Clara Barton, 1821-1912 American Red Cross founder
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
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, 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 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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.