50 Famous Women that made an impact on History

1. Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Portrait of Marie Curie

Marie Curie is one of the most influential scientists in history. Credited with the discovery of radium and polonium, she was the first person to receive two Nobel prizes, dedicating years of her life to the study of radioactivity. 

With an insatiable thirst for knowledge, her studies were her passion. Coming from a poor family in Poland, she could not have funded university alone, so she joined her sister in Paris in 1891 to read mathematics and physics at Sorbonne University.

She married fellow physicist Pierre Curie, and the pair dedicated years to the study of radioactivity, identifying and isolating both radium and polonium through years of physically demanding work processing minerals. 

In 1903 she and Pierre received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on radioactivity. After Pierre died in 1906, Marie succeeded him to become the first female Professor at the Sorbonne. Her second Nobel Prize was awarded in in 1911, for creating a means of measuring radioactivity. 

During the war, Marie developed mobile X-ray units to diagnose and treat wounded soldiers. She received prizes and honorary degrees from universities around the world. Marie died in 1934 from radiation-related illness.

2. Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Portrait of Helen Keller

An American author and advocate for people with disabilities, Hellen Keller was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her life tells the story of overcoming great disadvantage.

Left without sight or vision by an illness in her infancy, Helen’s family hired a tutor when she was seven to help her learn to communicate as a deafblind person.

In her twenties, she wrote her autobiography and graduated from Radcliffe College, Massachusetts. At the age of 35, she co-founded an organization to help veterans blinded in combat. Campaigning on behalf of many socially disadvantaged groups, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.  

Helen retired from public life in 1961, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and died in 1968 at the age of 87.

3. Anne Frank (1929-1945)

Anne Frank sitting

Anne Frank was a German Jewish girl who went into hiding in Amsterdam during Nazi occupation in the Second World War.

Presented with a diary on her thirteenth birthday, Anne used it to document events in hiding, as well as her feelings and thoughts about life in her family’s cramped hiding place. Tragically, the hiding place was discovered in 1944, and Anne was deported to a concentration camp, where she sadly died in 1945.

Anne wanted to become a journalist and so her father published her diary in June 1947, to honor her memory and to raise awareness of the dangers of racism and discrimination.

Her diary lives on to tell the story of groups persecuted by the Nazis, has been translated into around 70 languages and has been adapted for stage and screen. 

4. Coco Chanel (1883-1971)

Portrait of Coco Chanel

The legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel is credited with revolutionizing women’s fashion. Recognizing that women needed more functional apparel for modern life, she used her sleek, elegant designs to encourage women to abandon the stuffy, complicated clothes of the 19th century. This contributed towards a gradual change in the way society viewed women over the 20th century.

From her origins in a strict Catholic orphanage, Coco built a fashion and perfume empire during the early 20th century, employing over 4,000 women.

Never married, she wore her independence as a badge of honor. She enjoyed relationships with many key figures in the fashion industry, before she died alone in 1971, after a hard day’s work. Her life story has been told in countless books and films, including the Broadway musical Coco, starring Katharine Hepburn.

5. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, Empress of India (1819-1901)

Queen Victoria

With a 63-year reign, Queen Victoria was one of the most notable monarchs in British history. She oversaw Britain’s age of widespread industrial expansion, economic progress, and growth of the Empire. 

On the advice of her husband, Prince Albert, and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, she learned how to best use her influence as the leader of a young empire: exploring and colonizing new overseas territories. By the end of her reign in 1901, she ruled over nearly a quarter of the world’s people. 

Despite several attempts on her life, she was incredibly popular with her subjects, even as she retired from public life after the early death of her husband in 1861.

For over a century, Victoria held the title of longest reigning monarch of the UK, before being surpassed by Elizabeth II in 2015. 

The remnants of the British Empire as directed under Victoria is still visible today, with the formation of the Commonwealth, a network of nations working towards common goals of development, democracy, and peace. 

6. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo

A Mexican painter and icon of female creativity, Frida Kahlo is instantly recognizable to any art aficionado.

The daughter of a German immigrant, she faced many serious health problems in her life, but survived to become a renowned name in the art world.

After contracting polio as a child, her father encouraged her to participate in traditionally male sports – wrestling, swimming and soccer – to aid recovery.

Frida began painting after being injured in a car accident as a teen. She married muralist Diego Rivera shortly after, who was famed for capturing the lives of working-class Mexicans in his art. Frida received similar commissions from the Mexican government, giving nods to important Mexican women in her portraits.

After a lucrative career that led her to live in both the United States and Europe, Frida received her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953 despite being bedridden. 

7. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

Rosa Parks

One of the most famous names in 20th Century American history, Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist and an iconic symbol of the freedom movement. 

The granddaughter of former slaves, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Following her arrest, other African Americans joined in a boycott of the city’s buses in protest. 

The standoff lasted for over a year before the Supreme Court ruled that the laws on segregation of buses in Alabama was unconstitutional. 

Rosa was decorated for her bravery and efforts in civil rights, receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

8. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst was a British activist for women’s rights, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, and ultimately started a conversation that led to women being granted the right to vote in the UK.

Born in Manchester as the eldest daughter of 10 children, Emmeline was disillusioned with the way her parents prioritized their sons’ education and advancement over hers. 

After the death of her husband, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose aim was to enfranchise British women. During the war, she strongly encouraged WSPU members to fill the traditional roles of men, including working men’s factory jobs while they were away at war.

The success of the WSPU-led efforts during wartime convinced the British government to grant limited voting rights for some women.

Sadly, Emmeline died on 14 June 1928, just two weeks before she would have achieved her dream. On 2nd July that year, Parliament granted full voting rights to all women.

Pankhurst changed the shape of women’s rights in the UK. Time Magazine comments that she “shook society into a new pattern, from which there could be no going back”.

9. Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Mother Teresa, known in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was a nun and missionary famed for her humanitarian work.

After losing her father as a child, Teresa learned her deep sense of charity from her mother, who would regularly feed the destitute residents of their hometown in Macedonia.

At 18, she joined a convent in Ireland before being posted to a school in India, where she taught girls from the poorest Bengali families, helping them to improve their lives through education. A few years later, though, she left the school to work directly in the slums of Calcutta, building schools and infrastructure for those who needed it most.

With endorsement from the Church, she founded a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, focused on expanding the humanitarian aid to new cities.

By the time Teresa died in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity consisted of over 600 chapters in more than 120 countries worldwide. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her efforts in helping the suffering.

10. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

Amelia Earhart Portrait

The most famous female aviator of all time, Amelia Earhart was a dynamic, brave spirit who helped to improve public acceptance of aviation.

After discovering her passion for flying at an air show in her college days, Amelia became the first woman – and second person ever – to cross the Atlantic in 1928, after three women had died earlier that year attempting the same record. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on completing the route.

As well as making the transatlantic crossing, Amelia set many early aviation records, including being the first person to fly solo from Oakland to Honolulu, and between Mexico City and Newark.

Amelia’s achievements changed the public perception of flying. Many people had not previously seen aviation as a feasible method of transport, nor was it thought to be within the capabilities of a woman to pilot an aircraft. Following Amelia’s aviation successes, the public began to warm to these ideas.

Sadly, Amelia disappeared in 1937 while attempting the first female solo flight around the world.

11. Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914)

Bertha von Suttner

An Austrian pacifist who spent nearly forty years publishing anti-war messages, Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the second-ever female Nobel Laureate, after Marie Curie.

Bertha faced a difficult childhood where she struggled against stigma due to her mixed-class background: her father, a member of the nobility, had married a commoner. She became fluent in French, English and Italian, and travelled Europe working for various prominent figures, including Alfred Nobel, the chemist who gave his name to the Nobel Prize.

From shortly after she married in 1876, she began to publish novels, short stories and essays promoting anti-war messages. In a time when pacifism was extremely unpopular, Bertha was heavily criticized for her campaigns, but she proceeded with her work, founding the Austrian Peace Society in the process.

Also a feminist, in 1889 Bertha wrote the anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms, which explored the impact of conflict on women. This book was translated into dozens of languages.

12. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Byron Lovelace

The daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace is considered to be one of the first-ever computer programmers.

Ada was a talented woman who studied advanced mathematics under the tutelage of Charles Babbage, the ‘father of computing’. Fascinated by his ideas to build a machine that could perform mathematical calculations, she expanded them further, creating new theories including the concept of looping, still a fundamental of programming logic to this day.

Ada’s work was not discovered until around 100 years after she died, in the 1950s. Since it became well-known, she has been granted many posthumous honors for her work.

13. Billie Jean King (1943-)

Billie Jean King

A former world-ranked number 1 tennis player and pioneer for equality, social justice and LGBTQ rights, Billie Jean King was named by Life magazine as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th Century.

Billie Jean’s first motivation to campaign for social justice came in 1955 when she was barred from a tennis photograph for wearing shorts instead of a traditional tennis dress. She began playing professionally in 1959 and held the rank of world #1 for 6 different years, winning an avalanche of titles, including three Grand Slam titles in 1972 and a record 20 Wimbledon titles.

Billie Jean formed the Women’s Tennis Association and used her position to negotiate equal prize money in tennis for men and women. Following this, she formed the Women’s Sports Foundation, improving access to sports for girls. During this time, her controversial relationship with a woman became public and she lost support from her sponsors.

However, Billie Jean continues to campaign for LGBTQ and gender rights. She founded a nonprofit to promote inclusion and diversity for employers in 2014.

14. Irena Sendlerowa (1910-2008)

Irena Sendlerowa

Irena Sendlerowa was a Polish social worker credited with saving nearly 2,500 Jewish children from certain death under the Nazis.

The daughter of a physician in Warsaw, Irena was a social worker when Warsaw’s ghetto was established under Nazi occupation. Her job gave her special permission to enter and leave the ghetto, and she used her unique position to smuggle Jewish children out, running a secret support network.

After helping the children escape, she gave them false papers and housed them with families willing to hide them. She kept records of each child in a jar that she buried in a friend’s garden, to help relatives find each other if needed.

Irena’s covert operation was discovered, and she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, who tortured her and sentenced her to death. Although she escaped, she had to hide, assuming a false identity for the rest of the war. 

Since her story was discovered later in the 20th Century, Irena has received Poland’s highest honor and other awards for her compassion and valor.  

15. Fatima al-Fihri (c. 800-880 AD)

Fatima al-Fihri was a Tunisian woman credited with building the first university in the world.

Following the death of her father and husband, Fatima used her inheritance to purchase and rebuild a mosque in Fes, Morocco, also building an education center within it. She did this to thank the community that welcomed her family after they relocated from Kairouan, Tunisia. 

She supervised the construction herself, leaving room for 22,000 worshippers in the largest mosque in Africa. 

The university has remained fully operational since it was founded in 859 AD, pre-dating Oxford and Cambridge universities by around 200 years. It is a traditional university, focusing on Islamic religious and legal sciences.

16. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale

Nicknamed “The Lady with The Lamp”, Florence Nightingale is regarded as the founder of modern nursing. 

An intelligent young girl, Florence found her calling in nursing as her way to reduce human suffering and serve God. After a brief career working with patients, she realized her talents were best used in training other nurses. 

During the Crimean War, Florence oversaw the nursing of British and allied soldiers in Turkey back to health.

After her experiences in the war, she founded schools for trainee nurses and midwives, formalizing secular nursing education and making it a newly viable option for women who wanted employment outside of the home. Many of the statistical models she developed to assess patients still exist and are relevant today.

17. Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930)

Mary Harris Jones "Mother Jones"

The most famous female labor activist of the 19th Century, Mary Harris Jones spent over forty years organizing and participating in strikes to help workers in the fight for labor rights. 

Originally from Ireland, she moved to Toronto, Canada with her family at age 5. After settling in Chicago and starting a family, she suffered two great losses: her husband and four children in 1867 due to yellow fever, and everything she owned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

To cope with her grief, she sought solace at Knights of Labor meetings and, while there, found an outlet for her passion. Shocked at the number of working poor during industrialization, low wages, long hours and lack of health insurance, she helped to organize strikes, starting with the Great Railroad Strike of Pittsburgh in 1877.

Throughout the late 19th Century, Mary took part in and led hundreds of strikes, organizing the workers to make the most impact on the authorities. As a great orator, she helped industrial workers raise the profile of their poor labor rights. 

As she aged, she showed no signs of slowing, with her still organizing miners well past her 90th birthday.

18. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Frankin was an English chemist credited with making a crucial contribution to DNA research. 

Born in London, Rosalind enrolled in Cambridge University at age 18 to read physics and chemistry. After a brief spell in Paris working on X-ray crystallography, she moved to King’s College London to continue her work in this field.

During her time there, her colleague Maurice Wilkins shared Rosalind’s images with Cambridge academics James Watson and Francis Crick, including a photograph of the DNA double helix structure that Rosalind had captured. This provided the inspiration for Watson and Crick’s famous discovery, revealing the chemical structure of DNA. 

As we know, the discovery of DNA has changed the world. It improved medical treatments, helped us develop new drugs and vaccines, and diagnose diseases better. Not only useful in medicine, DNA helped us to increased crop yield and raise the nutritional value of foods. It also led to huge advancements in the criminal justice system.

Sadly, Rosalind died of cancer in her late thirties, but her contribution to the field of genetics forever changed the world.

19. Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Clara Barton

One of the most honored women in American history, Clara Barton was nicknamed the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the American Civil War, and is the founder of the American Red Cross.

After the war broke out, Clara, like other women, helped to collect medical and other supplies for soldiers, but her devotion to serving others led her to the battlefield, to help the soldiers most in need. She risked her life to treat, cook for, and bring supplies to wounded soldiers. 

After her service in the war, she took a trip to Europe, where she was inspired by the Swiss-based organization, the Red Cross, which called for international cooperation to support and protect the sick and wounded during wartime, as well as providing neutral aid to those caught in conflict. 

On her return to the United States, Clara founded the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 59, serving as president for over twenty years before retiring at the age of 83.

Clara’s devotion to serving others was forever immortalized in the American Red Cross, and her legacy of serving humanity lives on to this day through the organization’s missions and volunteers.

20. Sacagawea (c.1788-c.1812)


This daughter of a Shoshone chief is credited with making huge contributions to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which took place between 1803 and 1806.

After being captured and sold to a French-Canadian settler at the age of 12, Sacagawea was invited to join the Lewis and Clark expedition as a Shoshone interpreter a few years later.

With substantial survival skills, including the ability to identify edible plants, she helped lead the expedition to its success. A woman travelling with her newborn child, Sacagawea acted as a symbol of peace to the native tribes, as well as the conduit between explorers and the indigenous population.

Through Sacagawea, the Corps of Discovery was able to cooperate peacefully with tribes to cross the Rocky Mountains. This led them to make useful advancements in mapping the Upper Missouri and confirming overland access to the Pacific, travelling to places that had never been seen before by settlers. 

The expedition also produced many important zoological and botanical discoveries, noting dozens of previously unencountered species.

Sacagawea’s contribution to the exploration of the United States led her to feature on a dollar coin minted in 2000.

21. Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

Elizabeth Fry

A pioneering campaigner for prison reform in Europe, Elizabeth Fry dedicated most of her life to helping the less fortunate.

As a Quaker with a family of 10 children, she travelled throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and Europe to inspect prisons and report her findings, even voluntarily spending a night in prison to fully understand the conditions endured by prisoners.

Elizabeth found the conditions in prisons to be squalid and unsanitary, and imagined that giving prisoners more humane conditions would improve their self-respect and help them to reform, to avoid future reoffending.  

She published a book in 1819 entitled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England, raising awareness of the issues to wider society. In addition to this, she provided many practical solutions to contribute to the prisoners’ wellbeing: separating the sexes, classifying criminals, female supervision for women, and useful employment, among others.

Queen Victoria supported her work, granting Elizabeth multiple audiences with her. Robert Peel, the Home Office minister at the time, was equally as impressed with her work. Elizabeth’s efforts led to the passing of the 1823 Gaol Act which sought to enforce minimum living standards in prisons.

22. Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly

Raised in Pennsylvania, Nelly Bly was a journalist who made significant contributions to reform in the treatment of the mentally ill. She spent two years writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, before moving to New York City to write for the New York World

One of her first assignments was her 1887 exposé on the conditions of asylum patients at Blackwell’s Island. She spent ten days on the island, posing as a mental patient. The operation was a success, highlighting disturbing conditions at the institution, including neglect and physical abuse.

The exposé’s popularity sparked a large-scale investigation of the asylum, which in turn led to legislation improving a whole host of conditions for mentally ill patients in institutions across New York State, including more funding, physician appointments and regulations against overcrowding and fire hazards.

Her achievements aren’t limited to the improvements in the mental health sector. Endorsed by the New York World, Nellie took a trip around the world, aiming to beat the fictional 80-day record of Phileas Fogg in the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. She completed the trip in just over 72 days, setting a real-world record which was beaten a year later. 

24. Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913)

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is an icon of the abolitionist movement who took great personal risks to free dozens of slaves in the 19th century.

Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman was first enslaved at 5 years old. Being beaten by her masters from a young age led to her suffering narcolepsy and severe headaches for the rest of her life.

She successfully escaped from slavery in 1849, when she and two brothers fled north via the figurative Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses to help enslaved African Americans escape to freedom.

Having found her freedom, she returned to the South many times to help dozens of others escape slavery. In her role as the conductor of the Underground Railroad, she helped former slaves to find food, shelter, and jobs in the North. Travelling only at night and under extreme secrecy, she was never caught, and she never lost an escapee.

After the Civil War began, Harriet worked for the Union Army, becoming the first African American woman to serve in the military. Her roles included scout, spy, guerrilla soldier and nurse. 

25. Alice Milliat (1884-1957)

A French pioneer of women’s sports, Alice Milliat’s tireless campaigning ignited conversations that led to women’s inclusion in the Olympic Games.

A translator, but also a keen sportswoman, Alice requested in 1919 that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allow women to compete in track and field events. The organization flatly refused.

In protest, Alice founded the International Women’s Sports Federation (IWSF) in 1921, a separate body to oversee women’s sports. The IWSF organized four Women’s World Games between 1922 and 1934, which were met with overwhelming popularity at the time.

Seeing the threat posed by continuing to exclude women from the main Olympic Games, the IOC reversed their original decision, choosing to include women’s athletics in the Olympics from 1928.

Although the IWSF collapsed in 1934, it prompted sporting organizations to increase recognition of women’s sports, a process that is still ongoing today.

26. Ruth Handler (1916-2002)

Ruth Handler was the president of Mattel and creator of the Barbie doll. 

The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Ruth was an American stenographer who ran furniture and toy businesses with her high school boyfriend and later husband. 

Ruth was inspired to create Barbie on a trip to Europe in 1956. Three years later, Ruth launched her doll, named Barbie after her daughter, with a view to inspiring girls to live out their dreams through Barbie’s wardrobe of work clothes. 

The outfits launched through the decades were relevant to groundbreaking women’s achievements at the time. Including an astronaut’s suit in 1965, a pilot outfit in 1999, game developer and president outfits in 2016, Barbie’s wardrobe options gave girls clear options for career aspirations.

In Ruth’s own words, “Through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices”. 

Barbie became a global icon and Mattel a multibillion-dollar business, with over a billion dolls sold worldwide since 1959.

27. Ida B Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells Barnett

Born into slavery, Ida B Wells-Barnett was a journalist, activist and campaigner for African American rights.

Through her books Southern Horrors and The Red Record, she raised awareness of the increase in racially motivated lynchings after the end of the American Civil War. 

Following the lynching of one of her friends, Ida began investigating instances of white mob violence, suggesting they were being used as a vehicle to enforce white supremacy and intimidate African Americans. 

In 1892, Ida ran an exposé on racially motivated lynchings, which provoked such strong reaction that she was forced to flee Memphis, Tennessee, where she lived.

Along with other African American leaders, Ida led efforts to boycott the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, in protest at the exclusion of the black community from the fair.

Ida was present during the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which to this day works to eliminate race-based discrimination in the United States.

28. Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner

Celebrated after World War II as “the mother of the atomic bomb”, Austrian-Swedish scientist Lise Meitner completed research that led to the discovery of nuclear fission, and ultimately the invention of the atomic bomb.

Fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 to settle in Sweden, Lise developed a 30-year working partnership with fellow physicist Otto Hahn, exploring radioactive substances.

The pair’s research led to the discovery of nuclear fission. In a world where it was thought impossible to split uranium atoms, Lise’s theory that a uranium atom can be split to render barium was a huge leap in the field of nuclear physics. 

Lise’s research partner Otto Hahn proved her theory through experiments, for which he received the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. As a Jewish woman living in exile, Lise received no credit for her role in the ground-breaking discovery.

Described on her tombstone as “A physicist who never lost her humanity”, Lise was invited to work on the Manhattan Project (1942-45), but her opposition to the atomic bomb led her to decline the offer. 

29. Katharine Graham (1917-2001)

Katharine Graham

A journalist and business executive, Katharine Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. During her leadership of the Washington Post Company, she transformed the newspaper into one of the leading periodicals in the US. 

Her father, a publisher, bought the Washington Post in 1933, with Katharine joining the editorial staff a year later. While she stepped away from active involvement in running the paper to raise a family, she and her husband later purchased the company from her father.

Following her husband’s death in 1963, Katharine assumed the role as president of the Washington Post Company. During her leadership, she encouraged a culture of aggressive investigative journalism, overseeing the publishing of Pentagon Papers and coverage of the Watergate scandal that ultimately caused President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

She assumed the position of CEO of the Washington Post Company in 1972, a post she held until 1991, becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

30. Katia Krafft (1942-1991)

Katia Krafft

Katia was a French volcanologist who educated authorities across the world in the importance of volcano hazard mitigation plans.

With her husband Maurice, she spent her life documenting volcanic eruptions, using the images she shot to increase awareness about the serious risk to life posed by lava. Maurice and Katia would fearlessly take measurements, footage, and samples just feet away from live erupting volcanoes, documenting how they affect the ecosystem. 

The footage that Katia and Maurice shot was instrumental in gaining the cooperation of governments in developing volcano safety and evacuation procedures, which are still in use today. 

The Kraffts died in 1991 during the eruption of the Unzen volcano in Japan, where they were killed by pyroclastic flow.

31. Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999)

Marie Van Brittan Brown was an African American woman and inventor of the first home security system. She is credited with inventing closed-circuit television.

Marie worked as a nurse and her husband Albert as an electronics technician. Due to their irregular working hours, they quickly established that in their home neighborhood of Queens, New York City, they would need additional personal security, due to slow police response times and high crime rates.

The security system she developed included cameras, peepholes, monitors, a two-way microphone, and an alarm button that could be used to alert police to the presence of criminals.

Marie filed her patent in 1966, which was granted in 1969. The system she developed influenced modern home security systems that are still in use today.

32. Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973)

Beulah Louise Henry Lady Edison

Nicknamed “Lady Edison” for all the inventions she created, Beulah Louise Henry was the most prolific female innovator of the 1920s, with around 110 inventions to her name.

Self-educated and from Memphis, Tennessee, she attributed her powerful sense of creativity to the process of teaching herself. She proved that women could succeed as engineers without formal training.

The range of Beulah’s inventions is huge, ranging from a vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer, to children’s toys. Creating modifications to sewing machines and typewriters was the source of many of her inventions. 

The Journal of the Patent Office Society, which granted all 49 patents applied for during her career, named her “America’s leading feminine inventor”. 

Beulah was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for her contributions to technological innovation.

33. Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts

Described by the British bank, Coutts, as “one of the most radical philanthropists of her time”, Angela Burdett-Coutts generously and unvaryingly used her personal fortune to help those less fortunate than herself.

As the granddaughter of banker Thomas Coutts, she inherited a huge sum of money on his death, but because 19th-century social conventions dictated that she was unable to enter the business world, she shifted her focus to philanthropic projects.

Angela’s complete philanthropic portfolio is diverse and generous. Just a fraction of her projects include the following: building homes for the poor, installing a source of fresh water in London, funding scholarships at prestigious education institutions, supplying equipment to Florence Nightingale to improve nursing hygiene, supporting army hospitals in South Africa, financing the construction of London hospitals, supplying lifeboats to the British authorities, and funding relief efforts during the Great Potato Famine of Ireland.

Angela was granted a peerage in 1871 by Queen Victoria for her efforts in philanthropy.

34. Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1811-1896)

Harriet Beecher-Stowe

American abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was an influential work that galvanized the anti-slavery movement prior to the American Civil War.

After meeting fugitive slaves on the covert network “The Underground Railroad”, Harriet wanted to inspire social justice and positive change. In response to tightened laws on fugitive slaves, she wrote and published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

Harriet’s novel was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible. It tells the story of a long-suffering black slave, uncovering many of the harsh realities of a life in slavery, and featuring a strong call to end the oppression of African Americans.

Her home in Hartford, Connecticut has been preserved and is now a museum.

35. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Hedy Lamarr

Austrian-American actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr, pioneered the technology that was the forerunner to WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.

A bright young girl, Hedy was inspired by her father, who would explain to her how different machines in their lives worked. This gave her a thirst for knowledge and innovation.

Before she explored the world of inventing, she made a living through a successful acting career, mystifying Hollywood audiences with her accent, grace and beauty. 

Hedy had a knowledge of wartime weapons from her first marriage to an Austrian arms dealer. Using this knowledge, she designed a revolutionary new communication system in 1942 to help military torpedoes find their targets without being intercepted.

Although the U.S. Navy ultimately didn’t make use of her invention during the Second World War, the system she devised is related to Bluetooth and WiFi technologies, causing her to be known as “the mother of WiFi” and be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. 

36. Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Rachel Carson

Nature writer Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and conservationist, who began the contemporary environmental movement.

Born on a Pennsylvania farm in 1907, Rachel inherited a love of nature from her mother. By age 10, she was writing for children’s magazines.

As an adult, she combined these two passions to write books about aquatic life. Her most famous work, though, is the 1962 book Silent Spring, which details the dangers of using pesticides, for humans, animals, and plants.

A 1963 TV special on Silent Spring attracted 15 million viewers, bringing the dangers of pesticides into the public eye for the first time.

Her book led to a nationwide ban on some pesticides and galvanized the movement that eventually led to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Sadly, Rachel died only a year later, but after her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her services to the environment.

37. Esther Peterson (1906-1997)

Renowned for her contributions to the labor movement, the women’s movement, as well as consumer advocacy, Esther Peterson’s passion for social and commercial justice led her into a 50-year career in activism.

As a young woman, Esther was bemused by the unfair working conditions in industry, especially for female and African American workers: long hours, low wages, and little stability. Passionate to make a change, she joined the staff of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union (ACWU), where she encountered future president John F Kennedy.

On his inauguration, Kennedy named Peterson head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. She travelled the country listening to female workers’ problems, contributing heavily to the Equal Pay Act, which was passed in 1963.

In addition to her work towards pay equality, Esther saw great value in encouraging commercial companies to be more responsible to their consumers. 

She spent twenty years representing the voice of consumers, lobbying manufacturers to be transparent and truthful in their advertising. Her campaigns led to many innovations that still exist today: “sell by” dates, price per unit markings on supermarket shelves, labels with nutritional values and standardized packaging.

38. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt

Named “First Lady of the World” by President Harry S. Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most famous human rights activists in history.

The wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she reinvented the traditional role of the First Lady, which was formerly mostly a social role. Instead, Eleanor used her position to raise awareness of human rights, children’s welfare, and women’s issues, touring the country to learn and understand more about the people she wanted to help.

After leaving the White House on the death of her husband, Eleanor was appointed to chair the UN’s Human Rights Commission, where she helped to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Her contribution to history is being one of the first public officials to raise awareness of social injustice and promote humanitarian causes. Many other high-profile public officials have since followed in her footsteps.

39. Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946)

Eleanor Rathbone

One of the most inspirational female Members of British Parliament (MP), Eleanor Rathbone was a campaigner focused on social reform, credited with the introduction of the Family Allowance (now known as child benefits) in the UK.

Elected in 1929 as an independent MP, during a time when women were political outsiders, Eleanor’s determination for change was obvious. She campaigned on dozens of issues affecting women and children globally, from forced marriage in Palestine to female circumcision in Africa.

Always at the forefront of her mind was the introduction of the Family Allowance in the UK. Originally dismissed as a ridiculous idea, it took over 20 years of Eleanor’s tireless campaigning, gaining support from powerful industry figures, and presenting the arguments to Parliament, for the argument to finally be won. In 1946 the family allowance was made legal in the UK, payable directly to mothers.  

An understated revolutionary, Eleanor changed the dynamic of family life in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century. The introduction of Family Allowance gave women and children more financial freedom, without having to depend on the breadwinner father. 

40. Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Anning

A paleontologist and fossil collector, Mary Anning made some of the most important geological finds of all time.

From a poor family, Mary spent her days trawling beaches to find items to sell. Her father was a fossil collector, which led Mary to teach herself geology and anatomy.

At age 12, Mary discovered and dug out a 5.2-metre long skeleton near her home. The creature’s species was a mystery; first thought to be a crocodile, scientists debated the creature for years before terming it an ichthyosaur.

This was the first of many great finds for Mary. She uncovered dozens of previously unknown fossils in the years that followed, selling them to scientists and museums, fueling public interest in the field of geology.

Although her finds informed many research papers at the time, the scientific community would not credit her with the work. As a woman, Mary was unable to join the Geological Society of London, and ultimately, she died in poor financial straits in 1847.

Undoubtedly, the contributions Mary made to geology and paleontology are indisputable. During her lifetime, geology had become established as a scientific discipline. Many of her finds now feature in London’s Natural History Museum.

41. Fatima Jinnah (1893-1967)

Fatima Jinnah

Regarded by many as “the mother of Pakistan”, Fatima Jinnah played a vital role in the foundation of the country. Born in Karachi, India, during British rule, Fatima became a leader of the Pakistani independence movement from India. 

In the early 20th century, British India comprised an area covering much of South Asia. Unrest and divergence between the Hindu and Islam populations under British rule led to religious violence between the two groups. 

Fatima’s brother Sister of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, she lived with him for around 30 years, accompanying him on numerous tours to raise support for the 

After a short career in dentistry, she left the profession to live with her brother, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, on his plans for an independent nation for Indian Muslims. She worked for the Muslim League, a political party aimed at finding a two-state solution to the crisis of religion between Muslims and Hindus. Fatima accompanied Mohammed Ali on numerous tours, gathering support from Indian Muslim women.

After the formation of Pakistan in 1947, Fatima helped to settle refugees during the transfer of power, forming groups for women and female students.

42. Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper

A mathematician and rear admiral in the US Navy, Grace Hopper was a pioneer in developing computer technology and helped to create UNIVAC, one of the world’s earliest commercial computers.

She taught mathematics at Vassar after becoming one of the first women to earn a PhD in mathematics.

During World War II, she joined the US Naval Reserves, where she was assigned to work on their computers. She later retired from the navy but was recalled because of her computer skills, to help with standardizing the Navy’s computer languages.

Among the impressions Grace left on history is the coining of the term bug to describe a computer defect. When a moth infiltrated the circuits of the first large-scale automatic calculator, this was the word Grace used to describe it.

Due to her contributions to the field of computing, Grace was named the first ever Computer Science Man of the Year in 1969 by the Data Processing Management Association. Part of her legacy is the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which encourages women to enter the field of computing.

43. Empress Cixi of China (1835-1908)

Empress Dowager Cixi

A controversial, but impactful leader, Empress Cixi of China led her country through a plethora of economic and military reforms, which helped transform China into a more modern world power.

Determination led her to her position as empress. From an unassuming background, she joined Emperor Xianfeng’s harem, giving birth to his only surviving son.

After Emperor Xianfeng died during the second Opium Wars, Cixi staged a coup and removed the group of men designated to lead the empire until her son reached the age of 18. She installed herself as the interim empress of China, seeing huge opportunities for reform in her country. Sadly, her son died just two years into his rule after coming of age, after which Cixi regained her position as Empress

Before Cixi’s 50-year reign, China was largely a medieval society, but by the end, it was completely transformed. She oversaw the construction of railroads, stabilize public finances, built a navy, and encouraged trade with other countries. Coal mining and electricity were two more modern inventions that Cixi helped to install.

44. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Louisa May Alcott

A novelist from New England, Louisa May Alcott shaped the future of American literature by introducing strong, educated heroines in her books.

A supporter of women’s rights and suffrage movements, Louisa contributed to several publications during her life in support of this and chose strong female characters to feature in her fiction.

When her publisher asked her to write a novel for young women, Louisa produced her most famous work, the autobiographical Little Women (1868), telling the story of the young tomboy, Jo March. Little Women was the first book to feature a young, female protagonist with an unconventional spirit. 

Louisa’s work helped to challenge the conventional image of women in the 19th Century, helping young women at the time to dream of a non-traditional life.

45. Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)

Indira Gandhi

The former Prime Minister of India and daughter of the first Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi was one of the first female political leaders in the world.

Her father Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, had attempted to unify into one nation the fragmented cultural, ethnic and religious tribes that had existed together as British India. 

When soft-spoken Indira gained power in 1966, she was confronted with the same problems, and struggled to sanction dissidents without taking an authoritarian approach. Despite this, she established many social reform programs and led India to a stunning victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh War, so she received widespread support by most of the population. 

After being thrown out of office in 1977, Indira took office for the second time in 1980, until her assassination in 1984. Indira was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards, which sparked four days of riots, leaving over 8,000 Indian Sikhs dead in revenge attacks.

Indira’s son, Rajiv, succeeded her as prime minister.

46. Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) 

Mary Baker Eddy

Mary Baker Eddy was a spiritual pioneer and the first woman to set up a lasting America-based religion, the Church of Christ, Scientist.

Born to devout Congregationalists, Mary saw many personal misfortunes during her life, suffering illness, divorce, the loss of many family members in quick succession, and a fractured relationship with her son.

The Bible was a constant in her life, and Mary would study Jesus’ healings during her periods of illness. She developed a new method to cope with sickness, and taught this to others, which quickly gave her a small following.

Mary founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879, which later became the fastest growing religion in the United States. At the core of its theology is the idea that, like Jesus, followers can pray and build towards developing “The mind of Christ” – a mental state that overrules any physical limitations in the mortal world.

In 2008 there were around 400,000 members of the Christian Science congregation.

47. Vera Atkins (1908-2000)

Vera Atkins

A Romanian intelligence agent working with the Allies in the Second World War, Vera Atkins has been called “The Most Powerful Woman in the History of Espionage”. 

Her career as a spy began in Bucharest, with Vera gathering intelligence from the German ambassador while outwardly working as a translator for a steel business. She smuggled information to Winston Churchill, who recruited her to a high-ranking position in his Special Operations Executive secret service. 

In this position, Vera administered some of the most sensitive secret operations during WWII, running networks of spies that she trained, mentored, and sent into occupied France. Unfortunately, she was betrayed by the pilot who flew her agents to France, leading to the capture of many agents. 118 of 400 agents in Vera’s network were missing when France was liberated in 1944.

After the war, Vera’s personal values and conscience compelled her to account for each agent who died in service to her mission. Described by captured Germans as “the most skilled interrogator they had ever faced”, she interrogated defeated soldiers in the postwar years to learn the fate of each agent. Remarkably, she managed to account for all 118, 117 of whom had been killed.

48. Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

Katharine Hepburn

Ranked by the American Film Institute as the top American screen actress of all time, Katharine Hepburn was a Hollywood star whose career spanned over 60 years. 

Katharine won a record four Academy Award wins for acting, including Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). She was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and played Coco Chanel in the Broadway hit Coco.

What was remarkable about Katharine, though, was that she brought a previously unseen and undesirable strength of character into leading female roles.

Beautiful and witty, with quirky mannerisms, Katharine had an unconventional attitude and no interest in selling herself as a traditional sex symbol. She was outspoken, refusing to acquiesce to the traditional Hollywood starlet convention. Honoring her personality as a tough, independent single woman, Katharine never wore makeup, preferred to wear men’s pants, refused to give interviews, and declined to bask in the glow of media attention.

She played a vital role for women who weren’t attracted to traditional, prescriptive gender roles, and helped define the idea of the “modern woman”.

49. Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962)

Frances Glessner Lee was an American woman, known as the “mother of forensic science”, who co-opted traditionally female crafts to develop new forensic science techniques. 

Frances was the first female police captain in the US, and brought to the role her own spin on traditional, male-dominated investigative work. She supported and transformed the emerging field of homicide investigation through the creation of miniature crime scenes, called “nutshells”, which she used to teach investigators the methods to properly assess a crime scene.

Not only were the dioramas works of art in themselves, they challenged trainees’ powers of observation and deduction, offering a 360-degree view of a crime scene and often, a useful new perspective on how a crime could have been committed.

The dioramas she produced are still used in forensic training today.

50. Virginia Apgar (1909-1947)

Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar was a leading American medic, the first female board-certified anesthesiologist and first woman to become a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

However, the most important legacy that Virginia left for the world is the APGAR test for newborn babies. Developed in 1952, it stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration, referring to the five things that every hospital in the world checks to verify the health of a newborn baby: skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone and breathing. 

While she developed it to measure the effects of anesthesia on babies during childbirth, it was later adopted for all babies born in modern hospitals.

Before the introduction of the test, babies were not studied closely once they were born, meaning important problems could easily be missed. Virginia’s model has saved lives across the world.

Bonus 51. Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

Josephine Baker

An American-born French entertainer, Josephine Baker was a talented singer who wowed crowds in Europe and the United States. She took up French citizenship shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

However, her feats during the war reveal her hidden depths. 

After a brief stint working with the Red Cross and the Free French forces entertaining troops, she joined the French Resistance, smuggling information and pictures of German military actions in her sheet music and underwear. Following the war, she was awarded some of France’s highest military honors for her efforts in the Resistance. 

During the 1950s, she regularly returned to the US to support the Civil Rights Movement, leading protests and boycotting places that enforced segregation. She marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr, and in her honor, May 20th was named “Josephine Baker Day” by the NAACP.

Bonus 52. Melitta Bentz (1873-1950)

Melitta Bentz

From an unassuming background in Dresden, Melitta Bentz was a German entrepreneur who revolutionized the way we brew coffee. 

Tired of finding coffee grounds in her cup and the mess of cleaning the grounds from the pot, Melitta experimented with ways to filter coffee before pouring it out to drink.

After a few rounds of trial and error, she poured the coffee through a leaf of her son’s notebook paper, finding it to meet her needs: the coffee was free of grounds, and the makeshift filter could easily be discarded. 

Based on this success, Melitta designed the disposable paper coffee filters used all over the world today, receiving a patent from the German authorities in 1908, setting up a business that she ran from the family’s apartment. Today the Melitta Group employs over 4,000 people across the world. Not only did she contribute a straightforward, clean way to brew coffee, her company was one of the most progressive employers of its time, introducing Christmas bonuses, five-day working weeks, and a three-week vacation period for its employees. This set a standard for other companies to follow suit later in the 20th century.


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