There are plenty of fascinating people from history who helped shape the world, only to end up overlooked, without receiving anywhere near as much attention as they deserve. With history having been a predominately male-dominated field for most of, well… history, influential women are probably disproportionately represented among the ranks of those overlooked. Following are sixteen such women, who played significant historical roles, but whose contributions are often overlooked.
Mother Bickerdyke, the Nurse Who Outranked William Tecumseh Sherman
Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817 – 1901) was a nurse and hospital administrator for the Union army during the American Civil War. During the conflict, she helped establish hundreds of field hospitals for the wounded and sick, and after the war, she spent decades helping veterans and their families secure their pensions. Her deep concern for and tireless efforts on the soldiers’ behalf earned her the nickname “Mother Bickerdyke” from the men in blue, and won the admiration of many of their commanders, including US Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Born and raised in Ohio, Bickerdyke was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. She eventually settled in Illinois, where she made a living as a botanic physician and a provider of alternative medicines, using plants and herbs. Soon after the Civil War broke out, a surgeon in an Illinois regiment and a friend of Bickerdyke wrote home about the abysmal conditions in military hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. Bickerdyke’s community collected $500 worth of supplies, and she was the only volunteer willing to deliver them.
Bickerdyke ended up getting appointed as a field agent for the US Sanitary Commission – a private relief agency created to support sick and wounded soldiers. A strong-willed woman, she was determined to let nothing stand in the way of her quest to bring order to field hospitals and improve a lot of the soldiers being treated in them. When an Army surgeon questioned her authority, she retorted that she was acting: “On the authority of the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that outranks that?” On another occasion, when members of General Grant’s staff complained to William Tecumseh Sherman of Bickerdyke’s deliberate defiance of some regulations, he threw up his hands and exclaimed: “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world“.
In addition to running hospitals, Bickerdyke accompanied Union armies, braving shot and shell so she could scour the battlefields for wounded men who had been missed by stretcher-bearers, who might still be saved. Those whom she personally saved in this manner included General John “Black Jack” Logan, commander of the XV Corps, who had been wounded and left on the field for dead at Fort Donelson. By the time the war was over, she had helped set up over 300 field hospitals, and had been the difference maker in saving the lives of untold thousands.