20 Amazing Women Who Changed the World

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Nellie Bly
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Throughout history, countless women have left indelible marks on society, breaking barriers and setting new standards in various fields. Their courage, determination, and intellect have paved the way for future generations, challenging societal norms and advocating for equality. Here, we celebrate some of these remarkable women whose contributions have forever changed the world.

Marie Curie, 1867–1934

Marie Curie was a pioneer who introduced the world to radioactivity and used her discoveries to develop effective cancer treatments. Her achievements include being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the only person to win a Nobel in two different sciences. Curie’s work with her husband Pierre led to the discovery of radium and polonium, significantly advancing medical science. Despite facing discrimination and health challenges due to her exposure to radioactivity, Curie’s legacy endures through her groundbreaking work and the cancer research institute named in her honor.

Rosa Parks, 1913–2005

Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in 1955, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Her courage inspired a community to stand up against racial segregation, leading to significant legal and social changes in the United States. Parks’ quiet strength and unwavering resolve continue to inspire those fighting for justice and equality.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1858–1928

Emmeline Pankhurst was a formidable force in the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain. Founding the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, Pankhurst’s motto of “Deeds, not words” rallied thousands of women to demand their right to vote. Through her leadership and personal sacrifices, including multiple imprisonments, she became a symbol of the suffragette movement, significantly contributing to women eventually gaining the vote.

Theodora, Empress of Byzantium c497-548

Theodora, rising from humble beginnings to become the Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, was a woman ahead of her time. Her influence over Emperor Justinian I was profound, with her insights and intelligence helping to guide the empire through challenging times. Theodora was a champion of women’s rights, implementing laws to protect women, support ex-prostitutes, and combat sexual violence. This former actress-turned-empress was a formidable woman, deftly handling political affairs and ruling alongside her husband.

Émilie du Châtelet 1706-49

Émilie du Châtelet, a towering intellect of the French Enlightenment, shattered the barriers of her time with her groundbreaking work in physics and mathematics. Her translation and commentary on Isaac Newton’s works helped cement his theories in the scientific canon of Europe. 

Despite societal constraints and her mother’s disapproval, du Châtelet pursued her passion for science unabashedly, even resorting to disguising herself as a man to engage with her peers. Beyond her scientific endeavors, she embraced the joys of motherhood and social pleasures, illustrating her belief in living a fulfilled and balanced life.

Read more about Emile du Chatelet here.

Mary Wollstonecraft 1759–97

Mary Wollstonecraft was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, whose seminal work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” challenged the notion of female inferiority and championed education as the key to equality. Her ideas, considered radical at the time, laid the groundwork for modern feminism and inspired generations of women to fight for their rights and recognition. Despite facing criticism and societal backlash for her unconventional life, Wollstonecraft’s legacy as a trailblazer for gender equality endures.

Sacagawea 1788-1812

Sacagawea, a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, played a crucial role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, guiding the explorers across North America from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean. Her knowledge of the land, languages, and cultures proved invaluable, enabling the corps to navigate treacherous terrains and forge alliances with Indigenous peoples. Carrying her newborn son throughout the journey, Sacagawea embodied strength, resilience, and the spirit of exploration.

Mary Anning 1799-1847

Mary Anning, a self-taught paleontologist from Dorset, England, revolutionized the scientific understanding of prehistoric life through her discoveries of dinosaur fossils and other ancient creatures. Her keen eye for detail and relentless curiosity led to significant contributions to the field, despite the societal limitations placed on women at the time. Anning’s legacy challenges the stereotypes of scientific achievement and highlights the importance of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of knowledge.

Read more about Mary Anning here.

Mary Seacole 1805-81

Mary Seacole, a pioneering nurse with Jamaican-Scottish heritage, made her mark on history during the Crimean War by providing care to wounded soldiers using her knowledge of Caribbean herbal medicine. After being rejected by official channels due to her race, Seacole financed her own journey to the battlefield, where she established the “British Hotel” to offer solace and recovery for soldiers. Her contributions, long overlooked in favor of her contemporaries, have gained recognition, highlighting her as a symbol of compassion, resilience, and the fight against racial prejudice.

Ada Lovelace (1815-52)

Ada Lovelace, often celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer, broke societal norms of her era with her passion for mathematics and science. Her collaboration with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, marked a pivotal moment in computing history. Lovelace’s vision extended beyond Babbage’s calculations, foreseeing the potential for machines to perform complex tasks, including music composition. Her legacy lives on, affirming her pivotal role in the dawn of computing.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly was an American journalist renowned for her pioneering investigative work and her refusal to conform to the “feminine” writing of her time. Her undercover assignment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York for “Ten Days in a Mad-House” and her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days challenged societal norms and highlighted her fearless pursuit of truth. Bly’s contributions remain a testament to the power of courageous and determined journalism.

Marie Stopes 1880-1958

Marie Stopes, a Scottish advocate for birth control and sex education, gained notoriety with her books “Married Love” and “Wise Parenthood,” advocating for reproductive rights. She established Britain’s first birth control clinic, focusing on providing knowledge and services to the working class. The charity Marie Stopes International, named after her, continues her legacy, offering reproductive healthcare globally.

Rosalind Franklin 1920–58

Rosalind Franklin, a skilled crystallographer, played a crucial role in discovering DNA’s double helix structure through her famous “Photograph 51.” This pivotal image revealed the molecular structure that underpins heredity, paving the way for groundbreaking advancements in genetics, such as the human genome project and genetic engineering. Franklin’s work, though initially underrecognized, is now hailed as foundational in understanding the blueprint of life.

Margaret Thatcher 1925–2013

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, steered the country through periods of political and economic turmoil, including the 1982 Falklands War and Northern Ireland’s conflict. Known as “The Iron Lady,” Thatcher’s tenure was marked by decisive leadership and significant policy shifts that have left a lasting impact on Britain’s political landscape. Her legacy as a trailblazer in politics continues to provoke discussion and analysis.

Angela Burdett-Coutts 1814–1906

Angela Burdett-Coutts stands out in history as the first woman bestowed a peerage, elevated to baroness by Queen Victoria for her outstanding philanthropic efforts. Despite being barred from working at Coutts Bank, which she inherited, she also inherited a fortune and used it to enact social change alongside Charles Dickens. Burdett-Coutts was instrumental in social housing, constructing homes for the impoverished and spearheading the redevelopment of East London, showcasing her commitment to societal improvement.

Alice Milliat 1884-1957

Alice Milliat, a French rower and fervent advocate for women’s sports, fundamentally changed the landscape of women’s athletics. By organizing the first Women’s World Games and lobbying for the inclusion of women’s events in the Olympics by 1928, Milliat catalyzed a global conversation on women’s sports representation that resonates to this day.

Beulah Louise Henry 1887-1973

Beulah Louise Henry, dubbed “Lady Edison” for her inventive prowess, held over 100 patents for her creations, which ranged from the vacuum ice cream freezer to a bobbin-free sewing machine. Founding companies and consulting for others, Henry’s innovations simplified everyday tasks, marking her indelible impact on technology and entrepreneurship. Her legacy was cemented with her induction into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2006.

Gabriela Mistral 1889-1957

Gabriela Mistral, a trailblazing Chilean poet and educator, laid the groundwork for significant reforms in Chile’s education system before gaining international acclaim as a poet-diplomat. Her heartfelt poetry, which delved into themes of love, motherhood, and Latin American identity, earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first Latin American laureate in this category.

Bessie Coleman 1892-1926

Bessie Coleman shattered barriers in aviation as the first African-American and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license. After facing racial and gender discrimination in the United States, Coleman trained in France. Though she never realized her dream of opening a flight school due to her untimely death, her legacy as a pioneering aviator and inspiration to women of color in aviation endures.

Frida Kahlo 1907-54

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist renowned for her vivid depictions that traverse gender, class, and identity within Mexican society, emerged as an influential figure in art and culture. Initially overlooked, Kahlo’s art gained posthumous recognition, cementing her status as a pioneering artist and icon for the Chicano, LGBT, and feminist movements. Her unique persona and profound artwork continue to inspire and resonate worldwide.

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