Which woman has had the biggest impact on world history? We asked you to vote on a shortlist of 100 figures selected by 10 experts. Here are 100 of the most influential and important women in history – both famous and lesser-known – that have changed the world. Find out who topped our poll below…
Welcome to the results of BBC History Magazine poll, which features 100 inspirational women from history. In 2018, 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 Curie. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
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
Rosa Parks, 1913–2005
Rosa Parks. (Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Emmeline Pankhurst. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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.
Ada Lovelace, 1815–52
Ada Lovelace. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Rosalind Franklin. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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
Margaret Thatcher. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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.
English philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
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
Mary Wollstonecraft. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
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. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)
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
Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
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 Virgin Mary. (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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
Jane Austen. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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.
Princess Diana. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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
Queen Victoria. (Photo by Alexander Bassano/Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)
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. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)
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
Mary Seacole. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
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. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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
Mary Shelley. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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
Catherine the Great. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
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
Vera Atkins. (Photo by Military History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)
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
Cleopatra. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)
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.
Elizabeth Fry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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.
Mary Anning, 1799-1847 Paleontologist
Mary Anning. (Picture by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
Fossils were crucial for convincing Victorian scientists that evolution had taken place over countless millennia – and dinosaurs provided particularly compelling evidence of the earth’s long past. The seashore collector Mary Anning was scarcely educated, yet she became one of Britain’s leading experts on prehistoric life, scouring the cliffs of Lyme Regis to dig out large skeletons that she sold to eminent London specialists. Her unique palaeontological specimens helped transform beliefs about the origins of life.
Joan of Arc. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Joan was born in 1412, nearly 80 years into the Hundred Years’ War, which had seen the English take control of a large portion of France. She convinced the future French King Charles VII that religious visions had instructed her to support him. Aged just 17 she was sent to the Siege of Orléans. When the siege was lifted shortly afterwards, Joan became a religious figurehead for a renewed French offensive, helping to achieve further French victories and advising on military strategy. Joan was eventually captured by the Burgundians and put into English custody. In 1431, she was found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. She became a French martyr and was canonised in 1909.
Isabella of Castile, 1451-1504 Queen of Castile
Isabella of Castile. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen of Castile, political unifier, economic reformer: Isabella I was a hugely important figure in 15th-century Spain. Together with her husband she was responsible for less savoury episodes, including the forced expulsion of Muslim and Jewish subjects, yet she remains a key figure in the nation’s rise to become an early global superpower.
Catherine of Siena, 1347-80 Philosopher and theologian
Catherine of Siena. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A mystic and ascetic who in the aftermath of the Black Death played a key role in the campaign to reform the Catholic Church, and return the papacy from Avignon to Rome. She was canonised by Pope Pius II in 1461.
Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011 Environmental activist
Wangari Maathai.(Photo by Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images)
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement which campaigned for the planting of trees, environmental conversation and women’s rights. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Maathai was elected to parliament and appointed assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003– 2005. Her work was internationally recognised when, in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, peace and democracy.
Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941 British modernist novelist
Virginia Woolf. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Most famous for her works including Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, the English author Virginia Woolf was also one of the founders of the influential literary set the Bloomsbury Group. Her complex personal life and sometimes controversial viewpoints have led her to become both an influential and divisive figure.
Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-86 Writer and philosopher
Simone de Beauvoir. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
De Beauvoir’s publication, in 1949, of The Second Sex had a decisive influence on the evolution of post-war feminism. Her declaration that “one is not born but becomes a woman” continues to reverberate in contemporary discussions of gender.
Grace Hopper, 1906-92 Computer scientist
Grace Hopper. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
When electronic computers began to revolutionise society, Grace Hopper was one of the leading players, having already become the first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. First at Harvard, and then in the US Navy, Hopper worked on the very earliest computers and later developed COBOL, the commercial programming language that enabled a military innovation to transform the business world.
Frida Kahlo, 1907-54 Mexican artist
Frida Kahlo. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A Mexican artist whose striking, distinctive works combine an exploration of gender, class and identity with symbols from the nation’s cultural history, Kahlo has gone on to become an important figure for social causes including feminism and LGBTQ rights.
Theodora, c497-548 Empress of Byzantium
Theodora. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Theodora exercised considerable influence as wife of the emperor Justinian I, handling political affairs and corresponding with foreign rulers. She is remembered as one of the first rulers to recognise the rights of women, altering divorce laws to give greater benefits to women and prohibiting the traffic in young girls.
Hypatia, c355-415 Ancient Greek philosopher
Hypatia. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
An Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher whose murder in AD 415 led to her being enshrined during the Enlightenment as a martyr for philosophy. She is the first female mathematician of whose life and work we have reasonably detailed knowledge.
Eleanor Rathbone, 1872-1946 MP and philanthropist
Eleanor Rathbone. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A humanitarian and suffragist, member of the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship from 1919), Rathbone was returned to the British Parliament in 1929 as the Independent Member for the Combined British Universities. She was a key figure in getting through parliament a family allowances bill that paid the allowance to the mother, not the father. During later years she was actively involved in refugee relief work, trying to rescue Spanish republicans and Jews threatened by Hitler’s rise to power.
Sacagawea, 1788-1812 Shoshone interpreter
Sacagawea. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
As a female Native American, Sacagawea’s story could easily have been lost to history. But her role as a vital member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, helping them forge relationships with Native Americans all while carrying her newborn baby on her back, ensured this wasn’t the case. Sacagawea travelled thousands of miles with the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6 – from the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest – acting as an interpreter and allaying the suspicions of the tribes they encountered.
Nellie Bly, 1864-1922 Pioneering journalist
Nellie Bly. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
At a time when women journalists tended to write about domestic topics such as gardening or fashion, Bly wrote hard-hitting stories about the poor and oppressed. In 1886-87 she travelled for several months in Mexico, reporting on official corruption and the condition of the poor, while another investigation saw her feign insanity in order to expose conditions inside asylums. Bly’s journalistic fame led her to travel the globe, unchaperoned, in her own Jules Verne inspired 80 Days Around the World. She completed the challenge in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, setting a new world record.
Lise Meitner, 1878-1968 Austrian physicist
Lise Meitner. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
As a Jewish woman, the Austrian-born physicist Lise Meitner was doubly disadvantaged during her scientific career in Nazi Germany. After fleeing to Sweden in 1938, she received a plea for help from her research collaborator when the experiments they had planned together produced some unexpected results. A couple of days later, she had solved the problem – they had unwittingly initiated the break-up of a uranium atom. By 1945, her theoretical conclusions had been realised practically in the atomic bomb.
Catherine de’ Medici, 1519-89 Italian-born queen of France
Catherine de Medici. (Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Queen of France and mother of three kings, Catherine de’ Medici held a hugely influential position in the nation’s politics throughout the 16th century. Civil war and religious tensions often led her to take drastic measures, yet she is also remembered for her tenacious nature and artistic patronage.
Isabella Bird. (Photo by New York Public Library Digital Collections)
An intrepid 19th-century explorer who defied Victorian conventions of where a lady should go and what a lady should do. After catching the travel bug while on a sea voyage, taken on the orders of doctors to improve her ill health, Bird went on to explore America, Hawaii, Tibet, Malaysia, Japan, India, China, Iran and many more countries. Her journeys were often fraught with danger; she rode thousands of miles on horseback and climbed mountains and volcanoes. The books Bird wrote, and the photographs she took, on the places she visited helped earn her a place as one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Bessie Coleman, 1892-1926 Civil aviator
Bessie Coleman. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)
In 1921, Coleman became the first American woman to earn an international pilot’s license, despite racial discrimination preventing her entry to American flying schools. After travelling to France to earn her licence, Coleman returned to America where racial and gender bias prevented her from becoming a commercial pilot. Stunt flying was her only option and she staged the first public flight by an African-American woman in the US, on 3 September 1922. Coleman drew huge crowds to her shows, refusing to perform before segregated audiences and raising money to found a school to train black aviators.
Aphra Behn, 1640-89 British playwright and poet
Aphra Behn. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Apparently prompted to turn to writing after incurring debt from being imprisoned for espionage, Behn was one of the first women in England to earn a living from the profession. Her work was to prove hugely influential, both on literature and for future generations of female writers.
Coco Chanel, 1883-1971 French fashion designer
Coco Chanel. (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images)
Chanel emerged from a difficult, nomadic childhood in France to become an internationally famous designer, whose eponymous brand spans fashion, jewellery and perfume. Her importance and contributions to female fashion is complicated by her suspected collaboration with German intelligence operations during the Second World War.
Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593-1652/53 Italian Baroque painter
Artemisia Gentileschi. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
An accomplished painter in a period of Italy’s history when women weren’t always welcomed by patrons or fellow artists, Gentileschi generated both critical praise and international success. Her portraits of strong, suffering women represent, for some, the trials she faced in her personal and professional life.
Hurston’s work chronicles life in the American South, particularly the racial and gender struggles she witnessed and experienced during the first half of the 20th century. Her career as an anthropologist also saw her make key contributions to the study of North American folklore and ritual activity in the Caribbean.
Katharine Graham, 1917-2001 Washington Post publisher
Katharine Graham. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Publisher of the Washington Post from 1969–79, Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper after she took the helm of the Washington Post Company in 1963 after the death of her husband. Graham was also the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company after taking the company public in 1972. In 1971, she oversaw the publication of the Pentagon Papers and coverage of the Watergate scandal that toppled President Nixon.
Indira Gandhi, 1917-84 Indian prime minister
Indira Gandhi. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
India’s first and only female prime minister to date is remembered for her political steel and often controversial legacy. She ruled the country on two occasions, from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until 1984 when she was assassinated by her own bodyguards.
Gabriela Mistral, 1889-1957 Chilean poet-diplomat
Gabriela Mistral. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, known pseudonymously as Gabriela Mistral, was a Chilean poet and diplomat whose works often explore morality and motherhood. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945, becoming the first Latin American author to receive the honour.
Clara Barton, 1821-1912 American Red Cross founder
Clara Barton. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A nurse during the American Civil War (1861-65) Clara distributed medical supplies, worked near the front lines and treated both Union and Confederate men. Her work earned her the nickname ‘Angel of the Battlefield’. After the war she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, helping thousands of families locate missing relatives and rebury the dead in marked graves. In 1881 Clara established the American Red Cross, serving as its president until 1904.
Anna Akhmatova, 1889-1966 Russian poet
Anna Akhmatova. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Akhmatova’s career as a poet, which spanned a period of war, totalitarianism and revolution, saw her mix the personal with the political to chronicle a tumultuous chapter in Russian history. Her work and sympathies were often met with official opprobrium, and many of those around her were executed, detained or deported.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 1916-2000 Prime minister of Sri Lanka
Sirimavo Bandaranaike. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a socialist, became the first female head of government in the world when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, in 1960. She served three terms in this capacity: 1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000. Bandaranaikewas an important role model for many political female activists, showing that the glass ceiling which prevented women from reaching the highest political office could be broken.
Maryam Mirzakhani. (Photo by Courtesy: Maryam Mirzakhani/Corbis via Getty Images)
Maryam Mirzakhani was only 40 when she died, but she had already transcended gender and ethnicity norms by becoming the first woman, and the first Iranian, to win the coveted Fields medal, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Mirzakhani changed the world in her geometrical imagination, calculating the characteristics of countless billiard-table universes, each constantly morphing into different shapes.
Marie Van Brittan Brown, 1922-99 Inventor of the first CCTV
Marie Van Brittan Brown. (Photo by Walter Oleksy / Alamy Stock Photo)
The Big Brother technology of Closed Circuit Television is now a ubiquitous public presence, but African-American nurse Marie van Brittan Brown invented it to protect her friends and family at home. Disillusioned by police negligence, in 1966 she filed a patent for a movable camera that could display images on a TV screen monitor of whoever was at the front door.
Laura Bassi, 1711-78 Physicist and academic
Laura Bassi. (Photo by Paul Fearn / Alamy Stock Photo)
Almost three centuries ago, Laura Bassi smashed conventions and became Europe’s first female professor. An Italian physicist who specialised in the new and exciting field of electricity, Bassi skilfully negotiated a top salary to compensate for her frequent public appearances as Bologna University’s ‘token woman’.
Junko Tabei, 1939-2016 Japanese mountaineer
Junko Tabei. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In 1975, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, a place she described as being “smaller than a tatami mat”. It wasn’t an easy climb in many respects – Junko faced criticism for leaving her young daughter at home as she set off for Nepal, as part of the first all-female climbing team to be awarded a permit to climb the world’s highest peak. News of her astounding feat of human endurance made headlines around the world and Tabei came to stand as a symbol for women’s empowerment and challenging female stereotypes.
Gertrude Ederle, 1906-2003 Swimming champion
Gertrude Ederle. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
In 1926, Gertrude became the first woman to swim across the icy waters of the English Channel, having already broken seven records in a single afternoon at Brighton Beach, New York, four years earlier. Ederle trained daily in freezing water, pushing her body to new limits. The time she set for her cross-channel swim – 14 hours, 31 minutes – was faster by nearly two hours than the time set by any previous male swimmers who had completed the epic swim. Ederle proved that female sportswomen were more than capable of taking on the same challenges as men.
Ethel Smyth, 1858-1944 Composer and suffragist
Ethel Smyth. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An English author, composer and campaigner for women’s rights, Smyth composed the song that was to become the anthem of the suffrage movement. She was awarded a damehood in 1922 for her work in the fields of music and literature.
Emily Hobhouse, 1860-1926 British welfare campaigner
Emily Hobhouse. (Photo by Paul Fearn / Alamy Stock Photo)
Emily Hobhouse was a British welfare campaigner during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. She raised funds for the many Boer women and children who were displaced by the war and housed by the British in overcrowded camps. After visiting the camps she submitted a report to British government highlighting the terrible conditions, which resulted in an official inquiry. Emily was one of the first women in history to successfully challenge the British government and raise social awareness for the plight of civilian populations caught up in conflict.
Suzanne Lenglen, 1899-1938 French tennis player
Suzanne Lenglen. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A French tennis player who won 21 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals between 1919 and 1926. In 1920, she became the first person to win three Wimbledon championships – in singles and doubles events – in a single year. Lenglen popularised the sport with her style and flamboyance and became a fashion icon for her style of dress. She was also outspoken against tennis’s amateur restrictions and how these kept working-class people out of the sport.
Sarah Breedlove, 1867-1919 Entrepreneur and activist
Sarah Breedlove. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The first self-made female millionaire in America, Breedlove developed a line of beauty and hair products for African-Americans. Her Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company made her one of the most successful African-American business owners in history.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint, 1939-2017 Cricketer and philanthropist
Rachel Heyhoe Flint. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A leading light in women’s cricket from the 1960s to the 1980s, Heyhoe Flint played in 22 test matches and 23 one-day internationals for England and helped to develop the World Cup in the women’s game, captaining England to victory in the inaugural 1973 tournament. As one of the first women to join the traditionalist Marylebone Cricket Club, she helped to change the gender balance of the game.
Prophet Deborah, c12th century BC Biblical prophet of Yahweh
Deborah. (Photo by Chris Hellier/Corbis via Getty Images)
Commemorated in the Book of Judges as a prophet of Yahweh, god of the Israelites, the song attributed to her is widely considered to be one of the oldest passages in the Bible, thought to date to the 12th century BC.
Mary Somerville, 1780-1872 Science writer and polymath
Mary Somerville. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)
In Victorian Britain, Mary Somerville was celebrated as ‘The Queen of the Sciences.’ Her research was published in the Royal Society’s prestigious journal, her interpretation of complex French astronomy became a standard textbook, and her syntheses of scientific knowledge communicated the latest discoveries to public audiences. Although unable to go to university herself, the Oxford college named after her opened the doors to women’s education. In 2017, Somerville’s contribution to science was recognised by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which featured her on its new plastic £10 note.
Martina Bergman-Österberg, 1849-1915 Pioneer of women’s sport
Martina Bergman-Österberg. (Photo by Gunnar Forssell/Creative Commons)
A Swedish-born educationalist who revolutionised the teaching of gymnastics and physical education, Bergman-Österberg founded England’s first college for physical education instructors, which opened as a women-only institution. She also encouraged rational dress for women’s sport and helped to develop the sport of netball.
Marie Marvingt, 1875-1963 French athlete and aviator
Marie Marvingt. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A world class sportswoman and qualified pilot, Marie worked as a Red Cross nurse during the First World War. At one point she joined the French infantry posing as a man and later joined an Italian alpine regiment. In 1915 she piloted a bombing raid over Germany and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Before the war, Marvingt had begun developing plans for an air ambulance and in the 1930s she devised training for in-flight nurses, vital work that led to a female air ambulance service in the Second World War.
Maria Merian, 1647-1717 Naturalist and entomologist
Maria Merian. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, Merian defied expectations of the time by leaving an unhappy marriage and running her own business selling her beautiful artwork depicting the life cycles of plants and insects. At a time when women had few opportunities to study science or to travel, Merian made the journey to Surinam in South America to record the exotic wildlife there. Her stunning full colour prints of tropical plants and animals, including bird-eating spiders, vibrantly coloured butterflies and a snake-wrestling caiman were studied by generations of scientists after her.
Lottie Dod, 1871-1960 Sportswoman
Lottie Dod. (Photo by W. & D. Downey/Getty Images)
An accomplished English all-rounder who won numerous titles in lawn tennis and golf, an Olympic silver medal in archery, played hockey for England, and took part in skating, tobogganing and mountaineering. From her first Wimbledon title – at the age of 15 – onwards, Dod proved that women could compete to high standards in a range of sports.
Joan Robinson, 1903-83 Economist
Joan Robinson. (Denver Post via Getty Images)
One of the most influential female economists of the 20th century, Joan changed our understanding of labour markets showing that by recognising imperfections in markets, we can address hidden unemployment and low wages. In 1979 she became the first woman to be made an honorary fellow of King’s College.
George Eliot, 1819-80 Novelist and poet
George Eliot. (Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)
The 19th-century novelist and poet Mary Anne Evans, born in Warwickshire, took the pen name George Eliot in a bid to have her work taken seriously. Her subsequent novels, including Middlemarch and Slias Marner, tackle weighty themes including religion, marriage and industrialisation.
Dowager Empress Cixi of China, 1835-1908 Chinese ruler for 47 years
Empress Cixi. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
One of the most powerful women in Chinese history, Empress Cixi rose from low-ranking concubine of the Xianfeng emperor to regent of China for nearly 50 years. During her regency, Cixi oversaw a number of economic and military reforms which helped transform China into a more modern world power, although the political murders carried out during her reign and her role in the Boxer Rebellion have cast a shadow over her reputation.
Andrea Dworkin, 1946-2005 Radical feminist and writer
Andrea Dworkin. (Photo by William Foley/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
One of the most controversial of modern feminist thinkers, the very radicalism of Dworkin’s writings on heterosexuality and pornography (the latter she believed to be a weapon used by men to control women) has ensured that her influence on contemporary debates on gender – while massive – has tended to be occluded.
Alice Milliat, 1884-1957 Pioneering athlete
Alice Millait. (Unknown portrait/Creative Commons)
A Frenchwoman who organised, at a time when the Olympic Games had very few events for women, a multi-sport international women’s event in 1921, held in Monaco. This event, which evolved into the Women’s World Games (held four times between 1922 and 1934) attracted female competitors from France, England, Italy, Norway and Sweden, and put pressure on the International Olympic Committee, who introduced women’s athletics to the Olympics in 1928.
Wilma Rudolph, 1940-94 Olympic champion
Wilma Rudolph. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
An American athlete who was the first black woman to make a major impact on international track and field. She recovered from childhood polio, pneumonia and scarlet fever to win three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games, the first American woman to ever do so. Her post-Olympic career included goodwill ambassadorial work for the American government in Africa, as well as campaigning work for the Civil Rights movement.
Sonja Henie, 1912-69 Figure skater and film star
Sonja Henie. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A Norwegian figure skater who dominated her sport and then moved into a successful acting career in Hollywood. At age 10 she won the Norwegian national figure-skating championship and went on to win Olympic gold medals in her sport in 1928, 1932, and 1936, along with 10 World and six European championships. The first woman figure skater to wear skirts above the knee, Henie could spin nearly 80 revolutions. After retiring in 1936, she moved to the US and combined her professional ice show with starring roles in a number of films.
Sarojini Naidu, 1879-1949 Political activist and poet
Sarojini Naidu. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Sarojini Naidu, a freedom fighter and poet, was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and to be appointed an Indian state governor. A close friend of Mohandas Gandhi, in 1917 Naidu helped found the Women’s India Association and later played a leading role in the civil disobedience movement in colonial India. Two years before her death, India gained its independence as a sovereign nation, becoming the largest democracy in the world.
Ruth Handler, 1916-2002 Businesswoman and inventor
Ruth Handler. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
President of Mattel, a company she co-founded with her husband in 1945 and which was originally based out of their garage in California. In 1959, the company launched the Barbie doll, the brainchild of Ruth Handler and one of the first dolls made that looked like a grown up. Within six years of Barbie’s launch, Mattel had become a Fortune 500 company.
Murasaki Shikibu, c978-1016 Japanese novelist and poet
Murasaki Shikibu. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
An 11th-century Japanese writer and lady-in-waiting, Shikibu’s early talent for Chinese allowed her to become fluent in the language to an extent unusual for women of the period. Her novel The Tale of Genji is widely regarded as a masterpiece.
Maria Bochkareva, 1889-1920 Russian army officer
Maria Leontyevna Bochkareva. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Maria was one of approximately 1,000 women who joined the Russian army in the First World War. The majority pretended to be male but Bochkareva was one of the few who didn’t hide her gender. In 1917, following the first Russian revolution, she was made commander of Russia’s first all-female Battalion of Death, at a time when no other countries permitted women in combat roles. Engineered to reinvigorate military morale, the battalion succeeded in taking German trenches on the Eastern front.
Lily Parr, 1905-78 Professional footballer
Lily Parr. (Photo by B. Marshall/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
One of the first English women to play football professionally, and a key figure in the development of the women’s game, Parr emerged through the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team, playing exhibition matches in Lancashire during and after the First World War. Parr played in a number of representative international matches and continued to play despite the Football Association’s ban on women’s football being played on affiliated grounds in England, in 1921. She has posthumously become an LGBT sporting icon.
Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, 1879-1967 Pioneering RAF commandant
Dame Helen Gwynn-Vaughan. (Photo by Gerry Cranham/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A widowed university academic, Gwynne-Vaughan was appointed overseas Commander of the new Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1917. She successfully oversaw the expansion of the WAAC, arguing for better pay and living conditions. In 1918 she left to become commander of the fledgling Women’s Royal Air Force. Both auxiliary services were disbanded after the war, but both were brought back in 1938/1939 as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Gwynne-Vaughan was commander of the ATS from 1939-41. The first woman to be awarded a military DBE, in January 1918, Dame Gwynne-Vaughan oversaw the formation of Britain’s first female auxiliary services.
Gwen John, 1876-1939 Artist
Gwen John. (Photo by National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Born in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, John’s quiet, understated demeanour and style of painting were often overshadowed by that of her brother, Augustus. Subsequent reappraisals of her life and career have instead revealed a talented artist whose work is increasingly influential
Fanny Burney, 1752-1840 Novelist and playwright
Fanny Burney. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)
An English novelist and playwright whose self-described “scribblings” were lauded for her skill with satire and caricature. Warm, witty and observant, her work offers valuable insights into high society in 18th-century England.
Fanny Blankers-Koen, 1918-2004 Dutch athlete
Fanny Blankers-Koen. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A Dutch track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, along with five European Championship golds between 1946 and 1950. While the press dubbed her ‘the flying housewife’, the fact that she had two children before her 1948 triumphs helped to undermine the popular notion that being a mother and being an elite athlete were mutually exclusive.
Estée Lauder, 1908-2004 Cosmetics company founder
Estee Lauder. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Founder of a global cosmetics company, Lauder started her eponymous business with her husband in 1946. Known for her marketing acumen, she built a beauty empire – including brands such as Bobbi Brown and Clinique – which eventually made her one of the richest self-made women in the world.
Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012 Political economist
Elinor Ostrom. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
The only woman to have won the top prize in Economics, Ostrom trained as a political scientist after she was rejected for an Economics PhD because she lacked maths training. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009, shared with Oliver Williamson, for her work that showed how commonly owned property such as forests can be used cooperatively and not over-used as economists assumed.
Clara Schumann, 1819-96 Musician and composer
Clara Schumann. (Photo by Franz Hanfstaengl/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One of the foremost pianists of the Romantic period, Schumann’s career began as a child prodigy and spanned more than six decades. Her works include concertos, quartets and songs, and she also taught generations of piano students in Frankfurt.
Beulah Louise Henry, 1887-1973 Prolific inventor
Beulah Louise Henry. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Known as Lady Edison for her prolific inventions (after the famous inventor Thomas Edison), Henry is credited with more than 100 inventions including the vacuum ice cream freezer and a bobbin-free sewing machine. She founded two of her own companies and served as a consultant to several others.
Anna Jacobson Schwartz, 1915-2012 American economist
Anna Schwartz. (Photo by David Shankbone/Creative Commons)
Co-author of the seminal book that changed our understanding of the Great Depression and how to prevent it from happening again. A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960, written with Nobel Prize laureate Milton Friedman, showed that it was monetary policy that caused the Great Crash of 1929 and the subsequent drastic depression.
Aisha, c613/614-678 Wife of Muhammad
The third wife of the Prophet Muhammad and daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, Aisha is commemorated by Sunni Muslims as the “Mother of the Believers”.
Yeshe Tsogyal, 757-817 Mother of Tibetan Buddhism
The Sage Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) with his two consorts, Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal. (Photo by Sabena Jane Blackbird / Alamy Stock Photo)
A Tibetan princess who in the 8th century had a defining influence on the development of Buddhism. She is commemorated by her followers as a female Buddha, and named the Victorious Ocean of Wisdom.
Susan Sontag, 1933-2004 Writer and filmmaker
Susan Sontag. (Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Famous for a string of influential essays including 1964’s Notes on ‘Camp’, Sontag’s work embraced such diverse interests as sexuality, art and philosophy. Her decades-spanning career also saw her work as a teacher, political activist and filmmaker.
Sophie Blanchard, 1778-1819 Professional aeronaut
Sophie Blanchard. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
After the death of her professional balloonist husband, Sophie was forced to take over his business to pay off his debts, making her the first female professional balloonist. Crowds flocked to see her and on a number of occasions she was official aviator to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII. Her adventures came to an explosive end in 1819 when she became the first woman to die in an aviation accident.
Katia Krafft, 1942-91 French volcanologist
Katia Kraft. (Image in public domain)
French volcanologist Katia Krafft travelled the world to the edges of human survival, devoting her life to documenting volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in photos and film. Her work was instrumental in gaining the cooperation of local authorities and encouraging them to evacuate the areas surrounding active volcanos. Krafft and her volcanologist husband were both killed while filming the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan, in 1991.
Fanny Mendelssohn, 1805-47 Pianist and composer
Fanny Mendelssohn. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A German composer and pianist whose hundreds of works include songs, sonatas and a piano trio. The oldest of four children, including fellow composer Felix, her output is praised by critics for its energy and melodicism.
Emilie du Châtelet, 1706-49 French natural philosopher
Madame du Châtelet.(Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
A superb mathematician, Emilie du Châtelet did much to convince sceptical Europeans that Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was right. But this mother of three also loved to dance, wear fashionable clothes and host dinner parties. Her main aim in life, she maintained, was to enjoy herself – and pleasure included the hard grind of intellectual work.
Buchi Emecheta, 1944-2017 Pioneering novelist
Emecheta Buchi. (Photo by Art Directors & TRIP / Alamy Stock Photo)
A Nigerian-born novelist who moved to London in 1962, Emecheta’s books include 1979’s The Joys of Motherhood. Concerned with both the black and female experience, she was awarded an OBE in 2005 for her services to literature.
Annette Kellerman, 1887-1975 Professional swimmer
Annette Kellerman. (Photo by Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
An Australian swimmer who combined competitive racing and distance feats with aquatic exhibitions, the forerunner of modern synchronised swimming. Kellermann successfully campaigned for rational dress in the sport, facing arrest for indecency in the US for wearing a revolutionary one-piece swimsuit. As well as popularising the modern swimming costume, Kellermann also appeared in films and wrote books and articles on swimming and health.
Amrita Priam, 1919-2005 Indian writer and poet
Amrita Pritam. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
An Indian writer and essayist and a leading 20th-century poet in the Punjabi language. Recognised with a string of awards throughout her lifetime, her work is by turns feminist, inclusive and deeply humanist.
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