In honor of Women’s History Month, I sent a quiz to everyone on my mailing list to test their knowledge about women who’ve made a difference in the world.
The quiz questions are repeated below, along with the answers and links to some fabulous biographies/memoirs, historical novels, and films about these women. (Caveat: I’ve tried to be sure all the facts here are accurate. If I’ve got something wrong, please don’t sue me.)
Who inadvertently contributed to advancements in the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and other medical endeavors?
Not Marie Curie (1867-1934), although she won two Nobel Prizes relating to her research in radioactivity and chemistry. (Read Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie — A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redness)
Not Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), although she’s considered the founder of modern nursing and is best known for tending to then soldiers in the Crimean War. (Read Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill)
Not Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910), although she was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school.
It was Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), who went to John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, where a cancerous tumor was biopsied. Without her knowledge or consent, those cells were cultured and became the foundation for the HeLa cell line still in use today. Her story sheds light on the dark history of medical experimentation on black Americans.
Who was the first African American female astronaut?
Not Amelia Earhart (1897- 1937?). Although she was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, she wasn’t an astronaut. And, besides, she was white. (Read Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It by Susan Wels and watch Amelia with Hilary Swank)
Not Katherine G. Johnson (1918 – ), although she’s an African American mathematician who contributed to NASA’s advancements. (Watch Hidden Figures with Taraji P. Henson)
Not Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996). She was the first African American Congressperson from the South. (Read Barbara Jordan: American Hero by Mary Beth Rogers)
It was Dr. Mae Jemison (1956 – ), an engineer, medical doctor, educator, and dancer. She worked in Sierra Leone for the Peace Corps and at 36 was also on People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. The first African American astronaut, she was a science mission specialist on Space Shuttle Endeavour. She’s now devoting her time to the 100 Year Starship project.
What musician was raped as a child, worked as a teenage prostitute, and became addicted to drugs, but nevertheless has been considered one of the greatest jazz singers of all time?
Not Dorothy Dandridge (1922 – 1965). She was an actress, and the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy award for Best Actress. (Watch Introducing Dorothy Dandridge with Halle Berry)
Not Michigan native Madonna (1958 – ), although she’s a highly successful American singer, dancer, songwriter, actress, and activist. Her philosophy on life? “When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it.”
Not Tennessee native Tina Turner (1939 – ), who’s also a famous American singer, dancer, actress, and author known for her legs as much as her voice.
It was Billie Holiday (1915–1959), who earned the title “First Lady of the Blues” thanks to her emotional intensity and poignancy. Despite dying at the age of only 44 from cirrhosis of the liver, she helped define the jazz era.
Watch Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross
What painter was in a tragic accident at the age of eighteen, denied being a surrealist, and married controversial Mexican artist Diego Rivera?
Not Eva Peron (1919 – 1952). She was the First Lady of Argentina and married to Juan Peron. She campaigned for both the poor and for the extension of women’s rights. (Watch Evita with Madonna)
Not Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986), who was an avant-garde artist especially well-known for her floral and desert works. (Read Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle)
Not Maud Stevens Wagner (1877 – 1961), who was a circus performer and the first known female tattoo artist in the USA.
It was Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) At 18 years old, Frida Kahlo was in a tragic accident that left her scarred for life, and she began to paint during her recovery. Known for her depictions of indigenous culture and womanhood, she was also connected with several important cultural and political figures and married to the volatile artist Diego Rivera.
Watch Frida with Salma Hayek
What Seattle native found her calling at the age of fifteen as a stripper?
Not Wendy Wasserstein (1950 – 2006). She was born in Brooklyn and was one of Broadway’s most revered playwrights, winning a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for The Heidi Chronicles. (Read Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon)
Not Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975). This chorus girl, born in St. Louis, although she was famous for her banana dance, wearing fruit to cover her bottom but going topless. (Read Josephine: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker or watch The Josephine Baker Story with Lynn Whitfield)
Not Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962), who was born in Los Angeles. This product of the foster child system became a model and actress and, ultimately, one of the most iconic American film legends and sex stars. (Read Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto or watch My Week With Marilyn with Michelle Williams)
It was Gypsy Rose Lee (1911 – 1970), born as Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle. She initially followed in her sister’s shadow in Vaudeville until she fell into burlesque. She became friends with Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, wrote a memoir that inspired the musical Gypsy, and later became a TV talk show host.
Read American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare — The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott
Which of these women writers were married to, and sometimes were forced to take a backseat to, another famous writer?
It was Zelda Sayre (1900 – 1948), who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife. She had creative aspirations of her own but was always overshadowed by her husband. Eventually she was diagnosed as manic depressive and institutionalized.
It was also Vera Yevseyevna Slonim (1902 – 1991), who was born in Russia, was an aspiring writer. She met Vladimir Nabokov through her father, who was a publisher, and then gave up her career goals and dedicated herself to Vladimir–even carrying a handgun to protect him.
Read Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff
And it was Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963). She was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer who married British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. She suffered from depression for much of her life, and some believe it was Hughes’s insistence that she stay home with the typewriter and children, while he gallivanted around and had affairs, that ultimately led to her suicide.
Watch Sylvia with Gwyneth Paltrow
Which of these authors invented the character Mr. Ripley?
Not J. K. Rowling (1965 – ). The British author’s Harry Potter series had a Mr. Borgin and a Mr. Roberts, but not a Mr. Ripley.
Not Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855), the eldest of the three writing sisters. Her novel Jane Eyre featured Mr. Rochester, not Mr. Ripley. (Read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, or The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller, or The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell)
Not Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941). Her forte wasn’t crime. Woolf was an early feminist who authored numerous novels, essays, and other works. She’s credited with saying, “there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” (Read Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs)
It was Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995), who’s known for her psychological thrillers, many of which were highly acclaimed and made into films. Mr. Ripley started out as a bit of a conman but turned into a full-blown sociopath, and some say he started a whole new wave of unlikeable characters.
Read Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
Which of these is the only woman to have won an Oscar for Best Director?
Not Katherine Hepburn (1907 – 2003). She was a phenomenal American actress known for her independence and her relationship with Spencer Tracy. She won four Oscars for Best Actress. (Read her memoir Me: Stories of My Life)
Not Lauren Bacall (1924 – 2014), the American actress known for her dark, velvety voice, her sensual demeanor, and her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. Her only Oscar was an honorary lifetime achievement award. (Read her memoir By Myself and Then Some)
Not Sofia Coppola (1971 – ) Although this American screenwriter, director and producer is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, she hasn’t won the Best Director award.
It was Kathryn Bigelow (1951 – ), also an American film director, producer and writer. She’s the only woman to have ever won an Academy Award for Best Director, beating out ex-husband James Cameron that same year. The accomplished painter is now making a film about the 1967 Detroit Riots.
Who is referred to as the First Lady of American Athletics?
Not Kathrine Switzer (1947 – ), although she was the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. During the race she was accosted and told to get out. (Read her memoir Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports)
Not Billie Jean King (1943 – ), the American tennis champion who won 20 titles at Wimbledon and who more recently has been advocating for equal pay for women. (Read her memoir Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes)
Not even Serena Williams (1981 – ), the amazing American tennis champion, fashion designer, and philanthropist.
It’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1962 – ) who’s been called the First Lady of American Athletics. She competed in four Olympic Games, earning multiple medals in track and field, including three gold medals. The sister-in-law of sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner founded Athletes for Hope in 2007, joined the USA Track & Field Board of Directors in 2012, and has appeared in numerous films and TV shows. “If I stop to kick every barking dog,” she said, “I am not going to get where I’m going.”
Which of these women was the first woman to own her own talk show?
Not Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993), the British actress known for her beauty and glamor, who said, “the best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”
Not Joan Didion (1934 – ), the American novelist and essayist who focuses on society’s issues. (Read her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking)
Not Katharine Graham (1917 – 2001), the woman who ran The Washington Post for decades, including through the Watergate years, and who was also the first female Fortune 500 CEO. (Read her Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Personal History)
Of course it was Oprah Winfrey (1954 – ), the American media mogul, talk show host, actress, producer, author, and philanthropist. Born into poverty in Mississippi, she became the first woman to own her own talk show and went on to become the richest African American. She’s credited with saying that “failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
Listen to the podcast Making Oprah
Which female rights activist wrote The Feminist Mystique?
Not Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850), who was an early American women’s rights advocate. Her book Women in the Nineteenth Century was one of the most important early feminist works.
Not Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906). Raised as a Quaker, she was opposed to alcohol and prostitution. She was also a vocal abolitionist and advocate for a variety of women’s rights, including the right to vote.
Not Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), also an early pioneer for female suffrage. (Read Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon)
It was Betty Friedan (1921 – 2006). The author of The Feminine Mystique campaigned for women’s rights in the 1960’s and fought to end sexual discrimination. Her book has been credited with sparking the second wave of feminism.
Who was the 19th century woman of color who gave the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech?
Not Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896), who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War. (Read the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick)
Not Harriet Jacobs (1813 – 1897), who escaped from the south in 1842 after hiding for seven years in a garret above her grandmother’s home and, nineteen years later, self-published a memoir about her escape to freedom under the pseudonym Linda Brent. (Read her compelling memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)
Not Sacagawea (circa 1778 – ?), the only woman to accompany Lewis and Clark on their journey across the Bitterroot Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, who also served as interpreter with Indian tribes and as a consulting guide.
It was Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883). She was born into slavery in rural New York and sold several times before walking to freedom in 1826. She became a kick-ass African American abolitionist and feminist, and in 1851 she gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention to spell out clearly why women and men should be considered equal.
Read Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
Which of these human rights advocates was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize?
Not Helen Keller (1880 – 1968). Although she was an impressive blind and deaf social activist, the Nobel prizes didn’t start till 1901. (Read her memoir The Story of My Life)
Not Anne Frank (1929 – 1945), the Dutch Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis. Although, only weeks before the war ended, Anne died at a concentration camp in Germany, she probably deserved one posthumously. (Read her collection of writings, The Diary of a Young Girl)
Not Nimko Ali (1982 or 1983 – ), who was born in Somalia and is a survivor of female genital mutilation. She now campaigns against it FGM and is a co-founder of Daughters of Eve. Who knows? Maybe she’ll earn one in the future.
It was Malala Yousafzai (1997 – ), the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban. In 2009, when she was eleven, she began to blog about life under the Taliban, and she’s continued to defy them. An advocate for women’s rights and the right to education, Malala is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. “When the whole world is silent,” she said, “even one voice becomes powerful.”
Who served the British monarchy longer than anyone else?
Not Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997). She was the first wife of Prince Charles but he wasn’t in charge.
Not Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013). She was the first female prime minister of Great Britain but not a monarch. She was credited with saying, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” (Watch: The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep)
Not Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901), although she did have a long reign as Queen of the UK and Empress of India. Her time was known as the Victorian Era, which generally coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. (Watch Mrs. Brown with Judi Dench)
It’s Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – ), who has been Queen of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia since 1952. She became the queen after her uncle abdicated the throne and her father died. Prince Charles, her son, is in line to become King when Elizabeth dies.
Which of these women was most well known in France for her cake?
Not Julia Child (1912 – 2004). Although this native Californian spent a lot of time cooking and living in France, she was better known for coq au vin and otherwise bringing French cuisine to the American public. (Read her culinary masterpiece Mastering the Art of French Cooking and watch Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep)
Not Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431), who inspired a French revolt against the English occupation. She was the teenager who led the French to victory at Orleans but was later captured by the English and burned at the stake. (Read Joan of Arc: A History by Helen Castor)
Not Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986), the French existentialist philosopher and feminist who had a close relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. “Change your life today,” she said in true existentialist form. “Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.” (Read her book The Second Sex)
Yes, it was Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793). She was born in Austria and married the French king Louis XVI when she was just fifteen years old. Unfortunately, much of the world was in turmoil during their monarchy, and some believe she was more a victim of the times than a wicked queen. Although she has been infamously credited with suggesting the French peasants should eat cake if they have no bread, there is little evidence she actually said that.
Read Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Which of these women was an ancient mystic consulted by popes, kings, and other influencers of her time?
Not Cleopatra (69 BCE – 30 BCE), although she was pretty powerful and had connections with lots of leaders, including Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar. She may have been mysterious, but she wasn’t exactly a mystic. (Read Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff)
Not Sappho (circa 630 BCE – 570 BCE), the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. She, too, has been considered mysterious especially because much of her work about love has been lost. Although Plato called her one of the ten great poets, she wasn’t a mystic either. (Read If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson)
It was St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a Benedictine nun who started having visions at the age of three. She was a mystic, author and composer whose writing, poetry and music were revelatory for the time. Others, however, found her philosophies and practices controversial. Indeed, she wasn’t canonized until 2012.
Read the historical novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
Who helped revitalize the tradition of bhakti (devotional) yoga in India?
Not Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997), who was actually born in Macedonia. She was Catholic, not Hindu. She’s been credited with this quote: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” (Watch The Letters with Juliet Stevenson)
Not Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984), who was India’s first female prime minister. Bhakti yoga wasn’t her claim to fame. Rather, she was a controversial figure that said, “there are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.” Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. (Read Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank)
Not Priyanka Chopra (1982 – ), the Indian beauty pageant winner and award-winning Bollywood actress who also stars in the American TV series Quantico and the upcoming American film Baywatch. She probably practices something more like Bikram yoga.
It was Mirabai (1498 – 1565), a woman originally born into a privileged Hindu family who then gave up her privileges to become a mystic and poet. Also known as Meera, she often sang and danced herself into ecstasy, wrote of beauty and joy, and rebelled against her affluent background and her husband. Her Bhakti yoga practice had nothing to do with downward dog but rather involved cultivating love and devotion for her chosen god, Sri Krishna.
Read Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield
Which of these women was murdered while living in Africa?
Not Jane Goodall (1934 – ). This British primatologist and animal rights activist, best known for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, is still alive and well. “What you do makes a difference,” she said, “and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” (Read her memoir In the Shadow of Man)
Not Isak Dinesen, whose real first name is Karen (1885 – 1962). She’s best known for the account of her time living in Kenya, Out of Africa, after which she moved out of Africa and back to Europe. (Read Out of Africa or watch Out of Africa with Meryl Streep)
Not Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011), the Kenyan-born environmentalist, pro-democracy activist and women’s rights campaigner who founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. She was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She later died from ovarian cancer. (Read Unbowed: A Memoir)
It was Dian Fossey (1932 – 1985), the American zoologist and primatologist who studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She worked tirelessly to put an end to poaching and was also opposed to wildlife tourism because of the diseases brought in by tourists that threatened the health of the gorillas. After her murder, she was buried in the gorilla graveyard she built.
Who was the first female prime minister of a Muslim country?
Not Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1959 – ), an indigenous Guatemalan woman from the Mayan culture who has dedicated her life to promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. In 1992 she was the first indigenous person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation.
Not Shirin Ebadi (1947 – ), an Iranian lawyer who fights for human rights, represents political dissidents and founds initiatives to promote democracy and human rights. She was the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2003.
Not Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – ), who was placed under house arrest in Myanmar (a primarily Buddhist country) in 1988. While under arrest, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to peaceful resistance and championing human rights. She was later released in 2010, and in 2015 led the country through its first democratic election in 25 years. (Watch The Lady with Michelle Yeoh)
It was Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007) who became the first female prime minister of a Muslim country, Pakistan. She sought to implement social reforms and to help women and the poor. She also tried to eradicate corruption, modernize the country, and build more schools. She was assassinated in 2007 while leaving a campaign rally, the fourth member of her family to die violently. “You can imprison a man,” she said, “but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea.”
What do you know about these other notable women in history? Did you know~
Anne Sexton was an American poet who suffered from depression? Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography about Sexton was controversial because she used recorded tapes from Sexton’s psychotherapy sessions.
Annette Kellerman was an Australian swimmer and one of the first women to wear a one-piece swimsuit? She also helped popularize synchronized swimming as a sport.
Barbara McClintock pioneered the study of genetics and determined that genes could move within and between chromosome?
Candace Pert, a neuroscientist, formulated a theory of emotions and promoted the idea that healthy communication of emotions was key to integrating the mind and body?
Catherine the Great was a Prussian princess who would come to rule Russia for over 30 years, overseeing the country’s vast and rapid 18th century expansion? She played an important role in improving the welfare of Russian serfs and placed great emphasis on the arts.
Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, is considered one of the world’s greatest writers of all time? She cautioned to “beware of monotony; it’s the mother of all the deadly sins.”
Eleanor Roosevelt is known first as the wife and political aide of American president F.D.Roosevelt, but she also made human rights her passion? As head of United Nations human rights commission, she helped to draft the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. She is also credited as saying, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
Empress Dowager Cixi started out as a 16-year-old concubine for Chinese Emperor Xianfeng in 1851? She gave birth to his son who became emperor when Xianfeng died, and Cixi wound up with great power, largely bringing China into modern era. She’s also remembered as a feminist icon.
Erin Brockovich led the fight against PG&E in the landmark case about contaminated water? Julia Roberts portrayed the activist in the film.
Germaine Greer was an Australian feminist icon in the 1960-70’s? She wrote The Female Eunuch, which has been called a defining manifesto for the feminist movement.
Gia Carangi was a troubled 80’s star widely considered to be the first supermodel who then died from AIDS complications? Angelina Jolie earned a SAG Award and Golden Globe for her portrayal in the made-for-television film Gia.
Jane Austen wrote several novels around the turn of the 19th century, including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma?
Komako Kimura was a Japanese suffragist who marched on Fifth Avenue for the women’s right to vote in 1917?
Margaret Heafield Hamilton led the software engineering team for NASA’s Apollo and Skylab missions?
Mary Harris was one of America’s most famous labor organizers?
Maya Angelou was an American poet and activist, famous for her poetic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? She said forgiveness is “one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.”
Nadia Comaneci was the first Olympian gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 score?
Rachel Carson was a nature writer and is considered the mother of the environmental movement? Her game-changing book was Silent Spring.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, indirectly led to some of the most significant civil rights legislation of American history?
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a Mexican singer on her way to becoming an international superstar when the president of her fan club gunned her down at the age of 23? Jennifer Lopez starred as the Queen of Tejano music in the biopic Selena.
St Teresa of Avila was a Spanish mystic, poet and Carmelite reformer who lived through the Spanish inquisition and helped steer Catholicism away from fanaticism?
Tegla Loroupe was a Kenyan marathon champion who now devotes herself to various initiatives promoting peace, education and women’s rights?
Tina Fey, the American actress and comedienne, broke into comedy through Chicago’s Second City and later joined Saturday Night Live? Her advice: “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”
Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian astronaut, became the first woman in space?
Zora Neale Hurston was an African American writer best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?
How did you do on the first 19 questions?
If you got 15 out of the first 19 questions right, you’re a rock star.
If you got 10 to 14 right, you should pay a little more attention to women in the world.
If you got 5 to 9 right, we need to talk.
If you got less than 5 right, well…I’m not sure what to say.
How did you do on the bonus question(s)? Were you surprised at how many women you knew? Or how many you didn’t know?