Overlooked Women in American History Revealed

life stories of influential women are showcased

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Women who influenced U.S. history didn’t always operate behind the scenes. While many women had to navigate the restrictions of women’s rights at the time, others carved their names into history. Female educators and activists took charge.

Sojourner Truth
Of the many women who shaped America, Sojourner Truth was an advocate for abolition, temperance, civil rights, and women’s rights. Photo restored by Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Who are the women who shaped America? Some names come to mind, immediately, like Martha Washington, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony. Others are less known: Phillis Wheatley Peters, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Frances Benjamin Johnston, and so on. In Wondrium’s new series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920, Dr. Allison K. Lange, Associate Professor of History at Wentworth Institute of Technology, profiles a dozen women who played major roles in American history before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

What can viewers expect? Content developer Rahima Ullah worked on the series for Wondrium and gave valuable insight, in a recent interview, into Dr. Lange’s content and presentation.

Women and Their Influence

“[Dr. Lange] has picked a good assortment and variety of women from U.S. history,” Ullah said. “We know a little bit about some of them, but there are surprising things that she puts in that we don’t know.”

The first example Ullah gave of this was Martha Washington. It’s well-known that she was the first American First Lady, and even that she consciously created the image of the First Lady, the image that we expect of a First Lady today. However, she was also so beloved that she was the first woman to be featured on U.S. currency—the $1 silver certificate. We also know that Martha was twice married—President George Washington was her second husband—and during the Revolutionary War, she made a point of visiting troops rather than attending balls or other frivolous activities.

On the other hand, many women featured in the series are largely unknown to the public. Ullah mentioned Phillis Wheatley Peters as someone who most of us may be unfamiliar with. Peters was an enslaved person purchased by merchant John Wheatley, who taught her to read and write. She read classical works and eventually published a book of poetry and included her portrait in it, to show colonists the humanity of Black Americans.

“Even if you’re not into history, learning about women and their roles and what their contributions were just rounds out your knowledge and understanding of the U.S.,” Ullah said. “There’s a really good variety; it focuses on women’s roles and the types of women these are. It’s also their perspectives and how they thought about things. They differed at times, especially in the political arena; they didn’t all agree about women’s roles. Everyone has a different perspective.”

Knowing Is Half the Battle

New to Wondrium is the presenter for 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920, Dr. Allison Lange, who was also interviewed about the series. Dr. Lange holds a Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University.

“Allison is so enthusiastic and excited about this topic,” Ullah said. “And she comes at it from a different historical angle, in that she knows the history and the research really well, but she also looks at images of women, particularly visual representations of women. Some of them are highly relevant, like Sojourner Truth—they were very thoughtful about how they wanted their own images to be portrayed; so, Allison brings in this great knowledge of depictions of the women and how that’s connected to their history.”

Some of the surprising history that Dr. Lange presents in the series comes from Isabella Stewart Gardner, who founded an art museum in Boston that would come to bear her name: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The building itself was home to Gardner for some time as well. She was a major patron of the arts and literature in the United States and a pioneer in the art museum world.

12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920 is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily