Representation is important.
Media critics use this phrase all the time. We say it to drive home the point that everyone—no matter their gender, sexuality, race, ability, or any part of their identity—deserves to see characters like them on the page and onscreen. Why? Because when media is full of diverse heroes, every gal will unconsciously learn that she too can be the star of the story, that “hero” status isn’t reserved for people who look like Superman, that she’s not stuck as a damsel in distress. If she wants to foil the enemy or save the day or rescue herself, she can.
But something we often forget is that representation matters everywhere, not just in fiction but also in our everyday IRL lives. The bummer is that although we’re making significant strides in the media, the same cannot yet be said for the office or the classroom. Lack of representation is why, when I ask you to think of a scientist, the first person who comes to mind is a white-jacketed, messy-haired man. It’s why women’s historical impact is traditionally explored in an optional course called Women’s Studies, whereas compulsory classes on the historical impact of men are simply called History. It’s why only 30 percent of employees at Google are women, only 22 percent of game developers are women, only 5 percent of U.S. patents include a woman’s name. In this kind of social climate, it’s easy to grow up thinking that women don’t get involved in tech or science or medicine or engineering, because who among us really ever has?
Of course, awesome, accomplished, successful women have existed since humans started painting on stones with their extremities. Yet somehow we never seem to hear about these noteworthy heroines. Did you know that 80 percent of all code breakers during World War II were female? (You wouldn’t know it from Hollywood, considering that Keira Knightley was the only lady in The Imitation Game.) How about that the paper bag your take-out comes in was invented by a woman? Or the process that made the shirt on your back possible? Or the first computer program, or wireless tech, or nuclear fission? What about all the pioneering women around the globe who—despite a dearth of access to education, money, tools, or, you know, freedom—busted their butts and their brains in the face of great odds to become the first lady doctors, mountaineers, super spies, or field biologists?
What about Anandibai Joshi, who crossed an ocean alone to help advance women’s health in her native India? Or Jacqueline Felicie de Almania, a medieval doctor dragged to court for daring to be better than her male colleagues? The more I researched for this book, the more I knew these women’s stories had to be told for the good of all humans everywhere. History is full of lady engineers and spies and scientists. But history is also written by the victorious, and it may not surprise you that thus far the overwhelming winners have been straight white dudes. That hasn’t worked out so well for everyone else.
The good news is that we can fix this problem, tipping the scales to be a bit better balanced. It’s time to stop accepting women’s role in history as limited to keeping a great home (though admittedly a harder job than it looks!) and birthing the dudes we learn about in art history or religion or biology class. It’s time to shake off the bogus fear that pursuing any interest that falls outside the traditionally “feminine”—say, working in a STEM field, exploring the world, designing a video game—will make us complete pariahs. It’s time for women to take our place in a long line of brilliant, patriarchy-smashing, butt-kicking chicks.
First, though, we have to get the stories of these women out into the world. Because representation matters. And we ladies need real inspiration for the next time we find ourselves doubting our ability to invent something, the next time we fear learning how to code, the next time we feel like we just don’t belong.
So join me on a journey into the history of bad-as-heck babes. Just keep in mind that these are only some of the amazing women in the history of our world. Many more are out there, and many more are to come. In fact, you know what?