Female European Historical Figures: 1500 - 1945

Compiled to honor Women's History Month, we've selected one woman for each of the 31 days and provided a summary for each. Although all lived in Europe between 1500 and 1945, these are not the most important women from European history, nor are they the most famous or the most overlooked. Instead, they are an eclectic mix.

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Ada Lovelace

Byron's Daughter
irca 1840: Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace, (nee Byron) (1815 - 1852) 1st wife of William King the first earl. She was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and the computer language ADA was named after her in recognition of the help she gave computer pioneer Charles Babbage. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The daughter of Lord Byron, the famous poet and character, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was brought up to focus on the sciences, eventually corresponding with Charles Babbage about his Analytical Engine. Her writing, which focused less on Babbage's machine and more on how information could be processed by it, has seen her labeled the first software programmer. She died in 1852.

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Anna Maria van Schurman

Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman
After Jan Lievens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading academics of the seventeenth century, Anna Maria van Schurman sometimes had to sit behind a screen in lectures because of her sex. Nevertheless, she formed the hub of a European network of learned women and wrote an important text on how women could be educated.

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Anne of Austria

Portrait of Anne of Austria.
Workshop of Daniel Dumonstier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born to Philip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria in 1601, Anne married the 14-year-old Louis XIII of France in 1615. As hostilities between Spain and France resumed Anne found elements at court trying to shut her out; nevertheless, she became regent after Louis' death in 1643, demonstrating political skill in the face of widespread troubles. Louis XIV came of age in 1651.

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Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi - Self-Portrait as a Lute Player
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player. By Artemisia Gentileschi - http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Artemisia-Gentileschi-Self-Portrait-as-a-Lute-Player-c.-1616–18.jpgor scan of painting: http://books0977.tumblr.com/post/67566293964/self-portrait-as-a-lute-player, Public Domain, Link

An Italian painter following the style pioneered by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi's vivid and often violent art is frequently overshadowed by the trial of her rapist, during which she was tortured to establish the veracity of her evidence.

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Catalina de Erauso

Catalina de Erauso
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Abandoning the life and nunnery her parents had chosen for her, Catalina de Erauso dressed as a man and pursued a successful military career in South America, before returning to Spain and revealing her secrets. She recorded her exploits in the perfectly titled "Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World."

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Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici Inspecting Massacre Victims
Queen Catherine de Medici inspects victims in a Paris street outside the Louvre on the morning after the St. Bartholomew Massacre, 1572. Pen and wash drawing by E. Debat-Ponsan. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Born into Europe's famous Medici family, Catherine became Queen of France in 1547, having married the future Henry II in 1533; however, Henry died in 1559 and Catherine ruled as regent until 1559. This was an era of intense religious strife and, despite trying to follow moderate policies, Catherine became associated with, even blamed for, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572.

Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov
Oil on canvas portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov. By Ф. С. Рокотов (http://www.art-catalog.ru/index.php) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally a German princess married to the Tsar, Catherine seized power in Russia to become Catherine II (1762 - 96). Her rule was characterized partly by reforms and modernisation, but also by her forceful rule and dominant personality. Unfortunately, the slurs of her enemies usually impinge on any discussion. More »

Courtiers with Queen Christina of Sweden
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Queen of Sweden from 1644 to 1654, during which time she acted in European politics and heavily patronized art, the philosophically minded Christina left her throne, not through death, but through conversion to Roman Catholicism, abdication, and resettlement in Rome. More »

Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, c.1588 (oil on panel)
Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, c.1588 (oil on panel). George Gower / Getty Images

The most famous Queen of England, Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudors and a monarch whose life featured war, discovery and religious strife. She was also a poet, writer and - most notoriously - never married. More »

Elizabeth Bathory - Portrait
By Oldbarnacle (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Elizabeth Bathory is still shrouded in mystery, but a few facts are known: at the end of the sixteenth/start of the seventeenth century, she was responsible for the murder, and possibly torture, of young women. Discovered and found guilty, she was walled up as punishment. She has been remembered, probably erroneously, for bathing in the blood of victims; she is also an archetype of the modern vampire. More »

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Elizabeth of Bohemia

Portrait of Elizabeth of Bohemia (Fife, 1596-London, 1662), Queen Consort of Bohemia
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Born to James VI of Scotland (James I of England) and courted by the leading men of Europe, Elizabeth Stuart married Frederick V, the Elector Palatine in 1614. Frederick accepted the crown of Bohemia in 1619 but conflict forced the family into exile shortly after. Elizabeth's letters are of great value, especially her philosophical discussions with Descartes.

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Flora Sandes

The story of Flora Sandes should be better known: originally a British nurse, she enlisted in the Serbian army during World War One and, during an eventful fighting career, rose to the rank of Major.

One of the dominant Queens of European history, Isabella is famous for her marriage with Ferdinand which united Spain, her patronage of world explorers and, more controversially, her role in 'supporting' Catholicism. More »

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Josephine de Beauharnais

Born Marie Rose Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, Josephine became a noted Parisian socialite after marrying Alexandre de Beauharnais. She survived both the execution of her husband and imprisonment during the French Revolution to marry Napoleon Bonaparte, a promising general whose rise soon made her Empress of France before she and Napoleon split. She died, still popular with the public, in 1814.

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Judith Leyster

A Dutch painter working in the first half of the 17th century, Judith Leyster's art was thematically broader than most of her contemporaries; some of her works have been wrongly attributed to other artists.

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Laura Bassi

A noted Newtonian physicist of the eighteenth century, Laura Bassi earned a doctorate before being appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna in 1731; she was one of the first women to achieve either success. Pioneering Newtonian philosophy and other ideas within Italy, Laura also fitted in 12 children.

Despite, or perhaps because, she was the daughter of a Pope from one of Italy's most powerful families, Lucrezia Borgia acquired a reputation for incest, poisoning and political skulduggery on a distinctly non-exclusive basis; however, historians believe the truth to be very different. More »

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Madame de Maintenon

Francoise d'Aubigné (later the Marquise de Maintenon) was born, married to the author Paul Scarron and widowed before she was 26. She'd made numerous powerful friends through Scarron and was invited to nurse a bastard child of Louis XIV; however, she grew close to Louis and married him, although the year is debated. A woman of letters and dignity, she founded a school at Saint-Cyr.

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Madame de Sevigne

The popularity of easily erased email may prove troublesome for historians in the future. In contrast, Madame de Sevigne - one of the greatest letter writers in history - created a rich source of over 1500 documents, a body of correspondence shedding light on styles, fashions, opinions and much more about life in seventeenth century France.

Germaine Necker, otherwise known as Madame de Staél, was an important thinker and writer of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era, a woman around whose homes philosophy and politics gathered. She also managed to upset Napoleon on numerous occasions. More »

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Margaret of Parma

The illegitimate daughter of a Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V), the widow of a Medici and wife to the Duke of Parma, Margaret was appointed as governor of the Netherlands in 1559 by another great relation, Philip II of Spain. She coped with great unrest and international trouble, until resigning in 1567 in opposition to Philip's policies.

A doctor specializing in psychology, anthropology, and education, Maria Montessori evolved a system of teaching and treating children which differed markedly from the norm. Despite controversy, her 'Montessori Schools' spread and the Montessori system is now used worldwide. More »

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Maria Theresa

In 1740 Maria Theresa became ruler of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, thanks partly to her father - Emperor Charles VI - establishing that a woman could succeed him, and her own tenacity in the face of numerous challenges. She was thus one of the most politically prominent women in European history.

An Austrian princess who married the King of France and died on the Guillotine, Marie Antoinette's whorish, greedy and air-headed reputation is based on a seam of vicious propaganda and the popular memory of a phrase she didn't actually say. While recent books have portrayed Marie in a better light, the old slurs still linger. More »

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A pioneer in the fields of radiation and x-rays, twice winner of the Nobel Prize and part of the formidable husband and wife Curie team, Marie Curie is undoubtedly one of the most famous scientists of all time. More »

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Marie de Gournay

Born in the 16th century but living in much of the 17th, Marie Le Jars de Gournay was a writer, thinker, poet and biographer whose work advocated equal education for women. Oddly, while modern readers may consider her far ahead of her time, contemporaries criticized her for being old-fashioned!

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Ninon de Lenclos

Famed courtesan and philosopher, Ninon de Lenclos' Paris salon attracted France's leading politicians and writers for both mental and physical stimulation. Although once confined to a nunnery by Anne of Austria, de Lenclos' attained a level of respectability unusual for courtesans, while her philosophy and patronage led to friendships with, among many, Moliére and Voltaire.

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Properzia Rossi

Properzia Rossi was the pre-eminent renaissance sculptress - indeed, she's the only women from the era known to have used marble - but many details of her life are unknown, including her date of birth.

A Polish socialist whose writings on Marxism were tremendously important for the cause, Rosa Luxemburg was active in Germany, where she co-organised the German Communist party and promoted revolution. Despite trying to rein in violent action, she was caught up in a Spartacist revolt and murdered by anti-socialist soldiers in 1919. More »

An important religious author and reformer, Teresa of Avila transformed the Carmelite movement in the sixteenth century, achievements which led to the Catholic Church honoring her as a Saint in 1622, and a Doctor in 1970. More »

Born in 1819, Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom and Empire from 1837 - 1901, during which she became the longest ruling British monarch, a symbol of empire and the characteristic figure of her era. More »

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Wilde, Robert. "Female European Historical Figures: 1500 - 1945." ThoughtCo, Apr. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/european-women-1500-1945-1221771. Wilde, Robert. (2017, April 13). Female European Historical Figures: 1500 - 1945. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/european-women-1500-1945-1221771 Wilde, Robert. "Female European Historical Figures: 1500 - 1945." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/european-women-1500-1945-1221771 (accessed April 25, 2018).