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15 Powerful Women Who Revolutionized the World

Throughout history, powerful women have had the courage to stand up and break social norms, create innovative technology, and fight for women’s rights. For International Women's Day, we're celebrating some of these amazing women. 

It is thanks to them that we're able to enjoy many luxuries that our ancestors did not have access to hundreds of years ago: from WiFi to computer programming, birth control, and even the right to vote. Here are a few of the most notable powerful women.

Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace over a background image of her calculus writings.
Photo Credit: Ada Lovelace, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician now considered the world’s first computer programmer. Her notes on Charles Babbage’s proposed computer, titled the Analytical Engine, showed that the computer could follow a series of simple instructions to perform complex calculations. Even if the computer was never built, it helped set the stage for today’s computer programming.

Margaret Sanger: The First Oral Contraceptive

News Photos of Margaret Sanger at her desk with background image of birth control pills.
Photo Credit: Bain News Services Public Domain via Library of Congress.

Margaret Sanger was a feminist and women’s rights activist who coined the term “birth control.” In a time when women’s healthcare was a taboo topic and illegal to distribute information about, she opened health clinics and wrote pamphlets to spread awareness, which she believed to be crucial for the fight against women’s poverty.

Her greatest accomplishment is bringing the first oral contraceptive on the market by having the Food and Drug Administration approve it. Thanks to her, birth control pills have been available since the 1960s.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Heroine of Justice

Black and white photo of Ida B. Well. looking determines and powerful.
Photo Credit: Cihak and Zima, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

American journalist and social reformer, Ida B. Wells was an unsung heroine of the civil rights movement. Born in slavery, she turned to journalism after several friends of hers were lynched by a mob. Her activism began by writing newspaper columns, delivering lectures, and organizing anti-lynching societies.

Wells participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, which helped new migrants from the South, and also founded what was likely the first Black women’s suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.

Sojourner Truth: Activist and Preacher

Sojourner Truth Postcard that shows her knitting and was sold to finance her trips.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Sojourner Truth was an African American feminist, preacher, and abolitionist. Born into slavery, she regained her freedom in 1826, then spent her time singing, preaching about equal rights for all, and debating at camp meetings, churches and village streets.

She is known for her four decades of work for Christianity, abolition, suffrage, and Black freedom movements, as well as her famous quote “Ar’n’t I a woman?”.

bell hooks: A Black Feminist Writer

bell hooks speaks to a group at the New School in NYC.
Photo Credit: Alex Lozupone, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

bell hooks (a lowercase pseudonym she chose to honor her female legacy, to emphasize her message instead of herself) was an American scholar and activist who wrote about race, gender and class in relation to female identity. Her prominent books include “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” (1981), and “Feminist Theory from Margin to Center” (1984), among others.

One of her most poignant quotes on being female is from “Communion: The Search for Female Love” (2002):

The one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself. Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.”

Cleopatra: A Legendary Queen

Cleopatra's head in statue form over an image of hieroglyphics.
Photo Credit: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0 with background image via Canva

Cleopatra was a famous Egyptian queen whose intelligence and charisma has forever been imprinted upon the sands of time. She used her wits and power in her favor and had a crucial influence in Roman politics. She’s known for her love affairs with Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, and other distinctions include being the prototype for the femme fatale of antiquity

Florence Nightingale: Founder of Modern-Day Nursing

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing who served as an inspiration for American nurses in the Civil War.
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Library of Congress

Florence Nightingale was the foundational philosopher of modern nursing. Also known as Lady with the Lamp, she was a British nurse who used her medical knowledge to write a book on nursing called “Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not”, a guide where she detailed her methods on tending to the wounded.

She also opened the first science-based nursing school in London (1860), and was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit (1907). To celebrate her birthday as well as her legacy, May 12th is observed as International Nurses Day.

Marie Curie: The First Woman to Win Nobel Prize

 Monument of Polish physicist and chemist, first woman to win a Nobel Prize - Marie Sklodowska Curie in Warsaw.
Image Credit: fotokon/ Depositphotos.com.

A symbol of insatiable curiosity, Marie Curie discovered two elements, polonium and radium, and transformed how we view radioactivity. She also advocated for the use of radiation in medicine, and as a result of her research, she became the first woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize (1903).

Mary Wollstonecraft: Founder of Modern Feminism

Title page and dedication page of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (Boston, 1792); Dedication page is handwritten: "Presented to the Library of Congress by a great admirer of this earliest work for woman's right to equality...ever penned by a woman...(signed) Susan B. Anthony, Rochester, N.Y., Jan 1, 1904.
Title page and dedication page of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. The dedication is handwritten: “Presented to the Library of Congress by a great admirer of this earliest work for woman's right to equality…ever penned by a woman…(signed) Susan B. Anthony, Rochester, N.Y., Jan 1, 1904″ Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Wollstonecraft was a British author and philosopher. She is credited as the mother of modern feminism for her writing on women’s rights, notably “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (J. Johnson, 1792), which was written as a follow-up to her first book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (J. Johnson, 1790), in response to the French Revolution.

Joan of Arc: France’s Revolutionary

Joan of Arc or Jeanne d'Arc at the Basilica Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, France.
Image Credit: Depositphotos.com.

A saint to Roman Catholics, and a national heroine to France, Joan of Arc remains a legend in history. Her story is most compelling due to her modest origins as a peasant girl, who ended up leading the French army into glorious victory (1429) and halting the conquest of France during the Hundred Years’ war.

Additionally, her self-proclaimed mystical visions and blind faith in her cause against the English, as well as her tragic end, have painted her as a symbol of faith, liberation, and revolution.

Qiu Jin: China’s Revolutionary

Qiu Jin photo from circa 1875-1907 over background image of her former residence.
Photo Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Qiu Jin was a poet and feminist revolutionary who championed the liberation of Chinese women. In a time when arranged marriages and bound feet were the norm for women, she challenged gender roles by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing, and enjoying hobbies like swordplay and bomb-making.

When she returned to China after pursuing an education in Japan, she fought valiantly for women’s rights and refused to run away, which led to her fatal demise. Much like Joan of Arc, she became a martyr and as such was dubbed “China’s Joan of Arc”. 

Ella Fitzgerald: First Black Person to Win a Grammy

Ella Fitzgerald looking radiant with a crown brooch and gorgeous smile.
Photo Credit: Public Domain, Library of Congress.

Ella Fitzgerald was the first Black artist to win a Grammy (1958), and by the end of her six-decade career won 15 Grammys. She became known world-wide for her sweet voice with a wide range, pure tone and flawless diction.

What is less known of this brave woman is her impoverished upbringing and the time she spent as an orphaned teenager at a reformatory called “Colored Orphan Asylum” in Riverdale, which hid a dark past according to state investigators. This further proves Ella’s inner strength when faced with adversity.

Indira Gandhi: The Only Prime Minister of India

Indira Ghandi with U.S. President Eisenhower 1956
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Indira Gandhi was the first and only female Prime Minister India has ever had. She was known as powerful, charismatic and tough, and was even nicknamed the “Iron Lady” by Henry Kissinger.

Through her controversial career, she was challenged countless times and she resiliently fought back. Most notably she won a war against Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. 

Rosalind Franklin: DNA Discovery

Rosalind Franklin looks through a microscope 1955.
Image Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons. DNA image via Canva.

Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who discovered DNA’s density using X-ray diffraction methods. She also discovered that the molecule existed in a helical conformation.

Her research led to later scientists like James Watson and Francis Crick to discover that DNA is shaped like a double helix (1953).

Hedy Lamarr: WiFi and Bluetooth Inventor

Hedy Lamarr Patent next to Hedy Lamarr publicity shot.
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, Hedy Lemarr was not only a beautiful woman who graced the screen with her femme fatale grace. She was both beauty and brains. When she married Friedrich Mandle, an arms manufacturer, she acquired technical knowledge accumulated from business meetings.

Later she used this knowledge to become the inventor of a “secret communications system” that would aid the USA in WWII. This tech paved the way for what is today known as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Hedy Lemarr is just one of the amazing Old Hollywood stars who led double lives.

14 Women of STEM Changing the World Today

Dr. Yvonne Cagle stands in a NASA uniform in front of images of space.
Photo Credit: NASA.

Women have continued to bring incredible inventions and scientific progress to our world, yet are often overlooked in their achievements. Here are a few to know:

Author: S.K. Lumen

Title: Writer

Expertise: women's personal development, mental health, self love

S.K. Lumen is a writer, artist and blogger who is passionate about helping women become their best selves. She writes about personal development, self-love, self-care, wellness & mental health.