Meet The Women Who Changed Your Life
What does it take to make history? From Susan B. Anthony to Rosa Parks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there’s been no shortage of women who weren’t afraid to fight the good fight and change the world. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re putting the spotlight on the contributions of women in history by honoring the pioneers who made major advances in civil rights, women’s suffrage, racial equality, environmental justice, reproductive rights, and much, much more. Ahead, we’ve rounded up the stories behind some of the most influential women, ever. And make sure to check back often; we’re adding a new name to the list every day in March.
PHOTO: UI/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Emily Dickinson
(1830 – 1886)
Her mark on history: American poet
How life would be different without her: Emily Dickinson, though not published as a poet until after her death, revolutionized the art of poetry. Her frequently untitled poems bucked convention with unusual punctuation and rhyme schemes, as well as a frequent focus on morbid subjects, like death and illness. In the years since her death, Dickinson has come to be considered one of the greatest American poets and is taught in schools across the country. Her words to live by: “ Luck is not chance— / It’s Toil—“
PHOTO: BFA.COM/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Aretha Franklin
Her mark on history: Legendary singer and musician
How life would be different without her: If you’ve ever power-sung Franklin’s version of “Respect” in the shower, she’s changed your life. Besides her effect on everyone’s start-of-the-day confidence levels, the Queen of Soul made multiple historic firsts in the music industry. In 1987, she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, Rolling Stone listed her as #1 on its listof 100 Greatest Singers, calling Franklin “a gift from God.” Her words to live by: “All I’m asking for is a little respect.”
PHOTO: REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Betty Friedan
(1921 – 2006)
Her mark on history: Feminist leader and author of The Feminine Mystique
How life would be different without her: Betty Friedan wasn’t the sole instigator of second-wave feminism, but it wouldn’t have looked the same without her. Friedan helped found two of the biggest organizations for women’s rights, the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which would develop into NARAL Pro-Choice America. Additionally, she wrote The Feminine Mystique, a landmark book addressing the depression and unhappiness of women forced by society into the role of homemaker or mother, which she called “the problem that has no name.” Her words to live by: “A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she ‘adjust’ to prejudice and discrimination,” Friedan wrote.
PHOTO: DAVID HARTLEY/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Noor Inayat Khan
(1914 – 1944)
Her mark on history: World War II spy and member of the French Resistance
How life would be different without her: Noor (also known as Nora) Inayat Khan was one of the many under-recognized female war heroes who risked — and in some cases sacrificed — their lives to help defeat Nazism. A descendant of Indian nobility, she was recruited by the British to sneak her way into Nazi-occupied France and work as a radio operator. As the Gestapo rounded up her comrades, Inayat Khan became the last remaining link holding open vital communications between Allied forces and the French Resistance. She evaded capture for months as the Nazis hunted her down. Despite the danger, Inayat Khan refused to leave what had become the “principal and most dangerous” post in occupied France. Eventually captured, she consistently refused to reveal any information under interrogation. She was executed by her captors after 10 months in captivity. In 1949, she was posthumously awardedBritain’s George Cross, for her “conspicuous courage” in her duty. Her words to live by: “Liberté” was her last word before execution.
PHOTO: UI/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Marie Curie
(1867 – 1934)
Her mark on history: Physicist and chemist who discovered multiple chemical elements
How life would be different without her: Curie’s (and husband Pierre’s) research into radioactivity was more than groundbreaking — it was world-changing. Her theory of radioactivity forms the basis for much of the science we have today, including nuclear power and weapons, medical research, and even pieces of your smoke detector. Curie also gave a role model to every little girl who dreams of being a scientist — she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, shared with her husband for physics in 1903. Curie remains the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, after winning her second, for chemistry, in 1911. Her words to live by: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves,” Eve, Curie’s daughter, quoted her mother in a 1937 biography.
PHOTO: MAGGIE HARDIE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Toni Morrison
Her mark on history: The first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature
How life would be different without her: Morrison’s work is varied and diverse, but two themes always stand out: the realities of race and gender. From her 1970 debut, The Bluest Eye, to her most recent 2015 novel, God Help the Child, Morrison’s writing explores what it means to be Black and female in a world that doesn’t value Black women. Morrison has won myriad awards for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988, and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. For her win, the Nobel organization simply stated that Morrison “gave the African-American people their history back.” Her words to live by: “Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try,” Morrison said in her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture.
PHOTO: RON SACHS/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK. Lilly Ledbetter
Her mark on history: Activist for women’s pay equality
How life would be different without her: In 1998, Lilly Ledbetter filed suit against her former employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, alleging discrimination based on the fact she had been paid significantly less than her male colleagues. In 2007, the court ruled against Ledbetter, on the grounds that she would have had to bring the suit within six months of the discrimination occurring — even though she didn’t discover the discrepancy until years later. Her story brought attention to the inadequacy of existing legislation to address pay inequality — and two years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which eased the time limitations on filing a pay discrimination claim, was the first piece of legislation President Obama signed into law. Her words to live by: “Equal pay for equal work is a fundamental American principle,” she said in 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention.
PHOTO: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES. Alice Paul
(1885 – 1977)
Her mark on history: Suffragist and activist
How life would be different without her: Paul was the main strategist behind the push for women’s voting rights in the 1910s. After moving to England to study in 1907, she became involved in the suffragist movement. She was arrested multiple times while fighting for British women’s right to vote, and went on hunger strikes in prison. When she moved back to the United States, she carried on the fight for women’s rights in her home country. She helped secure the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution in 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote.
In this photo, she toasts Tennessee’s ratification of the Amendment – with a glass of grape juice, since prohibition was in effect at the time.
Her words to live by: “Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality,” she said in a 1974 interview with American Heritage Magazine.
PHOTO: AP PHOTO. Annie Oakley
(1860 – 1926)
Her mark on history: Sharpshooter and performer
How life would be different without her: The woman nicknamed “Little Sure Shot” helped solidify the mythos of the American Old West, becoming the female face of the legends. She earned her fame and reputation performing with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West sideshow, dazzling the crowds with tricks like splitting playing cards along their edges. When war with Spain threatened in 1898, Oakley, then 37, contacted the U.S. government with an offer to raise a regiment of sharpshooting women. Unfortunately for the potential Hollywood war dramas, the government did not take her up on it. Her words to live by: “ Aim at a high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second, and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect.”
PHOTO: DAVE PICKOFF/AP PHOTO. Sally Ride
(1951 – 2012)
Her mark on history: First American woman in space
How life would be different without her: Sally Ride showed millions of little girls that their dreams of being an astronaut were just as valid as their brothers’. But before her historic flight in 1983, she had to put up with a lot of sexism. At a press conference, reporters asked Ride if she cried when things went wrong on the job, and whether space flight would “affect her reproductive organs.” (She acerbically responded, “there’s no evidence of that.”)
It wasn’t until after Ride’s death that the world found out that besides being the first woman, Ride may have been the first LGBT person in space. After her 2012 death from pancreatic cancer, her
obituary revealed her 27-year relationship with partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Her words to live by: “Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge,” she said in a 2003 interview with NPR.
PHOTO: GERALD PENNY/AP PHOTO. Margaret Thatcher
(1925 – 2013)
Her mark on history: As prime minister of the United Kingdom, she was the first woman to lead a major Western democracy.
How life would be different without her: The Iron Lady held the highest office in Britain for more than a decade, from 1979 to 1990. Though her conservative politics were variably received by the country over her tenure, her legacy was influential enough to see her name affixed to a political philosophy. “Thatcherism” has become a shorthand in British politics for an agenda characterized by free markets and a diminished government. After leaving office, she was made a Baroness by the queen, and later awarded the highest honor of all — being played by Meryl Streep. Her words to live by: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!“
PHOTO: CULTURE CLUB/GETTY IMAGES. Louisa May Alcott
(1832 – 1888)
Her mark on history: American literature
How life would be different without her: Alcott’s best-known novel, Little Women, set a bar for both writers and all the tomboys of the world. The novel made the lives of women and girls its central purpose, and her most famous character, Jo March, gave ambitious and temperamental little girls a role model. Alcott’s beloved story has been adapted for film and television multiple times, from a 1919 silent version to the 1994 Winona Ryder classic. Her words to live by: “ Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy.“
PHOTO: SEATTLE TIMES/JR PARTNERS/GETTY IMAGES. Amelia Earhart
(1897 – 1937)
Her mark on history: The first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone
How life would be different without her: Earhart, an aviator born in Kansas, didn’t let her gender stop her from achieving her dreams. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo, and she went on to design clothesand to become a faculty consultant at Purdue University. In 1937, Earhart attempted to fly around the world, and her plane disappeared that year. Her legacy continues to inspire pilots of all genders today, and her bravery proved that women (and men) can do whatever they set their minds to. Earhart’s story is still taught to schoolchildren today. Her words to live by: “ The most effective way to do it is to do it.“
PHOTO: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GETTY IMAGES. Helen Keller
(1880 – 1968)
Her mark on history: The first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, changing public perception of what a disabled person could accomplish
How life would be different without her: Keller didn’t let the fact that she was blind and deaf stop her from becoming a prominent activist, and she eventually co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. Keller earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College in 1904, and she was the first deaf and blind person to do so, setting an example for others to follow. Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan are an example of the power of compassion and determination, and their story is still taught to children in the United States today. Her words to live by: “ Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.“
PHOTO: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES. Harriet Tubman
(1822 – 1913)
Her mark on history: The Underground Railroad and abolitionism
How life would be different without her: Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, and after she escaped, she devoted her life to helping others escape slavery, too. In the 1850s, Tubman served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. She also served as a Union spy during the Civil War. Tubman is celebrated as one of the most prominent figures in the United States’ abolitionist movement. Her words to live by: “ Slavery is the next thing to hell.“
PHOTO: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES. Clara Barton
(1821 – 1912)
Her mark on history: The American Red Cross
How life would be different without her: Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, after serving as a nurse during the Civil War. Her work directly affected countless lives, and the Red Cross continues to help the wounded today. Aside from her work in establishing the aid organization, Barton also knew Susan B. Anthony and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Her words to live by: “ The surest test of discipline is its absence.”
PHOTO: DAVID HUME KENNERLY/GETTY IMAGES. Sandra Day O’Connor
Her mark on history: The first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court
How life would be different without her: Former President Ronald Reagan appointed O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, and she served as an associate justice until her retirement in 2006. As a moderate conservative, O’Connor gained support from both sides of the aisle and served as an example for future justices. O’Connor cast the deciding vote in many notable Supreme Court cases, including 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which she defended women’s rights to choose. Though she is retired, O’Connor continues to be involved in politics — she recently spoke out about why President Obama should nominate a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Her words to live by: “ The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.“
PHOTO: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
(1815 – 1902)
Her mark on history: The women’s suffrage movement
How life would be different without her: Stanton, a formally educated woman born in Johnstown, NY, was involved in the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. In 1848, she helped organize America’s first convention for women’s rights. She later worked with Susan B. Anthony to present a bill on women’s rights to the New York Legislature, and the pair’s efforts eventually led to the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Her words to live by: “ The best protection any woman can have…is courage.“
PHOTO: MPI/ GETTY IMAGES. Dorothea Dix
(1802 – 1887)
Her mark on history: Pioneering treatment for mental health
How life would be different without her: Dorothea Dix, a teacher in Boston, fought tirelessly to de-stigmatize mental illness. After teaching at a local prison and learning of the poor living conditions there, Dix traveled to other prisons in Massachusetts to observe the quality of life for the imprisoned and insane. She took her findings to Massachusetts’ legislature, which led to the creation of America’s first mental institutions. After the mental institutions were formed, Dix also served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses during the American Civil War. When the war was over, Dix continued writing about her experiences and fighting for better treatment of people struggling with mental illness. Her words to live by: “In a world where there is so much to be done, I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.”
PHOTO: ED LACEY/ POPPERFOTO/ GETTY IMAGES. Billie Jean King
Her mark on history: Champion of women’s sports: Former World No. 1 professional tennis player who won 39 Grand Slam titles
How life would be different without her: King was an incredible tennis player — she won six Wimbledon championships as well as four U.S. Open titles. But she’s also lauded as a key figure in the fight for equality in professional sports. During 1973’s “ Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, a nationally televised media event, King beat Bobby Riggs (who was roughly 30 years older than her during the match), and her victory was hailed as a win for female athletes everywhere. That same year, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association. King has also spoken out against the sexism in the way many people discuss female athletes’ appearance, telling CNN in 2015 that commentators should “stop evaluating” their looks and instead focus on their achievements. In addition, she was one of the first openly gay female athletes. Her words to live by: “ Champions keep playing until they get it right.“
PHOTO: THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/ GETTY IMAGES. Lucretia Mott
(1793 – 1880)
Her mark on history: Pioneer of the women’s rights movement
How life would be different without her: Mott, a Quaker, was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who fought for equal rights for all citizens. In 1833, she helped to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and was an organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a landmark women’s rights gathering, where she served as the keynote speaker. During the convention, the attendees penned the Declaration of Sentiments, a list of rights they believed women deserved. Her words to live by: “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”
PHOTO: ADRIAN SHERRATT/ REX SHUTTERSTOCK. Maya Angelou
(1928 – 2014)
Her mark on history: American literature
How life would be different without her: Angelou authored seven autobiographical books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and will be forever beloved for her powerful poems. Born in Missouri, she was an active voice in the civil rights movement. She recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. In addition to gaining national recognition for her writing, Angelou made many people rethink their ideas about sex workers by writing about her own experience as a sex worker. Her words to live by: “ Be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.”
PHOTO: MPI/ GETTY IMAGES. Sacagawea
(1788 – 1812)
Her mark on history: Member of the Lewis and Clark expedition How life would be different without her: A Native American from the Shoshone tribe, Sacajawea was married to French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau when the couple joined the expedition ordered by Thomas Jefferson to explore the lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Sacagawea’s language skills made her an invaluable resource for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the expedition’s leaders, on a trek that took them from St. Louis, MO, to the Pacific Ocean in 1804 to 1806. Sacajawea brought her newborn son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, on the mission, too — he was born just two months before the group headed west. While Sacajawea ended up on the mission largely because of her husband, she proved to be essential to it in her own right, becoming an example for generations of women in the United States.
PHOTO: BILL JOHNSON / GETTY IMAGES. Madeleine Albright
Her mark on history: The first female U.S. secretary of state
How life would be different without her: Born in Czechoslovakia, Albright and her parents moved to the United States when she was a child. Albright has been candid about her childhood experiences — in 2015, she tweeted, “My family fled Hitler and then communism. Becoming an American was the best thing that ever happened to me.” As a diplomat representing the U.S. government, she served as ambassador to the United Nations before Bill Clinton named her secretary of state in 1996. Albright paved the way for Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. She has never been afraid to speak her mind: She recently told CNN that the 2016 GOP primary race is “like children in a school yard calling each other names.” Her words to live by: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”
PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/ GETTY IMAGES. Sojourner Truth
(1797 – 1883)
Her mark on history: The U.S. abolitionism movement How life would be different without her: Sojourner Truth escaped slavery in Ulster County, N.Y., in 1826, along with her infant daughter. Truth also made history when she won a legal battle against a white man to get her son back when he was sold into slavery in Alabama. She was an essential figure in the abolitionism movement, and she is widely recognized for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
Her words to live by: Truth is powerful, and it prevails.”
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Her mark on history: The U.S. Supreme Court
How life would be different without her: Ginsburg was the second female justice ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor was the first). Now, she serves along with two other female justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Before serving on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg fought for women’s rights as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg continues to fight for equality as a Supreme Court justice today. Her words to live by: “Now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay,” Ginsburg said of the Supreme Court during the 10th Circuit Bench & Bar Conference in 2012. “And when I’m sometimes asked, ‘When will there be enough?’ and I say, ‘when there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
PHOTO: L. CONDON/UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES. Susan B. Anthony
(1820 – 1906)
The women’s suffrage movement
How she made her mark on history:
How life would be different without her: A teacher in the New York state school system, Anthony fought for equal education for women and Black people in 19th-century America. She orchestrated the first women’s suffrage convention in Washington, D.C. in 1869, and three years later, was arrested and convicted for voting in Rochester, N.Y. She refused to pay her fine. In 1920, the United States passed the 19th Amendment, unofficially known as the Anthony Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Her words to live by: “ Independence is happiness.”
PHOTO: PAUL ZIMMERMAN/ GETTY IMAGES. Gloria Steinem(born 1934)
How she made her mark on history : The second-wave feminism movement
Steinem is one of modern feminism’s most inspiring voices. She
How life would be different without her: testified in Senate hearings about the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, and has been vocal about a variety of issues that impact women, including reproductive rights, child abuse, and female genital mutilation. She grabbed national attention with her undercover exposé of working as a Playboy bunny, rose to prominence as a columnist for New Yorkmagazine, and cofounded the feminist magazine Ms.
Her words to live by: Imagine we are linked, not ranked.”
PHOTO: RON GALELLA/ WIREIMAGE/ GETTY IMAGES. Rosa Parks
(1913 – 2005)
How she made her mark on history: The Civil Rights movement How life would be different without her: Parks helped spark a revolution when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, AL, in 1955. She was arrested and eventually lost her job as a seamstress at a local department store. But her act of civil disobedience inspired a boycott of Montgomery’s buses that lasted 381 days and drew national attention. The following year, the Supreme Court declared segregation on buses to be unconstitutional — an important victory in the fight for racial equality in the United States.
“I believe we are here on the planet Earth to live, grow up, and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom,”
Her words to live by: Parks told in 1988. Life magazine
PHOTO: MICHAEL KOVAC/ GETTY IMAGES. Jane Goodall
Her mark on history: The world’s leading primatologist
Born in London, Goodall has been fascinated with animals since she was child, and she wrote her doctoral thesis at Cambridge University about her
How life would be different without her: research on the behavior of chimpanzees. She is now one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on the species, which she has studied in Tanzania for more than 50 years. She now advocates on behalf of many endangered animals, and she’s spread awareness about a variety of animal species to people across the globe. Her words to live by: “To achieve global peace, we must not only stop fighting each other, but also stop destroying the natural world.”
PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES. Lucy Stone
(1818 – 1893)
Her mark on history: Abolitionist and suffragist
How life would be different without her: Stone was one of the original suffragists, and an all-around badass. She worked with activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton to establish the first National Women’s Rights Convention, and used her talent as an orator to advocate for women’s rights and ending slavery. She put herself through college by working part time, and was the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree (though she had to go to Ohio to do it).
She was no less principled in her personal life — she refused to marry her husband unless the marriage was guaranteed to be egalitarian, and she kept her own name after they wed.
Her words to live by: “ We ask only for justice and equal rights — the right to vote, the right to our own earnings, equality before the law.“
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