65 Famous Women in History Your Students Should Know


Some people were born to be leaders, and our lives are better for it. Where would we be without the brave women who step forward into the spotlight to help light the way? From historical heroes to present-day pioneers, everyone should know these women’s names as well as their incredible stories. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are 65 diverse, famous women in history along with links to learn more about each one. We’re feeling inspired!

1. Anne Frank

Germany, 1929–1945

Photograph of Anne Frank in 1942
Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Frank and her Jewish family, along with four other people, hid in a secret annex throughout World War II until their discovery in 1944 led to their deportation to concentration camps. During this time, Anne, at 12 years old, maintained a journal that her father, the sole survivor of the Frank family, later published. Publishers have translated The Diary of Anne Frank into nearly 70 languages, making it a symbol of hope, love, and resilience amid one of history’s darkest times.

Learn more: Anne Frank

2. Shirley Chisholm

United States, 1924–2005

Shirley Chisholm
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, Shirley Chisholm became the second Black person to serve in the New York State Legislature. But “Fighting Shirley” also accomplished a lot of “firsts” in her career. Just four years after her service in the legislature, she became the first Black woman to serve in Congress. She went on to become the first Black person and the first woman to run for president of the United States. She was also the first Black woman to serve on the House Rules Committee and even co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Learn more: Shirley Chisholm

3. Madam C.J. Walker

United States, 1867–1919

Madam CJ Walker on the list of famous women in history.
Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long before there was Mary Kay and Avon, Madam C.J. Walker introduced door-to-door hair and beauty care for Black women. As a result, Walker became one of the first self-made female American millionaires and eventually built an empire of 40,000 brand ambassadors. 

Learn more: Madam C.J. Walker

4. Virginia Woolf

United Kingdom, 1882–1941

Virginia Woolf
George Charles Beresford, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re into the literary arts, you’ve probably heard of Virginia Woolf, but many don’t know her life story. An early feminist writer, Woolf was a survivor of sexual abuse who spoke out about the disadvantages women faced as artists. Her work helped expand women’s access to the heavily male-dominated literary world. 

Learn more: Virginia Woolf

5. Lucy Diggs Slowe

United States, 1885–1937

Lucy Diggs Slowe
Alpha Kappa Alpha, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paving the way for future famous women in tennis history like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Coco Gauff, the incredible Lucy Diggs Slowe became the first Black woman to win a national tennis title in 1917. Off the court, she dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights; helped found Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first Greek society for Black women; and eventually went on to serve as the dean of women at Howard University.

Learn more: Lucy Diggs Slowe

6. Sarah Storey

United Kingdom, born 1977

Sarah Storey on the list of famous women in history.
Cs-wolves, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After being born without a functioning left hand, Sarah Storey faced a lot of bullying and prejudice growing up. She didn’t let that stop her, though. Instead, she went on to become Britain’s most decorated Paralympian, earning 27 medals, including 17 gold medals, in cycling and swimming. 

Learn more: Sarah Storey

7. Jane Austen

United Kingdom, 1775–1817

Jane Austen
Cassandra Austen, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born into a family of eight children, Jane Austen started writing in her teens and went on to become what many consider the original queen of romantic comedies. Her novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are classics, but at the time of their writing, she hid her identity as the author. It wasn’t until after her death that her brother, Henry, shared the truth. Her work continues to be relevant and influential to this day.

Learn more: Jane Austen

8. Sheila Johnson

United States, born 1949

Sheila Johnson, on the list of famous black women we should all know
David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first Black female billionaire, Sheila Johnson built her empire by co-founding Black Entertainment Television (BET). She then went on to become the first Black woman to hold a stake in three professional-level sports teams: the Washington Capitals (NHL), the Washington Wizards (NBA), and the Washington Mystics (WNBA). 

Learn more: Sheila Johnson

9. Sally Ride

United States, 1951–2012

Sally Ride
NASA; retouched by Coffeeandcrumbs, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After flying on the Challenger in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space. She encouraged women and girls to pursue STEM careers, serving as director of the California Space Science Institute, writing children’s books, and collaborating with science programs. It was revealed after her death that she had spent 27 years with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, making her the first-known LGBTQ+ astronaut. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, an award O’Shaughnessy accepted on her behalf. In 2019, a Barbie doll was created to honor her as one of the most famous women in history.

Learn more: Sally Ride

10. Jackie MacMullan

United States, born 1960

Jackie Macmullan smiling
Lipofsky www.basketballphoto.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A former columnist and reporter for the Boston Globe, Jackie MacMullan helped open doors for women in sports journalism. The Hall of Fame basketball writer was awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 for Literary Sports Writing. She retired from ESPN in 2021. 

Learn more: Jackie MacMullan

11. Hedy Lamarr

Austria, 1914–2000

Hedy Lamarr
eBay, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As a glamorous and beautiful film star, Hedy Lamarr made a name for herself during the golden age of Hollywood. Her legacy extends far beyond this, though. Lamarr and composer George Antheil actually developed a system that essentially invented basic GPS technology. Unfortunately, because she wasn’t an American citizen, the woman that many have dubbed “the Mother of Wi-Fi” was left off the patent and was never compensated—but we haven’t forgotten! Her contributions definitely earn her a spot among the most famous women in history. 

Learn more: Hedy Lamarr

12. Marie Curie

Poland, 1867–1934

Marie Curie photo
Henri Manuel, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A pioneering physicist in a male-dominated field, Marie Curie is best known for discovering the elements radium and polonium, coining the term “radioactivity,” and inventing the portable X-ray machine. The Polish-born scientist was also the first person to win two Nobel prizes and remains the only person to win for two different sciences (chemistry and physics). 

Learn more: Marie Curie

13. Queen Elizabeth I

United Kingdom, 1533–1603

Portrait of Elizabeth I
Attributed to William Segar, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After choosing to marry her country instead of a man, Elizabeth I referred to herself as “The Virgin Queen.” There were many strikes against her—she was not only a woman, but she was also the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s most-hated wife—but she ascended the throne and became one of the most intelligent and strategic leaders in European history and one of the most famous women in history. 

Learn more: Queen Elizabeth I

14. Malala Yousafzai

Pakistan, born 1997

Malala Yousafzai
Presidencia de la República Mexicana, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Growing up in a Pakistani village, Malala’s father was a teacher who ran an all-girls school—until the Taliban enforced a ban on girls being educated. At just 15 years old, Malala spoke out against the actions of the Taliban, leading a gunman to shoot her in the head on a school bus. Not only did she survive this horrific attack, but she also emerged as a vocal activist on the world stage and was 17 years old when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She is one of the youngest famous women in history.

Learn more: Malala Yousafzai

15. Ada Lovelace

United Kingdom, 1815–1852

Ada Lovelace, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born into privilege as the child of Lord Byron, a famously romantic but unstable poet, Ada Lovelace went on to make a name for herself as the world’s first computer programmer. A mathematician, she was loved by society and was friends with Charles Dickens. Tragically, she died of cancer at just 36 years old, almost a century before her notes became recognized as an algorithm intended for a computer and software.

Learn more: Ada Lovelace

16. Amelia Earhart

United States, 1897–1939

Amelia Earhart
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You can’t make a list of the most famous women in history without this legend! Growing up in Kansas, Amelia Earhart pushed against gender norms. She played basketball, took auto repair courses, and enrolled in college before leaving to pursue a career as an aviator. She earned her pilot’s license in 1921 and became not only the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic but also the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. During her attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. The wreckage was never found.

Learn more: Amelia Earhart

17. Jeannette Rankin

United States, 1880–1973

Jeannette Rankin
Bain News Service, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Montana Republican, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. She passionately advocated for women’s rights and was among the 50 representatives to vote against entering World War I. This decision, unfortunately, is believed to have cost her reelection two years later. 

Learn more: Jeannette Rankin

18. Lizzie Velásquez

United States, born 1989

Lizzie Velasquez, on the list of famous women in history.
Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Anne “Lizzie” Velásquez was born with marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, an extremely rare congenital disease that, among other things, prevents her from gaining weight. After years of being bullied and even called the “World’s Ugliest Woman” in a YouTube video, Lizzie has become an activist, motivational speaker, and author.

Learn more: Lizzie Velásquez

19. Roberta Bobbi Gibb

United States, born 1942

Roberta Bobbi Gibb
HCAM (Hopkinton Community Access and Media, Inc.), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb was the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon. This was during a time when women were not allowed to compete. She hid at the start and finished ahead of many men. Her actions challenged gender norms in sports and paved the way for women in marathons. Gibb is a celebrated pioneer in women’s athletics.

Learn more: Roberta Bobbi Gibb

20. Edith Cowan

Australia, 1861–1932

Edith Cowan c. 1900
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When she was just 7 years old, Edith Cowan’s mother died in childbirth. Eight years later, her father was convicted of murdering his second wife and was executed. This tragic family history led Cowan to become a pioneer for human rights as Australia’s first female member of parliament. Cowan even has a university named after her, Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, and her face appears on the Australian $50 bill. If your face is on currency, you definitely belong on this list of famous women in history!

Learn more: Edith Cowan

21. Marion Pritchard

Netherlands, 1920–2016

Marion Prichard on the list of famous women in history.
Atyclblove, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, Marion Pritchard risked her own life to protect Jews. She found ways to sneak food into ghettos, provide fake IDs, and even place infants in non-Jewish homes. She hid a family under the floorboards in her living room when three Nazis and a Dutch collaborator appeared at her door. They’d remained undetected until the collaborator later returned. She shot and killed him to protect the family. In total, it’s believed that Pritchard saved 150 Jews during the Holocaust.

Learn more: Marion Pritchard

22. Soraya Jiménez

Mexico, 1977–2013

Soraya Jiménez
Alisa Andréyevna Fédichkina, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Soraya Jiménez was a Mexican weightlifter and the first Mexican woman to win Olympic gold. She triumphed in the 58 kg category at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her historic win broke gender barriers in sports, inspiring female athletes in Mexico and worldwide. Jiménez is remembered for her strength and dedication.

Learn more: Soraya Jiménez

23. Frida Kahlo

Mexico, 1907–1954

Frida Kahlo
Guillermo Kahlo, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In her youth, Frida Kahlo contracted polio and then survived a devastating bus accident when she was 18 years old. Although she spent so much of her early life bedridden in pain, she went on to become one of the most famous women artists in history. Her pride and passion for her Mexican heritage, as well as her ongoing health struggles and tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, shaped and influenced her groundbreaking art. 

Learn more: Frida Kahlo

24. Empress Dowager Cixi

China, 1835–1908

Empress Dowager Cixi famous women in history
Yu Xunling (court photographer), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cixi was born to a low-ranking official in the winter of 1835 but received a good education during the Chinese Qing dynasty. Chosen as one of the Xianfeng emperor’s concubines in 1851, she quickly became a favorite. Upon the emperor’s death, she succeeded him, becoming the last empress of China. For more than 50 years, she shaped policies, rebellions, and the court of Imperial China, modernizing the country and leaving behind quite a legacy.

Learn more: Empress Dowager Cixi

25. Rosalind Franklin

United Kingdom, 1920-1958

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite.
CSHL, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rosalind Franklin was a pioneering British scientist whose work on X-ray diffraction was critical in understanding the structure of DNA. Her famous “Photo 51” provided key insights into the DNA double helix structure, which significantly advanced the field of genetics. Despite her contributions being initially overshadowed, Franklin’s research is now widely recognized for its fundamental importance in molecular biology. Her career also included significant work on the molecular structures of viruses, contributing to the field of virology.

Learn more: Rosalind Franklin

26. Indira Gandhi

India, 1917–1984

Official portrait of Smt. Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, 3rd prime minister of India
Prime Minister’s Office , GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

Indira Gandhi was the first female prime minister of India, serving from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was known for her strong and centralizing leadership, playing a key role in shaping modern India. Her tenure saw significant economic and social changes, including the Green Revolution, which transformed India’s agricultural system. Gandhi’s leadership was also marked by controversial policies, such as the Emergency period from 1975 to 1977, during which civil liberties were suspended. She remains one of the most complex figures in Indian political history.

Learn more: Indira Gandhi

27. Eleanor Roosevelt

United States, 1884–1962

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Much more than just a first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt was a human rights activist and diplomat. Married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she redefined the role of first lady through her active and public participation in social issues. Post–White House years saw her as a delegate to the United Nations, where she played a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt’s public life was marked by her advocacy for civil rights, women’s rights, and social welfare. Her legacy as a champion for humanitarian causes and an influential figure in American politics endures.

Learn more: Eleanor Roosevelt

28. Mother Teresa

North Macedonia, 1910–1997

Mother Theresa in 1996
Ariesk88, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Macedonia, Mother Teresa became one of the most famous women in history in the 20th century for her tireless work with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Founding the Missionaries of Charity, her organization was devoted to helping those suffering from poverty, illness, and distress, which eventually expanded globally. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. Mother Teresa was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2016, recognized for her profound charity and compassion toward the suffering and marginalized.

Learn more: Mother Teresa

29. Margaret Thatcher

United Kingdom, 1925–2013

Portrait of Margaret Thatcher
Probably Terence Donovan, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Thatcher, known as the “Iron Lady,” was the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom. As the leader of the Conservative Party, she implemented policies that emphasized deregulation, the privatization of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions in the United Kingdom. Thatcher’s tenure was marked by significant economic changes and the Falklands War, which bolstered her popularity and led to her re-election. Her strong, decisive leadership style and her transformative policies have left a lasting impact on British politics and society.

Learn more: Margaret Thatcher

30. Marie Antoinette

France, 1755–1793

Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, 1775, on the list of famous women in history.
After Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Antoinette was the last queen of France before the French Revolution. Married to King Louis XVI, she became a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy, which contributed to widespread discontent and ultimately the revolution. Her lavish lifestyle and the famous, though apocryphal, quote “Let them eat cake,” have epitomized perceived indifference to the plight of the poor. Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine in 1793, her life and death becoming emblematic of the end of the ancient regime in France.

Learn more: Marie Antoinette

31. Mary Anning

United Kingdom, 1799–1847

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background. Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.
Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Anning was an English fossil collector, dealer, and self-taught paleontologist who made significant contributions to the early understanding of prehistoric life. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a coastal town in Dorset, England, Anning’s discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton and the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, among others. Her work challenged scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. Despite facing challenges due to her gender and social class, Anning’s findings played a key role in the development of paleontology as a science.

Learn more: Mary Anning

32. Joan of Arc

France, 1412–1431

Painting of Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais
John Everett Millais, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Joan of Arc, a peasant girl born in 1412 in Domrémy, France, became a national heroine and a saint of the Catholic Church. Claiming to have received visions instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War, Joan led French troops to several important victories. Captured in 1430 by the Burgundians, allied with the English, she was tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake in 1431, at the age of 19. Joan was canonized in 1920, becoming one of the most famous women in history. Her life and bravery became symbols of French unity and nationalism.

Learn more: Joan of Arc

33. Alice Ball

United States, 1892–1916

Alice Ball in 1915, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alice Ball was a Black chemist who developed the first effective treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. Born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, she became the first Black person and the first woman to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Ball’s groundbreaking work involved creating a water-soluble form of chaulmoogra oil, which previously could not be effectively administered to leprosy patients. Her method, known as the “Ball Method,” was used for decades until the development of sulfone drugs in the 1940s. Tragically, Ball died at the young age of 24, and her contributions were not fully recognized until many years later.

Learn more: Alice Ball

34. Florence Nightingale

Italy, 1820–1910

Florence Nightingale, c. 1860
Henry Hering (1814-1893), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Florence Nightingale was an English social reformer and statistician best known as the founder of modern nursing. She gained fame for her work during the Crimean War, where she managed and trained nurses to care for wounded soldiers, significantly reducing death rates with her emphasis on sanitation and hygiene practices. Nightingale established the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, laying the foundation for professional nursing. Her efforts not only transformed nursing into a respectable profession for women but also introduced modern methods of hospital administration and improved healthcare standards. Nightingale’s legacy as one of the most famous women in history lives on through the Nightingale Pledge taken by new nurses and the International Nurses Day celebrated on her birthday.

Learn more: Florence Nightingale

35. Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar, born 1945

Aung San Suu Kyi in Strasbourg 2013.
Claude TRUONG-NGOC, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician, diplomat, and author who played a significant role in Myanmar’s struggle for democracy. Born in 1945, she is the daughter of Aung San, an instrumental figure in bringing Burma’s independence from British colonial rule. Suu Kyi co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988, advocating for nonviolent resistance to the country’s military dictatorship. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she spent nearly 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi is currently under detention following a military coup in Myanmar that took place on February 1, 2021.

Learn more: Aung San Suu Kyi

36. Benazir Bhutto

Pakistan, 1953–2007

Benazir Bhutto, Dubai 2006, on the list of famous women in history.
© Oliver Mark

Benazir Bhutto became the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority nation, serving as prime minister of Pakistan in two non-consecutive terms. Her tenure was marked by efforts toward economic liberalization and attempts at reforming Pakistan’s education and health sectors. However, her leadership also faced challenges, including allegations of corruption and navigating the complexities of Pakistani politics against a backdrop of military influence. Bhutto’s political career was tragically cut short when she was assassinated following her return to Pakistan to participate in the general elections.

Learn more: Benazir Bhutto

37. Margaret Sanger

United States, 1879–1966

Margaret Sanger, in a striped blouse, is seated with an envelope in her hand. Sanger, founder of the Birth Control League in New York, visited Los Angeles in late November and December 1928 and gave a series of talks advocating for better birth control access and education.
Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An activist and nurse, Margaret Sanger is among the most famous women in history as a leading figure in the birth control movement in the early 20th century. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, leading to her arrest for distributing information on contraception, which was illegal at the time. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which eventually became Planned Parenthood.

Learn more: Margaret Sanger

38. Wangari Maathai

Kenya, 1940–2011

Wangari Maathai in 2004
Foto: Antônio Cruz/ABr, CC BY 3.0 BR, via Wikimedia Commons

A Kenyan environmental and political activist, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. Her initiative led to the planting of over 50 million trees, combating deforestation and promoting environmental conservation.

Learn more: Wangari Maathai

39. Billie Jean King

United States, born 1943

Billie Jean King poses for a picture at an event in Iowa in January 2016, on the list of famous women in history.
Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An American former World No. 1 tennis player, Billie Jean King’s advocacy for gender equality, including the famous Battle of the Sexes match, significantly impacted women’s sports. King won 39 Grand Slam titles across singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She also co-founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, cementing her legacy as a pioneering figure in sports and activism.

Learn more: Billie Jean King

40. Nellie Bly

United States, 1864–1922

Nellie Bly (Pseudonym of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman), head and shoulders portrait circa 1890.
H. J. Myers, photographer, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel, Nellie Bly was an American journalist, inventor, and industrialist, best known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Bly gained fame for her investigative reporting, including an exposé on the conditions of mental institutions by feigning insanity to get institutionalized. Her work brought significant reforms to mental health care.

Learn more: Nellie Bly

41. Gabriela Mistral

Chile, 1889–1957

Gabriela Mistral in Chile, 1957.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Chilean poet-diplomat and educator, Gabriela Mistral became the first Latin American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her poetry is celebrated for its profound emotional intensity and themes encompassing nature, love, and sorrow, often reflecting her personal hardships and the cultural identity of Latin America. Mistral also worked passionately in the field of education, advocating for the rights of children, women, and indigenous peoples.

Learn more: Gabriela Mistral

42. Rigoberta Menchú

Guatemala, born 1959

Photographs by John Mathew Smith, Rigoberta Menchú, on the list of famous women in history.
Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A K’iche’ Maya woman from Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú became a prominent advocate for indigenous rights and social justice. Her family was affected by Guatemala’s civil war, leading her to activism. Menchú’s work gained international attention with the publication of “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” detailing her life and the struggles of indigenous people in Guatemala. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, making her one of the most famous women in history for her efforts to promote indigenous rights and peace.

Learn more: Rigoberta Menchú

43. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberia, born 1938

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, during a state visit to Brazil, April 2010.
Antonio Cruz/ABr, CC BY 3.0 BR, via Wikimedia Commons

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, led Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She joined the ranks of famous women in history when she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in promoting women’s rights and peace-building. Her presidency focused on rebuilding Liberia’s economy and fostering peace after the civil war, establishing her as a pivotal figure in African politics and an inspiration for women globally.

Learn more: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

44. Golda Meir

Ukraine, 1898–1978

Golda Meir, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel (1964).
Willem van de Poll, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Golda Meir was an Israeli stateswoman who served as Israel’s fourth prime minister. Known for her straightforwardness and leadership during critical times, including the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Meir was one of the few women to lead a modern state. Her tenure is noted for her efforts to navigate complex international politics and her commitment to the state of Israel.

Learn more: Golda Meir

45. Jane Goodall

United Kingdom, born 1934

Jane Goodall, on the list of famous women in history, is holding her toy monkey
Jeekc, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A world-renowned English primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall is one of the most famous women in history and is best known for her groundbreaking study of chimpanzee behavior in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Her work since the 1960s has transformed our understanding of chimpanzees, highlighting their complex social behavior and emotional capacity, and challenging the boundaries between humans and animals. Goodall’s dedication to conservation and animal welfare led to the establishment of the Jane Goodall Institute, which focuses on global wildlife and environment conservation. She is also a prominent advocate for sustainable living and compassionate treatment of all species.

Learn more: Jane Goodall

46. Grace Hopper

United States, 1906–1992

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN
James S. Davis, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral who played a pivotal role in the development of early computers. Known for her work on the Harvard Mark I computer and for developing the first compiler for a computer programming language, Hopper’s contributions were fundamental in making programming more accessible and practical. She is also credited with popularizing the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches. Hopper’s innovations laid the groundwork for modern computing, and her legacy endures in the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference.

Learn more: Grace Hopper

47. Ellen Ochoa

United States, born 1958

Portrait of NASA Astronaut Ellen Ochoa wearing a blue flight suit.
NASA on The Commons, no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Ellen Ochoa is a pioneering American astronaut and famous engineer who became the first Hispanic woman in history to travel to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Throughout her career at NASA, Ochoa completed four space missions, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Beyond her spaceflights, she served as the director of the Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Hispanic director and the second female director of the center.

Learn more: Ellen Ochoa

48. Tu Youyou

China, born 1930

Tu Youyou, Nobel Laureate in medicine in Stockholm December 2015, on the list of famous women in history.
Bengt Nyman via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese pharmaceutical chemist and Nobel laureate, Tu Youyou is celebrated for her discovery of artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from malaria. Her research, rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, provided a breakthrough in treating malaria, a disease that was resistant to older drugs. In 2015, Tu was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first Chinese woman to receive a Nobel Prize in the sciences.

Learn more: Tu Youyou

49. Amal Clooney

Lebanon, born 1978

Amal Clooney, London 2018.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via Wikimedia Commons

Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin, is a Lebanese-British barrister specializing in international law, human rights, extradition, and criminal law. Known for her work on high-profile cases, she has represented clients before the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights, among others. She has also been involved in several United Nations commissions and inquiries. Beyond her legal career, she’s a noted advocate for human rights and has spoken out on issues ranging from freedom of the press to the refugee crisis. She changed her name to Amal Clooney following her marriage to actor George Clooney.

Learn more: Amal Clooney

50. Leymah Gbowee

Liberia, born 1972

Leymah Gbowee no Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre 2013
Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist known for leading a women’s peace movement that played a crucial role in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Through nonviolent actions, Gbowee and her fellow activists were instrumental in bringing about peace talks. Her efforts, along with those of other women, eventually led to the ousting of convicted war criminal Charles Taylor and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state. In recognition of her leadership and commitment to peace and reconciliation, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside other famous women in history Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman.

Learn more: Leymah Gbowee

51. Marie Stopes

United Kingdom, 1880–1958

Marie Stopes at her laboratory in the Victoria University of Manchester, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A British author and paleobotanist, Marie Stopes was a pioneer in the field of family planning. Best known for her work in promoting contraception and reproductive rights, Stopes founded the first birth control clinic in Britain in 1921. Her efforts were controversial at the time but played a significant role in publicizing the importance of family planning and sexual health. Her book Married Love, published in 1918, broke new ground by discussing the subject of sex openly and advocating for marriage equality. Stopes’ work laid the foundation for modern reproductive health services and continues to influence the field today.

Learn more: Marie Stopes

52. Nadia Murad

Iraq, born 1993

Nadia Murad, a prominent Yezidi human rights activist and survivor of ISIS gender-based violence, delivers remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of State, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nadia Murad, a Yezidi human rights activist, survived being taken hostage by ISIS during their 2014 attack. Sadly, she experienced the horrors of human trafficking and sexual violence. After escaping, Murad became a powerful advocate for the Yezidi people and survivors of sexual violence, sharing her experiences with the world to raise awareness and demand justice. She received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

Learn more: Nadia Murad

53. Rachel Carson

United States, 1907–1964

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Her work meticulously detailed the adverse effects of indiscriminate pesticide use on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson’s ability to combine scientific information with poetic prose made her message accessible and compelling to a wide audience. Her advocacy led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides and spurred an environmental consciousness that inspired the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carson’s legacy as one of the most famous women in history is a testament to the power of science and writing in catalyzing change.

Learn: Rachel Carson

54. Shakuntala Devi

India, 1929–2013

Shakuntula Devi, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dubbed the “human computer,” Shakuntala Devi was an Indian writer and mathematical genius renowned for her ability to perform complex arithmetic calculations mentally with astonishing speed and accuracy. Her talent earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In addition to her mathematical exhibitions, she wrote books on mathematics, astrology, and puzzles, as well as an authoritative study on homosexuality in India.

Learn more: Shakuntala Devi

55. Tegla Loroupe

Kenya, born 1979

Refugee Olympic Team arrival to the 2016 Summer Olympics, Tegla Loroupe
Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, CC BY 3.0 BR, via Wikimedia Commons

Tegla Loroupe is a Kenyan long-distance runner and global peace advocate, renowned for currently holding the records for 25 and 30 kilometers as well as holding the marathon world record from 1998 to 2001. In addition to her success in athletics, Loroupe is also celebrated for her humanitarian efforts. She founded the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which focuses on promoting peace and development in conflict-ridden areas of Kenya and surrounding regions. Additionally, she initiated the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team, allowing displaced athletes to compete on the global stage.

Learn more: Tegla Loroupe

56. Zaha Hadid

Baghdad, 1950–2016

Zaha Hadid in Heydar Aliyev Cultural center in Baku nov 2013
Dmitry Ternovoy, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

The Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid, known for her radical deconstructivist designs, broke the glass ceiling in a male-dominated profession and won prestigious awards, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Her notable projects include the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.

Learn more: Zaha Hadid

57. Yayoi Kusama

Japan, born 1929

Sculptures in Paris. Yayoi Kusama, on the list of famous women in history.
DanielaPDD, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist, celebrated for her extensive use of polka dots and her innovative and immersive installations. Kusama’s work spans various mediums, including painting, sculpture, and performance art, often exploring themes of infinity, self-replication, and obsession. Her Infinity Mirror Rooms, immersive environments that offer a boundless sense of space through mirrored walls and dotted lights, are among her most famous creations. Kusama’s art has made her one of the most recognized and influential artists in the contemporary art world, with her exhibitions drawing large crowds globally. Her unique style and pioneering work have significantly contributed to the development of contemporary art.

Learn more: Yayoi Kusama

58. Mary Seacole

Jamaica, 1805–1881

A drawing of Mary Seacole from [1] likely to be PD as Seacole died in 1881.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Jamaican British nurse and one of the most famous women in history, Mary Seacole gained fame for her brave service during the Crimean War. Despite facing racial prejudice, she traveled to the war zone independently when her offers to assist were declined by official British war services. Seacole established the British Hotel near the war front, providing care for wounded soldiers and offering a place of rest and recuperation. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman in Britain. Increasingly, people recognize Seacole’s contributions, once overshadowed by Florence Nightingale, spotlighting her pioneering role in nursing and her remarkable personal courage.

Learn: Mary Seacole

59. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

United States, 1921–2011

1977 Press Photo Rosalyn Yalow New York Winner Nobel Prize Medicine Stockholm
Keystone, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was an American medical physicist who co-developed the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique, a groundbreaking method that uses radioactive isotopes to measure concentrations of hormones, vitamins, and drugs in the blood. This innovation revolutionized diagnostic medicine, allowing for precise measurements of substances previously difficult to detect, and has applications in various fields including endocrinology, virology, and oncology. For her contributions to medicine, Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the second woman to receive the award in this category.

Learn more: Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

60. Noor Inayat Khan

United Kingdom, 1914–1944

Hon. Assistant Section Officer Noor Inayat Khan (code name Madeleine), George Cross, MiD, Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Vermeil. Noor Inayat Khan served as a wireless operator with F Section, Special Operations Executive, on the list of famous women in history.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As one of the most famous women in history, Noor Inayat Khan is remembered for her remarkable courage and sacrifice. She served as a British spy during World War II. Born to an Indian father and an American mother, she grew up in France before moving to England during the war. As the first female radio operator sent by the British into Nazi-occupied France, Khan played a crucial role in supporting the French Resistance. She evaded capture for several months despite the dangers until the Gestapo betrayed and arrested her. The following year, they executed Khan at the Dachau concentration camp. Posthumously, she has received several honors for her bravery and dedication, including the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest award for gallantry not in the presence of an enemy.

Learn more: Noor Inayat Khan

61. Patsy Mink

United States, 1927–2002

Photograph shows official House of Representatives portrait of Congresswoman Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As the first woman of color and first Asian American woman in the U.S. Congress, Patsy Mink was a passionate advocate for women’s rights, education, and environmental protection. She co-authored the landmark Title IX legislation, which prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Learn more: Patsy Mink

62. Margaret Hamilton

United States, born 1936

Photograph of Margaret Hamilton taken in 1995
Daphne Weld Nichols, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Hamilton is an American computer scientist and systems engineer who played a pivotal role in the success of the Apollo Moon missions through her work on the Apollo flight software. As the director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, now Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Hamilton led the development of the onboard flight software for NASA’s Apollo command and lunar modules. Her work was crucial in enabling astronauts to land on the moon and return safely to Earth. Hamilton coined the term “modern software engineering” and laid its foundation with her contributions. Her achievements earned her numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Learn more: Margaret Hamilton

63. Indra Nooyi

India, born 1955

Indra Nooyi speaking while World Economic Forum 2010 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on the list of famous women in history.
JeffBedford from Arlington, Virginia, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright by World Economic Forum.

Indra Nooyi is an Indian American business executive known for her leadership as the former CEO of PepsiCo, one of the world’s leading food and beverage companies. During her tenure, she restructured PepsiCo to focus on healthy products and sustainability, steering the company toward more nutritious offerings and reducing its environmental footprint. Nooyi’s strategic vision not only enhanced PepsiCo’s growth but also positioned it as a responsible corporate leader in global health and environmental initiatives.

Learn more: Indra Nooyi

64. Margaret Atwood

Canada, born 1939

Author Margaret Atwood at the 2015 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas, United States.
Larry D. Moore, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and environmental activist, renowned for her prolific output and significant impact on English literature. Her works, which include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, explore themes of feminism, dystopia, and environmentalism, often set in speculative futures that reflect current social issues. Atwood’s writing is celebrated for its incisive social commentary and inventive narratives, earning her numerous awards and accolades, including the Booker Prize.

Learn more: Margaret Atwood

65. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

United States, 1933–2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States, Photographer: Steve Petteway [1], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School, there were only nine women in the class of 500 students. She graduated after transferring to Columbia Law School, but despite finishing at the top of her class, she couldn’t find a job because she was a woman in a male-dominated field. She eventually became a law professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963 and focused on gender discrimination. Out of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as a lawyer, she won five.

Thirty years later, she became a Supreme Court justice, having been nominated by President Bill Clinton. On the bench, she worked tirelessly for nearly three decades, where she continued to champion equality and civil rights as she battled recurring health issues including cancer. When she died in September 2020, people around the world mourned the loss of a woman so smart, determined, and fearless that she’d earned the nickname “The Notorious RBG.” She’s a legend among the most famous women in history.

Learn more: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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