Although I’ve yet to actually go see it, I’m thrilled by the hype floating around on social media regarding the new Wonder Woman movie. There’s just something about seeing a film surrounding a strong, powerful woman succeed that sends chills up and down my spine. It’s fantastic – and I wanted to feed off that energy by reminding everyone of some of the incredible women who have brought about change in society!
Hopefully you’ve already heard of these 15 powerful women and are familiar with their accomplishments, but in all honesty, you might not be. Their stories deserve recognition and acknowledgment, far more than I can give them – but I hope this is a start.
Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. This was historic – she became the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. She incurred a number of family tragedies throughout her life, including the hanging of her father and murder of her brothers. She took hold of the prime minister title just three months after giving birth to her first child. She later survived a suicide attack, but was killed as part of an assassin attack in December 2007.
Yousafzai was only 15 years old when she was shot in the head by the Taliban. Fifteen! She had been the victim of a targeted attack – targeted for her activism for the rights of women & girls to an education. Despite the attack, Malala continued her efforts and has given a speech at the United Nations, written an autobiography and won awards including the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, she continues to promote girls’ education.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor is known even today as a national icon of Mexican identity. The 17th-century nun is credited as the first published feminist of the New World. She wrote plays, poems, scholarly works – you name it. (This wasn’t exactly common for a nun, by the way.) She often defended the rights of women to obtain knowledge, and her prominent writings remain popular today.
Kahlo is still often admired as a feminist icon even to this day. This incredible Mexican painter survived not only polio (at the age of six!) but also a serious bus/streetcar accident. She was impaled by a steel handrail, leaving her with several serious injuries. She began painting and also became politically active, and her artwork still remains a wonderful example of what some call “female creativity.” PS: She was also bisexual!
Lovelace should be known as the founder of scientific computing, but many people (sadly) don’t know her name. Lovelace, starting at the age of just 17, did critical work on mathematics, logic and analytics. Her ideas were so far ahead of their time that it took a while for the technology to catch up, but she’s now being recognized more and more, including by the U.S. Department of Defense. Their computer programming language, used in industries including aviation, health care, infrastructure and transportation, is named “Ada” in her honor.
Bandaranaike will always be known as the modern world’s first female head of government after becoming the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. She took the position shortly after her husband’s assassination, and her family held a position in Sri Lankan politics for many decades – including her daughter and son. Her eldest daughter is a philanthropist.
Sanger is *the* woman to thank for the existence of birth control in the United States. She was the founder of what eventually became Planned Parenthood and fought to legalize birth control and make it universally available. These things were especially huge considering this happened in 1916 – Sanger was arrested for distributing this information. She worked to prevent “back-alley abortions” and is an important figure in the history of feminism and social activism.
Chisholm made history when, in 1968, she became the first black woman elected to U.S. Congress. Four years later, she became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for president when she campaigned for the Democratic spot. Prior to this, in 1964, she became only the second African-American woman to serve in Albany on the NYS legislature. The Brooklyn native was involved in the education world prior to her entry into politics.
Though I’ve largely focused on historic names up until this point, I’d be remiss if I left Cox off this list. She became the first transgender actress to play a transgender network-TV series regular and now stars in Orange Is The New Black. Now an Emmy-nominated actress, she is also a documentary film producer and a prominent advocate for LGBT rights. Check out more of her story in this 2014 piece from Buzzfeed.
Mankiller was the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee nation, leading them from 1985 to 1996. She actively fought for the rights of women and Native Americans, and eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. During her time as chief, she also worked for the causes of education, health care and government. Her legacy lives on today.
Marie Curie – born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland – eventually moved to France due to political disturbances and developed into a prominent scientist. Her research surrounded radioactivity, and her important work led to the naming of the element ‘polonium’ after her country of birth, and the isolation of the element radium as well. She was admired by scientists internationally and received a number of honors, including two Nobel Prizes (physics & chemistry).
Sally Ride made history in 1983 when she became the first woman in space. Although it’s not confirmed, she may have also been the first LGBT person in space! (After her death, a 27-year relationship with her partner was revealed in her obituary.) The physicist was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978 and was the youngest American astronaut to orbit Earth. Years later, she founded her own company dedicated to motivating girls & young women to pursue STEM careers.
If you’re reading this while on Wi-Fi, you have Lamarr to thank, at least in part. In 1942, she and a friend got a patent for a radio signaling device designed to change radio frequencies to keep enemies from decoding messages. The impact of this invention wasn’t fully realized for decades! (Lamarr was also a famous actress!)
So you’re driving and it’s raining. What do you do? Put on the windshield wipers, of course, right? Thank you, Mary Anderson. Anderson invented the windshield wiper, receiving a patent for it in 1903. Less than 13 years later, they were standard on most vehicles. (They weren’t automatic, but were operated via a lever by the driver. The automatic windshield wiper was patented by Charlotte Bridgwood in 1917.)
Joan of Arc
By the age of just 17, Joan of Arc was leading troops to victory — but the catch, of course, is that she was dressed as a man. She proclaimed that voices, sent to her by God, told her of her divine mission to free her country. She cut her hair, dressed in a man’s uniform and picked up the arms. Eventually, the legal folks caught up with her, as this was seen at the time as a “crime against God.” She remained defiant & was burned at the state in 1431, at the age of 19. Some 25 years later, she was pronounced innocent. A lot of good that did her then.
To make a list of all the important women who have made contributions to society throughout history would be… impossible. Don’t forget the likes of Harriet Tubman, Michelle Obama, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and countless other women who have made important, valuable contributions to society. There are so many, too many to name, and this list of 15 is just a small piece.
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai