Many lists of motivational quotes are dominated by male leaders, scientists, writers, innovators and entrepreneurs, and yet there are no shortage of powerful words spoken by great women through history. To mark International Women’s Day 2021 – which takes place on 8 March and celebrates the achievements of women around the world – here are 20 quotes from remarkable historical women to inspire you…
“You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not show you under, if you are really going to get your reform realised.”
Who said it? Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), pioneer of women’s rights and leader of the British suffragette movement
About: Born into a politically active family, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The organisation aimed to achieve women’s suffrage through “deeds, not words” – a sentiment echoed in her stirring words above, which were delivered in a legendary speech in November 1913.
Pankhurst was arrested as a result of the WSPU’s militant tactics – and some historians have since questioned the effectiveness of their methods – but she was undeniably a key player in the decision to give some women over the age of 30 the vote in 1918 (although it would be another 10 years before women were ‘fully enfranchised’ in terms of having the same rights with men).
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Who said it? Marie Curie (1867–1934), the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize
About: Polish scientist Marie Curie is, to date, the only person to have won two Nobel prizes in two different fields. The first, awarded in 1903 for Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity (a word she also invented), made her the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Her second, for chemistry, was issued in 1911. She is arguably one of the most well-known scientists in the world – and came top in a 2018 poll conducted by BBC History Magazine asking ‘Which woman has had the biggest impact on world history?’
100 Women Who Changed The World
Which woman had the biggest impact on world 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 our readers the opportunity to vote for their favourite figures from that list. The results may well provoke debate…
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
Who said it? Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), first female prime minister of the United Kingdom
About: Known as the ‘Iron Lady’ for her firm and uncompromising leadership style (“the lady is not for turning”, she also once famously said), Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first woman prime minister. She is also the only British prime minister in the 20th century to have won three consecutive terms (at the time of her resignation she was the longest continuously serving prime minister since 1827).
A frequently divisive figure for her political decisions (and it’s worth remembering that she loathed feminism), Thatcher was nonetheless a political trailblazer. As Dominic Sandbook notes in an article for BBC History Magazine, “her most remarkable achievement was becoming prime minister in the first place”.
Not even Thatcher herself could have predicted such a feat. When questioned about the possibility of running for leadership in the summer of 1970, she responded: “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime – the male population is too prejudiced.”
“Women are like teabags – you don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water”
Who said it? Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), American first lady and United Nations diplomat
About: Eleanor Roosevelt was first lady of the United States during her husband Franklin D Roosevelt’s four terms as president, but she was also a keen social reformer who advocated equal rights for women, African-Americans and workers. Her humanitarian work led future US president Harry S Truman to label her the ‘First Lady of the World’ – and, indeed, she was a driving force in creating the 1948 charter of liberties known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is technically little concrete evidence that Eleanor spoke the quote above, although it is widely attributed to her (the same can be said about other inspirational sayings often credited to Eleanor, such as “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” and “do one thing every day that scares you”). According to the New York Times, the ‘teabag’ adage is among former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton’s favourite inspirational quotes.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I was at the end of a working day… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Who said it? Rosa Parks (1913–2005), American civil rights activist
About: Rosa Parks is best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–6, which was sparked by an incident in which Parks refused to give up her seat on a racially segregated bus.
On the day in question, 42-year-old Parks was travelling home from work when a white driver told her (and other black passengers) to vacate their bus seats because segregation laws meant that white passengers had priority. Parks refused to move – even when police were called. Her subsequent arrest had major ramifications, leading to a 13-month boycott of city buses in one of the longest mass mobilisations of a black population ever witnessed in the United States.
A quote frequently (and inaccurately) attributed to Parks is: “Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” (Although if Parks’s actual words are to go by, it seems fair to say that she would agree with its sentiment).
“I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature.”
Who said it? Ada Lovelace (1815–52), mathematician and writer
About: The only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace is best known for her work helping to develop Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a calculation machine considered one of the earliest examples of a computer.
Exceptionally scholarly and passionate about learning, Lovelace’s intellectual curiosity was perhaps first encouraged by her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke (Annabella). It was Annabella who took charge of her young daughter’s education, filling her days with lessons about music, mathematics and French.
Commenting on her achievements, biographer James Essinger notes that: “Lovelace is particularly intriguing as, not only was she a woman working during a period when men dominated the fields of science and mathematics, but she also had a unique and farsighted insight into the potential of computers.”
“There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.”
Who said it? Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97), author and early advocator of women’s rights
About: Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men – a somewhat revolutionary concept at the time of her writing. As the quote above suggests, she was a passionate advocate for gender parity and considered equality of the sexes to be beneficial for the entire of humanity.
Wollstonecraft died 11 days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who would find fame as the author of the novel Frankenstein.
“To be ‘in charge’ is certainly not only to carry out the proper measures yourself, but to see that everyone else does so too.”
Who said it? Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), British nurse and social reformer
About: Florence Nightingale was a leading nurse during the Crimean War, charged with caring for British and allied soldiers in Turkey, and nicknamed the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ as a result of her relentless night rounds tending to the sick and injured. Reports of Nightingale’s endeavours soon reached British ears; in 1856, Queen Victoria sent her a letter remarking: “It will be a very great satisfaction to me, when you return at last to these shores, to make the acquaintance of one who has set so bright an example to our sex.”
In addition to carrying out hands-on practical care, Nightingale was also instrumental in suggesting improvements to nursing care in the army that saved many avoidable deaths. She established the first scientifically based nursing school – the Nightingale School of Nursing – at St Thomas’ Hospital in London (opened 1860).
“Unless I am allowed to tell the story of my life in my own way, I cannot tell it at all.”
Who said it? Mary Seacole (1805–81), British-Jamaican nurse
About: Mary Jane Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse known for providing care to British soldiers during the Crimean War. Her 1857 autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, is one of the earliest memoirs of a mixed-race woman. “She wasn’t just ambitious and positive-thinking – she was also someone with a lot of integrity and a passion to do good for other people in the world,” said Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo in the September 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine.
“In my own marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity”
Who said it? Marie Stopes (1880–1958), birth control advocate and sex educator
About: A controversial figure, especially for her views on eugenics, Edinburgh-born Marie Stopes was nonetheless a key figure in advocating contraceptives and their availability for women – as well as an early writer about the topics of consent and female pleasure. She helped bring the opportunity of planned pregnancies to women; the first birth control clinic in Britain was set up in a working-class area of north London in 1921 shortly after Stopes published her second book, Wise Parenthood.
“If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married.”
Who said it? Elizabeth I (1533–1603), queen of England
About: Elizabeth I is among the most popular monarchs in history – not least because she survived and succeeded in a notoriously male-dominated world. The daughter of Henry VIII never married – not for lack of offers, including a suspected proposal from her favourite, Robert Dudley – and succeeded in maintaining rule in a kingdom that had been strongly divided by religious conflict.
Can she be considered an early feminist? We should be hesitant to attribute modern values onto the Tudor queen, suggests historian Tracy Borman – but that’s not to say that Elizabeth wasn’t a ruler who knew exactly what she wanted. In an interview at a BBC History Magazine History Weekend in 2017, Borman stated: “If you believe the PR, Elizabeth was apologetic for the fact [she was a woman]. All of her early speeches refer to her sex as being a disadvantage… but in reality, she believes none of that. She knows what she’s capable of and how she wants to rule. She’s just trying to curry favour.”
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Who said it? Charlotte Brontë (1816–55), English novelist and poet
About: Charlotte Brontë was an English writer and eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived to adulthood. She is best known for her novel Jane Eyre, which has been adapted countless times for film and television and is often considered among the greatest works of English literature (as well as being what some might describe as an early feminist novel). The above quote is said by Brontë’s protagonist, Jane, in chapter 23 of the novel.
“[Brontë] didn’t twiddle her thumbs. She got on with things – and she paved the way for other female writers. Her novels have a feminist twist, and she had a strong sense that life wasn’t fair for women,” said children’s book author Jacqueline Wilson in an interview for BBC History Magazine in 2016.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations… I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Who said it? Madam CJ Walker (1867–1919), America’s first black female millionaire
About: Born into a modest life on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam CJ Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) went on to develop a brand of hair care products that provided income for thousands of African-American women. At the time of her death, her estate is estimated to have exceeded $1m.
Her life is a true rags-to-riches story – and it’s clear that a major driving force behind her success was her own motivation. She once said: “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
“The greatest problem in the world today is intolerance. Everyone is so intolerant of each other.”
Who said it? Princess Diana (1961–97), social activist, mother, and former wife of Prince Charl
About: Princess Diana may be best known by her marriage to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, but it was her social work and activism that cemented her status as the ‘people’s princess’. Her informal attitude to royal protocol and hands-on approach to parenting struck a chord with the public, but she also had a famously caring nature and undertook a great deal of charity work. She is often credited as having changed attitude to Aids – in April 1987 she opened a HIV/Aids unit in London and publicly shook hands with a patient suffering from the illness, challenging the notion that the condition was passed by touch.
“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
Who said it? Amelia Earhart (1897–1937), first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic
About: Pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic over 20–21 May 1932. Her choice of date was almost certainly deliberate; her male counterpart, Charles Lindbergh, completed the same feat on 21 May 1927.
Two years and a half years after her accomplishment, Earhart became the first aviator to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland. Her fate was ultimately a tragic one: during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. She was 39 at the time of her disappearance.
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“I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure, that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have…”
Who said it? Queen Victoria (1819–1901), queen of the United Kingdom and empress
About: She was never intended to be queen – and yet Queen Victoria went on to become one of history’s most iconic monarchs, ruling for more than 60 years and overseeing the expansion of the British empire. A key figure in her life was her husband, Prince Albert, whom she proposed to in October 1839 and married in February 1840. She had nine children with him, but famously hated being pregnant, writing in her diary that “an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed”.
“If you don’t like my ocean don’t fish in my sea. Stay out of my valley and let my mountain be.”
Who said it? Ma Rainey (c1886–1939), one of the first recorded blues musicians
About: Ma Rainey was an African-American woman born in the deep South in the latter half of the 19th century, just a generation after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. She became known as the ‘mother of the blues’ – spearheading a genre of music that gave rise to American Jazz. Her lyrics, such as the one above, are famously assertive and even rather radical for their time (referencing, for example, her bisexual tendencies). She was recently portrayed by Viola Davis in the Oscar-tipped Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
Who said it? Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), English author
About: There’s no better quote than the one above to summarise the absence of women’s stories in the historical record. It can be attributed to Virginia Woolf, a prominent and unconventional writer of the 20th century and member of the distinguished Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous novels include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928) (from which the above quote is taken), but she also regularly gave lectures at colleges and universities. As a result of these talks, in 1929 she published an essay, A Room of One’s Own, which became recognised as one of her best pieces of non-fiction and presents a network of women who have missed out on their potential because of their status as women. As she concludes in the essay, a woman needs financial freedom – a room of one’s own – if she is to gain intellectual freedom.
“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”
Who said it? Wangarĩ Maathai (1940–2011), Kenyan political activist and environmental campaigner
About: Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”, making her the first African woman to win the prestigious award. No stranger to historic ‘firsts’, Maathai was also the first woman from East and Central Africa to graduate with a doctorate. She is particularly known for founding the Green Belt Movement, which campaigns for the planting of trees, environmental conversation and women’s rights.
“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our own personal experiences … to make sure that others … do not have to suffer the same discrimination.”
Who said it? Patsy Mink (1927–2002), Japanese-American politician
About: Hawaiian-born Patsy Mink faced a number of barriers in her professional life. She graduated in 1948 with majors in zoology and chemistry, and initially wanted to pursue a career in medicine but was rejected from all of the schools she applied to. Deciding to switch paths, she applied to the University of Chicago Law School and was accepted. It was here she met her husband, John Mink. Although she graduated from law school in 1951 and passed the bar exam, she was unable to secure a job because of prejudice against her interracial marriage. Mink instead started her own practice, and went on to run for congresswoman – ultimately becoming the first woman of colour elected to the US House of Representatives (and the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress).
Rachel Dinning is digital section editor at HistoryExtra