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We’re willing to bet your high school English classes featured lots of novels by male writers, from Twain to Dickens to Hemingway. But their craft may not even have existed if it hadn’t been for Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese woman widely considered to be the world’s first novelist. Shikibu was a noblewoman living in Japan around the year 1000 AD. She wrote a two-part novel called The Tale of Genji, which tells a riches-to-rags story about the son of a Japanese emperor forced to live life as a commoner. In addition to The Tale of Genji, widely considered to be a masterpiece of Japanese literature, Shikibu also wrote a book of poetry. A statue in Kyoto, Japan, commemorates this pioneering writer. Check out these other incredible female firsts, from Ancient Egypt to the 21st century.
Maria Sibylla Merian
Today, children as young as preschool can happily explain how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But there was a time when no one knew this—not even scientists. Until the 1670s, scientists thought that caterpillars and butterflies were two totally distinct creatures. Thanks to Maria Sibylla Merian, we know the truth about these beautiful winged insects. Born in Germany in 1647, Merian was fascinated by insects, and she began collecting, studying, and drawing them when she was as young as 13. She was one of the few naturalists of her time to actually study and sketch live insects. It was through her study of caterpillars that she discovered the truth about their life cycles, and she went on to publish two volumes of naturalist research about the life cycles of insects. Her work provided major contributions to the field of entomology.