Being a woman in a contemporary world is an endless learning curve: learning about sisterhood and power, learning about society’s restrictions, learning the ways to bring on changes. Tracing the pathways of the ones who came before us is an integral part of it: unveiling the groundbreaking work of each forgotten female writer, leader or scientist feels like a step towards a more equal future.

History, after all, is an elusive business: it’s not just about who gets to change its course — but also who gets to tell the tale. The history we remember from school books often seemed like a man’s game, but London-based author Zing Tsjeng is set to change that.

Her book series Forgotten Women (The Leaders and The Scientists came out in March 2018, and The Writers and The Artists hit bookstores this September) sheds light on the achievements of women who revolutionized society and culture but are absent from history books. Zing’s quest is about bringing to light these heroines and role models, but it’s also bigger than that. It proves that for women shaping the future today it’s not only about looking ahead — sometimes it’s also about reclaiming the past.

Each of the four volumes of Forgotten Women has 48 names — the total number of women who have won the Nobel Prize for anything ever, which is fairly scarce considering it’s been going for over a century. The stories which made it into the four volumes are as extraordinary as they are wide-ranging: from Grace O’Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate queen; to Margaret Sanger, the maverick nurse who paved the way for the legalization of contraception; to Marie Vassiltchikov, who wrote a memoir of what it was like to live in Nazi Germany; to Camille Claudel, the sculptor who was always unfairly overshadowed by her lover, Rodin.

“My editor and I worked with Dr. Gina Luria Walker of the New Historia to come up with an initial spreadsheet of dozens of names before whittling them down”, Zing explains via email. “The most challenging thing – although I describe this more as an exquisite torture, really – was having to figure out who made the final cut. I could have filled an entire encyclopedia with everyone who was on all our initial lists!”

Zing might have put her heart and soul into selecting the 192 women, but she has also been passionate about female-focused stories long before the books. Currently working as a UK Editor of Broadly, the VICE channel focusing on women’s issues, she found her ideological ground through reading early-internet era feminist blogs and websites as a young woman. Recognized as one of the most prominent feminist voices among the millennials, she was approached by editor Romilly Morgan to develop the book series idea, and the rest is (literally) history.

“Writing the books involved a lot of reading and research”, Zing remembers. “It was almost like doing another degree – there was a lot of poring over academic sources and texts in the British Library! I like to joke that the Forgotten Women series is my degree in women’s history, except I never got a diploma for it!”

Coming to feminism from different strands in life, a lot of women today might share a sense of lack and repression in their view on human history: past as a plain which was never truly ours, an arduous journey through centuries and centuries of male-dominated politics and culture. Forgotten Women, however, is truly empowering because it proves that the world was at some point ours too and that there is truly no limit in female achievement.

“Working on ‘The Leaders’ made me realize that what we conventionally think of as female leadership is actually very narrow”, Zing says. “It’s not just about suffragettes and Sheryl Sandberg. There’s a whole lineage that women can draw from, but we tend to think of successful female leaders as people in business or mainstream politics. That’s just not the case. There are women who ruled entire kingdoms, changed laws, led battles and generally altered the course of human history.”  

Forgotten Women series is not only inspiring but has the potential to change how we envisage women’s role in society. The thought of how many copies are bought as gifts for all the daughters and sons, nieces, nephews and godchildren from the new generation is truly heart-warming. But the books could also be a manual for action and confidence in our politically dark times.

“When I started writing these books, the world looked like a burning trash dumpster (Trump, Brexit… where to start?). But writing these books made me feel very reassured about the state of the world”, Zing admits. “Women have always been able to do their thing despite the overwhelming odds stacked around them, and we’re arguably in a better state right now than say, a 12th-century woman who was forced into a nunnery because she didn’t want to marry.”

Zing’s four-volume project also exposes that today’s education system is way behind in acknowledging women, and there is a lot of work to be done to change that.

“Institutionally there needs to be a wholesale re-evaluation of what we teach children. We need to make sure that women are part of the curriculum in every subject – not just history. How many would-be female scientists were put off because they only ever learned about one female scientist in school?” she asks.

The change, however, is not only up to institutions — but in fact to every single one of us, and stories we choose to discover and celebrate.

“On an individual level, it’s easy to feel like you can’t make a personal difference – but you can. You can support museums that put on shows about women; you can visit art shows that feature women; you can watch historical movies and TV shows about women. Just think of how “Hidden Figures” became a box office smash because women – and specifically black women – shouted about it on social media, bought cinema tickets, even rented out movie theatres for screenings”, Zing explains. “Basically, I’m saying: buy the books, and then go out and buy all the women in the books’ books, buy tickets to their retrospectives, watch biopics and documentaries about them… Show that there’s a market out there for this kind of work and this kind of stories. In general, show up for women!”

Forgotten Women is published by Octopus Books.