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Successful Women Through the Ages

Although we associate successful businesswomen with our current era, the reality is women have been innovating and pioneering all throughout history; they just haven’t always been recognised. Listed below are four amazing women from different eras, different sectors and industries, and from all around the world who have found success in its many facets.

  1. Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438)

Starting in chronological order, from oldest to most recent, we find ourselves admiring the late-medieval female mystic, Margery Kempe. Born in Bishop’s Lynn in the 1370s, Margery is best known for writing The Book of Margery Kempe, the first recorded autobiography in the English language. Although she could not write, she dictated her life to a scribe, who then recorded it into a manuscript. Lost for centuries, the manuscript miraculously turned up in a country-house in Derbyshire in the 1930s. The book focuses mostly on her domestic tribulations and extensive pilgrimages to holy sites around the world, where she would weep inexhaustibly, having visions of Jesus’ passion on the cross. She is one of many holy women of her time, but Margery was unusual for not being a nun or anchoress. She was actually married, had fourteen (!) children, and was able to save up money to go on pilgrimages through her brewing business, one of the few occupations afforded to women at this time.

The book details her extensive crying, with other pilgrims often complaining or admonishing her about the noise she was causing. In medieval thinking, blood, tears, and other bodily fluids were thought to be the same base fluid when inside the body; Margery’s crying therefore recalls Christ’s bleeding wounds during the passion. Scholars have noted Margery’s unique place in female Christian mysticism: as women in Christian theological thought were said to be more carnal (having been made from the body of Adam), they were often derided as inherently more sinful. But conversely, it is precisely this embodiment that allows female mystics to understand why God became flesh (in the form of Christ) and how He absolved mankind’s sins through bodily suffering on the cross.

Her story is a fascinating one: a woman who, despite her marital status, was able to live a relatively independent and highly spiritual life. Despite being put on trial seven times in her lifetime for blasphemy, she held resolute, and insisted on finding a scribe to document her incredible life. Her work is still being studied today as a significant piece of Christian mysticism.

2. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Born in West Africa, Phillis was enslaved and brought to Boston, America at age seven. Fortune had it that her owners were relatively progressive, and taught her how to read and write; from there, they discovered her remarkable talent for poetry. Strongly influenced by classical poets such as Homer, Virgil, Alexander Pope, and John Milton, her poetry had similar metrical and rhythmical stylings; however the content was uniquely hers, writing philosophically about racial equality, freedom, revolution, and more. She became the first black American to publish a volume of poems, and was soon after emancipated by her owners. Colonists doubted her authenticity, to the extent she had to go to court in 1772 to prove authorship of her own work.

Yet despite these barriers, when she published her 1773 collection, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she rose to superstardom: Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called her ‘the Oprah Winfrey of her time.’ She met with President Washington in 1776, and became a voice for colonists during the American Revolution. Although patriotic, she never forgot what it was like to be enslaved because of her race. In one of her most famous poems, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, she writes:

‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.’

3. Margaret Hamilton (b. 1936)

Born in Indiana, Margaret would go on to complete an undergraduate degree in Mathematics; work in MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); prove herself capable and be recruited by NASA; coin the term “software engineering”; publish more than 130 papers in computer science and systems engineering; and found two software companies, Higher Order Software and Hamilton Technologies.

Her job at MIT was to help pay the bills while her husband finished law school, and being the only woman on the team, she was also the only one who brought her daughter, Lauren, to work. Nonetheless, she gained the attention of NASA, and became responsible for all onboard flight software for Apollo computers. One day, when her daughter was fiddling with a keyboard and crashed the command simulator, Margaret became inspired to add error-checking code to the system programming. No one else seemed to think it necessary, until, that is, five days into the flight of Apollo 8, an astronaut accidentally triggered the same error Lauren had. Because of Margaret’s coding, the spacecraft returned safely.

In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for her work; this is just one of many awards she has achieved in her lifetime for innovating both computer science and engineering.


Jin Xing (b. 1967)

Jin Xing started her career as a male ballet dancer, joining the dance troupe of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at age nine. At age seventeen, she became China’s highest ranked dancer, winning a dance scholarship which allowed her to study in New York. It was during this time that she began to understand she was transgender. While it would have been easier to undergo gender confirmation surgery in Europe or America, she returned to China, stating: ‘I wanted to be close to my mom, because the first life she gave me, I was born as Chinese. So the second time I gave myself a birth again, I wanted it to be in China too.’

Back in China, she became a prominent spokesperson for contestants on reality TV competition shows, who sometimes endured harsh and needless abuse from the shows’ judges. ‘Chinese TV always digs at people’s scars, consumes their pain. This is the biggest weakness of Chinese TV, and I hate it!’ Her reaction went viral, and within a year she began hosting her own talk show. A star and woman of her own making, she is also founder and artistic director of the contemporary dance company Shanghai, and has used her fame to advocate strongly against gender discrimination in employment in China.

Whether you had heard of these women or not, their stories all show resilience, determination, strength, growth, and success. Thank you for joining us in celebrating these women’s innovations and successes; the reality is that there are many more, from past ages and today. Let them continue to be inspirations, and not be lost to history.

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