Seeing that history polls can often be male-dominated, giving women a list of their own highlights those who usually get left off or forgotten. In some ways, the category is an odd one – changing the world does not require intention, benevolence or even existence (as some of the more legendary additions to this list demonstrate). What does it mean to ‘change the world’ and how do we measure it? The majority of the women in the top 20 made their marks in the last 300 years. It is more difficult to recover the influence of women the further back in history one goes, as it was often necessarily informal and unrecorded. The more successful the influence, the less it appears in our sources. Perhaps to recover more of women’s presence in history, it would be helpful to distance ourselves from the ‘great (wo)man’ view of history. Nevertheless, if one is looking for a list of inspirational and significant women, this is a good place to start.
Joanne Paul is lecturer in history at the University of Sussex. Her books include Thomas More (Polity, 2016).
Haven’t seen the results of the poll? Click here to see who was voted top in 100 Women who Changed the World
Although the list is very timely given that 2018 is the centenary of the first British women achieving the vote, it is still quite frustrating that more than half the names making up the top 20 in a poll of ‘Women Who Changed the World’ are British. In 14th place is Boudicca who took on the Romans in Britain, while Cleopatra, who not only kept the Romans at bay for 20 years but made a huge impact on the ancient world, doesn’t even make the top 20. But at least she is there, as is fellow Egyptian-born Hypatia, in at number 36, no doubt helped by actor Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of her life in the 2009 film Agora. It is good, too, to see the Prophet Muhammad’s military-minded wife Aisha making number 91, although curiously there is no sign of Shajar al-Durr, only the second Muslim woman in history to rule as monarch and whose forces defeated the seventh crusade in 1250. So roll on Shajar al-Durr the movie!Professor
Joann Fletcher, University of York. Joann’s most recent book is The Story of Egypt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015).
Education is the only way to change the past. It is the only way to combat a reliance on figures whose names we remember but whose actions we forget. As the list shows, for women, it is often only leaders who have been memorialised. But these leaders are often idolised for what they represent, extraordinary women seeking empowerment when ordinary women had none. Our history reflects those who got into power, lacking diversity on every level. The sanitisation of past heroines has presented a bland, uniformed ideal of women who are perfect and unflawed. But we need to understand our history in its totality, in the mistakes, the difficulties and the conflicts women have fought to be recognised as equal.
Fern Riddell is the author of Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion: Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018).
Despite a global list of 100 women, the top 20 is dominated by white western women. Besides Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole, there are no other black or Asian women. While the role of women in history is finally being acknowledged, there is some way to go before this is truly inclusive. While all are worthy, it is a little disappointing that so many of the other often overlooked women who were nominated didn’t make the top 20. Overall, this points to the more general persistence of a popular perception of the history of the world as being that of the western world. The challenge remains for historians to make the unfamiliar accessible and compelling.
Anna Whitelock is a historian and broadcaster. Her books include Elizabeth’s Bedfellows (Bloomsbury, 2013).
This is a fascinating list, full of strong characters and exciting women. It is great to see Rosa Parks in second place – yes, she may be well-known, but the race equality she was fighting for still has some way to go. Yes, there are some women who you might expect here – Nightingale, Pankhurst, Victoria, Joan of Arc. But there are many here who are not as widely known and deserve the spotlight – the African-American aviator, Bessie Coleman, the artist Artemesia Gentileschi, and Emily Hobhouse, who investigated and campaigned about Boer war concentration camps. What surprised me most is, no Elizabeth I? The woman often hailed as our most successful monarch doesn’t even get a look in!
Kate Williams is an author, historian and presenter. Her most recent book is the third in her De Witt Family historical fiction trilogy, The House of Shadows (Orion, 2018).
Guy de la Bédoyère
In 1979 Germaine Greer, one of our great contemporary original minds, castigated “(male) classic references” to women’s artistic work for suggesting that “any work by a woman, however trifling, is as astonishing as the pearl in the head of the toad”. She added that by their not seeing women’s achievements as part of the natural order they had no need to relate them to it. Her comments cut to the heart of this poll where, in some cases, mythologised reputations, fame or privilege seem to have been confused with achievement. Where is Harriet Beecher Stowe for instance? At what point do historians stop being amazed at a woman’s achievements because of her sex? When do we start celebrating her achievements simply for what those achievements were and their contribution to the canon of all human – male and female – accomplishments that have transformed the way we live?
Guy de la Bédoyère is the author of Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, published by Yale this month.
This is an inspiring list, but it may be a stretch to suggest that it’s about women who changed the world – most of these are women whose greatest influence has been in the western world. In the first half of the 20th century, there was probably one woman above all others who presented the ‘east’ to the ‘west’ – Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling), wife of China’s leader, who spoke fluent English and was the first Chinese person and only the second ever woman to speak to a joint session of the US Congress. What about medieval ruler Wu Zetian? The only woman ever to serve as China’s emperor in her own right, she used targeted murders at court and good judgment on political economy over an empire of 50 million people to show women could rule as effectively as men.
Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford.
This year, the centenary of 8.4 million women getting the vote, has been a tipping point for a wider and deeper understanding of women who changed the world, something that is reflected in this poll. It is also wonderful to see the brilliant scientist Rosalind Franklin finally receiving recognition for her work. She died in 1958, aged 37, having received no acknowledgement for her role in the discovery of the double helix of DNA. Her research, which was allegedly shown to James Watson and Francis Crick without her knowledge or permission, enabled them to formulate a new model which demonstrated the double helix, thus guaranteeing them a place in history.
Diane Atkinson is the author of Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury, 2018).
What, no Elizabeth I? Admittedly, there has been a drive to focus on subjects other than the Tudors in recent times, but in a survey of the 100 women who changed the world, the Virgin Queen surely deserves to be in the top 20 at least. She ruled for longer and more successfully than any of her fellow Tudor monarchs. Her reign witnessed the flowering of literature and the arts – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Sidney, to name but a few – overseas expansion, the Armada, the consolidation of religion after the turmoil of the Reformation, and, above all, the zenith of female power. In the year that we celebrate the centenary of votes for women, it is only fitting that the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst should enjoy their moment in the sun. I was also pleased to see Queen Victoria at number 17, but to ignore the woman who paved the way for their success is surely unjust!
Tracy Borman is joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. Her new biography of Henry VIII will be published in November.
This is a terrific and varied list, with scientists, authors and warriors jostling with those who fought for social justice, equality and fairness.
It also speaks about how small our world is. It’s surprising not to find Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, on the list, given her importance to Shi’a and Sunni interpretations of Islam. No space too for powerful Chinese empresses such as Lü Zhi or Wu Zetian. This also points to how western-centric our world is. Then again, I am flabbergasted not to find Queen Elizabeth I nominated. I would certainly have voted for her.
Peter Frankopan, is professor of global history at the University of Oxford.
A Polish-French scientist closely followed by an African-American activist are at the top of this list. Marie Skłodowska Curie and Rosa Parks were worlds apart as far as class and race were concerned. However, these two women’s stories bear an interesting resemblance.
Education changed their trajectories as 20th-century women in societies dominated by men. They both fought against prejudice and successfully carved out their places as committed educators. The poll also shows that the top 10 women on the list were brave and kind. They all contributed to the rise of other women around them and inspired generations of young girls. Overall, this year’s list reveals Britain’s desire to recognise the achievements of a few women of colour. Finally, in this era where the dangers of climate change and environmental disasters have been widely recognised, one would have expected to see outstanding Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai make it into the top 10.
Olivette Otele is reader in history at Bath Spa University, specialising in the British and French empires and their legacies.
Marie Curie getting straight to the top of this fantastically diverse list shows just how important it is today to recognise the contribution of women in the field of science. Fittingly, Rosa Parks is second. She fought with dignity and determination for human rights just as Emmeline Pankhurst did for women’s rights. Between them, the top three women are the bedrock of our modern society. Marie Stopes allowed women for the first time to take control of their own bodies, another giant step. Queen Victoria may not have been a feminist, but she defined an age, produced nine children and lived by her own rules in what was a man’s world. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi may have been dictatorial, but they left their mark on history. Jane Austen’s novels will always be loved and read, and Frida Kahlo will inspire feminists for years to come. It was heartwarming to see Indian poet Amrita Pritam get in at number 100, although I wish the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, India’s own Frida Kahlo, and Benazir Bhutto, first female prime minister of Pakistan, had also made the list.
Shrabani Basu is a journalist and historian. Her most recent book is For King and Another Country (Bloomsbury India, 2015).