3 Unsung Heroines of History | International Women’s Day

Women have always had it harder than men, not only in their lifetimes but also in historical recognition. Despite social pressures based on gender alone, great women have consistently and grandly contributed to the world. We wanted to praise three women in particular: Yasodhara (Buddha’s Wife), Sappho, and Mary Wollstonecraft.


You can tell that a significant women of history is unsung when she is often identified by being called someone else’s wife, as is Yasodhara (Buddha’s Wife). That is regrettable. But Yasodhara has a profound influence, although outside the notice of most (even educated) Westerners. The lack of appreciation of Yasodhara’s enlightenment that is arguably equal to that of her husband, Siddhartha, who would become the Buddha, causes a lopsided view of the history of Buddhism and Buddhist women. Buddha’s Wife, Yasodhara, lived around 2,500 years ago in modern day Nepal. Most focus on her story of fated loss: signs had shown even before her marriage that her husband would need to leave her and her child to seek enlightenment. Yasodhara is a great women because she embodies a different story of resilience, destined love, and an equal worthy of her husband’s spiritual greatness. She eventually set out on a similar journey as a spiritual leader and a leader in an order of Buddhist nuns. Historical records attest to her spiritual growth and leadership.

With so much dismissiveness towards women in modern history, the story of the Buddha’s Wife may have been ignored for the very reason that it should be remembered: her story is one of self-empowerment and active choice in marriage that leads not to failure but to profoundly spiritual success. Misogynists would be loathe to acknowledge a woman’s equal power. Yasodhara saw nothing of power and ownership in her relationship with Siddhartha and held no attachment to his destiny, choosing instead to intertwine hers with his.

Sappho (Photo credit: Ian W Scott)


On the other side of the Earth, on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho embraced many instead of one, marrying a man while appreciating other women. Sappho lived outside social norms in a time when social norms put women at a severe disadvantage. Sappho was recognized as a great women by virtue of being the only woman in the Alexandrian list of nine lyric poets and one of the greatest of her time. It is a shame that most of Sappho’s poems that survive are fragments, although still cherished by lovers of poetry.

Sappho’s work was set apart by a focus on passion and beauty through love, contrasting with other fashionable stories of beauty through military glory and war. Her poetic beauty has even inspired modern poets to use the Sapphic stanza verse form in their own work.

One Girl


Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,

Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —

Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.


Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,

Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,

Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

English: Blue plaque for Mary Wollstonecraft T...
English: Blue plaque for Mary Wollstonecraft The early feminist writer, whose daughter (also Mary) wrote ‘Frankenstein’, lived here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mary Wollstonecraft

Another great woman shows that the written word can be used for power as much as beauty. Mary Wollstonecraft used her craft to philosophize about and advocate for women’s rights in the late 1700s. Prolific in both fiction novels and non-fiction treatises, her writing was energized by critiques of patriarchal society and illuminated by calls for feminine equality. One work in particular established her as the founding mother of the feminist philosophy: her treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” which proposed that women were born as able to reason as men but poor education and male-serving acculturation created the feminine subservience that was common in the day.

Virtue can only flourish among equals.

Mary Wollstonecraft From “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

Great women throughout history, like great men, act not for their historical legacies but from their spiritual, personal, and professional passions. Sappho’s visions of beauty through love bled onto the pages of her time and unknowingly mirrored the ancient story of spiritual love lived by the Buddha’s Wife a hundred years later. Mary Wollstonecraft’s intellect and literary power were a platform from which to bring the unsung gender into the light. Great women of the past are definitely one of many good reasons to to participate in International Women’s Day and apply those ethos for the other 364 days a year.

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