Welcome to the results of this year’s BBC History Magazine poll, which features 100 inspirational women from history. We asked experts in 10 different fields of human endeavour to nominate 10 women they believe had the biggest impact on world history. We then gave you, our readers the opportunity to vote for your favourite figures from that list. The results – presented here – may well provoke debate…
Marie Curie, 1867–1934
Marie Skłodowska Curie changed the world not once but twice. She founded the new science of radioactivity – even the word was invented by her – and her discoveries launched effective cures for cancer.
“Curie boasts an extraordinary array of achievements,” says Patricia Fara, president of the British Society for the History of Science, who nominated the Polish-born French scientist. “She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person – note the use of person there, not woman – to win a second Nobel Prize.”
Born in Warsaw, Curie studied physics at university in Paris where she met her future research collaborator and husband, Pierre. Together they identified two new elements: radium and polonium, named after her native Poland. After he died, she raised a small fortune in the US and Europe to fund laboratories and to develop cancer treatments.
Marie Curie was a woman of action as well as enormous intellect. During the First World War, she helped to equip ambulances with x-ray equipment, and often drove them to the front line herself.
“The odds were always stacked against her,” says Fara. “In Poland her patriotic family suffered under a Russian regime. In France she was regarded with suspicion as a foreigner – and of course, wherever she went, she was discriminated against as a woman.”
Despite becoming ill from the radioactive materials she constantly handled, Curie never lost her determination to excel in the scientific career that she loved. Her memory is preserved by the cancer society that bears her name and continues to help terminally ill patients all over the world.
The rankings, inclusions and exclusions have provided plenty of food for thought. We asked a selection of historians to share their opinions on the composition of the final list. To read more,click here
In 1903, the social reformer Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain, ‘Deeds, not words’ being its motto. A charismatic leader and powerful orator, Pankhurst roused thousands of women to demand, rather than ask politely, for their democratic right in a mass movement that has been unparalleled in British history. Always in the thick of the struggle, she endured 13 imprisonments, her name and cause becoming known throughout the world.
When the double helix structure of DNA was discovered, scientists claimed that they had unravelled the secret of life itself. The crucial piece of evidence was provided by the expert crystallographer Rosalind Franklin – the famous photograph 51, an X-ray picture showing a dark cross of dots, the signature image of a concealed molecular spiral. The life-changing innovations that followed – mapping the human genome, test-tube babies, genetic engineering – all depend on understanding the chemical foundations of heredity.
Margaret Thatcher, 1925–2013
Britain’s first female prime minister came to power at an unsettled time in the country’s history, as it faced political disharmony and economic recession. Further trials, including the 1982 Falklands War and the conflict in Northern Ireland, helped to define her influential career.
The first woman to have been made a peer, Burdett-Coutts was made a baroness by Queen Victoria for her work on behalf of the poor. Prevented from working at Coutts Bank despite inheriting her grandfather Thomas Coutts’ shares and fortune, Burdett-Couttsinstead devoted her time – working with a Coutts client Charles Dickens – to philanthropy. She was a pioneer in social housing, building homes for the poor, and financed numerous projects, including the redevelopment of East London.
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759–97
An English writer and philosopher Wollstonecraft championed education and liberation for women. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1792 and is seen as one of the foundational texts of modern feminism. Written against the backdrop of the French Revolution, it argued for the equality of women to men.
Florence Nightingale, 1820–1910
Florence Nightingale led the first official team of British military nurses to Turkey during the Crimean War, fought between Britain and Russia (1853-56). More soldiers died from disease than wounds in this conflict and Nightingale – as well as tending the sick – reported back to the army medical services on how to reduce avoidable deaths. Nicknamed ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ for the night rounds she made tending to the wounded and sick, Nightingale continued in her work after the war and was instrumental in establishing a permanent military nursing service and implementing improvements to the army medical services.
Marie Stopes, advocate of birth control and sex educator, was born in Edinburgh but studied for a science degree at University College, London. In 1918, she published the highly popular Married Love, a second book titled Wise Parenthood – which dealt explicitly with contraception – appearing shortly after. A controversial figure, especially for her views on eugenics, Stopes nonetheless was a key figure in publicising her cause (a first birth control clinic was set up in a poor working-class area of north London in 1921) and in bringing to women worldwide the opportunity of planned pregnancies.
Eleanor of Aquitaine , 1122–1204
One of the wealthiest women of the Middle Ages – and one of its most eligible brides – Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII of France and then, following their divorce, the future Henry II of England. As such, she occupies a singularly important position in the medieval histories of both countries.
The mother of Jesus, Mary is venerated by both Christians and Muslims, and is proably the most famous woman in history. The actual details of her life are veiled as much as they are elucidated by the New Testament.
Jane Austen , 1775–1817
One of the most famous figures in British history, Austen’s novels have gone on to become literary sensations. Often lacing plots exploring marriage, status and social sensibility with a distinctive irony, her works have been adapted many times in plays, films and TV series.
Queen of the Iceni tribe during the Roman occupation of Britain. In either 60 or 61 AD Boudicca united different tribes in a Celtic revolt against Roman rule. Leading an army of around 100,000 she succeeded in driving the Romans out of modern-day Colchester (then capital of Roman Britain), London and Verulamium (St Albans). Her success led Roman emperor Nero to consider withdrawing from Britain entirely, until the Roman governor, Paullinus finally defeated her in a battle in the West Midlands. Shortly afterwards Boudicca died, probably either by suicide or through illness.
In 1981, Diana Spencer became the first wife of the heir apparent to the British throne, Charles, Prince of Wales. Their wedding reached a global television audience of more than 700m people and she continued to attract much media attention, even after her divorce in 1996. She became well known internationally for her charity work for sick children, the banning of landmines and for raising awareness about those affected by cancer, HIV/AIDS and mental illness.
Earhart took up aviation in 1921, aged 24, and went on to break the women’s altitude record the following year when she rose to 14,000 feet. In 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and over the next five years continued to break speed and flying records. In June 1937 she began a flight around the world, becoming the first person to fly from the Red Sea to India – she was reported missing on 2 July near Howland Island in the Pacific. Earhart’s disappearance is one of history’s unsolved mysteries and she was declared dead in absentia in 1939.
Queen Victoria, 1819–1901
Victoria remains one of the UK’s most iconic monarchs, more than a century after her death, portrayed in countless films and TV series. Crowned in 1837, she oversaw the nation and its empire throughout a remarkable period of social, technological and economic change.
Josephine Butler brought into open discussion in Victorian Britain the double sexual standard that existed in a male-dominated society. She campaigned successfully for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts which provided for the compulsory and regular medical examination of women believed to be prostitutes, but not their male clients. In later life she campaigned against child prostitution and international sex trafficking.
Mary Seacole, 1805–81
In her late forties, Mary travelled from her home in Jamaica to Britain to offer her services as a nurse during the Crimean War (1853-56). Despite being turned down Seacole refused to give up: a woman of mixed-race with a Jamaican mother and Scottish father, she had dealt with prejudice and impediments her whole life. Funding her own passage to the Crimea Mary established the British Hotel near Balaclava. Nineteenth-century soldiers had no welfare support and Seacole’s hotel provided a comfortable retreat away from battle with accommodation for convalescents and the sick. In addition, Mary nursed wounded soldiers on the battlefield earning the title Mother Seacole.
Mother Teresa, 1910–97
Mother Teresa, born in Albania, was a Roman Catholic nun who lived in India for most of her life. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity which attracted many sisters who took vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and free service to the poorest of the poor. The work that the order undertook, in over 130 countries, included managing homes for people who were dying, soup kitchens, orphanages and schools. Although criticised for her opposition to abortion, her charitable work changed the lives of many of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Mary Shelley, 1797-1851 Novelist
Born to political philosopher William Godwin and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, and husband of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley managed – through her 1818 work Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus – to make a name for herself, even in such high-achieving company. Blending the horrific with the sympathetic, the Gothic with the Romantic, the novel has gone on to become a literary classic.
Catherine the Great, 1729-96 Empress of Russia
Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, Catherine was head of the country as it modernised, expanded, and strengthened. A patron of arts and a supporter of education, her reforms led her to become one of the most influential rulers in Russian history.
Vera Atkins, 1908-2000 British intelligence officer
In the 1930s, Atkins and her Jewish mother emigrated to Britain from Bucharest to escape the rise of Fascism. A talented linguist, Atkins joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a branch of British Military Intelligence responsible for training and sending agents overseas. She rose from administrative roles to become an intelligence officer in the French Section of the SOE. At the end of the Second World War, as a member of the British War Crimes Commission, Atkins set out to find out what had become of the 118 SOE agents who had not made it home, establishing how and when they had died – she was able to trace all but one. Atkins was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and appointed a Commandant of the Legion of Honor in 1987.
Cleopatra, 69 BC-30 BC Egyptian pharaoh
Final ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra was more than the famous beauty her subsequent, simplistic portrayals often depict. A formidable, politically shrewd monarch, she was directly involved in the running of a kingdom that faced challenges on many fronts.
The so-called ‘Angel of Prisons’, Fry was an English Quaker who led the campaign in the Victorian period to make conditions for prisoners more humane. She also helped to improve the British hospital system and treatment of the insane.