Library Blog

Inspiring Deaf Women Throughout History

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There have been many inspiring deaf women throughout history that have made significant contributions in science, athletics, the arts, education, and social reform. These successful women overcame many obstacles at a time when few avenues were open to women. Their determination and perseverance continue to empower women today. 

Annie Jump Cannon 

Annie Jump Cannon was a pioneering astronomer responsible for the classification of over 350,000 stars. She was born December 11, 1863 in Dover, DE. When Cannon was young she caught a cold that eventually caused her to lose partial hearing but was able to lip read. Cannon’s mother taught her about constellations and encouraged her interest in astronomy. Cannon studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley College. After graduation, she attended Radcliffe College to advance her training in the field of astronomy. In 1896, Cannon started working at Harvard Observatory where she simplified the division of stars into spectral classes O, B, A, F, G, K, M.  Astronomers for decades would use the mnemonic device “Oh, Be A Fine Girl—Kiss Me!” to learn these spectral classifications. Cannon’s work was published in the Henry Draper Catalogue between 1891 and 1924. She received many honorary degrees from various prestigious academic institutions and was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1925. Cannon was the first woman to be awarded the Draper Gold Medal, and was also the first woman to hold an officer position in the American Astronomical Society. After winning the Ellen Richards Research Prize in 1932, Cannon established her own award, The Annie Jump Cannon Award. This award is given to a distinguished female astronomer at the beginning of her career. Cannon died April 13, 1941 in Cambridge, MA.

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer by Carole Gerber is available from the Library’s catalog. 

To learn more about Annie Jump Cannon, visit the National Women’s History Museum, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Biography. 


Princess Alice of Battenberg 

Princess Alice of Battenberg was born February 25, 1885 in Windsor Castle. She was the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip) and the mother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II of England.  Princess Alice was also the greatgranddaughter of Queen Victoria and related to most of Europe’s royal families. Deaf at birth, Princess Alice became a fluent lip reader and supposedly could lip read in different languages.  Princess Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1903. They had five children together. During World War II, Princess Alice was instrumental in helping Jews escape Nazi occupied Greece. Most notably, she hid the Cohen family at her home during the war in German occupied Athens until liberation. Princess Alice devoted her life to charity work, and in 1949 founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns – the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. Toward the end of her life, Princess Alice moved to Buckingham Palace where she remained until her death in December 1969.  In 1993, Yad Vashem honored Princess Alice with the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for hiding the Cohen family during the war.   

To read more about Princess Alice’s amazing life, Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers is available as an eBook. 


Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003)  

Ederle competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris winning gold and bronze. She was the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel in 1926, earning the nickname “Queen of the Waves.” Ederle taught children to swim at the Lexington School for the Deaf and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965.  

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm, by Sue Macy is available from out Library’s catalog. 

To learn more about Gertrude Ederle, visit the American National BiographyInternational Swimming Hall of Fame, and Biography. 


Regina Olson Hughes (1895-1993) 

Fluent in four languages, Hughes worked as a translator for the U.S. State Department during World War I, and later as a botanical illustrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture retiring in 1969. Hughes later worked for the Botany Department at the Smithsonian as a freelance illustrator. In 1982, she was the first deaf artist to have a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.  

To learn more about Regina Olson Hughes, visit the Sonoran Desert Florilegium Program and Gallaudet University. 

Teresa de Cartagena (c. 1425) 

De Cartagena was a Spanish nun in the 15th century. She wrote an essay discussing how her deafness profoundly influenced her life detailing how it allowed her to meditate and become more aware of the world around her. Her critics disparaged her for being a woman to which De Cartagena wrote another essay that reflected her beliefs in a woman’s intelligence at a time when women were considered inferior to men. She is considered Spain’s first feminist writer. 

To learn more about Teresa de Cartagena, visit Gallaudet University. 

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw (1912-2014) 

Ollerenshaw was a British educator, mathematician, and politician. She dealt with her deafness by learning to lip read at a young age. Ollerenshaw taught at the Shirley Institute in Manchester and Manchester University. She was a member of the Manchester City Council for 25 years and was lord mayor for one year. She supported and promoted women’s education and served as an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.  

To learn more about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, visit MacTutor and The University of Manchester. 

Kate Harvey (1862-1946) 

Felicia Catherine Glanvill, known as Kate, was a British physiotherapist, suffragist, and charity worker. Widowed in 1905, Harvey set up a home for women and later disabled children. She practiced physical therapy at a time when women didn’t work in the medical field. Harvey was jailed for her refusing to pay taxes if she couldn’t vote. 

To learn more about Kate Harvey, visit University College London and Exploring Surrey’s Past.

Frances Woods (1907-2000) 

Esther Richina Thomas, who later took the stage name Frances Woods, was born in Girard, OH. Woods met her future husband, Billy Bray, when he was a dance teacher. He taught Woods to dance, and she taught him sign. After Woods graduated from the Ohio School for the Deaf in 1926, they started performing in clubs across the United States. They were nicknamed “The Wonder Dancers” and were featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museums. The couple retired to Youngstown, OH and opened up a dance studio.  

To learn more about Frances Woods, visit Gallaudet University and Deaf People. 

Nellie Zabel Willhite (1892-1991) 

Willhite was the first deaf woman to earn a pilot’s license and became South Dakota’s first female pilot. She participated in air shows, county fairs, and later worked as a commercial pilot. Willhite established the South Dakota chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. She was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1991. 

To learn more about Nellie Zabel Willhite, visit South Dakota Hall of Fame and Gallaudet University. 

Gertrude Scott Galloway (1930-2014) 

Born congenitally deaf, Galloway’s career was devoted to deaf education as a teacher, an administrator, and an advocate. Galloway became the first female president of National Association of the Deaf (NAD). While serving in this role, she worked to ensure every television broadcaster provided closed captioning of television programming. Galloway served on President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission of Education for the Deaf (COED). The commission’s report, Toward Equality-Education of the Deaf, provided recommendations on how to improve the quality of deaf education. 

To learn more about Gertrude Scott Galloway, visit Gallaudet University and National Association of the Deaf. 


Nikki is a youth services librarian in Canfield. She enjoys reading fairytale retellings, historical fiction, and mysteries. Nikki has an obsession with iced tea and the British Royal Family. Her favorite “child” is her Lab, Scout.