Updated: Jun 7
Throughout the ages, our world has been graced by countless extraordinary women. These 50 Famous Historical Women Who Changed The World are the inspiring, powerful trailblazers who shook the status quo and created ripples of change. These are the tireless crusaders for women's rights, the bold pioneers for racial equality, the ingenious inventors, ground-breaking scientists, and transformative world leaders - women who weren't afraid to step up and make a difference. We still face stark gender discrimination, but let's not forget that we've come a long way and have these fierce women to thank for it. If you're looking for that spark of motivation to leave your own unique stamp on the world, these heroines are your go-to source of inspiration.
On your quest for further empowerment, I've curated a list of unsung heroes from Black History - extraordinary women whose stories deserve to be shared. And for the cinephiles, I've rounded up the ultimate list of feminist films that should be on every movie lover's must-watch list. Get ready to be moved, inspired, and fired up by these remarkable women's lives.
Jane Austen (1775 –1817), the ultimate queen of romantic comedy novels. While she was still in her teens in the early 1810s, she began penning legendary tales like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Her genius didn't receive the recognition it deserved until after her passing, when her brother Henry revealed her as the acclaimed author. Her timeless narratives and literary brilliance continue to enchant us to this day.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). This British mathematician was a visionary far ahead of her time. Often hailed as the world's first computer programmer, her annotations on Babbage’s Analytical Engine served as the first blueprint for computer software. Now, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day every second Tuesday in October to honor women in STEM.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the compassionate 'Lady with the Lamp.' This British nurse pioneered modern nursing, caring for wounded soldiers tirelessly throughout the night during the Crimean War. In 1860, she launched the first science-based nursing school in London, revolutionizing health care as we know it.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922). This courageous woman reshaped investigative journalism at a time when female writers were relegated to society pages. From mental health and poverty to political corruption, Bly wasn't afraid to expose it all. Perhaps most famous for her undercover assignment at the insane asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island, her shocking exposé brought significant improvements to patient care. Plus, she circled the globe in a record-breaking 72 days!
Marie Curie (1867-1934). This bold Polish scientist didn't let the men dominate the field of science. Her pioneering research led to the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium, and she advanced the use of radiation in medicine. She broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1903, and then scooped up another one in 1911 for Chemistry. What a trailblazer!
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), a pivotal women's rights activist and feminist, significantly transformed the women's health landscape by introducing the concept of "birth control." Besides writing informative pamphlets and founding a health clinic for women, Sanger's most groundbreaking accomplishment was securing the FDA's approval for the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, in 1960.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) redefined the role of the First Lady when her husband FDR took office. An influential advocate for human rights, women's rights, and children's causes, Roosevelt went on to serve as the chair of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission in 1945, making a substantial global impact.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) left her mark in aviation history as the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart, who received her pilot's license as the 16th woman ever to do so, mysteriously disappeared during a flight in 1937.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) held an exceptional status as one of the few women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934. Known for her significant contributions to computer science, she helped develop a precursor to the widely-used COBOL language and rose to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) established herself as a leading figure in the art world with her unique, thought-provoking works steeped in magical realism. Kahlo's 1938 self-portrait "The Frame" holds the honor of being the first piece by a 20th-century Mexican artist to be exhibited at the prestigious Louvre.
Lucille Ball (1911-1989) stole America's heart with her legendary comedic performance in the sitcom I Love Lucy, which premiered in 1951. Ball's iconic portrayal on the show, highlighting marital issues and women's role in the workforce, cemented her as one of America's top comedians.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), a star of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, also played a key role in technological innovation by co-inventing a "Secret Communications System." The radio signaling device, designed to prevent enemy interception during WWII, forms the foundation for today's wireless communication technology.
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) emerged as a powerful female figure in India, serving as the country's third prime minister in 1966. Despite the rarity of women in leadership roles in India, Gandhi's influence remained strong for over two decades until her assassination in 1984.
Katherine G. Johnson (1918-2020), an exceptional mathematician, played an integral role in developing the intricate calculations that enabled space travel. Her pivotal contribution to the successful 1969 moon landing is showcased in the film Hidden Figures, which celebrates the achievements of pioneering African American women at NASA.
Naomi Parker (1921-2018) served as the real-life inspiration for the iconic "Rosie the Riveter," symbolizing women's labor force contributions during WWII. Parker's photograph, featuring her working over machinery in a red bandana, was transformed into a powerful wartime poster encouraging women's active participation in the workforce.
Anne Frank (1929-1945) provided a deeply personal perspective of the Holocaust through her poignant diary entries. The posthumous publication of her diaries by her father, Otto Frank, in 1947 has been instrumental in shaping our understanding of this tragic historical period.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) ascended to the throne on February 6, 1952, following the death of her father, King George VI. As Britain's longest-reigning monarch, she enacted numerous significant changes to the monarchy during her reign.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005), a leading figure in the civil rights movement and the local NAACP, sparked the Montgomery boycott by refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. Her courageous stand against segregation propelled the struggle for equal rights in America.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), a renowned American jazz singer, made history in 1958 as the first African American woman to win a Grammy. She garnered accolades for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance that year.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), a British scientist, revolutionized our understanding of DNA. Her use of X-ray diffraction methods led to the discovery of DNA's density and molecular structure, paving the way for the recognition of the DNA double helix.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006) advocated for women's empowerment beyond traditional domestic roles through her seminal work The Feminine Mystique. She later co-founded and presided over the National Organization for Women.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) broke barriers in 1968 as the first Black woman elected to Congress. The Brooklyn-born activist also made history as the first woman and first Black American to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
Celia Cruz (1925-2003), dubbed the "Queen of Salsa," emerged as one of Latin America's most influential musicians during the 1960s. While captivating audiences with her music, Cruz also advocated for her fellow Cubans against Fidel Castro's oppressive regime.
Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was a celebrated poet, singer, and civil rights activist, whose 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made literary history. Angelou penned more than 36 books and had the honor of reciting one of her poems at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
Althea Gibson (1927-2003) made tennis history in 1951 as the first African American woman to compete at Wimbledon, paving the way for future champions like Serena Williams.
Sandra Day O'Connor (1930-Present) made history in 1981 as the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, O'Connor played a crucial role in landmark cases, including Roe v. Wade.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) illuminated Black experiences through her poetic and intimate prose. The influential writer and professor's first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, paved the way for a series of
Primatologist and Anthropologist Jane Goodall (1934-Present)
Commencing her chimpanzee research in 1960 in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park, Jane Goodall’s lifelong study has revealed revolutionary insights into chimpanzee social behaviors. Her dedication to primate studies led her to establish the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 and the Roots and Shoots program in 1991, promoting wildlife conservation.
Pioneering Feminist Gloria Steinem (1934-Present)
As a notable women's rights activist, Gloria Steinem has written books, led marches, and delivered speeches to advance women's liberation. Her enduring advocacy for social justice earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
First Female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)
Appointed by President Clinton in 1996, Albright became the first woman to lead U.S. foreign affairs as the Secretary of State. Advocating for human rights, she worked towards nuclear disarmament and Middle Eastern peace.
Prominent Feminist Author Germaine Greer (1939-Present)
Germaine Greer is recognized for her radical feminist perspective. Her 1970 book, The Female Eunuch, played a critical role in the post-second wave feminist movement, exploring society's gender expectations.
Trailblazing Mountaineer Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
In 1975, Junko Tabei challenged gender norms by becoming the first woman to summit Mount Everest. She further solidified her legacy by conquering the Seven Peaks—the highest summits of the seven continents—in 1992.
Soul Music Icon Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Franklin began her singing career in gospel music, eventually becoming a renowned soul singer known for hits like "Chain of Fools" and "Respect". She made history in 1987 as the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Progressive Activist and Scholar Angela Davis (1944-Present)
Angela Davis has been a leading voice in leftist causes, including feminist movements, the Black Panther Party, and anti-war campaigns. Despite wrongful imprisonment for conspiracy charges in 1970, she remains a stalwart advocate for civil rights, gender equality, and prison abolition.
Country Music Star and Philanthropist Dolly Parton (1946-Present)
Dolly Parton, known for her musical prowess and sharp wit, is also a dedicated philanthropist. Her contributions include the creation of the Imagination Library, a program offering free books to children, and generous donations to Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine research and the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital.
Political Trailblazer Hillary Clinton (1947-Present)
Following her term as First Lady, Hillary Clinton became a U.S. Senator in 2000, later serving as Secretary of State under Barack Obama. In 2016, she was the first woman in U.S. history to secure a major political party's presidential nomination.
Acclaimed Actress Meryl Streep (1949-Present)
Meryl Streep holds the record for the most Oscar nominations—21 in total—with her first win coming in 1980 for Kramer vs. Kramer.
Groundbreaking Film Director Kathryn Bigelow (1951-Present)
In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, which also claimed Best Picture—the first time a film directed by a woman achieved such an honor.
Trailblazing Astronaut Sally Ride (1951-2012)
Sally Ride was the first American woman to journey into space in 1983 aboard the shuttle Challenger. A Stanford graduate and astrophysicist, she stood out among thousands of