Over the years, history has seen countless incredible women. We're talking about the kind of inspirational, powerful heroes who shook up the world as we know it. From women's rights activists and pioneers of racial equality to inventors, scientists, and world leaders, there are plenty of women throughout history who did the damn thing. So even though we're still often faced with blatant discrimination on the basis of sex, real progress has been made. For inspiration that'll drive you to make your own mark on the world, find inspiration in just some of the many women who shifted our culture in meaningful ways.
(If you're searching for more inspiration from badass women, we've gathered a list of female Black History heroes that have gone unsung, and for movie lovers, a list of the best feminist movies of all time.)
Jane Austen (1775 –1817)
You can thank Jane Austen for basically creating those rom-com books you love to read. In her teenage years during the early 1810s, she started writing her most famous novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. She didn't even get credit for her novels until after her death when her brother Henry publicly announced she was the author. Even today, the themes of her works and literary devices still hold up.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace's genius was years before her time. As an English mathematician, she is credited with being the world's first computer programmer. Her notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine are known as the first description for computer software and her efforts. Nowadays, the second Tuesday in October is known as Ada Lovelace Day and celebrates women in STEM.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Florence Nightingale, a.k.a. Lady with the Lamp, was a British nurse who is credited as the founder of modern-day nursing. During the Crimean War, she tended to the wounded for hours on end, after during the night, which earned her her nickname. In 1860, she opened the first science-based nursing school in London.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Nellie Bly basically set the standard for investigative journalism. At a time when women writers were confined to the society pages, Bly tackled more serious topics like mental health, poverty, and corruption in politics. She's most famous for going undercover at the insane asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. Her exposé on the horrific conditions brought about much-needed changes to patient care. She also set the world record for circumnavigating the world. She completed the feat in just 72 days.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie did not leave science to the men. Instead, the Polish scientist's work led to the discover of two new elements, polonium and radium, and championed the use of radiation in medicine. She became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1903, then she won again in 1911 in Chemistry.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
Sanger, a feminist and women's rights activist, coined the term "birth control." She wrote pamphlets and opened a women's health clinic decades before her biggest achievement—getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, in 1960, six years before her death.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
When her husband FDR took office, Eleanor didn't just stand by—she dramatically changed the role of the first lady, advocating for human rights, women's rights, and children's causes. She went on to become chair of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission in 1945.
Amelia Earhart (1897- 1937)
In 1928, Earhart was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She was also the 16th woman to be issued a pilot's license. She mysteriously disappeared during a flight in 1937, and was pronounced legally dead two years later.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
In 1934, Hopper earned her Ph.D. in mathematics, becoming one of the very few women to hold such a degree. She went on to help "develop a compiler that was a precursor to the widely used COBOL language" for computers, and she became a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
A force in the art world, Kahlo became known in Mexico and around the world for creating thought-provoking works grounded in magical realism. Her 1938 self-portrait, titled "The Frame," was the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to ever be featured in the Louvre.
Lucille Ball (1911-1989)
The beloved sitcom I Love Lucy made its television debut in 1951. Ball became known as one of America’s top comedians for her iconic role on the show, which had storylines about marital issues and women in the workforce.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
The "Golden Age" actress was credited for helping to co-invent a radio signaling device, a.k.a a “Secret Communications System.” The system changed radio frequencies to confuse and hinder enemies during World War II, and it's a crucial part of how we communicate wirelessly today.
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)
In 1966, Gandhi became the third prime minister of India, and is one of few examples of women rising to power in the country. She continued in her role for more than 20 years until she was assassinated in 1984.
Katherine G. Johnson (1918-2020)
Johnson, a mathematician, was one of the brains behind the complex calculations that helped us fly into space. In 1969, she helped to successfully send the first man to the moon. Her work is highlighted in the film Hidden Figures, about the pioneering African American women at NASA.
Naomi Parker (1921-2018)
This photo of Parker bending over machinery with her hair pulled back in a red bandana was the inspiration behind behind "Rosie the Riveter." A version of Rosie was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 in a patriotic campaign to get women into the workforce, but the iconic photo was originally created as a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation with the now-popular phrase,”We Can Do It.”
Anne Frank (1929-1945)
Frank was a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp in 1945. Her father, Otto Frank, escaped and published his daughter's now-famous diaries in 1947, which chronicled her experiences during the Holocaust. Her writing has helped historians (and readers) better understand the time.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022)
After the death of her father King George VI, Elizabeth became Queen on February 6, 1952, but her official coronation wasn’t until June 2, 1953. She is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch to date, and she’s made numerous changes to the monarchy during her rule.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Back in the '50s, the rule in Montgomery, Alabama, was that if a bus became full, the seats at the front would be given to white passengers. Parks, a leader in the local NAACP and the civil rights movement, iconically refused to give up her seat. Her willingness to disobey the rule helped to spark the Montgomery boycott and other efforts to end segregation in America.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
She was already a widely-known American jazz singer when, in 1958, she made history, becoming the first African American woman to win a Grammy. She collected two that year: best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
We can thank British scientist Rosalind Franklin for much of what we know of DNA today. Using X-ray diffraction methods, she discovered DNA's density, and more importantly, its molecular structure. This gave way to James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery that DNA is shaped in a double helix. Her discovery changed how scientists view genetics and how genes are passed down in families.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
Friedan is best known for writing the book The Feminine Mystique, which encourages women to seek more opportunities for themselves outside traditional home-based roles. She went on to co-found and become president of the National Organization for Women.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
In 1968, Chisholm made history when she became the first Black woman to be elected into Congress. The Brooklyn-born activist and political leader later entered the 1975 Democratic presidential race—the first woman and the first Black American to do so.
Celia Cruz (1925-2003)
When she joined forces with the popular band Sonora Matancera in 1950, Cruz had no idea that she would become the voice of a nation; throughout the '60s, the "Queen of Salsa" became one of the most prolific musicians in Latin America. At the same time, Cruz championed the cause of her fellow Cubans during the regime of Fidel Castro, speaking out against the violence of his government.
Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
Maya Angelou was a poet, singer, and civil rights activist whose 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. During her life, she wrote over 36 books, including several collections of poetry, and recited one of her poems at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural ceremony.
Althea Gibson (1927-2003)
Serena Williams might be the most famous tennis player on earth, but she might not have gotten her start if not for the persistence of Althea Gibson. In 1951, Gibson made her historic debut as the first African American woman to play at Wimbledon.
Sandra Day O'Connor (1930-Present)
In 1981, O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. O'Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and the senate vote to appoint her was unanimous. She was a key swing vote in upholding big cases, like Roe v. Wade.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Writer and professor Toni Morrison shot into the national spotlight after the release of her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970. From then on, Morrison was committed to telling stories about Black lives through poetic and intimate prose, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon and the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988. After the third novel in the Beloved trilogy was published, she became the first Black woman to win the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Rita Moreno (1931-Present)
After starring in the 1961 film adaptation of The West Side Story, Moreno rocketed into superstardom, going on to work in Hollywood and on Broadway in numerous roles. Today, she is still the only Latino to earn the coveted EGOT (which means she's won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony).
Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)
The actress—formerly known for her scandalous love affairs—started the Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation in 1991 after her close friend, Rock Hudson, died from the disease. The foundation lends support to those who are sick, and funds research for more advanced treatments. Taylor was a pioneer at a time when many celebrities and most politicians were not talking about the AIDS crisis.
Miriam Makeba (1932-2008)
Nicknamed "Mama Africa," Makeba is renowned throughout South Africa and the rest of the continent for her endless activism. She used her global platform as a singer-songwriter to speak against apartheid in the '70s and '80s, calling attention to the plight of black South Africans through her music.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–2020)
As the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer for women's rights and gender equality. During her time serving in the highest court of the country, she made many landmark decisions, including 1996's United States v. Virginia, which held the Virginia Military Institute could not refuse to admit women.
Jane Goodall (1934-Present)
Goodall began studying chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania in 1960, and her extensive research (which has spanned almost 60 years) has provided some of the most groundbreaking insight into the minds and social lives of our closest relative, chimpanzees. The primatologist and anthropologist went on to found the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 as well as the Roots and Shoots program in 1991 as an effort to encourage wildlife conservation efforts.
Gloria Steinem (1934-Present)
Gloria Steinem may be one of the world's most outspoken activists in the women's liberation movement. Over the years, she's led marches, spoke at rallies, wrote several books, and helped to form both New York and Ms. magazines. Today, she's still a fierce defender of social justice and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts in 2013.
Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)
Albright became the first female secretary of state when, in 1996 President Clinton, selected her to represent the United States in foreign affairs. An advocate for human rights she fought to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons and broker peace in the Middle East.
Germaine Greer (1939-Present)
Greer was well-known for holding radical feminist views, and her book The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, was pivotal in post-second wave feminism literature. Her book explores how society imposes expected behaviors on women.
Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
Mountaineer Junko Tabei shattered gender norms in 1975 when she became the first woman to successfully climb Mount Everest. She strengthened her legacy by later becoming the first woman ever to reach the Seven Peaks (the highest points of the earth's seven continents) in 1992.
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Memphis-born and Detroit-raised, Franklin was destined to be a legend. She got her start singing gospel music but made her name in soul with songs like "Chain of Fools," "Rock Steady," and the iconic anthem "Respect." In 1987, she was the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Angela Davis (1944-Present)
Known for her progressive politics and work to abolish prisons, scholar and activist Angela Davis has been at the forefront of leftist causes–including the feminist movement, the Black Panther Party, and the anti-war effort–for over half-a-century. In 1970, the state of California prosecuted and wrongfully imprisoned Davis for three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder, after an armed standoff occurred in a Marin County courtroom. She was released over a year later, in 1972. Undaunted, she continues to advocate for civil rights, gender equity, and prison abolition.
Dolly Parton (1946-Present)
You may know Dolly Parton as the glamorous, quick-whited country singer, but she's also a huge philanthropist. In 1955, she created the Imagination Library, a program that gifts free books to kids under 5 to foster a love of reading at a young age. She's also donated $1 million toward the research behind Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine and another $1 million to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital in honor of her niece, who was treated for leukemia at that hospital.
Hillary Clinton (1947-Present)
After her tenure as First Lady, Hillary Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000. She went on to serve as Secretary of State under Barack Obama and, in 2016, became the first woman in U.S. history to be the presidential nominee of a major political party.
Meryl Streep (1949-Present)
Streep has now broken her own record for most Oscar nominations—21 to be exact. Her first nomination was for 1978's The Deer Hunter, but she didn't end up winning an Oscar until 1980 for her performance in Kramer vs. Kramer.
Kathryn Bigelow (1951-Present)
Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker, which also won Best Picture in 2009, making it the first film by a woman director to win that honor.
Sally Ride (1951-2012)
Ride became the first American woman to travel to space on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. The astrophysicist and Stanford-grad beat out at least 1,000 other applicants for a spot in the NASA astronaut program.
Amy Tan (1952-Present)
Tan was the author of the book The Joy Luck Club, which “explored the relationship between Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters.” It was the longest-running New York Times best-sellers in 1989. The novel has been translated into 25 different languages since it was first published.
Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)
Bhutto became the first woman prime minister of Pakistan in 1988. After a military coup overthrew her father's government, she inherited leadership of the Pakistan People's Party . She pushed for open elections, and won, just three months after giving birth.
Oprah Winfrey (1954-Present)
Winfrey started out as a Nashville reporter in the '70s before she was offered her own 30-minute talk show on a Chicago station. The Oprah Winfrey Show went national in 1986. By 2003 she'd earned the title of first female African American billionaire.
Sonia Sotomayer (1954-Present)
Justice Sotomayer was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 2009 by President Barack Obama, making her the first ever Hispanic woman to serve on the highest court in the land.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison (1956-Present)
Jemison was the first African American woman to be accepted into NASA’s astronaut program. She went on to become the first African American woman to fly into space in 1992 aboard the Endeavour.
Kamala Harris (1964-Present)
On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman and the first African American and South Asian person to become the Vice President of the United States. But she's pretty used to breaking glass ceilings–after her successful bid for California Attorney General, she once again became the first woman and person of color to hold the position.
J.K. Rowling (1965-Present)
Rowling is the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series. The first novel came out in 1997. By 1999, the first three installments of the series held the top three spots on the New York Times bestseller list.
Halle Berry (1966-Present)
After her tremendous performance as the tortured Leticia Musgraves in the 2002 drama Monster's Ball, Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She is the first (and only) African American woman to win the Oscar in the category.
Tammy Duckworth (1968-Present)
In 2017, Duckworth became the first Thai-American woman and the first female amputee to be elected to Congress. Just one year into her term, Duckworth fought for a resolution allowing infants into the chamber room, insuring that new parents in the Senate wouldn't have to miss out on any votes because of their newborns.
Sherly Swoopes (1971-Present)
Often referred to as the "female Michael Jordan," Swoopes is a certified basketball legend. As one of the first women to be signed into the WNBA, Swoopes paved the way for the greats that would follow her, but she made sure to set the bar high—throughout her career, Swoopes has won three Olympic gold medals, is a three-time WNBA MVP, and tops on every WNBA player list that has ever existed.
Laverne Cox (1972-Present)
In 2014, actress and activist Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category for her role in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. She took home a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Special Class special for her film Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word in 2015, making history as the first openly transgender woman to win the award. When she's not acting, she's advocating on behalf of transgender rights and equality.
Ava DuVernay (1972-Present)
DuVernay was the first female African American director to earn a Golden Globe nomination, and have a film nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, both for "Selma." She recently directed When They See Us, the story of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five.
Tegla Loroupe (1979-Present)
The Kenyan long-distance runner became the first African American woman to win the NYC Marathon in 1994. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Since Loroupe's victory, Kenyan women have won five of the intervening New York marathons and now own six world records in distance running." She has her own peace and humanitarian foundation called the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation.
Michelle Kwan (1980-Present)
In one of the most competitive eras of figure skating, Kwan's star shone brightly among the likes of Tara Lipinski and Sasha Cohen. From the time that she first took up skating at age 8 to her final run on the ice, Kwan has always been on top; to this day, she is the the most decorated figure skater in American history with two Olympic medals and five World championship titles.
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett (1986-Present)
Dr. Corbett is a research fellow and lead at the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She also just so happened to lead the team that successfully developed the Moderna vaccine. On December 18, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the shot, which has an astounding 94-95% efficacy against clinical disease and a nearly 100% efficacy against serious disease–so please remember to thank her after you get your jab!
Malala Yousafzai (1997-Present)
Yousafzai survived a gunshot wound to the face by the Taliban, and has since become a spokesperson for human rights, education, and women’s rights. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Simone Biles (1997-Present
Since stepping into the limelight at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the "Fab Five," Biles has been shattering gymnastics records day by day. In addition to being a six-time World All-Around Champion, she he already has two gymnastics skills named after her (the Biles on floor and the Biles on vault).
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Brooke Knappenberger is the Associate Commerce Editor at Marie Claire, where she writes across the board from fashion and beauty to books and celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, Brooke obsessively consumes and writes about the latest movie releases, streaming TV shows, and celebrity scandals. She has over three years of experience writing on fashion, beauty, and entertainment and her work has appeared on Looper, NickiSwift, The Sun US, and Vox Magazine of Columbia, Missouri. Brooke obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with an emphasis on Magazine Editing and has a minor in Textile and Apparel Management.
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