The Historical Theft of Women’s Achievements

It was once thought the theory of relativity was discovered by Albert Einstein….

By Tyne O’Connell ©

Tyne O'Connell in the Bath in Mayfair

However I was educated by nuns who having endured two world wars were rather cynical about men whom they knew more often than not, were responsible for messes which women were inevitably left to clear up.

History has shown us repeatedly that many discoveries or inventions claimed or assumed by men, later turn out to have been entirely – or at least in part – the breakthrough of a woman or women close to him.
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Take for example Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705) who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, Wotton House & the layout of Mayfair St James’s and 800 plus other great buildings.  Due to her position in the aristocracy she conspired to throw a veil over her architectural masterpieces giving the credit to her young pupil Christopher Wren whom acted as her construction manager on site while her reputation grew as a Patron of Architecture.

One can understand this ruse being necessary over three hundred years ago when the position of women in society was so constrained but it seems truly shameful that the lie persists even now though historic dates alone prove Wren’s involvement was a physical impossibility. He did not embark on his studies in architecture until 1666 by which time Lady Elizabeth Wotten had spent years on the continent studying under Palladio in Italy and the great Pieter Post famed for his Dutch Baroque style.

Lady Wilbraham at Weston Park

Lady Wilbraham at Weston Park

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham was one of the four great women of London’t restoration and yet her name is hardly known. The Royal Society of Architects is now attempting to redress the matter and lift the veil so that Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham can be celebrated as one of the greatest architects of history.

As a child I remember finding our nun’s assertions that women were responsible for all the great works hitherto attributed to men slightly questionable.

My father went so far as to suggest their claims were no doubt made tongue in cheek. My mother however was more circumspect. “How many men have you met that have managed to do anything without a female enabler?”  she asked.

Take the enlightenment. For centuries men had been meeting in coffee shops and arguing over matters of politics and religion  until in 1660 Queen Catherine of Braganza Britain’s last Roman Catholic Queen sailed down the Thames bringing her enormous dowry which included tea.

Suddenly tea salons were the fashionable social event and what’s more they were hosted by women and the conversation was centred on philosophy, literature, poetry, science and the education of women. Ultimately the term Bluestockings was given to these tea salons of Mayfair but  before the term bluestocking was coined these tea salons marked the beginning of The Enlightenment in Britain.

Maragret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle

Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle

For the first time in history women were taking the leading role in society and women like Margaret Cavendish – the redoubtable Duchess of Newcastle, philosopher, writer and porto-feminist made an enormous impact on the direction of society.

Another great woman of Restoration England was Aphra Behn, first woman to act on the stage but more importantly she was a spy, a wit, an author and the most prolific playwright of the Restoration. Aphra Behn was far more famous than the less popular Dryden and more prolific.

It was Aphra Behn who from her humble beginnings went on to change the course of history when as a spy for King Charles II in the Dutch Court she saved the entire British fleet. She also let a black slave rebellion in Surinam and coined the popular phrase “She Stoops To Conquer” in her 1778 play The Rover.

Virginia Wolf wrote
All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds…


Flowers at Aphra Behn's Tomb

Flowers at Aphra Behn’s Grave in Westminster Abbey

Her tomb now in Westminster bears the inscription:

“MRS APHRA BEHN DYED APRIL 16 A.D. 1689. Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.” From her tomb in Westminster Abbey

Society has always measured a man’s abilities and social standing based on the woman he marries or partners with in his life endeavours. “A man is judged by the woman or women upon whose shoulders he stands”

Einstein himself later admitted that it was his wife rather than he who did most of the work. Did he mean “most” or “all” as it is now being suggested? Perhaps he and his wife simply agreed as a team that his work would be taken more seriously coming from him rather than her. Much that same way as Marie and Pierre Curie arranged their breakthrough. I suspect it will seem a little silly to future generations that we ever attributed relativity to anyone other than Mrs Einstein.

Elsa Einstein

Albert and Elsa Einstein — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

My nuns cited evidence of men’s antagonism to thinking women, with the murder of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in 415 AD. The very thought of “a thinking woman” so outraged men that they stoned her to death.

Some reports suggest she was even flayed – either way men wanted to send a clear message to women that thinking is the preserve of men. It was a chilling message yet it has resonated throughout the centuries.

No wonder women thought it judicious to have their brother or husband or son pass off their work as theirs, rather than raise the ire of men again.

I was fortunate to be educated by intelligent women who urged us to question everything and certainly anything written or stated as fact by a man. And yes, this included papal utterances. We were educated to view men with fond tolerance and healthy suspicion. We were assured that while men had many fine qualities,  they were also boastful, weak-willed and vacillating if left to their own devices.

As a wife to two intelligent men and the mother of two brilliant sons, one with a first from Oxford and the second having taken his degree in Philosophy is now doing his doctorate in creative writing. However without the support and guidance of a strong woman, men are ill equipped to pursue academia and it is the exceptions that prove the rule. Men are generally better suited to war and physical labour though by no means should they be confined to this any more than women should be confined to academia.  But certainly it is women whom men look to for ideas for it is they and not men who have taken civilisation forward and been the natural thinkers throughout history.

There are exceptions to every stereotype but generally men tend to take a blinkered view while women take a broad overview.  Primitive women were the lookouts who would point out the woolly mammoth and direct the men out to bring it down.

Men authors v Women authors

Goodreads did a study on 40,000 users of their site

Historically men have relied upon women to lead and direct them which is why together they make a brilliant team.  The nuns  brought up the girls in their care to be the perfect help meets to our future hapless husbands (should we not be blessed with a vocation of our own.)

As a young woman I dreaded having to nanny any man and so desperately prayed for a vocation, but the nuns suggested I pray on it for a few years.  A few years later I was married and pregnant with my first son. I finally became an author but I bridled under my role as matriarch, deferring instead to my husbands when it came to planning and directing the course of our family.

This was not the fault of either of my two husbands, but rather my own counter-intuitive and inverted take on seventies feminism.

It was only through the encouragement of my parents and husbands that I was able to carve out a career as an author.

Madame Roland

Literature has always been an area in which women have been able to shine and in the Restoration of the 1660’s women wrote most of the massive pamphlets distributed throughout London, sometimes usually under the guise “A Lady” but even the publishing industry has championed the works of men above those of women. It is a fact that 84% of books are read by women yet publishers still prefer to publish the works of men above those of female authors.

These statistics suggest either that women would prefer to read books written by men, or that the publishers are focused solely on the 16% minority of the market. No wonder the publishing industry is in trouble!

There is a truism which resonates across all cultures: “Men do the talking, women do the reading and the writing.”  

Perhaps this is because women are more contemplative and thoughtful than men, but I suspect it is also because men are not interested in what women have to say, leading women to turn to the written word to  express themselves. Unfortunately this truism remains no less true today in a post feminist world.


Our nuns were dubious of any book purporting to be written by a man. “More likely he had his sister or his ma write it,” they’d scoff as they taught Shakespeare and Cicero.  I share the view of a number of Elizabethan scholars that it was Shakespeare’s wife who wrote his plays although I believe his beautiful sonnets demonstrate the more sentimental heart of a man.

Men may ride along on the skirts of women, yet their need for feminine guidance should not blind us to their strengths.  For while the women of the tribe may have pointed  out the wooly mammoth to primitive man, it was his single determination that brought down the beast.

As a mother of sons and grandmother of a grandson I recognise the singleminded determination that equips men to follow through the tasks set under the leadership of women.  So while  I concede the nuns were right in their scepticism of men’s achievement’s, I think the more worrisome matter is the reason why we as women remain so ready to hand our achievements over to men rather than take credit for them ourselves.

Einstein, were not alone in claiming a woman’s achievements for his own, but he was unusual in admitting – albeit late in life –  how much of “his” work was that of his wife.

Far more men simply took credit for their wives or sister’s or daughters work and got away with it. Certainly, it is highly improbable to imagine men have accomplished and achieved all the things they claim in history and far more likely that a great deal, if not the lionesses share of “man’s achievements” were the sole or co-achievements and accomplishments of women close to them just as my nuns asserted.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann

It is almost certainly true that a great deal of literature attributed to men was written by women in the way of Clara Schumann who allowed her compositions to be passed off by her husband.

Anything for a quite life is the motto of women throughout the ages.  What wife would disagree? Quite simply it was the only way for women to get their discoveries or works into the public domain; give them to a man to pass off as his own.

Aurore Lucile Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant had to take the pseudonym of George Sands in order to have her work published.  While Mary Ann Evans had to change her name to George Elliot.

Even now women with male names (George, Charlie, Sam etc) do better in the legal industry than their peers with feminine names.

I’m not suggesting that all contemporary authors are passing off the works of their sisters or wives writings as their own, but it makes one think.

Something is not quite right when 84% of books are read by women but publishers believe consumers would rather buy a work written by a male.  I try to avoid reading anything written by a man post 1960. It is my small way of correcting the imbalance and prejudice of the publishing industry.

All content on MayfairEccentrics is original and remains the copyright of ©Tyne O’Connell, and no part thereof maybe copied or reproduced anywhere without permission of the author who may be contacted at Such permission if sought should not be reasonably withheld by the author providing her copyright is upheld.

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