50 women in entertainment who shattered the glass ceiling
By Amy McCarthy
Throughout the decades, despite plenty of obstacles standing in their way, women have been at the forefront of the entertainment industry. From acting and directing in iconic films to performing legendary songs and selling millions of albums, women in the industry have earned incredible success while breaking barriers, fighting for pay equity and inspiring future generations of entertainers.
There are countless women whose influence can be felt in the worlds of film, television, music and art, but these 50 have broken new ground as entertainers, activists and philanthropists.
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A writer, producer, actress, model, musician and cultural icon, Beyonce is arguably the most influential celebrity of her generation. She’s scored the most Grammy nominations of any female artist, winning 23 times, and has sold more than 160 million records as a solo artist and member of R&B group Destiny’s Child.
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A descendant of Hollywood royalty — she’s the daughter of actor Henry Fonda — Jane Fonda has established her own place as one of film’s most compelling comedic actresses. Before she was the star of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” Fonda built a fitness empire with her trademark at-home exercise videos and stirred controversy as she protested the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
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Nicknamed “Lady Day,” Billie Holiday’s distinctive, powerful voice made her a jazz icon. Despite her tumultuous personal life and tragic early death, Holiday’s influence on the genre cannot be understated.
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Dubbed the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking career spanned nearly six decades. In that time, she performed some of American music’s most notable songs, including “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
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Arguably the most powerful voice of all time and the undisputed Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin should be remembered as much for her activism as for her anthems like “Respect” and “I Say A Little Prayer For You.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, Franklin was a frequent performer at civil rights protests and was a lifelong supporter of Native American rights.
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There may be no musician more innovative than Iceland native Bjork, who brought electro-pop to the masses and pioneered her own unique sound in the 1990s. She also starred in Lars von Trier’s 2000 cult classic film “Dancer in the Dark,” which won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
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With a name like Madonna Louise Ciccone, this Detroit-area icon was born to be a star. Since her 1983 debut, Madonna has sold more than 300 million albums worldwide, making her the best-selling female artist of all time. She’s also earned acclaim as an actress, cultural influencer and constant chameleon.
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Canadian-born superstar Shania Twain made pop-country mainstream with 1997’s “Come On Over,” the best-selling album from a female artist in music history.
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Born Alecia Beth Moore, P!nk is so much more than a pop star. An accomplished songwriter, she’s sold more than 40 million albums across the globe and blazed a fierce, edgy trail of her own with hits like “Just Like A Pill” and “Don’t Let Me Get Me” in an era when pop princesses dominated the airwaves.
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Dominating the silver screen in the 1950s and 1960s, Doris Day was also an accomplished singer and noted activist for animals. Day first got her start making appearances on Bob Hope’s popular weekly radio show and eventually scored top-10 hits with songs like “Love Somebody” and “Secret Love,” the latter of which earned Day an Academy Award for Best Original Song after its appearance in the 1953 film “Calamity Jane.”
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s influence over country music, and American music in general, is hard to overstate. A gospel legend and true guitar virtuoso who’s frequently described as the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” everyone from Keith Richards to Johnny Cash and Little Richard count Tharpe among their influences.
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It’s difficult to say whether Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, is more well-known for her personal exploits or her acting career. One of the first true sex symbols and a fine actress, Monroe’s legacy has lived far longer than her short 36 years.
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Long before the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” that will live on in infamy, Janet Jackson was a groundbreaking R&B artist and the commander-in-chief of the Rhythm Nation. A dancer, songwriter, actress and singer, Jackson has sold more than 100 million records globally thanks to the power of songs like “All For You” and “Nasty.”
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She’s truly come a long way since 1965, when Cherilyn “Cher” Sarkisian stormed onto the scene alongside her husband and fellow artist Sonny Bono as Sonny & Cher. In the decades following, Cher has earned legendary “one name only” status, won Grammy, Emmy and Academy Awards and sold more than 100 million records in the process.
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With her history-making 2014 film Selma, filmmaker Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Director at both the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards. Since then, DuVernay has produced the groundbreaking Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which explores racial oppression in America through the lens of the infamous 1989 Central Park Five case.
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In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor became the first woman to make $1 million for a lead role in a film after her iconic turn in “Cleopatra.” Even as her personal life — Taylor was married eight times and struggled with multiple illnesses — dominated the tabloids, Taylor was a fierce advocate for HIV/AIDS research in the 1980s.
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Now a mogul with a multibillion dollar fortune, Oprah Winfrey came from the humblest of beginnings in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Winfrey got her start with the legendary “Oprah Winfrey Show” and has since gone on to earn multiple Academy Award nominations thanks to impressive acting performances in films like “The Color Purple” and “Selma.”
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Originating the role of Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films, Carrie Fisher is one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses. The daughter of equally legendary actress Debbie Reynolds, Fisher was also an accomplished writer of films and novels based on her own life, including “Postcards from the Edge,” her 1987 book that was adapted into a film three years later.
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A groundbreaking comedienne and fierce self-advocate, Lucille Ball charmed American audiences as the star of “I Love Lucy,” but her influence on the television industry is much more enduring. Ball was the first woman to run a major production company and is frequently credited with pioneering the practice of television syndication.
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Frequently described as the best actor of her generation, Meryl Streep’s iconic performances in films like “Doubt,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Silkwood” have earned her three Academy Awards (of a record 21 nominations) and eight Golden Globes.
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One of Hollywood’s finest character actors, Kathy Bates first earned acclaim as an actress on the stage with a 1983 Tony Awards nomination for Best Lead Actress after her appearance in “Night, Mother.” Since then, Bates has taken home an Academy Award, two Emmys and more accolades for appearances in films like “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Dolores Claiborne” and “Titanic.”
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Both a phenomenal singer and talented actress, Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award after her performance in 1954’s “Carmen Jones.” Later, Dandridge earned legend status with her turn in “Porgy & Bess,” released just six years before her untimely death in 1965.
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With one of the most iconic voices of all time, Whitney Houston’s influence on future generations of singers is evident in artists like Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson. Even now, years after her death, Houston’s recently released cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” paired with a ridiculously catchy backbeat from DJ Kygo, topped the charts.
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A stage actress, Hollywood legend, and humanitarian, Marlene Dietrich also made history as the first woman to wear pants on film.
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After her first Oscar for “Morning Glory” in 1933, Katharine Hepburn ruled the silver screen, winning a record-breaking four Academy Awards for Best Actress. She also bucked societal expectations of how women should talk, act and dress while building an acting career that spanned six decades.
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As the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines stirred the biggest controversy in country music history when she made anti-war comments on a London stage in 2002. As the years have passed, though, Maines has been vindicated, and even though you still won’t hear Dixie Chicks songs on country radio, she’s still recognized as one of the genre’s all-time finest voices and an outspoken advocate for equality.
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Even though she was born in Brussels as a British citizen, Audrey Hepburn is an American film legend thanks to star-making roles in “Roman Holiday” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hepburn was also a devoted advocate for the poor, working alongside UNICEF in South America and Africa.
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In 2008, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director for her 2008 film “The Hurt Locker,” which follows an IED removal team in the Iraq War. After “The Hurt Locker’s” success, Bigelow has gone on to direct more critically acclaimed films, including 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”
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Billie Jean King
The sport of tennis wouldn’t be what it is today without Billie Jean King, both a truly iconic player and pioneer for women in the sport. In 1973, King bested Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match and then went on to rack up 39 Grand Slam titles and led the fight for pay equality in tennis.
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Even though her original path was classical piano — she studied the instrument at the Juilliard School — Nina Simone became best known to American music fans for her iconic, smoldering vocals. Simone was also a major figure in the American civil rights movement, recording powerful anthems like “Mississippi Goddam” to protest racial discrimination.
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The first African American woman to win an Oscar, for her role in “Gone With The Wind” in 1939, Hattie McDaniel also boasts the unique honor of being recognized with two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame — one star for her work in film and another for her contributions to radio.
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One of only a few female filmmakers in the 1950s, Ida Lupino directed eight films, including the cult 1953 film noir “The Hitch-Hiker” and more than 100 television episodes, including installments of “The Twilight Zone” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
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Before she was the subject of an iconic ‘80s song about her eyes, Bette Davis was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. The first-ever female recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Davis’ much-lauded film career lasted more than 60 years, earning her two Academy Award wins.
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One of the earliest Hollywood stars, Greta Garbo is still considered one of film’s greatest actors. Starring in both silent films and talking pictures, Garbo became an international legend thanks to films like “Mata Hari” and “Romance” before her abrupt retirement at 35.
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Perhaps the most recognizable icon in country music, Dolly Parton is a ridiculously talented singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a big-hearted philanthropist, responsible for getting more than 100 million books into the hands of young children via her Imagination Library, which sends free books to kids from birth until kindergarten.
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When Queen Latifah, born Dana Elaine Owens, first got her start as a groundbreaking rapper and the star of “Living Single” in the early ‘90s, it was easy to see that this Queen was destined to become a star. Since her debut, Queen Latifah has racked up a Grammy Award, Emmy Award and an Academy Award nomination.
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Most people recognize Loretta Lynn from her iconic song “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which was developed into a film starring Sissy Spacek in the title role, but Lynn’s influence on country music is much broader than that. With provocative hits like “The Pill” and “Fist City,” Lynn has blazed the trail for countless female artists who approach their music with a similarly fearless mentality.
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From her starring role in sitcoms like “he Flying Nun” and “Gidget” to Academy Award winning performances in “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart,” the upbeat charm and incredible talent of Sally Field has earned the love of movie fans everywhere. Throughout her career, Field has been a passionate advocate for a number of causes, including LGBT equality.
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After first rising to fame for her role as Laverne DeFazio in “Laverne & Shirley,” Penny Marshall went on to become a critically acclaimed director thanks to films like “Big,” which earned Marshall the distinction of being the first woman to direct a film that grossed over $100 million, and “A League Of Their Own.”
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Over the past two decades, Shonda Rhimes’s production company, Shondaland, has produced some of television’s biggest hits, including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”
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After cutting her teeth at legendary comedy incubator The Second City in Chicago, Tina Fey’s writing and comedic performances on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” are among the finest in NBC history. After leaving the show, Fey has starred in a number of blockbuster comedic films, including “Baby Mama” and 2019’s “Wine Country,” released on Netflix.
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With Emmy, Tony and Academy Award wins, Viola Davis is the first African-American actress to earn what is called the “Triple Crown of Acting.” She’s also an outspoken feminist and social justice advocate, and she has worked on philanthropic campaigns to combat childhood hunger and poverty.
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Arguably the most groundbreaking woman in comedy, Carol Burnett became the first woman to host a popular variety show with the debut of the “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1967. A native Texan, Burnett was also an award-winning actress on stage and in film, starring in 1982’s “Annie” and “Moon Over Buffalo,” the latter of which earned her a Tony Award nomination in 1995.
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Ellen DeGeneres got her start as a standup comedian and then made history when the semi-eponymous character she played came out as a lesbian in an episode of her wildly popular sitcom, “Ellen.” After that, DeGeneres went on to host an Emmy-winning daytime talk show and lent her voice to smash-hit Disney films “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.” In 2020, DeGeneres came under fire after a number of “Ellen” show employees came forward with allegations of working in a toxic environment, sexual harassment, and racism.
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From her roots as a Fly Girl, Jennifer Lopez has blossomed into a full-blown mogul. After her first leading role in 1997’s “Selena,” Lopez became the first Latina actress to command a $1 million salary per film and blew up the charts with Latin-pop hits like “Jenny From The Block.” She’s also an apparel and fragrance entrepreneur, with a net worth estimated at around $400 million.
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More than 100 years after her birth, Josephine Baker’s legacy continues to endure. An accomplished dancer who wowed crowds in Paris, Baker was also an actress and civil rights activist who refused to perform in front of crowds that were segregated by race.
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The author of the history-making “Harry Potter” series, J.K. Rowling inspired an entire generation to read more books and use their imaginations. As a result of those books and the films based on them, Rowling went from being a struggling single mom to a bona fide billionaire, a status she lost as a result of her giving to charities like Comic Relief and her own organization, Lumos.
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With 118 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, Carole King is the most successful female songwriter of all time thanks to iconic tracks like “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” and pretty much anything else from her historic 1971 album “Tapestry.”
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Often described as the “punk poet laureate” or the “godmother of punk,” Patti Smith’s a true Jane of all trades. She’s a poet and writer, and the release of her 1975 album, “Horses” had untold influence on punk music, especially in New York City. Avant-garde and a true wordsmith, Smith has inspired countless artists, notably Madonna, R.E.M’s Michael Stipe and Hole frontwoman Courtney Love.
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With her wedding to Prince Rainier III in 1956, actress Grace Kelly captivated the attention of Americans as she became the Princess of Monaco. Before that, though, Kelly won an Academy Award for “The Country Girl,” starring opposite Bing Crosby, and she scared countless moviegoers in Hitchcock classics like “Dial M for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief.”