Rosalind Franklin, scientist. Time Magazine cover.

The Female Geniuses of History and Their Impact.

The human brain.
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With everything going on in the world, it’s helpful to look back on the revolutions made by the geniuses of history. The motorized vehicle, the cellphone, the microwave dinner! In all seriousness, although we’ve come a long way, the concept of “genius” has been linked to sexism for quite some time.

Despite there being many women who are considered geniuses, many high school textbooks seem to focus on the male element. Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, etc. Indeed they are geniuses who’ve impacted the world, but what about their female counterparts?

What is Considered Genius?

The term is thrown out quite generously, whether it be to describe a work of art, a delicious meal, or a vibey song. But what is the correct definition?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the term genius is referred to “a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude.” As well as “a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; especially: a person with a very high IQ.” The difficulty in placing this term on someone’s shoulders is the range of IQ. Typically, the IQ most geniuses score ranges between 140 and 160.

Despite the high intelligence standards placed on these individuals, it’s important to include women who’ve made their mark in other ways whether it be based on intelligence alone, humanitarianism, or others.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Mathematician Sophie Germain. An unrecognized female genius in history.
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The earliest known genius in this article, Mathematician Sophie Germain does not disappoint. Born in a traditional French household, Germain had access to worlds of knowledge via her father’s library. From a young age, she developed a keen interest in mathematics. Despite her passion, Germain’s parents refused to support her, even revoking warm clothing and fire. However, under many blankets, she continued her work.

Due to many universities, such as the École Polytechnique, refusing female applicants, Germain had to obtain notes from courses in secret. Much of her early work was in the arena of number theory, corresponding back and forth with fellow mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss under her male pseudonym.

Success Amidst Setbacks

In spite of her passion for mathematics, Germian was often isolated from the scientific field mainly due to her gender. After submitting an anonymous memoir on vibrations, she won a prize from the French Academy of Sciences. Through various male connections, Germain found opportunities to remain active in the Parisian thinker field. 

Throughout the remainder of her life, Germain worked on theories regarding elasticity, number theory, and acoustics. Although a great deal of her work remained unpublished even after her death, the great mind received recognition later on. Some of her work can be seen in mathematicians like Andrew Wiles decades later.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)

Madam C.J. Walker. Considered a female genius in history.
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Following the establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation, then Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, Louisiana. Raised for a time on a cotton plantation, Walker was soon an orphan at age 7. Already a widow at age 20, Walker made her way to St. Louis, Missouri with her young child.

Over the course of her underpaid career ventures, Walker began to take interest in hairdressing. She spent a couple of years working for Annie Turnbo, the founder of Poro Company. In 1905, after spending time as a cook for a pharmacist, Walker developed her ointment to cure dandruff and other issues. Typically caused by lack of plumbing in the house, her target audience became black women in America.

Following her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker in 1906, Walker gained much success. During this time she developed her “Walker Method” and “Walker System of Beauty Culture.” From then on, she was known as Madam C.J. Walker.

Breaking Boundaries

For the next two years, Walker spent her time training “beauty agents” to sell her products across America. Instead of settling for work as a maid or cleaner, black women could find work under Walker. Within the same year, she opened Lelia College of Beauty Culture and relocated her manufacturing company to Indianapolis.

Due to her international success over the next decade, Walker was able to make generous donations to black corporations. This includes the African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the NAACP, and several scholarships for black students. Walker also voiced a political opinion, speaking out against lynchings, and joined protesters at the Black Silent Protest Parade. 

Walker made her mark by creating the first line of products for black hair patterns and solving many scalp problems for both herself and others. A significant milestone, however, was that she became one of the first African American female millionaires.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Radiologist and chemist, Lise Meitner. Considered a female genius in history.
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Born in 19th century Austria, Lise Meitner was considered the “most significant woman of the century.” However, she didn’t receive this association until much later in life. Beginning her studies at the University of Vienna, Meitner graduated with her doctoral degree five years later. Immediately following her graduation, she moved to Berlin to begin work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Working in close proximity with chemist Otto Hahn, they made many discoveries together. Including concepts in radioactivity and the element, protactinium.

In 1938, Austria was overrun by the Nazi regime. As a result of her heritage, Meitner fled to Stockholm, Sweden to continue her work. Working at Manne Siegbahn’s institute, there was little support for Meitner due to prejudices against her gender and genes.

An Underrated Female Star

In 1939, Meitner and Hahn still found time to meet discreetly in Copenhagen from time to time. During experiments in Hahn’s laboratory, the first examples of nuclear fission were demonstrated. Meitner wrote out a physical copy and observation, she was the first to name this process “nuclear fission”.

Despite her massive role, Hahn was the Noble Prize of Chemistry receive in 1944. For the next several years, Meitner was generally ignored due to Hahn downplaying her research. Years later, after retiring in 1960, Meitner partially received the Enrico Fermi Award to make up for her lack of acknowledgment. It was known that following her discovery, Meitner “distanced” herself from her research, as it caused a lot of damage to many lives.

Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Considered a female genius.
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More commonly known as Simone de Beauvoir, she was a thinker not commonly heard of in today’s society. A French-born writer, de Beauvoir spent much of her life devoted to the philosophies of gender and life.

Taking part in schooling through private institutions, de Beauvoir always had a keen interest in philosophy. After passing her “agrégation” (competitive exam) in philosophy in 1929, she met fellow philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. From then on, despite being quite an influence on him, she was linked to Sartre for the bulk of her career. 

After over a decade devoted to teaching at various institutions, de Beauvoir moved on to a new era of life. Deciding to make her keep through writing, the French native went on to win several awards for her work. Her first bookmark made when establishing Le Temps Modernes with Sartre in 1945.

A Refined Female Example in The 20th Century

Described as an avid feminist and free thinker, de Beauvoir wrote many pieces on gender. Her most known work is Le Deuxième Sexe, 2 vol., in English, The Second Sex. Published in 1949 and again in 2009, it became a building block in feminist thought.

As the years rolled by, de Beauvoir wrote on many topics. Retailing on her travels, she wrote pieces on China, America, and many others. In sync with her aging process, the writer also became interested in the topic of growing old. Discussing topics such as the deaths of her mother, Jean-Paul Sartre, and her own.

Having spent decades of her life sharing her knowledge with the globe, due to her gender many dismissed this work as Sartre’s. However, this never deterred de Beauvoir. This is due to her life theory; “the basic options of an individual must be made on the premises of an equal vocation for man and woman founded on a common structure of their being, independent of their sexuality.”

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Scientist Rosalind Franklin. Considered a female genius.
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In spite of her short life on Earth, Rosalind Franklin had a large impact on the genetic field. Through her few decades, Franklin made milestones in regards to the structures of coal, graphite, several viruses, and RNA (ribonucleic acid). Appreciated for these in her lifetime, there was one aspect of her work lacking this.

Born in England, Franklin spent much of her career earning various degrees in science. Earning high marks in her early schooling, Franklin went on to study natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. During her final year in 1941, she received “second-class honors,” which was considered a bachelor’s degree for employment standards. Later on, in 1948, Cambridge began dispursing BAs’ and MAs’ to female graduates.

Another Noteworthy Female Icon’s Achievements

After having little success working with Peace Prize winner, Ronald George Wreyford Norrish, Franklin moved on to the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. Although her work was halted by the start of the Second World War, she went on to make discoveries regarding coal and its porous qualities. Due to her predictions of coal’s elements and performance for wartime purposes, Franklin was awarded her Ph.D. in 1945.

Later in the 1950s, Franklin began her work with scientists James Watson and Francis Crick at a Cambridge laboratory. They then spent the next several years focusing on the structure of DNA, referred to as the “basis of life.” Because of her gender, much of Franklin’s work was dismissed regardless of it being correct. Despite her groundbreaking, later on, recognized work, she never received great acclaim. Many scientists now blame this on sexism in the scientific field.

Gladys West (1930-)

Mathematician Gladys West. Known as a female genius in history.
Credit to: scientificwomen.net

Gladys Mae Brown was born in a small town in Virginia. Growing up in an agricultural household, West spent most of her time outside school helping her parents with the harvest every year. Despite her ambitions to further her education, West received little support from her peers. Much of the time, Black women in her community grew up working on the farm like their parents. 

However, West had other plans for her future. Graduating as her high school’s valedictorian, she received a full scholarship to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), a then Black college. After four years, West earned her bachelor’s in mathematics in 1952.

After much time teaching in segregated schools, West moved on to search for jobs within the racially segregated state government. Although many of the positions were given to White men, Gladys found a position with the U.S. Naval Proving Ground in 1956. 

Additional Info on This Remarkable Female Genius

Working in the weapons laboratory as the fourth Black employee, many of her colleagues admired West for her ability to solve equations by hand. Her first project there was work on the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC). This was a program designed to calculate the movement of Pluto in relation to Neptune and won many awards.

In 1978, following much success with the proving grounds, West was given another project. “Seasat”, an experimental ocean satellite, was placed by the U.S. Navy to track oceanographic data. As the project manager, West was able to prove several characteristics regarding wave temperature, height, winds, icebergs, and currents.

West’s most known project came next, GEOSAT. Using a satellite to determine the Earth’s surface, West and her team were able to teach a computer to recount calculations. By creating a program to predict satellite patterns, it became possible to establish the geoid or the Earth’s exact shape. This made it so the GPS could predict any place across the globe.

Instead of quitting while ahead, West went on to earn two more degrees, the first being a master’s in public administration in 1973. After retiring and surviving a stroke at age 70, she earned her Ph.D. in policy affairs. Lacking it before due to her gender and race, Gladys West receives admiration for her work to this day.

Jane Goodall (1934-)

Ethnologist and Primatologist Jane Goodall. Considered a female genius in history.
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In spite of being one of the few women who received acclaim for their work as it went on, Jane Goodall is an important figure to mention. Known as a great ethnologist and primatologist, Goodall is considered a moving force in all things animal.

Born in England, Goodall attended basic school and graduated with her high school diploma. At age 18, instead of leaving for university, she left home to work in various careers, such as a secretary and production assistant in the film industry. Later on, Goodall received clearance for passage to Africa, a dream of hers. 

Interested in animal behavior since her youth, Goodall began assisting paleontologist, Louis Leakey. In 1960, due to her success and association with Leakey, Goodall gained the means to set up camp at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve. For the next several years, Jane spent most of her time studying the chimpanzee species. Her efforts proved against many misconceptions regarding the animal.

A True Female Role Model

As well as receiving attention from the public, Goodall received her Ph.D. in ethology and psychology, a rarity because of her lack of prior degrees. She was also able to write various accounts of her studies. The most notable being The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986), recounting her work with the species. She later wrote many lectures regarding environmentalism, conservation, and animal behavior.

Later on, in the 1970s, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation (a.k.a., the Jane Goodall Institute). In 1991, Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots was founded to service young kids interested in nature. Due to her work in conservation and studies on animals, Goodall became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002.

Still remaining a driving force to this day, Goodall received a dame-hood in 2003, a marvelous feat. Since then, documentaries, TV programs, and novels have been written in her honor.

In Spite of Everything

Symbol for female
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In short, it’s no secret that the world has been given an incredible number of female geniuses. Many who’ve received credit when it’s due and others who weren’t so lucky. For decades, the topic of sexism has been touched on but underplayed in so many areas. Whether it be science, literature, engineering, mathematics, etc. 

In short, it’s no secret that the world has been given an incredible number of female geniuses. While many big thinkers are men, or may not even identify as one gender, we must acknowledge the powerful women in history.

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