There’s a reason that comic-book superheroes inhabit such an iconic, established place in the pop-culture psyche. Children and adults alike are naturally drawn to figures that inspire them, push them to be better, take action by helping others, and are powerful yet morally upright.
While the mystical, power-wielding characters of Marvel and DC don’t actually exist, there are plenty of real-life superheroes—they just don’t always get the recognition and legacy they deserve. Here are some admirable superheroes from both the past and present that you may not have heard of, and their essential contributions that have benefited millions.
Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
As illuminated by Christia Mercer, Saint Teresa of Avila produced philosophical texts advancing many of the same theories as Rene Descartes did decades later, mostly relating to what Descartes termed his “method of doubt.” Descartes is one of the most famous philosophers of all time, remembered for what are considered foundational texts and theories, while comparatively few people have heard of Teresa of Avila. These philosophical theories indirectly led to monumental scientific advancements, as they focused on questioning inaccurate, widely-held belief systems of the time (e.g. that the Sun revolves around the Earth).
Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954)
Born in British India in 1866, Sorabji was the first female graduate of Bombay University and the first female “reader” at Oxford. After studying, Sorabji began to assist women in India who owned property and/or needed legal help, but were forbidden from interaction with the male world and had no access to a lawyer. She effectively became the first woman to practice law in India, and advocated for increased female literacy. Everything she did with her life was mercilessly scrutinized and criticized by the press and the rest of society, and her legacy is complicated by her support for British colonization later in life. She died having never been celebrated for her accomplishments.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
The Austrian Hollywood actress was a prolific self-taught inventor who devised technology for the military that could “hop frequencies,” a technology which served as the basis for later developments of wireless communication. The Navy originally ignored her, but later adopted aspects of her invention. She was finally recognized for her work shortly before her death in 2000, when she was given the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Rosalind Franklin, a Jewish woman born in 1920, played a crucial role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, a discovery which has led to countless advances in medical research and understanding genetics. Franklin worked with X-ray diffraction images of DNA, and was responsible alongside graduate student Raymond Gosling for taking “Photo 51,” the principal piece of data used in revealing the double helix. Despite this major and indispensable contribution, Franklin was never nominated for the Nobel Prize that her male colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared for “their” discoveries. Franklin died at the young age of 37 from ovarian cancer, which, along with other cancers disproportionately affecting women, was poorly understood and under-researched at the time.
Diane Nash (1938-)
Diane Nash, an African-American woman, was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She worked to integrate lunch counters, contributing to the efforts of the Freedom Riders, and helping Martin Luther King Jr. lead nonviolent protests in Selma, Alabama, for the voting rights of its African-American residents. She is portrayed by the iconic Tessa Thompson (whom you may recognize from Dear White People, Sorry to Bother You, Thor: Ragnarok, or Avengers: Endgame) in the 2014 film Selma based on these protests, but has few lines in it, and isn’t widely remembered for her contributions. Nash is one of few prominent activists from the Civil Rights Movement who is still alive today—many, including Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Viola Liuzzo, were murdered.
Autumn Peltier (2004- )
Peltier is a 15-year-old member of the Wikwemikong First Nation and environmental activist. She has fought primarily for clean water in Canada, and has met with Justin Trudeau to advocate for water conservation. She is currently the chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation. Peltier isn’t completely without recognition—she’s been invited to speak at the UN and nominated for multiple prizes—but doesn’t receive nearly as much media attention as Greta Thunberg despite her achievements.
Hopefully, as we make an effort to honor the contributions of these women, more activists, thinkers, and inventors of the present day and future will be given the legacy they are due.
By Calla Selicious
Collage by Marylu E. Herrera for Bitch Media