It’s Women’s History Month!
March is Women’s History month, so I thought it would be fitting to take a little walk down memory lane. Now, if we think about significant women throughout history we can conjure up memories of Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and others.
But all we know of these women are the tales handed down through time, so I thought it would be interesting to instead focus on more recent stories of women who we can actually see, and whose actions are more recent and well documented. I would also argue that for most of human history women have been relegated to positions of lower social status, and only in the last century or so have we seen things beginning to equalize as significant women break through barriers.
Here’s a list of amazing women who helped change the course of history, listed chronographically by the date generally recognized for a specific achievement. If you would like to jump right to one, here’s the complete list:
- Sojourner Truth – 1826
- Ada Lovelace – 1843
- Margaret Fuller – 1845
- Harriet Tubman – 1850
- Charlotte E. Ray – 1872
- Susan B. Anthony – 1878
- Marie Curie – 1903
- Maud Wagner – 1907
- Mary Church Terrell – 1909
- Madam C.J. Walker – 1910
- Leola N. King – 1918
- Carrie Chapman Catt – 1919
- Margaret Sanger – 1922
- Gertrude Ederle – 1926
- Amelia Earhart – 1928
- Jane Addams – 1931
- Sarla Thakral – 1936
- Sabiha Gökçen – 1937
- Lydia Litvyak – 1941
- Simone Segouin – 1944
- Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn – 1945
- Rosalind Franklin – 1951
- Rosa Parks – 1955
- Rachel Carson – 1962
- Indira Ghandi – 1966
- Kathrine Switzer – 1967
- Eunice Shriver – 1968
- Margaret Hamilton – 1969
- Janet Guthrie – 1977
- Margaret Thatcher – 1979
- Sally Ride – 1983
- Anna Fisher – 1984
- Oprah Winfrey – 1986
- Mae Jemison – 1992
- Eileen Collins – 1999
- Mia Hamm – 2004
- Wu Yi – 2004
- Kathryn Bigelow – 2010
- Malala Yousafzai – 2012
Sojourner Truth – 1826
Sojourner Truth was actually born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Swartekill, New York she is noted for having escaped slavery in 1826 and then becoming the first woman to take a white man to court to recover her child.
She was a vocal supporter of women’s rights, abolition, prison reform and capital punishment (which she was against). And also helped recruit black men for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often described as the world’s first computer programmer.
Margaret Fuller – 1845
It is considered the first major feminist work in the United States, and Fuller was the first woman allowed to use the Harvard library. Her work and support of prison reform, emancipation of slaves and a woman’s right to education and employment inspired others, including Susan B. Anthony.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Harriet Ross in 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland, and is known for being the conductor of the Underground Railroad, and a catalyst for the American Civil War.
Tubman embarked on 13 missions to rescue more than 70 slaves after escaping slavery herself. Later, Tubman helped recruit men for the raid on Harpers Ferry, an event that served as a catalyst for the Civil War.
Charlotte E. Ray was born January 13, 1850 in New York City, and was the first African-American female lawyer in the United States. She was also the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.
Wisconsin lawyer Kate Kane Rossi, in 1897, recalled that “Miss Ray… although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up … active practice.” Instead she returned to teaching, working in the Brooklyn school system.
Susan Brownell Anthony on February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts and would become one of the most famous Americans in history. Among her many accomplishments, in 1878 Suan helped introduce what was knowns as the Anthony Amendment, which later became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
Susan B. Anthony was also the Co-founder of the Women’s Temperance Movement, co-founder of The Revolution (a women’s rights journal), and much, much more.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie was born 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland and later moved to France where she conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.
She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
As an apprentice of her husband, Wagner learned how to give traditional “hand-poked” tattoos—despite the invention of the tattoo machine—and became a tattooist herself. Together, the Wagners were two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand, without the aid of modern tattoo machines. Maud Wagner was the United States’ first known female tattoo artist.
Mary Church Terrell was born September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee and was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree.
In 1909 she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where she would also serve as President. In 1896 she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia until 1906. And she founded the National Association of University Women.
Madam CJ Walker was the Oprah of her day! She became the first female self-made millionaire in the United States after founding the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company that developed and marketed beauty products for black women.
At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America, and she directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity
Leola N. King – 1918
Leola Kink is credited as America’s first female traffic cop, having served in Washington D.C. It might not have been a glamorous job, but at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote it was something else to see one directing traffic and having the legal authority to tell men what to do!
Carrie Chapman Catt – 1919
Carrie Catt was the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which helped revitalise the suffrage movement and eventually worked to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1919, guaranteeing all women the right to vote.
Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York, and was known as a nurse, and sex educator. She is credited with popularizing the term ‘birth control’, and was a vocal supporter and activist for women’s reproductive rights.
Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States and established Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s work also contributed to the United States Supreme Court case that legalized contraception throughout the country.
Gertrude Caroline Ederle was born October 23, 1906, and was an American competitive swimmer, Olympic champion, and former world record-holder in five events. In 1926, she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat for which she received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross award.
Jane Addams was born September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois and went on to become the first female nobel peace prize recipient.
She was a pioneer American settlement social worker, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and leader in women’s suffrage and staunch advocate of world peace. In 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.
Sarla Thakral was the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. She earned an aviation pilot license in 1936 at the age of 21 and flew a Gypsy Moth solo.
Sabiha Gökçen was born March 22, 1913, and became the first Turkish female combat pilot at age 23. According to some sources she was also the world’s first female fighter pilot, however others such as Marie Marvingt and Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya seem to have preceded her.
In 1938 she was appointed “chief trainer” of the Türkkuşu Flight School of Turkish Aeronautical Association, where she served until 1954 as a flight instructor.
Throughout her career in the Turkish Air Force, Gökçen flew 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8,000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions.
She was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of “The 20 Greatest Aviators in History” published by the United States Air Force in 1996.
Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak was born in Moscow on August 18, 1921 and the first female fighter pilot to earn the title fighter ace.
As a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force during World War II she had at least 12 solo victories and at least four shared kills over a total of 66 combat missions, during two years of the war. She was the first female fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy plane, and the holder of the record for the greatest number of kills by a female fighter pilot.
She was shot down near Orel, at the age of 21, during the Battle of Kursk as she attacked a convoy of German planes.
Simone Segouin, who also went by the name Nicole, was an 18 year old French Résistance fighter, during the liberation of Paris. She was profiled in an episode of LIFE magazine, in which she explained how she became involved in the resistance, and basically just loved killing Germans.
At one point, the LIFE author witnessed her parading 25 Nazis in the Chartres area.
Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn – 1945
Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn were the flight crew of the B-17 bomber known as Pistol Packin‘ Mama. In 2010 NPR did a story on them, which you can listen to here.
The group of female pilots was called the Women Airforce Service Pilots — WASP for short. In 1944, during the graduation ceremony for the last WASP training class, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, said that when the program started, he wasn’t sure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.”
“Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men,” Arnold said.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on July 25, 1920 in Notting Hill, London and although she only lived to age 37, she accomplished a remarkable amount!
Her research helped to understand the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, and viruses. Her work on the x-ray defraction images of DNA helped lead to the discovery of the double helix. After her death, her colleagues won a Nobel Prize, and suggested that she should have also been awarded one.
Rosa Parks is known as the “first lady of civil rights.” Her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger led to the game-changing Montgomery Bus Boycotts, an important moment for the U.S. civil rights movement.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, has a statue at the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, and lies in honor at the Capitol Rotunda, making her the first woman and the second non-US government official to earn that honor.
Rachel Louise Carson was born May 27, 1907 and was an American marine biologist and conservationist.
Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also bestsellers.
In 1962 her book Silent Spring spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, and inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.
Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was born on November 19, 1917 in Allahabad, United Provinces, British India. She was the first and only female Prime Minister of India
Indira was the second longest serving Prime Minister of India, and the only female Prime Minister India has ever had. A poll by India Today ranked Ghandi the greatest Indian Prime Minister. She was also named the “Woman of the Millennium” by a poll conducted by the BBC in 1999.
Katherine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a registered runner, despite attempts by the marathon organizer to stop her.
Race official Jock Semple attempted to physically remove her from the race, and according to Switzer said, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.” However, Switzer’s boyfriend Tom Miller, who was running with her, shoved Semple aside and sent him flying.
Switzer was the women’s winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon, and was named Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) by Runner’s World Magazine. She received an Emmy for her work as a television commentator, and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running.
Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968 in honour of her sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. She firmly believed that if people with intellectual disabilities were given the same opportunities as everyone else, they could achieve far more than anyone thought possible.
Margaret Hamilton was born in 1936 and served as the lead software engineer of the Apollo Project. In this image she is standing next to the code she wrote by hand and that was used to take humanity to the moon.
At NASA, Hamilton was responsible for helping pioneer the Apollo on-board guidance software required to navigate and land on the Moon, and its multiple variations used on numerous missions
Hamilton is credited for coining the term “software engineering”.In this field she pioneered the concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling, end-to-end testing, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, such as priority displays which then became the foundation for ultra reliable software design.
Janet Guthrie was born March 7, 1938, in Iowa City, Iowa and is a retired professional race car driver and the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
Guthrie was an aerospace engineer, training to be an astronaut, when she was cut from the space program because she didn’t have her PhD. She turned to car racing instead and became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Mechanical difficulties forced her out of the 1977 Indy race, but the next year she finished in ninth place (with a broken wrist!).
Her helmet and race suit can be found in the Smithsonian Institution and Guthrie was one of the first elected to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on April 27, 2006.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born October 13, 1925 and was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and is the only woman to have held the office.
Thatcher was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the US.
Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles, California, and was an American physicist and astronaut. At the age of 32 she became the first American woman in space and still remains the youngest American astronaut to travel to space.
After flying twice on the space shuttle Challenger, she left NASA in 1987. She worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then the University of California, San Diego as a professor of physics, primarily researching non-linear optics and Thomson scattering.
She served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, the only person to participate on both.
Anna Lee Tingle Fisher was born August 24, 1949 and is an American chemist, emergency physician, and NASA astronaut.
The mother of two children, in 1984 she became the first mother in space. Fisher is the oldest active American astronaut. During her career at NASA, she has been involved with three major programs: the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and the Orion project.
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born January 29, 1954 and is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist.
Winfrey is best known for her multi-award-winning talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. She has been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and is currently North America’s only black billionaire.
She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard.
Mae Carol Jemison was born October 17, 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, and became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.
She trained as a physician and then served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987, when she was selected by NASA to join the astronaut corps. She is also a dancer, and holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities
Eileen Marie Collins (born November 19, 1956) is a retired NASA astronaut and a retired United States Air Force colonel. A former military instructor and test pilot, Collins was the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle and logged 38 days 8 hours and 10 minutes in outer space.
Collins received the Free Spirit Award, the 2006 National Space Trophy, is an inductee of the National Women’s Hall Of Fame, and has been recognized by Encyclopædia Britannica as one of the top 300 women in history who have changed the world.
The main entrance to Syracuse Hancock International Airport is named in Collins’ honor and she has an astronomical observatory named after her.
Mariel Margaret Hamm-Garciaparra was born March 17, 1972 played soccer for the U.S. Women’s National Team for 17 years, winning two world championships and two Olympic gold medals, before retiring in 2004. When she retired, she held the record for international goals, more than any other player, male or female, in the history of soccer. She also holds the national team record for most career assists with 144.
Hamm was named the women’s FIFA World Player of the Year the first two times that award was given (in 2001 and 2002), and is listed as one of FIFA’s 125 best living players, being one of only two women.
She was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame as well as the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and the World Football Hall of Fame.
Wu Yi was born in Wuhan, China in 1938, and, as Vice Premier of China, was named the second most powerful woman in the world in 2004, ’05, ’07, and “third most powerful” in 2006 by Forbes Magazine.
From vice mayor to vice premier of the state council, Wu worked her way up to the health minister position during the early SARS outbreak, earning her a spot in TIME magazine’s “100 most influential of 2004” listing.
Kathryn Ann Bigelow was born November 27, 1951, and is an American film director, producer, screenwriter and actress. The tenth film she produced, The Hurt Locker, won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture, making her the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
She has also been awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Film, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Director. She also became the first woman to win the Saturn Award for Best Director in 1995 for Strange Days.
In April 2010, Bigelow was named to the Time 100 list of most influential people of the year.
A strong advocate for girls’ right to education, Malala was shot in the head by Taliban in 2012 after refusing to give up on her campaign. She survived and started the Malala Fund to help girls around the world reach their true potential.
She has been awarded the following honors:
- 2011: International Children’s Peace Prize (nominee)
- 2011: National Youth Peace Prize
- Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage, January 2012
- Sitara-e-Shujaat, Pakistan’s third-highest civilian bravery award, October 2012
- Foreign Policy magazine top 100 global thinker, November 2012
- 2012: Time magazine Person of the Year shortlist
- Mother Teresa Awards for Social Justice, November 2012
- Rome Prize for Peace and Humanitarian Action, December 2012
- One of Time ’s “100 Most Influential People In The World”, April 2013
- International Children’s Peace Prize, KidsRights, 2013
- 2013: Clinton Global Citizen Awards from Clinton Foundation
- Harvard Foundation’s Peter Gomes Humanitarian Award from Harvard University
- 2013: Glamour magazine Woman of the Year
- 2013: GG2 Hammer Award at GG2 Leadership Awards (November)
- 2013: International Prize for Equality and Non-Discrimination
- 2014: Nominee for World Children’s Prize (also known as Children’s Nobel Prize)
- 2014: Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Kailash Satyarthi
- And many others…
Got any other amazing women to add to the list? Because I’m sure I’m missing millions… Well, drop me a link and some notes in the comments and I’ll get them added!