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, 1412-31 Martyr and military leader
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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, 1831-1904 Explorer and writer
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.