Women are badasses through and through. No matter who you’re raising, baby should know about the women who have shaped the course of history. These women are, or were, scholars, activists, writers, artists, journalists, and everything else under the sun. It took each one of them and their heroic contributions to the equal rights efforts to make lasting change in society. Though hundreds of women belong on this list, here are 30 of the ladies who changed the world, just in time for Women’s Equality Day!
On This Page
- Susan B. Anthony 1820–1906
- Katherine Wilson “Kate” Sheppard, 1847–1934
- Alice Paul 1885–1977
- Sojourner Truth, 1797–1883
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815–1902
- Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954
- Lucy Stone 1818–1893
- Simone de Beauvoir, 1908–1986
- Ida B. Wells 1862–1931
- Yuri Kochiyama, 1921–2014
- Frances E.W. Harper 1825–1911
- Dolores Huerta, b. 1930
- Mary Eliza Church Terrell 1863–1954
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933–2020
- Dr. Emily Howard Stowe 1831–1903
- Mara Keisling, b. 1959
- Bertha Wernham Wilson, 1923–2007
- Betty Friedan, 1921–2006
- Sheila Scott OBE 1922–1988
- Gloria Steinem, b. 1934
- Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, 1903–1971
- Angela Davis, b. 1944
- Sabiha Gökçen 1913–2001
- Gertrude Stein, 1874–1946
- Irène Joliot-Curie, 1897–1956
- Bell hooks 1952–2021
- Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf, 1858–1940
- Alice Walker, b. 1944
- Anna Caroline Maxwell, 1851–1929
- Coretta Scott King, 1927–2006
Susan B. Anthony 1820–1906
If you’ve learned about women’s suffrage, you’ve likely heard about Susan B. Anthony. She was a leader of the movement, serving as president of the Nation Woman Suffrage Association from 1892–1900. Her contributions eventually led to the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution in 1920, which gave women the right to vote.
Alice Paul 1885–1977
Alice Paul was also a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement. Much like Susan B. Anthony, she was a radical woman for her time. She joined the same organization Anthony was the president of, but she left because the policies were considered too timid. She was a founder of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage which would later merge and become the National Woman’s Party in 1917. She was an activist through and through, organizing marches, rallies, and protests at the White House. Like many activists, Paul was repeatedly imprisoned, but she never quit on the fight for the right to vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815–1902
A woman born to change the world, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the first draft of an organized demand for women’s suffrage in 1848. She was an author, lecturer, philosopher, and movement leader. Stanton walked so that Anthony and Paul could run; she laid the groundwork for the fight to gain the right to vote, awarded a whopping 72 years after she started leading the charge.
Lucy Stone 1818–1893
Known for her activism in the suffrage and abolitionist movements, Lucy Stone was a staunch proponent of equality. She attended Oberlin College in 1847, after which she became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. She also organized women’s rights conventions, including the 1850 Worcester First National Woman’s Rights Convention. In 1866, she was a founder of the American Equal Rights Association. She campaigned for equality all her life, and upon dying of stomach cancer at 75, she said, “I am glad I was born, and that at a time when the world needed the service I could give.”
Ida B. Wells 1862–1931
An investigative journalist and leader of the early Civil Rights Movement, Ida B. Wells fought to overcome slavery, wars, sexism, and inequality all of her life. Wells was born into slavery amidst the Civil War in Mississippi. She learned her activist ways from her parents’ actions during the Reconstruction Era. Still unfortunately, when she was just sixteen, her parents and infant brother passed away from the yellow fever epidemic. She was left to care for her brothers and sister, eventually becoming an educator. Wells never lost her spirit to fight for equal rights; she started disputes with university presidents, filed lawsuits against a train car company, led boycotts, and relentlessly fought against unlawful lynchings.
Frances E.W. Harper 1825–1911
Frances E.W. Harper was an African American author, abolitionist, teacher, suffragist, public speaker, and co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She is known for being the first African American woman to publish a short story on top of all of her other incredible deeds. She lectured across the United States, making women’s voices heard, and she championed the rights of African Americans all the while. As her books gained traction, she donated large portions of the proceeds to the Underground Railroad.
Mary Eliza Church Terrell 1863–1954
A well-known African American activist, Mary Eliza Church Terrell fought for women’s suffrage and equality for all Americans. She was born the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, but the fight for equality definitely didn’t end there. Terrell was a woman of multiple historical firsts. She was one of the first black women to earn a college degree in the US and earned a Master’s degree soon after. She was the first woman to be elected president of the Bethel Literary and Historical Society. And she was also the first black woman to be a member of the District of Columbia’s Board of Education. With her legacy and incredible track record laying the groundwork, she was also a speaker several times for the National Woman Suffrage Association, where she spoke about the issue concerning specifically black women.
Dr. Emily Howard Stowe 1831–1903
In 1867 Canada, Dr. Emily Howard Stowe became the first Canadian woman to practice medicine, starting her practice in Toronto. Having fought for the right to get her medical education, she led the charge for women’s right to education and voting. She was a founder of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and the Toronto Women’s Literary Club. Though the latter sounds like a book club, its goals pertained to improving access to higher education and working conditions and rights of women.
Bertha Wernham Wilson, 1923–2007
Another incredible figure in Canadian history, Bertha Wernham Wilson was a leader in higher education. She was born and raised in Scotland, but in 1949—after receiving her Master’s and teaching diploma—she emigrated to Canada. As a founder of the research department at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, she was responsible for shaping the research efforts around the country. She eventually became the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Sheila Scott OBE 1922–1988
British aviator Sheila Scott made history. She followed in the footsteps of famed Amelia Earhart and eventually was the founder of the British branch of the Ninety-Nines. Amelia Earhart created the Ninety-Nines specifically for female pilots. Before her pilot days, Scott trained as a nurse to aid the World War II soldiers. Afterward, she worked as an actress and model in London. But in the years 1965–1972—just five years after earning her pilot’s license—she broke over 100 light-aircraft records! One of those many achievements was completing a solo flight around the world in 1966 as the first British pilot ever to do so!
Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, 1903–1971
An Irish-born crystallographer, Dame Kathleen Lonsdale accomplished a great deal for science. She was a chemistry professor and head of the Department of Crystallography at the University College London. She developed X-ray techniques to study crystal structures and was respected as a master of the subject. She used unconventional methods to change the face of her industry, including new ways to study organic molecular structures and divergent beam X-ray photography.
Sabiha Gökçen 1913–2001
Another aviator to add to the ranks is Sabiha Gökçen. She was a Turkish aviator and the world’s first female fighter pilot. She earned the title at the young age of 23 and eventually participated in 32 military operations. Despite being the first woman in her country to earn a pilot’s license, she flew around 8,000 hours in her lifetime. She held the nickname “the girl of the skies,” becoming a role model and legend in the piloting industry.
Irène Joliot-Curie, 1897–1956
With her mother being the French, Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered radium, Irène Joliot-Curie was an apple that did not fall far from the tree. She is the queen of radioactivity, having discovered artificially created radioactive atoms. Her discovery aided the fight against cancer and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf, 1858–1940
Swedish author Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf was known for her novels exploring romantic and moral dilemmas. She challenged the societal norms in regard to religion and supernatural ideas. Eventually, in 1909, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only were her written works impassioned, her activism shone through her life, too. Lagerlöf was an active figure in the suffrage movement in Sweden.
Anna Caroline Maxwell, 1851–1929
Making history alongside so many others, Anna Caroline Maxwell was one of the early leaders of American nurses. She is hailed as one of the leading influences resulting in the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 due to her high standard and success rates of her trained nurses during the Spanish-American War. She paved the way for the nursing profession, especially in relation to military assignments.
Katherine Wilson “Kate” Sheppard, 1847–1934
Another leader of one of the women’s suffrage movements around the world is Kate Sheppard. A globetrotter since the beginning, Sheppard was born in England, raised and educated in Scotland, and moved to New Zealand in the 1860s. There she became a leader of their women’s suffrage movement, and in 1863, New Zealand made worldwide history; the country became the first nation in the world to enable women to vote.
Sojourner Truth, 1797–1883
Defining the terms abolitionist and human rights activist, Sojourner Truth paved the way for history. She is known for having been an outspoken advocate, a quality that opened the door to Abraham Lincoln’s White House in 1864. She went through the wringer with slavery; she was bought and sold four times. She escaped, saving herself, but had to return to save her, then-five year old, son, among all the other torturous treatments she endured. She earned her freedom and became a public speaker about the harrowing truths of slavery, and later became an author despite remaining illiterate all of her life. Later in life, she turned her focus to women’s rights with the help of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954
To describe Frida Kahlo as just a Mexican painter with a penchant for vibrant self-portraits is to sell her short. She is also hailed as “one of the most prolific disabled women to date” and a “queer feminist icon.” Kahlo survived an accident with a bus that nearly took her life and affected her for the rest of her life, but she continued painting and emboldening all types of people well past her own lifetime. She was open about her sexuality and female sexuality in a time of heightened stigma through her art and the way she communicated in her life. She is now a figure of history representing queerness, creativity, perseverance, and breaking the boundaries of society.
Simone de Beauvoir, 1908–1986
Though “it takes a village” often refers to raising a child, but it’s also totally applicable to raising a revolution. Simone de Beauvoir is one of the village’s women responsible for paving the way for modern feminism. She was a political activist, author, and social theorist. She demonstrated her active and innovative mind through her work The Second Sex and various other works highlighting her critiques of the patriarchy and social constructs.
Yuri Kochiyama, 1921–2014
During World War II and long after, there was a Japanese American activist making waves, and her name was Yuri Kochiyama. She was a prolific speaker, raising awareness about deeply embedded prejudices and injustices. Fueled by inhumane acts against her father after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequently her family’s time in a concentration camp, Kochiyama fought tirelessly for the rest of her life. She helped or founded organizations such as Young Lords, the Harlem Community for Self Defense, Asian Americans for Action, and plenty more. She saw the racism against her heritage as an issue larger than just Asian Americans and made sure to fight for everyone’s equal rights.
Dolores Huerta, b. 1930
Dolores Huerta is a fighter. She founded the United Farm Workers organization and has used that platform to fight for the rights of agricultural workers. She identified the gap in safe working conditions and fair contracts; she sought to eliminate harmful pesticides and fought for worker benefits, including healthcare and unemployment aid. She has been a leader in seeking working rights for decades, founding organizations like the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002 and leading strikes like the Delano Grape Strike in 1965.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933–2020
One of the women hailed in today’s America is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She dedicated her life to women’s rights, founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and co-founding a US law journal solely devoted to women’s rights. She was the second female supreme court justice in 1993 and didn’t stop making history for the rest of her days.
Mara Keisling, b. 1959
Mara Keisling, though no longer serving in the role, was the face of transgender equality and is still a trans activist today. She is the founder and was the executive director of The National Center for Transgender Equality. After nearly 20 years of being the director, Keisling stepped down to make room for a new and diverse staff to better fit the needs of today’s trans rights activism.
Betty Friedan, 1921–2006
Writer of The Feminine Mystique in 1964, Betty Friedan is a feminist icon. She is heralded as the flame that ignited the second wave of feminism in the 60s–70s due to her tireless work. She spent her life establishing women’s equality; she helped the National Women’s Political Caucus find its feet and organized the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. Her actions with the latter spurred on the feminist movement throughout America for years.
Gloria Steinem, b. 1934
Gloria Steinem is better than a legend of feminism; she’s considered the “mother of feminism.” An eternally driven woman, Steinem co-founded plenty of organizations to carry on the feminist flag. These organizations included Ms. Magazine, Women’s Action Alliance, Nationals Women’s Political Caucus, and Women’s Media Center. In 1993, she was thanked for her massive contributions by being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2013 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But even though she’s in her 80s now, she’s still going strong; she’s still releasing her hard-hitting feminism in realized documentaries like WOMAN and actions taken for young girls and women during post-election periods.
Angela Davis, b. 1944
Known most prominently as a black power leader, Angela Davis has been a champion of equal rights for decades. She started her activism life young and has been fighting for women’s rights and African American rights for over 60 years. She has also vocally riled against the “prison-industrial complex,” being one of the founding members of Critical Resistance. Still fighting for women’s rights in the United States, Davis was made the honorary co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.
Gertrude Stein, 1874–1946
A woman with pages of titles, Gertrude Stein was made for making history. A lesbian icon, feminist pioneer, and literary anarchist are just a few of the medals decorating her uniform. Coming into her own as an American writer took moving to Paris and cultivating artistic minds during the time between the World Wars. She famously held salons with the leading artists, writers, and thinkers of the time to facilitate discussion. She revolutionized the modern philosopher and influenced hundreds of people through her work as a poet, playwright, novelist, art collector, and friend of great minds like Hemingway, Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Bell hooks 1952–2021
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as her pen name bell hooks, was a feminist and defender of racial, female, and class rights. She was an author, activist, and “Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College.” She earned these titles through her works Ain’t I A Woman?, Black Women and Feminism, The Feminist Theory, and many more. She believed fully in the movement of feminism, claiming it as the method to ending sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
Alice Walker, b. 1944
Responsible for shaping political movements, literature, and musical culture, Alice Walker has shaped lives for years. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Color Purple, published in 1982. She was the first African American woman to receive such an accolade, but this was long after she helped influence a nation. Her work during the Civil Rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr impacted hundreds of lives. She went on to work with—yet another feminist icon—Gloria Steinem as an editor for Ms. Magazine and a teacher of African American women’s studies at prestigious universities around the country.
Coretta Scott King, 1927–2006
A prominent figure, and married to a prominent figure herself, Coretta Scott King was responsible for helping lead the charge for the Civil Rights movement. She married Martin Luther King Jr, and together they fought for equal rights. She was known for fighting for women’s equality and helped found the National Organization for Women, NOW, in 1966. NOW put the formal legal needs of women in the workplace at the forefront of the discussion.
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