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
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, 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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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