The Women Who Might Have Been Shakespeare, and Other Unsung Heroines

Wikimedia-Amelia Bassano Lanier-Nicholas_Hilliard_010-public domain

“So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”
~ Mark Twain

Last week I began my series on women to honor National Women’s History Month during March and International Women’s Day on Sunday, March 8. In that entry I wrote about what women expect on a first date. This week I’m addressing a different kind of date – history dates that turn a spotlight on unsung heroines throughout history whose ideas and inventions either were or might have been credited to men.

I will start with two women who some believe were the true geniuses behind the works heretofore attributed to the iconic and allusive person known as William Shakespeare. This should strike a chord with every woman in the workplace who has had her idea, publicly or privately stated, later “attributed” to someone else — most often a male peer or superior or even a subordinate — who has restated it; such women are in good company.

The Writings of Shakespeare

For a few centuries there have been many who have questioned the authenticity of the man known as William Shakespeare having written all the works that have been attributed to him. These include renowned scholars, actors, social reformers and even the Duke of Edinburgh, AKA Prince Phillip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Mark Twain certainly was not alone in his viewpoint. But, if not Shakespeare himself, who did write his works? Some believe that Mary Sidney Herbert and Amelia Bassano Lanier had a hand in writing the works attributed to the Bard of Avon.

1561-1621: Mary Sidney Herbert, AKA The Countess of Pembroke, AKA “The Sweet Swan of Avon” – According to British economist Gilbert Slater in his book, The Seven Shakespeares (1931), and American educator, author, and lecturer on Shakespeare Robin Patricia Williams, among the candidates for having written the beloved works attributed to William Shakespeare is the Countess of Pembroke. Mary Sidney was an educated woman, an aristocrat and writer who was a literary peer of Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson.

Author Mary Meriam writes in Ms. Magazine, “Personally, I am persuaded by Williams’ bookSweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, that Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, is the true Shakespeare.”

And, in her review of Ms. Williams’s book, Bonnie Wheeler, PhD, Southern Methodist University, Texas, writes, “Piece by piece, she builds the case that Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, is the actual author of the Shakespearean canon. Shakepeare’s (sic) true identity may be impossible to prove until doomsday, but this tantalizing and beautifully written book helps us look hard at the possibility not just that the Shakespearean works were written by a woman, but a very well-placed powerful woman.”

1569-1645: Amelia Bassano Lanier – In April 2007 a new name emerged as a possible author of the works attributed to Shakespeare; the Shakespeare Authorship Trust added to its list Amelia Bassano Lanier. This striking-looking — dark and exotic — talented and forceful woman was also a contemporary of Shakespeare. Amelia Bassano was the daughter of a Jewish man whose family had its roots in Italy. She was also a poet and a feminist.

According to an article in Reform Judaism, Shakespeare scholar John Hudson has advanced his strong belief based on extensive research that “if Amelia Bassano did not author all of the works, she was a major collaborator, influenced them all, and contributed their underlying allegorical plots.”

Beyond Shakespeare

The game-changing contributions of many other women throughout history have also been marginalized, including:

1866-1948: Elizabeth Magie Phillips – The rags-to-riches story of the origin of the world’s most popular board game, Monopoly, goes that following the 1929 crash of the New York Stock Exchange an out-of-work Charles Darrow invented the game of Monopoly and sold the rights to Parker Brothers. But, according to Mary Pilon’s book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, a woman named Lizzie Magie was the original brains behind the game.

1900 – Present: Progressive Education – John Dewey was a force for progressive education but so were Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Caroline Pratt, Patty Smith Hill, Josephine Silone Yates and Ella Flagg Young. However, it’s Dewey’s work rather than the outstanding and essential contributions of these remarkable women that has been credited and granted a more prominent place in history.

1900 – 1917: Windshield Wipers – Both Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgewood were ahead of their time when each invented different versions of the windshield wiper approximately 17 years apart. Neither profited from their forward-thinking inventions because at the time the value of the wipers was not understood or appreciated. Today, windshield wipers are essential and used in various types of vehicles, including automobiles, aircraft and spacecraft.

1792 – 1794: The Cotton Gin – Every schoolgirl and schoolboy by now knows that Eli Whitney was not necessarily the lone inventor of the cotton gin. Many believe that a prominent and independent woman named Catherine Littlefield Greene was the inventor and that Whitney collaborated with her and built the machine, based on her idea and possibly even her design. Perhaps because women were not allowed to hold patents in those days the sole credit for the invention went to Whitney.

Now Let’s Look at Some Inventions for Which Women Have Received Credit

1942 – 1997: Cell Phone – Glamorous actress and movie star during MGM’s Golden Era, Austrian Hedy Lamarr was also the brilliant co-inventor of a radio signaling device that was meant to help defeat the Nazis during WWII. The technology was never used for its intended purpose and eventually the patent lapsed. Lamarr and composer George Antheil did not receive recognition for their invention until years later when the technology was used for the military and cell phones. In 2008, a stage play, Frequency Hopping, was produced in New York about Lamarr and Antheil and their invention.

1886 – 1951: Liquid Paper, the dishwasher, disposable diapers – Read about the women who invented them.

1809 – 1991: First U.S. patent filed by a woman, submarine telescope and lamp, stop-motion device for textile mills, machine that makes paper bags, and many more. – Read more about these women and their inventions.

How many more women can you name who have made outstanding contributions to civilization and society? Are you one? Will you be one? Will you know one? And whether you are a woman or a man, will you always stand up for your ideas as well as listen to others and give credit where credit is due?

 Until next time,


Graphic of Amelia Bassano Lanier courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s