a unifying tool that transcends difference. 

 6. Lazara Meldiu 

You are going to be extremely hard pressed to find anything about Lazara Meldiu online. Anything you do find, you'll have the treat of translating from Spanish. I stumbled upon Lazara during my graduate degree while reading Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen idols. The author, Beth Miller, mentions Meldiu in the forward to her work, a brief mention - just someone Miller talks about in reference to women's writing. But I found myself intrigued by this forgotten poet, and sought to learn more about her. During a semester long hunt to find and learn more about Meldiu, I finally managed to get a hold of one of her six written works: Flechas. A Mexican poet and political activist, Meldiu's poems in Flechas are as much autobiographical snippets as they are poetry. With so little written about her and it being nearly impossible to get a hold of any of Meldiu's printed works, visit my blog post here, to read two original poem's from Meldiu in Flechas. I include Meldiu in this listing because she didn't make international history, but should have. Her voice, like the voices of so many women across the globe, got lost, and even though we go about our days mostly unawares of the narratives of women that have been lost, we are lesser for it. 

So I end this listing with a challenge: I challenge you to find a lesser known woman in history and learn about her. Become her champion, give her a voice where she otherwise wouldn't have had one. Help her tell her story, share it, broadcast it on social media, give her narrative to the world: we will all be better for it. 

Erin E BarrioComment