18 Photos Of Women Who Changed History & Paved The Way For Women Today
While the tales of men may dominate history books, women have been major contributors since the beginning of time. Whether in science, business, politics, the arts, health care, or the economy, women around the globe have left their mark on the world through achievements too numerous to fully quantify. In honor of Women's History Month, here are 18 photos of women who changed history and, in a number of different ways, pioneered new paths forward for women and girls around the world.
Whether they're well-remembered historical figures, forgotten heroes, or people who remain relatively unknown, these women's work and achievements changed the way people thought, revolutionized medicine, technology, and science, or spurred laws that transformed society. However they did it, there's little arguing that the contributions of these women ultimately changed the world, and as a result, history.
And while I feel it should go without saying, I'm going to say it anyway — this list should under no circumstances be considered an exhaustive account of the women who've changed history. In fact, consider this merely the tip of the iceberg. Let it inspire you to dig deeper into the global role of women and the numerous contributions they've made this Women's History Month.
Sojourner Truth, c. 1797-1883
Born a slave named Isabella Bomfree in New York, the National Women's History Museum reported that Sojourner Truth ran away in 1827 to an abolitionist family that helped her buy her freedom. Although she never learned to read or write, Truth was a charismatic speaker who came to work as a traveling preacher.
Through the course of her work, Truth also became a vocal advocate for abolition, temperance, and women's rights. Her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech championed true equality and called for all women, regardless of their race, to be treated as men's equals.
Harriet Tubman, c. 1820-1913
After escaping slavery in 1849, Harriet Tubman (whose exact date of birth is unknown) helped hundreds of other slaves to freedom via a network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
While the Underground Railroad was not run by one single individual or organization, Biography notes that Tubman is likely its most famous "conductor." Along with helping slaves escape to freedom, Tubman was also a vocal abolitionist who aided the Union Army as a spy during the Civil War.
Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910
Born to a wealthy English family (as they traveled abroad in Florence, Italy, no less), the National Women's History Museum reported Nightingale claimed to have been called by God as a teen to help the poor and sick. She abandoned her parents' dreams of marriage and instead studied nursing in Germany and France. Upon returning to England in 1853, she was made the superintendent of a hospital in London and later called to treat soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.
According to the National Women's History Museum, Nightingale's ideas about cleanliness, sanitation, and nutrition brought the British military field hospital's death rate down from 40% to 2% in just six months. She continued to advocate for improved hospital conditions and safe nursing practices after the Crimean War ended and is largely credited with spurring early worldwide health care reform.
Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906
When thinking of moments where history changed for women, it's hard not to think of women's suffrage. For women in the United States, the right to vote came thanks to the tireless work of suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony. Raised as a Quaker, Anthony was reportedly inspired by her religious beliefs to view everyone, men and women, as equal, according to the National Women's History Museum.
After meeting Frederick Douglass, she became a vocal abolitionist. In 1851, Anthony met fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton (another woman who changed history), kick-starting more than 50 years of collaborated work fighting for women's rights. Of course, Anthony is not the only person to have pushed for women's rights.
Sarah Breedlove, Known as Madam C. J. Walker, 1867-1919
Born to former slaves under the name Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the woman who would later become known as Madam C. J. Walker is believed to have been America's first black woman millionaire. Time magazine has called her life story "one of the most spectacular rags-to-riches stories in U.S. history." Made an orphan at 7, PBS reported Walker married at 14 to escape the abusive household she grew up in. Sadly, that marriage was fairly short, and, at 20, Walker was a widowed single mother earning just $1.50 a day as a washerwoman, according to Time.
When Walker began losing her hair, she sought out a treatment, eventually developing her own product for hair growth and, later, launching an entire product line. Her savvy skills in sales and business propelled her to become the first female self-made millionaire.
Marie Curie, 1867-1934
Born in Poland, Marie Curie moved to France in her 20s to study at the Sorbonne, where she earned degrees in physics and mathematics. After marrying Pierre Curie in 1895, the two worked together to discover the radioactive elements polonium and radium, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
When rumors of a Nobel Prize began circulating, some within the French Academy of Sciences attempted to credit Curie's work in radioactivity to her husband. Although they did do much of their work together, Smithsonian Magazine claims Pierre was insistent that it was Curie who'd "originated their research, conceived experiments, and generated theories about the nature of radioactivity."
The Curies were awarded a Nobel Prize together with Henri Becquerel in 1903, making Curie the first woman to ever receive the award. She would be awarded a second Nobel Prize in 1911. During World War I, she outfitted more than a dozen portable X-ray units that could be driven onto battlefields to aid wounded soldiers.
Margaret Sanger, 1879-1966
Margaret Sanger is credited as the founder of Planned Parenthood. She was an outspoken advocate of contraception and reproductive rights at a time when both family planning and women's health care were considered largely taboo topics. According to the National Women's History Museum, Sanger's life work was largely inspired by her childhood and the death of her mother, a woman whose physical health suffered after birthing 11 children.
Sanger believed that if women could control the number of children they had, the cycle of women's poverty could be ended. In 1914, despite laws prohibiting the distribution of information pertaining to birth control, Sanger began a publication that advocated for it. Two years later, she opened America's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, according to the National Women's History Museum. She later opened a second clinic in 1923 staffed by female doctors and social workers that later became the beginnings of the Planned Parenthood we know today.
Jeannette Rankin, 1880-1973
Jeannette Rankin is the first woman to have ever been elected to Congress. Born in Montana to a rancher and a schoolteacher, she worked briefly as a social worker before becoming a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, according to the U.S. House of Representatives Archives. She was sworn into the House as a representative of Montana in 1917.
A known pacifist, Rankin is reported to be the only member of Congress to have voted against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II. Politics aside, Rankin opened the door for women's participation in Congress.
Rosa Parks, 1913-2005
It's more than likely that I don't need to remind you of Rosa Parks' contribution to America's civil rights movement. Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 inspired Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery Bus Boycott and a pushback against segregation laws. According to History.com, Parks wrote in her autobiography that she hadn't refused to give up her seat because she was physically tired, but because she was "tired of giving in." She was given a suspended sentence and fined $14 for violating segregation laws. She was, decades later, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and is today a widely recognized figure within the civil rights movement.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 1916-2000
Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world's first female prime minister in 1960 when her party won the 1960 general election in Ceylon, which later became known as Sri Lanka thanks to Bandaranaike. After first leaving office in 1965, Bandaranaike returned to power twice more — once in 1970 and then again in 1994 — to serve a total of three terms.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Bandaranaike stepped in as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after her husband, the party's former leader, was assassinated in 1959. Bandaranaike led her party to victory in Ceylon's general election the following year, marking her as the first woman to ever serve as government head.
Ruth Handler, 1916-2002
While children may not know Ruth Handler's name, it's more than likely that they're familiar with her legacy: Barbie and Mattel. Handler and her husband co-founded Mattel during World War I, with Handler as the company's first sales rep. While the company initially sold toy furniture crafted by Handler's husband, they soon expanded to make music boxes and toy musical instruments, according to PBS.
In 1959, Handler debuted Barbie, a 3D adult-looking doll with a multitude of outfits that, when purchased separately, would enable children to play out their dreams. While Barbie's physical proportions eventually became controversial, Mattel maintains the doll was about offering children "choices and endless storytelling possibilities."
But Barbie isn't Handler's only legacy. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy in the early 1970s, Handler turned her attention toward developing comfortable and realistic feeling breast prosthesis. Handler started Nearly Me, which manufactures silicone and foam health care products for post-mastectomy patients, in 1976.
Katharine Graham, 1917-2001
As one of America's first successful female business leaders and publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham's historical influence can't be denied. Graham took over as publisher in 1963, following her husband's death. She steered the paper through the publishing of the famed Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, while at the same time pushing back on the ever-present sexism of the time.
Rosalind Franklin, 1920-1958
An expert crystallographer, British chemist Rosalind Franklin is credited with discovering DNA's double helix structure with her now famous Photograph 51. What's more, Biography reported that, in the course of her work, Franklin discovered that there were at least two forms of DNA — an A form and a B form. The photograph that Franklin became famous for, which Biography reported she obtained with hours of X-ray exposure from a machine she modified herself, is considered to be the first evidence of DNA's structure. Unfortunately, Franklin's photograph was reportedly shown without her consent to a competing male scientist. That scientist, James Watson, would go on to use Franklin's photograph (without explicit credit to her) as the basis for his famous DNA model, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1962. While Franklin didn't receive the credit she deserved in her lifetime, her discovery helped pave the way for genetic engineering and mapping the human genome.
Annie Easley, 1933-2011
Although Annie Easley would become known as one of NASA's "human computers," it was pharmacy that she first went to school for. But when she moved to a town whose pharmacy school had closed in 1955, Easley sought work performing incredibly complex mathematical calculations at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become NASA. According to NASA, Easley was one of only four African Americans working at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time of her hiring.
When NASA's so-called human computers were later replaced with actual computers, Easley learned computer programming and worked to develop and implement code used in to research energy-conversion systems and analyze alternative power technology. NASA has reported that, later in her career, Easley also served as an equal employment opportunity counselor, advising supervisors on issues of race, age, and gender.
Valentina Tereshkova, 1937-Present
On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova broke two noteworthy records: In the span of just 71 hours, she spent more time in space than every U.S. astronaut had combined (up until that day, that is) and became the first women in space. An experienced parachutist, Tereshkova reportedly volunteered to be a member of the Soviet cosmonaut team, according to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. While Tereshkova never returned to space again, many women have since followed in her footsteps.
Junko Tabei, 1939-2016
To become the first woman to summit Mount Everest in 1975, Junko Tabei, a Japanese mountain climber and mother of two, had to trudge through an avalanche that had buried her and her teammates' camp days before. While Tabei told Outside magazine that she did not set out on her expedition to be the first woman to summit Everest, she earned the title nevertheless. According to CNN, she would later go on to also become the first woman to conquer the "Seven Summits," a list comprised of the highest mountain peak on each of the seven continents. As a result of her climbing achievements, Tabei helped to dispel gender stereotypes and archaic ideas about the role women should play.
Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011
Born in Nyeri, Kenya, Wangari Maathai may be best known for winning a Nobel Peace Prize and founding of the Green Belt Movement. However, Maathai was breaking barriers even before she earned those accolades. According to her Nobel biography, Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She would go on to serve on the National Council of Women of Kenya, where, in 1976, she first proposed planting trees to help improve and preserve both the environment and quality of life for rural women.
Maathai would go on to turn her idea into a grassroots organization aimed at addressing rural Kenyan women's needs. The planting of trees not only provides a source of firewood, fuel, and lumber, but also helps to better bind soil and provide rainwater storage. According to the Green Belt Movement, Maathai saw that issues such as deforestation, environmental degradation, and food insecurity — all issues that significantly impacted those in rural poverty — involved deeper issues of disempowerment and disenfranchisement. As a result she broadened her movement to also advocate for government accountability and increased democratic space. Throughout her lifetime, Maathai worked tirelessly toward advancing democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation.
Andrea Jenkins, 1961-Present
Andrea Jenkins is the first African American, openly transgender woman to ever be elected to public office in the United States. She was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2017 after working for more than 10 years as a policy aide. Prior to her election, Jenkins also worked to bring greater awareness to transgender issues as the curator of the University of Minnesota's Transgender Oral History Project.
"As an out African-American trans-identified woman, I know first-hand the feeling of being marginalized, left out, thrown under the bus," Jenkins said upon her election, NBC News reported. "Those days are over. We don’t just want a seat at the table — we want to set the table."
The United States has used the month of March to amplify women's voices, achievements, and stories since 1987. Over the years, Women's History Month has come to serve as a nationwide celebration of women's contributions to history, culture, and society.