Illustration by Sean McCabe. Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images (Bronte); Everett Collection Historical/Alamy (Mitchell); Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University (Keckley); Courtesy Howard Zar (Zar); The Ferdinand W. Roebling III Archival Center of the Roebling Museum (Roebling); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (White House, Brooklyn Bridge)

Overlooked No More

Meet five extraordinary women from history who are finally getting the recognition they deserve

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries, chronicling the lives of everyone from heads of state to rock stars and the namer of the Slinky. But the vast majority of these obituaries have been of men, mostly white ones. Even women who had achieved a measure of fame in their lifetime were overlooked.

The Times recently decided to make up for that. Each week for the past year, the paper has published an obituary of a woman from history who was left out of the obituary pages—and, in most cases, your history textbooks.  

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are the stories of five women—adapted from the Times’s obituary pages—who are finally getting their due.

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries. These pieces have chronicled the lives of everyone from heads of state to rock stars and the namer of the Slinky. But the vast majority of these obituaries have been of men, mostly white ones. Even women who had achieved a measure of fame in their lifetimes were overlooked.

The Times recently decided to make up for that. Each week for the past year, the paper has published an obituary of a woman from history who was left out of the obituary pages. Many of these women have been left out of your history textbooks too.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are the stories of five women who are finally getting their due. We’ve adapted them from the Times’s obituary pages.

Elizabeth Keckly

The Former Slave in Lincoln’s White House

Illustration by Sean McCabe. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University (Keckley); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (White House)

It was the morning of April 15, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln had just died from an assassin’s bullet. Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, was cloistered in the White House, wailing in grief. There was only one person she desperately wanted to talk to: her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.

The moment was indicative of how far Keckly had come—from surviving slavery, rape, and years of beatings to being the first lady’s most trusted friend.

Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. In 1855, she bought freedom for herself and her son from their owners for $1,200, and settled in Washington, D.C., working as a seamstress.

One day in 1861, after Lincoln had taken office, a well-connected client introduced her to the new first lady, who was looking for a dressmaker. Keckly got the job, and in her new position became a celebrity of sorts; Lincoln addressed her as “Madam Elizabeth.”

The first lady could be difficult and moody; Keckly was sometimes the only person who could manage her. In turn, Mary Lincoln confided in Keckly and sought counsel on such White House matters as planning state dinners and Lincoln’s campaign for a second term.

“Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you,” Mary Lincoln once wrote to her.

In 1868, Keckly published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, which is now considered one of the most important narratives of the Lincolns’ domestic life.

“She was a historian, and that was really unusual—for a black woman to write as a historian of a time and a place and a White House,” says Jennifer Fleischner, author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly.

But Keckly suffered for it: Reviewers lambasted the book—and her—when it came out, and it soon disappeared from bookstores. “Readers in her day, white readers—they took it as an audacious tell-all,” Fleischner says. “You know, ‘How dare she?’”

Mary Lincoln was angered by the publication of Keckly’s memoir. She never spoke to Keckly again.

Keckly died in her sleep in 1907, when she was 89. In his book, They Knew Lincoln, John E. Washington describes the final moments of Keckly’s life, when she was ill: “All day long she looked at Mrs. Lincoln’s picture above the dresser, and seldom left her room except for meals.”

—Nancy Wartik

It was the morning of April 15, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln had just died from an assassin’s bullet. Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, was shut up in the White House, wailing in grief. There was only one person she desperately wanted to talk to: her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.

The moment showed how far Keckly had come. She survived slavery, rape, and years of beatings to become the first lady’s most trusted friend.

Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. In 1855, she bought freedom for herself and her son from their owners for $1,200. She then settled in Washington, D.C., working as a seamstress.

One day in 1861, after Lincoln had taken office, a well-connected client introduced her to the new first lady, who was looking for a dressmaker. Keckly got the job. In her new position, she became a celebrity of sorts. Lincoln addressed her as “Madam Elizabeth.”

The first lady could be difficult and moody. Keckly was sometimes the only person who could manage her. In turn, Mary Lincoln confided in Keckly. She also sought counsel on such White House matters as planning state dinners and Lincoln’s campaign for a second term.

“Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you,” Mary Lincoln once wrote to her.

In 1868, Keckly published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. It is now considered one of the most important narratives of the Lincolns’ domestic life.

“She was a historian, and that was really unusual—for a black woman to write as a historian of a time and a place and a White House,” says Jennifer Fleischner, author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly.

But Keckly suffered for it. Reviewers slammed the book and her when it came out. It soon disappeared from bookstores as a result. “Readers in her day, white readers—they took it as an audacious tell-all,” Fleischner says. “You know, ‘How dare she?’”

Mary Lincoln was angered by the publication of Keckly’s memoir. She never spoke to Keckly again.

Keckly died in her sleep in 1907, when she was 89. In his book, John E. Washington describes the final moments of Keckly’s life, when she was ill: “All day long she looked at Mrs. Lincoln’s picture above the dresser, and seldom left her room except for meals.”

—Nancy Wartik

Charlotte Brontë

The Fearless Novelist

Illustration by Sean McCabe. Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images (Bronte)

In 1836, when Charlotte Brontë was a 20-year-old schoolteacher and a budding novelist, she sent a sample of her writing to Robert Southey, one of England’s most respected poets.

Southey replied in a letter: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.”

Brontë devoted much of her life to ignoring that message—and, as a result, she produced some of the most revolutionary novels of the 19th century, including Jane Eyre.

Brontë was born in 1816 and grew up in Haworth, England. Her younger sisters were also authors: Emily Brontë, who wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne Brontë, who wrote the lesser-known Agnes Grey.

The sisters’ talents were evident from an early age. As kids, they created their own fictional worlds, produced magazines, and put on plays in their home.

But talent alone wouldn’t get their novels published. To do so, they had to conceal their identities as women. Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell. It was an instant hit and fueled interest in her sisters’ novels, which were also published under pseudonyms with the last name Bell.

In Jane Eyre, Brontë wrote from the first-person perspective of a child, an innovation that gave voice and power even to the very young. The novel follows a heroine who was like Brontë herself when she was young—plain, pale, small, and shy. It tells of her growth into adulthood and of her falling in love with Edward Rochester, the master of the fictional Thornfield Hall.

Speculation abounded about the Bells’ real identities and genders. In her response to one critic who thought it unlikely that the authors could be women, Charlotte Brontë wrote: “To such critics I would say—‘to you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’ ”

It wasn’t until 1850 that Charlotte Brontë revealed to the public that the Bells were women. And only after her death in 1855, at age 39, did a copy of Jane Eyre finally appear with a cover bearing the words: By Charlotte Brontë.

—Susan Dominus

In 1836, Charlotte Brontë was a 20-year-old schoolteacher and a budding novelist. She sent a sample of her writing to Robert Southey, one of England’s most respected poets.

Southey replied in a letter: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.”

Brontë devoted much of her life to ignoring that message. As a result, she produced some of the most revolutionary novels of the 19th century, including Jane Eyre.

Brontë was born in 1816 and grew up in Haworth, England. Her younger sisters were also authors: Emily Brontë, who wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne Brontë, who wrote the lesser-known Agnes Grey.

The sisters’ talents were evident from an early age. As kids, they created their own fictional worlds, produced magazines, and put on plays in their home.

But talent alone wouldn’t get their novels published. To do so, they had to conceal their identities as women. Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell. It was an instant hit and fueled interest in her sisters’ novels. Their novels were also published under pseudonyms with the last name Bell.

In Jane Eyre, Brontë wrote from the first-person perspective of a child. That innovation gave voice and power even to the very young. The novel follows a heroine who was like Brontë herself when she was young—plain, pale, small, and shy. It tells of her growth into adulthood and of her falling in love with Edward Rochester, the master of the fictional Thornfield Hall.

Speculation abounded about the Bells’ real identities and genders. In her response to one critic who thought it unlikely that the authors could be women, Charlotte Brontë wrote: “To such critics I would say—‘to you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’ ”

It wasn’t until 1850 that Charlotte Brontë revealed to the public that the Bells were women. She died in 1855 at age 39. Only after her death did a copy of Jane Eyre finally appear with a cover bearing the words: By Charlotte Brontë.

—Susan Dominus

Rose Zar

The Holocaust Survivor Who Hid in Plain Sight

Illustration by Sean McCabe. Courtesy Howard Zar (Zar)

In December 1942, Rose Zar, a 20-year-old Jewish woman, was summoned into the office of a Nazi commander in Krakow, Poland. The forces of Nazi Germany were rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps, and Zar was certain this would be the end for her.

Thankfully, though, she had forged papers, stating that her name was Wanda Gajda and that she was Roman Catholic—and the encounter she feared turned out to be a job interview. From then on, she spent the final years of World War II working as a caretaker in the home of a Nazi commander, hiding in plain sight.

Zar’s story of surviving Nazi Germany differs from Anne Frank’s and that of thousands of other Jews who spent all or part of the war sequestered in attics, caves, or sewers. Zar survived the Holocaust by hiding in the open.

In October 1942, fearing that the Nazis were closing in on the ghetto where she lived, in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar grabbed her suitcase and a forged passport and left her family behind. Her father had told her that if she ever had to go into hiding, the best place would be the most obvious, where those pursuing her would never look.

“He said you have to hide in the mouth of the wolf, under the officials’ nose,” Zar said in an interview in 1996, “and watch that they don’t devour you.”

Zar worked in a hospital, cleaning the stairs, and in the kitchen of the local Nazi headquarters in Krakow, peeling potatoes—all while in disguise.

“I figured it like this,” she recalled. “You are born in the wrong times in history. You are an actress. You have to play your role good, because you pay one price. It is your life.”

Zar’s position with the Nazi commander afforded her luxuries: silk stockings borrowed from the commander’s wife and front-row seats to theater performances intended only for Germans. Yet every day she concealed 50 zlotys (Polish money) and her passport beneath her clothes in case she had to flee.

After the war, she was reunited with her sweetheart from when she was a teenager, who had survived two concentration camps. They married in 1945 and moved to the United States.

Zar died in 2001 at age 79. While in Poland during World War II, Zar was forced to remain silent about her identity. Later, she felt compelled to break that silence.

“We must talk, we must tell the stories,” Eric Kimmel, the co-author of Zar’s memoir, recalls her saying. “Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won.”

—Melissa Eddy

In December 1942, Rose Zar, a 20-year-old Jewish woman, was called into the office of a Nazi commander in Krakow, Poland. The forces of Nazi Germany were rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps. Zar was certain this would be the end for her.

Thankfully, though, she had forged papers, stating that her name was Wanda Gajda and that she was Roman Catholic. The encounter she feared turned out to be a job interview. From then on, she spent the final years of World War II working as a caretaker in the home of a Nazi commander. She hid in plain sight.

Zar’s story of surviving Nazi Germany differs from Anne Frank’s and that of thousands of other Jews. Many of them spent all or part of the war hidden away in attics, caves, or sewers. Zar survived the Holocaust by hiding in the open.

In October 1942, fearing that the Nazis were closing in on the ghetto where she lived, in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar grabbed her suitcase and a forged passport and left her family behind. Her father had told her that if she ever had to go into hiding, the best place would be the most obvious, where those pursuing her would never look.

“He said you have to hide in the mouth of the wolf, under the officials’ nose,” Zar said in an interview in 1996, “and watch that they don’t devour you.”

Zar worked in a hospital, cleaning the stairs, and in the kitchen of the local Nazi headquarters in Krakow, peeling potatoes. She did all of this while in disguise.

“I figured it like this,” she recalled. “You are born in the wrong times in history. You are an actress. You have to play your role good, because you pay one price. It is your life.”

Zar’s position with the Nazi commander afforded her luxuries. She borrowed silk stockings from the commander’s wife. She also got front-row seats to theater performances intended only for Germans. Yet every day she hid 50 zlotys (Polish money) and her passport under her clothes in case she had to flee.

After the war, she was reunited with her sweetheart from when she was a teenager. He had survived two concentration camps. They married in 1945 and moved to the United States.

Zar died in 2001 at age 79. While in Poland during World War II, Zar was forced to remain silent about her identity. Later, she felt compelled to break that silence.

“We must talk, we must tell the stories,” Eric Kimmel, the co-author of Zar’s memoir, recalls her saying. “Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won.”

—Melissa Eddy

Emily Warren Roebling

The Woman Who Saved the Brooklyn Bridge

Illustration by Sean McCabe. The Ferdinand W. Roebling III Archival Center of the Roebling Museum (Roebling); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (Brooklyn Bridge)

Women weren’t typically found at construction sites in the late 19th century. But when Washington A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, fell ill, it was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped in to see the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion.

“I don’t think that the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing were it not for her,” says Erica Wagner, the author of Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

Connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan for the first time, the Brooklyn Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time. Upon completion in 1883, it was proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Its construction, however, was treacherous. At least two dozen men died working on the bridge.

First, there was Washington Roebling’s father, John Augustus Roebling, who started designing the bridge in 1867. Two years later, his foot was crushed in the pilings of a Brooklyn pier when a barge came in to dock. He contracted tetanus and died less than a month later.

His son succeeded him as chief engineer—only to become incapacitated by a mysterious illness that left him partially paralyzed, blind, deaf, and mute. It was later believed that Roebling suffered from caisson disease, or the bends, an illness not uncommon on bridge-building sites, caused by changing air pressure.

Enter Emily Warren Roebling. She became her husband’s “eyes and ears,” says Richard Haw, the author of The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History.

She went back and forth from her husband’s bedside to the construction site, negotiated for building materials, oversaw the contracts, and met with the board of trustees and politicians. She was essentially a substitute chief engineer, according to historians.

The bridge finally opened to the public on May 24, 1883. Before the official opening, Emily Roebling became the first person to cross it—carrying a rooster with her for good luck. 

She died 20 years later, in 1903, at age 59. Today, there is a plaque on the bridge honoring all three Roeblings, which reads: “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

Jessica Bennett

Women weren’t typically found at construction sites in the late 19th century. But when Washington A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, fell ill, it was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped in to see the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion.

“I don’t think that the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing were it not for her,” says Erica Wagner, the author of Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge connected Brooklyn and Manhattan for the first time. It was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time. Upon completion in 1883, it was proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

But its construction was challenging. At least two dozen men died working on the bridge.

First, there was Washington Roebling’s father, John Augustus Roebling. He started designing the bridge in 1867. Two years later, his foot was crushed in the pilings of a Brooklyn pier when a barge came in to dock. He contracted tetanus and died less than a month later.

His son succeeded him as chief engineer. But he became incapacitated by a mysterious illness that left him partially paralyzed, blind, deaf, and mute. It was later believed that Roebling suffered from caisson disease, or the bends. That’s an illness caused by changing air pressure. It’s not uncommon on bridge-building sites.

Enter Emily Warren Roebling. She became her husband’s “eyes and ears,” says Richard Haw, the author of The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History.

She went back and forth from her husband’s bedside to the construction site. She negotiated for building materials, oversaw the contracts, and met with the board of trustees and politicians. She was essentially a su