16 Brilliant Women From History Who Received No Credit For Their Groundbreaking Work
If you're a woman, especially in a male-dominated field, you probably know what it feels like to be overshadowed by male colleagues, even when you're doing better work than them. All of the women on this list know what that feels like. The group is comprised of scientists, artists, writers, inventors, and humanitarians, who never got credit for their remarkable achievements, and were snubbed when sexism reared its ugly head.
The most remarkable thing about these women is that most of them continued to do hard work in their fields, despite the lack of recognition. They're regarded as trailblazers who wouldn't let the chauvinistic world hold them back.
Let's celebrate these women for their accomplishments.
- Photo: Studio photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Zelda Fitzgerald was married to great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Zelda was a writer herself - such a good writer that her husband actually plagiarized her diary.
F. Scott Fitzgerald lifted entire passages from his wife's diary and put them in his novel, The Beautiful and the Damned. After Zelda read the novel and recognized her own writing, she wrote a review of the novel for the New York Tribune. It said, "Mr. Fitzgerald - I believe that is how he spells his name - seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."
While hospitalized, Zelda began work on a semi-autobiographical novel called Save Me the Waltz and sent a draft to Max Perkins, her husband's editor. Fitzgerald offered to edit the manuscript, but instead he lifted long passages and used them in his own novel, Tender Is the Night.
Many believe Fitzgerald intentionally stoked the rumors that Zelda was "crazy" in order to cover his blatant theft of her literary work. In his journal, Fitzgerald explicitly stated his plans to drive his wife towards a nervous breakdown in order to have her committed.
- Photo: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Rosalind Franklin was a scientist whose data was an essential part of figuring out the structure of the DNA molecule. Jim Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for discovering that DNA was shaped like a spiral staircase - but Watson and Crick couldn't have cracked the code without Franklin's work.
Franklin made two major contributions. First, she helped take a photo of DNA (known as Photo 51) that was clearer than any photo of DNA that had been previously taken at that time. Second, she recorded the distances between the redundant components of the DNA molecule - this where the DNA "repeats." Without even asking Franklin whether they could use her data, Watson and Crick got their hands on a report she had written containing the numbers they needed to do the final calculation.
As with many women in male-dominated fields, her "masculine" behavior was considered off-putting by many: "Her manner was brusque and at times confrontational - she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this.”
There is some question about how ethical it was for Watson and Crick to use Franklin's data. Franklin had not published her measurements for the public to read, but wasn't exactly keeping them under lock and key, either. In any case, when Watson and Crick achieved their final breakthrough, they were awarded with the Nobel Prize.
Tragically, Franklin died of cancer at age 38 before the prize was awarded (and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously). Watson and Crick went on to become household names, while Franklin's important contributions were all but forgotten.
Margaret Keane's story was the subject of Tim Burton's 2014 film, Big Eyes. For years, Keane painted portraits of people with huge eyes, and her husband, Walter, sold them. But Margaret was unaware that Walter was actually taking credit for the paintings himself.
When Margaret realized that her emotionally abusive husband was passing off her work as his own, she was at first convinced to go along with it. But in 1970, Margaret came out and claimed ownership of her paintings. When her husband said she was lying, she sued him for defamation.
Margaret won her lawsuit by producing a painting right before the jurors' eyes. She was awarded $4 million in damages, but never got the money, because Walter Keane had squandered the entire fortune he made selling her work.
Margaret Steffin was one of many women taken advantage of by 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht revolutionized theater with his "alienating" style of drama. His plays laid the foundation for many great theatrical works of the 20th century, including Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket.
The problem is: Brecht didn't actually write his own plays. Brecht would seduce women and convince them to write plays for him by promising to marry them.
Margaret Steffin was one of these women whom Brecht swindled. According to Brecht scholar John Fuegi, Steffin wrote at least eight of Brecht's plays, including Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, Life of Galileo, and early drafts of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. All of the manuscripts are in Steffin's handwriting, and draw from source material written in French, which Brecht could not read.
To add insult to injury, Brecht wrestled Steffin's family out of all their inheritance when she died of tuberculosis.
Vera Rubin was an astronomer who proved the existence of dark matter. She made this discovery after observing the Andromeda Galaxy in the late 1970s, when she noticed that the things at the edge of the galaxy rotated just as quickly as the things at the center in violation of Newton's Laws of Motion.
Rubin eventually figured out that the cause of this seemingly nonsensical motion was dark matter, an invisible substance that makes up about 80 percent of the universe. Rubin's observations of Andromeda served as the first concrete evidence that dark matter actually exists.
Rubin has always retained ownership of her discovery, but was never awarded the Nobel Prize for it. Every year she was passed over, and the award was given to male scientists who had discovered other things widely considered to be of less importance.
- Photo: Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic/derivative work: Anrie / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was an astronomer who discovered pulsars - stars that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation - before she even finished graduate school.
The discovery of pulsars was critical because it proved that after stars explode into supernovas, they don't just disappear. Rather, they leave behind dense, rotating stars that send out radiation beams.
About her time as one of the few women studying science, she said,
It was distinctly tough. I ended up in the final two years of my course as the only female in the class, there were 49 men and me. There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. And I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years.
The Nobel Prize for this discovery went to Burnell's supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and another radio astronomer at the same university named Martin Ryle, but Burnell was snubbed. She says,
In those days, it was believed that science was done, driven by great men... It also came at the stage where I had a small child and I was struggling with how to find proper childminding, combine a career, and before it was acceptable for women to work. And so I think at one level it said to me, "Well, men win prizes and young women look after babies."
Ever since she was snubbed, Burnell has been working to protect women in academia.