The Daily Mail: The historical heroines you’ve never heard of: From the Sumerian priestess poet to the English queen who revolutionised literature, the women who deserve to be remembered

By Ruth Styles

From Boadicea of the Iceni to Queen Victoria, there is no shortage of women who have made their mark on history.

But for every Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I, there have been many more whose efforts have gone unrecognised, largely because of their sex.

Now a new BBC series, the Ascent of Women, aims to change all that and shed light on the forgotten heroines of the past.

From the start, says presenter and historian Amanda Foreman, men have ‘conspired’ to control speech while women, lacking the educational opportunities of their male peers, have failed to realise that ‘speech is power’.

But not everyone has been content to remain silent. From the Celtic warrior queen who kept the Romans from her door to the Sumerian priestess who invented literature, meet the women who deserve to be remembered.

ENHEDUANNA – c. 2285 – 2250 BC

The daughter of Sargon of Akkad and Queen Tashlultum, Sumerian princess Enheduanna was a literary pioneer and certainly one of the first women to leave literary works behind.

Born in the city state of Ur (now Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq), as an adult Enheduanna held the politically important role of high priestess during both her father and brother Rimush’s reigns.

Although known to her contemporaries as a sharp political operator, she is most remembered for her writing, including the 42 hymns she composed.

In Enheduanna’s lifetime, her father’s Akkadian Empire reached its peak – eventually stretching from Iran through Iraq to modern Syria and the Levant.

As a result, her writings were widely circulated and, when she achieved quasi-divine status following her death, were copied and re-copied for hundreds of years.

HATSHEPSUT – c. 1472 – 1458 BC

Often overshadowed by the more famous Cleopatra and Nefertiti, Hatshepsut was one of Ancient Egypt’s most successful female pharoahs.

The widow of Thutmose II, she officially ruled jointly with Thutmose III who ascended the throne as a child but remained in power for 21 years.

Usually depicted wearing a beard, Hatshepsut, who was part of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, oversaw the re-establishment of trade networks disrupted by the Hyksos occupation and built the Precinct of Mut at Karnak.

She also, according to some sources, led military campaigns against Nubia, now northern Sudan, and Canaan (Israel).

For all that, on her death, possibly from bone cancer, her achievements began to be razed from the records by Thutmose III and his heir Amenhotep II – the latter claiming many for himself.


Queen of the Brigantes, an Iron Age tribe whose territory encompassed much of modern day Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumberland and County Durham, Cartimandua was one of the most powerful women in Roman Britain.

But memories of Cartimandua are mixed: she kept her people safe by colluding with the Romans according to one school of thought or sold them out for gold according to another.

Either way, the Brigantes were one of the last British tribes to be absorbed into the Roman Empire thanks to her efforts and when they finally were, Cartimandua may not have gone quietly.

Reports reproduced by Roman historian Tacitus, who also writes of her ‘cunning stratagems’, refer to the invaders almost suffering a defeat at the hands of the Brigantes who were fighting ‘under a woman’.

Although eventually conquered, the Brigantes seem to have gone on to become a thorn in the Empire’s side thanks to constant rebellions.

They also were, it has been argued, responsible for Hadrian’s Wall which was said to have been erected partly to prevent them from making common cause with the Caledonian tribes further north.

EMPRESS MATILDA – c. 1102 – 1167

Matilda was the English queen who was never meant to rule but ended up spending 19 gruelling years battling it out for the throne against her cousin Stephen.

Born to Henry I of England and his wife Matilda of Scotland, she was raised to expect marriage to one of the great magnates of the day – but nothing more.

Fate had different ideas and in November 1120, her younger brother William Adelin drowned in the White Ship disaster, leaving her the only direct heir to the English throne.

By then the 23-year-old widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, Matilda was recalled to England and, in 1127, was married off for a second time – to Geoffrey of Anjou.

Geoffrey, who was 13 at the time of his marriage, did not especially like his new bride and the feeling proved mutual.

Despite a number of separations, the couple went on to have three sons including Henry, later Henry II of England.

But her real test was yet to come and in 1135, the death of her father pitched Matilda into a dynastic conflict, known at the time as ‘the Anarchy’, against her cousin Stephen of Blois who claimed the English throne.

With Stephen in England, Matilda sent her forces into Normandy, then a part of England, while her uncle David I of Scotland invaded from the north.

By 1139, England had descended into full-blown civil war, with Matilda and her forces repeatedly landing, making gains and then being driven off by Stephen’s forces.

Eventually, as 1140s wore on, the conflict reached stalemate and she returned to Normandy, handing the job of reclaiming England to her son.

In 1154, he did just that and was crowned Henry II of England. Matilda, who died in 1167, became one of her son’s most important advisers and devoted her final years to administering Normandy.


The daughter of William I, Count of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland, and Joan of Valois, Philippa was one of eight children and was betrothed to the future Edward III of England aged just 12.

A year later, in December 1127, she arrived in England and married Edward at York Minster on the 24th January 1128.

Despite being part of an arranged marriage, she and her husband were devoted to each other and went on to have 14 children, among them Edward, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt.

Her tenure as Queen Consort lasted for 40 years and she was repeatedly called upon to act as regent thanks to her husband’s ongoing wars in France.

For all that, she is best remembered for her habit of interceding with Edward on behalf of his captives and famously persuaded him to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1147.

When she died, aged 55 in 1369, Edward was devastated and when he died eight years later, asked to be buried beside her at Westminster Abbey.

MIRABAI – 1498 – 1565

An Indian saint, author and mystic, Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a Rajput princess and the only child of minor king Ratan Singh Rathore.

Raised a Hindu, she married Bhoj Raj, Crown Prince of Mewar, in 1512 but the marriage proved short lived, with the prince dying in 1521 from wounds sustained during the Hindu-Muslim wars.

Her father and father-in-law followed shortly behind and Vikram Singh, who according to legend tried repeatedly to have Mirabai killed, took the throne of Mewar.

Despite facing persecution from Singh, the princess went on to become a prolific author and made repeated pilgrimages.

According to some accounts, she ended her days in Vrindavan – a short distance from the birthplace of Lord Krishna in Mathura – where she was said to have performed several miracles.

Venerated by the Sikhs as well as Hindus, her many devotional poems earned her a place in the Bhakti pantheon of saints following her death and her work remains popular today.

CATHERINE PARR – 1512 – 1548

The sixth and last of Henry VIII’s queens, Catherine Parr is most famous for being the only one to survive her royal husband and for dying in childbirth less than two years later.

But to write her off as being little more than a wife and mother is to overlook her impressive contribution to literature – and her role in educating the future Elizabeth I.

Her first book, Psalms or Prayers, was published anonymously in 1544 but her second, 1547’s Prayers or Meditations, made her the first Englishwoman to write a book under her own name.

Later, after Henry VIII’s death in January 1547, she produced a third book, The Lamentations of a Sinner, which was published the following year.

Catherine, who briefly ruled as regent during Henry’s reign, was made Elizabeth’s official guardian after his death but performed the role for less than 18 months thanks to her tragically early death.

Having married her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour, six months after Henry’s death, she died aged 35 giving birth to her only child Mary on the 5th September 1548.


One of the earliest American feminists, New Yorker Elizabeth Cady Stanton devoted her life to the cause of women’s rights and also campaigned to abolish slavery.

The daughter of a lawyer, Cady Stanton was given an unusually comprehensive education and realised early on how disproportionately the law favoured men over women.

Although her family owned at least one slave, she became a passionate abolitionist under the tutelage of her brother-in-law Edward Bayard, whose sentiments were echoed by her husband, journalist Henry Brewster Stanton.

Together, the couple, who had six children, campaigned vociferously for the abolition of slavery, although Brewster Stanton was apparently less enamoured of the idea of female suffrage.

Nevertheless, by 1848 Cady Stanton had become a leading light in the fledgling women’s rights movement, helping Lucretia Mott organise the first convention in Seneca Falls that year.

During it, she published her Declaration of Sentiments, which was based on the US Declaration of Independence and called for equal rights for women.

Her determination to get equal rights for women even surpassed her desire to be rid of slavery and following the American Civil War, lobbied against the 14th and 15th Amendments which gave African American men the right to vote on the grounds it should be extended to women as well.

Later, she became one of the founder members of the National Woman Suffrage Association and continued to campaign for the vote right up to her death in 1902.

In 1920, 18 years after her death, the 19th Amendment gave women the vote in the US, two years after women over 30 were given the same right in the UK.

ROSA LUXEMBURG – 1871 – 1919

Born to a Jewish family in Zamość, Poland, Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first women to embrace socialism and later became a member of the Communist party of Germany.

Her political career started early, as a member of the Polish Proletariat Party, which she joined aged 15 in 1886.

Starting as she meant to go on, her first foray into ‘the struggle’ involved organising a general strike which eventually led to the execution of four leaders and the dissolution of the party.

Luxemburg herself was forced to flee, ending up in Switzerland where she studied for a degree at the University of Zurich, became a Marxist and founded a paper called Sprawa Robotnicza [The Worker’s Cause].

In 1898, she moved to Germany and married Gustav Lubeck, the son of an old friend, in order to obtain German citizenship and allow her to join the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

During her time with the SDP, she advocated an increasingly militant brand of socialism and published several tracts on the benefits of Marxism and the need to end Capitalism.

When World War I broke out in 1914, she was so distressed by the party’s backing for a no-strike pledge from trade unions during the war years, she reportedly contemplated suicide.

Furious, she founded the pacifist Spartacist League which aimed to trigger a ‘general strike of the proletariat’ and was interned for several years as a result.

The post-war Weimar National Assembly brought new opportunities for Luxemburg and her League, which later became part of the Communist Party of Germany.

But successive Communist uprisings against the social democratic Weimar government sealed her fate and Friedrich Ebert ordered the Freikorps to destroy the left-wing revolution.

In January 1919, she was captured in Berlin and tortured before being shot in the head. Just 47 at the time, her body was later flung into the Landwehr Canal.

WANGARI MATHAAI – 1940 – 2011

Born in Kenya’s Central Highlands in the middle of the Second World War, Wangari Mathaai was, until her death in 2011, one of Africa’s loudest advocates for conservation and human rights.

Although the daughter of a farmer, Mathaai was unusually well-educated for a woman of her time, in part thanks to a scholarship awarded to her by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.

After studying in Kansas and Pittsburgh, she returned to Kenya in 1966 and secured a job as a research assistant and the University of Nairobi.

In 1971, the same year her daughter Wanjira was born, she became the first East African woman to get a PHD – hers following a dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in cows.

But for all her academic achievements, it is for her activism that she is best remembered, including an early campaign to ensure equal pay for women working at the University of Nairobi.

Later, after her husband Mwangi became MP for Lang’ata in 1974, she became increasingly interested in the environment and was instrumental in developing a government-sponsored tree planting campaign.

Her personal life was less successful, however, and in 1979 she and Mwangi divorced following a lengthy separation.

After a stint in Zambia working for the UNEP, she returned to Kenya and became chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya while building up the Green Belt Movement begun in 1977.

Although lauded by the UN, Mathaai and the Green Belt Movement faced intimidation from the president of the day, Daniel Arap Moi, and began to campaign for democracy.

One such campaign, a 1992 hunger strike in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in protest at the treatment of political prisoners ended with her being knocked unconscious by soldiers.

After Mwai Kibaki’s election in 1992, she returned to environmental work, for which she was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, but couldn’t resist making an attempt, unsuccessful, to return to politics in 1997.

Finally elected in 2002, she went on to become Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources.

After retiring from politics in 2007, she continued to speak out on topics ranging from the environment to AIDs and did so until her death, from ovarian cancer, in 2011.

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