Throughout the generations, history has borne witness to some of the most intelligent and inspirational women on Earth. With International Women’s Day fast approaching on March 8, we’ve compiled a list of famous women in history that have shaped the world as we know it today.
Our list is by no means exhaustive, but it is also proof that women have left lasting marks in every possible field, particularly in politics, literature, sports, and science. Some, like Malala Yousafzai, were thrust into greatness at a young age, whereas others, like Marie Curie and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, let their life’s work speak on their behalf. After all, when Beyoncé claimed that it was girls who run the world, we reckon she was completely right. Read on below to find your next favorite female role model.
Twelve decades of famous women in history:
1. Marie Curie, 1910s
Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Her father taught her science at an early age, which she pursued through a Physics and Mathematical Sciences degree at Sorbonne in Paris. Her early research work with her husband led to the isolation of polonium and radium, radioactive compounds that played heavily in the atrocities of World War I.
Her discoveries ultimately contributed to the creation of the first mobile X-ray units, which were used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront, as well as treatments for cancer. She and her husband together received the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics in recognition of their discovery of radioactivity. She went on to win the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her continued study of radioactivity and the isolation of pure radium.
This made her the first woman to ever receive the Nobel Prize, and still the sole woman to have won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields.
2. Edith Cavell, 1920s
Edith Cavell was a British nurse, who worked in German-occupied Belgium during World War I. She gained recognition for treating injured soldiers in her hospital and then arranging to smuggle them across the border into the neutral Netherlands. Over the course of a year, she contributed to a network of people that helped bring over 200 soldiers into safer territory.
Cavell is also credited for establishing the first formal nursing school in Belgium. Inspired by Florence Nightingale, who is considered the founder of modern nursing, Cavell worked to educate and train professional nurses during a time when nuns provided the majority of primary care.
3. Frida Kahlo, 1930s
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist, who is best known for her brilliantly colored self-portraits. As a child, she suffered from an early bout of polio, which left her with a slight limp. Years later, a bus accident confined her to a wheelchair, from where she painted most of her work. Identity, ancestry, and the human body play heavily into her pieces. Her self-portrait, The Frame (1938), represents the first work by a 21st-century Mexican artist to be acquired by the Louvre.
While Kahlo was lauded as a successful artist during her lifetime, her reputation grew even after death. The Frida Kahlo Museum in La Casa Azul was opened to the public in 1958. Her life has since inspired several books, works of art, and movies.
4. Hedy Lamarr, 1940s
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born American film actress. Her role in the controversial film, Ecstasy, brought her to Hollywood, where she met pilot Howard Hughes. The attraction between them was instantaneous, and Lamarr was equally interested in the man as in his profession. In between sets, she read books on aviation.
She eventually designed a new, more aerodynamic wing shape for Hughes’ planes. Ten years later, she was introduced to George Antheil, a composer, and musician, at a party. Their work together formed the backbone of a new communications system that helped guide torpedoes during World War II. The same technology has contributed to the development of Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
5. Althea Gibson, 1950s
Serena and Venus Williams have Althea Gibson to thank for paving the way. Gibson was the first African-American woman to compete at the US National Tennis Championships. During this debut, she defeated the reigning champion, Barbara Knapp, 6-2, in the first round. Gibson was also the first African-American woman to play at Wimbledon.
6. Margaret Sanger, 1960s
Margaret Sanger was a feminist and women’s rights activist during a time when talking about women’s healthcare was taboo. She was a firm believer that family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty. Disguised as a visiting nurse, she visited the homes of poor immigrants to distribute pamphlets and educate women on the virtues of family planning.
In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It was Sanger’s work that led the Food and Drug Administration to approve the oral contraceptive pill 40 years later.
7. Junko Tabei, 1970s
Junko Tabei was a Japanese mountaineer, who led a 15-women team to become the first females to scale Mount Everest, a 29,029-foot ascent. In her lifetime, she also succeeded in becoming the first woman to mount the Seven Summits, a group of mountains that comprise the highest points on all seven continents.
She climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, Elbrus in Russia, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia between 1980 and 1992.
8. Amy Tan, 1980s
Amy Tan is an American author born to Chinese immigrants. She was already a successful business writer when she decided to visit China for the first time. On this trip, she met two of her half-sisters, which inspired her first novel, The Joy Luck Club. The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four Chinese mothers, their Chinese-American daughters, and the struggles of living between two cultures.
The book became the longest-running bestseller in the New York Times in 1989. It has since been translated into 25 languages and turned into a well-acclaimed movie.
9. Madeleine Albright, 1990s
Madeleine Albright was the first female secretary of state in the United States. The American-born daughter of a Czech diplomat, Albright entered the political field early, initially as the US ambassador to the United Nations. In 1996, President Clinton nominated her as the US secretary of state. She was unanimously confirmed to the position in 1997, which made her the first woman to hold the honor.
Over the next four years, she represented the United States in foreign affairs, particularly fighting against the expansion of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. She was a key player in the peace accords during this time and was a forceful champion of democracy and human rights. She continues her work today through the Albright Stoneridge Group, which provides “local geopolitical and operational insights” for government and private entities.
10. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2000s
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is arguably the voice of the feminist movement in the 21st century. She studied law when it was a male-dominated field as one of nine women in a 500-person class in Harvard. While she eventually received her degree from Columbia Law (she moved from Massachusetts to New York because her husband was offered a position in a law firm in the latter), her exemplary work in Harvard led to an invite to the Harvard Law Review, where she became its first female member. She continued to advocate for women’s rights throughout her career and particularly fought against gender discrimination in the workplace.
Ginsburg was appointed to the US supreme court in 1993, which made her the second woman (and first-ever woman of Jewish descent) to ever hold the position. She is famously responsible for the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on United States v. Virginia, which held that the Virginia Military Institute could not refuse to admit women into its ranks.Her death from metastatic pancreatic cancer in 2020 was mourned worldwide.
11. Malala Yousafzai, 2010s
Malala Yousafzai was born in a small village in Pakistan. When she was 11-years old, the Taliban took control of her school and banned girls from attending class. Yousafzai loved learning. Instead of bowing her head, she spoke publicly on behalf of all girls and their right to learn. One year later, a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus and shot her in the head. She woke up in a hospital in England 10 days later. Since her ordeal, Yousafzai has used her voice for continued good. In 2014 (she was 17 at this time), Yousafzai established the
Malala Fund, a charity dedicated to providing all girls of 12 years of free, safe, and quality education. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December of the same year, which made her the youngest-ever person awarded with the distinction.
12. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, 2020s
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett was the lead of the Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Her research at NIH formed the backbone of the Moderna vaccine, which was approved for emergency use against COVID-19. The vaccine is 94–95% effective against clinical disease and is almost 100% effective at preventing severe disease. Even as a student, Corbett showed a strong love for science. While in high school, she was accepted into Project SEED, a paid summer internship program for economically disadvantaged students, which allowed her to work at the NIH. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, after which she returned to NIH as a postdoctoral fellow.
An African American, Dr. Corbett has been quoted as saying that she “felt like it was necessary to be seen”, so that young scientists and people of color could see that they can make a difference.
The current times are undoubtedly difficult, but it also represents an opportunity for an unparalleled future. This list of famous women in history proves that women have changed the world for the better and can (and will) continue to do so. Whether you’re sheltering in isolation, taking care of your loved ones, or back in the office and serving on the frontlines, trust that the work you do is contributing to a greater good.
Use this season to find and work on your passions. Take up space in your homes. Speak out in your communities. Invest in your goals. Protect and champion other women, as well as advocates of women. You never know, the 13th woman on this list could just as well be you one day.
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