Six Amazing Unknown Women Who Made Their Famous Men Even More Famous

Humankind as a whole tends to look back on the accomplishments and events of history and attribute them to individuals, specifically men. When we think of World War II, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler are the shorthand way to tell the whole complicated story. This tendency was popularized by the 19th-century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who dubbed it the "Great Man Theory”—history is the doings of “great men” whose extraordinary talents, intelligence and popularity forged the events of their time. The people behind the “great men” are often ignored, and these people are in many cases women

Here are six women who helped, inspired, cajoled, nursed, and otherwise made their great men even greater.

1. Olympias, the woman behind Alexander the Great. There is little doubt that Alexander the Great was the very definition of a great man. Not many people can claim to have ruled the known world. Alexander could. His kingdom spanned from Greece to North Africa through Asia to India. Alexander had one person, however, he answered to: Mom. Olympias was a force to be reckoned with. A snake worshipper, it is said she slept with serpents. She claimed Alexander’s father was Zeus himself, who had his way with her under an oak tree.

She was married to a man named Phillip, who decided to take a new wife. This didn’t sit well with Olympias. Phillip was conveniently assassinated, the murderer rewarded by Olympias, and his new wife was made to hang herself. The two children she had with Phillip were then killed to assure that Alexander had no inconvenient rivals to the throne. Though unknown, we could reasonably assume that Olympias was the catalyst behind these events.

While Alexander was off conquering the world, he left behind a regent named Antipater to take care of things in the kingdom. The real power, however, was Olympias, who did as she pleased, contradicted Antipater’s orders when she wished, and was more or less the most powerful woman in the world. This was apparently fine with Alexander, who ignored Antipater’s complaints. After her son died, Olympias waged war to gain her grandson the throne. Though unsuccessful, she made her mark. Antipater, as he was dying, warned the Macedonians never to let a woman rule.

2. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the woman behind Woodrow Wilson. Though perhaps not in the same league as Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or FDR, Woodrow Wilson stands tall among presidents of the United States. Helping lead the allies to victory in World War I, fighting hard though unsuccessfully for the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations), granting women to right to vote, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize are among his impressive accomplishments as president.

Unknown to many was the fact that Wilson suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1919, leaving him partially paralyzed, bedridden and incapable of performing his duties as president. Edith, who had only been married to Woodrow for four years, following a whirlwind White House romance in 1915, declined to have Wilson resign or hand over his powers to the vice-president. Instead, she became the de facto secret president of the United States. During the next six weeks, as Wilson slowly recovered enough strength to limp (literally) through the remaining year of his presidency, Edith Wilson screened all matters that crossed the President’s desk and decided which matters were important enough to bring to Wilson’s attention in bed. One senator referred to her as, "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man."

3. Mary Moody Emerson, the woman behind Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of America’s preeminent writers and philosophers. He led the 19-century transcendentalist movement, which placed the goodness of humans and nature at the center of existence, and looked at organized religions and political parties as impediments to that goodness. Emerson’s father died when Ralph was almost eight years old, and he and his four brothers were raised by his mother, and to a greater extent, his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.

Mary encouraged Ralph to read poetry, embrace the beauty of nature, and “scorn trifles, lift your aims: do what you are afraid to do.” She, “danced to the music of [her] own imagination,” and passed that on to her nephew. It was Mary who impressed Ralph with the value of a daily journal, and she herself wrote thousands of letters and journal musings in her lifetime. Emerson was the recipient of many of those letters, and he borrowed many of her ideas and thoughts for his own writings. He referred to his aunt's writing as, “inimitable, unattainable by talent, as if caught from some dream.” Emerson biographer Robert Richardson wrote that, by Mary’s "presence and example, [Emerson] was pushed onward by her undrownable spirit, which was perpetually reaching farther up the beach than the last wave of language had taken it.”

4. Alma Reville, the woman behind Alfred Hitchcock. PsychoNorth by NorthwestDial M for Murder, VertigoRear Window, and on and on: Alfred Hitchcock was one of a kind and his name and face are familiar to film buffs even now, 34 years after his death in 1980. A bit lesser known is the name Alma Reville. Alma was Hitchcock’s wife, whom he met in 1921 and who rarely left his side in the ensuing five decades. Reville was a film editor who worked with Hitch on his first directorial film, The Pleasure Garden, and a partnership was born. She became Hitchcock’s advisor, confidant, editor, script rewriter, and on occasion, location scout. It was Reville who talked Hitchcock into including the iconic soundtrack of the Psycho shower scene.

To Hitchcock’s credit, he never denied credit to his wife. In accepting the American Film Institute lifetime achievement award a year before his death, he gave a moving tribute: “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville. Had the beautiful Miss Reville not accepted a lifetime contract—without options—as Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock some 53 years ago, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock might be in this room tonight, not at this table but as one of the slower waiters on the floor. I share this award, as I have my life, with her.”

5. Anna Dostoyevskaya, the woman behind Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Anna Dostoyevskaya was a mere 19 years old when she went to work for 45-year-old Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The Russian author was apparently smitten at first sight, and in short time asked her to become his second wife. Anna was unimpressed. “Nothing can convey the pitiful appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich when I met him for the first time. He seemed confused, anxious, helpless, lonely, irritable, and almost ill.”

Having graduated high school with honors and trained as a stenographer, she preferred life as a single woman and turned him down. Fyodor persisted and eventually they married. Throughout their marriage, Anna was the clear-headed and practical one. Dostoyevsky was a gambler who drove the family into debt. It was Anna who rescued them. She immersed herself in the study of the book industry, from design to distribution and everything in between. She then turned Dostoyevsky into the first self-published author in Russia. Thanks in large part to Anna, he overcame his gambling addiction, became a national brand and recovered his fortune. Anna is considered by many today to be Russia’s first female publisher and businesswoman.

6. Vera Nabokov, the woman behind Vladimir Nabokov. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." These are the famous opening lines of one of literature’s greatest novels, Lolita, written by Vladimir Nabokov. But the name Vera could have been substituted for Lolita and would have perfectly described the passionate love between Vladimir and his wife. Lauren Acompora recounts in the Paris Review, “Their first meeting in 1923 was the stuff of legend: She wore a black satin mask on a bridge in Berlin and recited his own poetry to him. From that moment, the young writer Vladimir Nabokov felt that Vera Slonim was destined to share his life. In one of the passionate letters of their courtship, he wrote, “It’s as if in your soul there is a preprepared spot for every one of my thoughts.” 

They shared their lives for the next 54 years. Fiercely devoted to Vladimir, Vera was rumored to carry a handgun to protect him. She was her husband’s secretary, teacher, agent, translator, critic, editor and muse. Some believe many of Nabokov’s writings were written by Vera herself. Even if she was not the real author, she did save his greatest work for posterity. In the throes of despair, when the book’s themes were met with shock and disdain and limited success, she many times talked him out of burning Lolita. Vladimir acknowledged his love and gratitude to Vera with every novel he ever wrote. Each one bore the dedication, “To Vera.”


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