15 Famous Women Throughout History and Their Lasting Impact

There’s so much to learn from these women who changed the world.

By Rebecca Norris

Women are pretty extraordinary. It’s a tale as old as time — even when a woman’s place in society was forbidden, mocked, challenged, and questioned as a norm. For centuries, women all over the world have made strides toward a world that’s more equitable; they’ve been the brains behind incredible advances in science, medicine, mathematics, literature and the like, influencing not only women but men, too. That’s why, as we gear up for Women’s History Month (and International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8), we’re here to pay homage to 15 famous women, celebrating who they were (and are). After all, as fascinating as it is to brush up on Women’s History Month facts, it’s even more eye-opening to learn about the women in history who have so greatly affected society throughout the years.

If you didn’t think that women played a huge role in where we are today, consider this: The founder of modern-day nursing was a woman. The scientist who discovered radium and who monumentally contributed to finding cures for cancer was a woman. The publisher of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal (AKA two of the biggest news stories of the 20th century) was a woman. Needless to say, women have helped to shape society and the world as we know it. Keep reading to learn more ways that they have.

1. Jane Austen (1775 –1817)

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Jane Austen is best known for her literary genius, in which she depicts the lives of ordinary people. She wrote six completed novels, including the wildly popular Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which have since been adapted into movies and shows. She pretty much set the bar for rom-com novels (or what many now refer to as Chick Lit).

2. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.”

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician credited with being the world’s first computer programmer. To this day, every second Tuesday in October is celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day by women in STEM.

3. Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883)

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, these women together ought to be able to turn it right again.”

Regarded as one of the most influential Black women in American history, Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist, author, and women’s rights advocate. But first, she was just a child who was separated from her family and sold into slavery. After fleeing in 1929 with one baby in tow while being forced to leave her other two children behind, she used her freedom to be a voice for the voiceless. Her Ohio Women’s Rights Convention speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?“—which she gave in Akron in 1851—is still celebrated as a turning point for feminism today.

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4. Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

“Never give nor take an excuse.”

Florence Nightingale is the founder of modern-day nursing. After tirelessly tending to the wounded during the Crimean War—becoming known as the “Lady with the Lamp” in the process—Florence established the Nightingale School of Nursing in London in 1860.

5. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.”

Marie Curie was a Polish scientist who discovered both polonium and radium, and coined the term radioactivity. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize (which she earned for her research in “radiation phenomena” in 1903). She won another in 1911 for her isolation of radium. But that’s not all. After her discoveries, Marie went on to develop a portable X-Ray machine.

6. Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1939)

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

Amelia Earhart was an American aviator known for being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Later, she became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Sadly, in an attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world in 1937, Amelia went missing, never to be found. She was eventually declared dead in 1939.

7. Anne Frank (1929 – 1945)

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

Anne Frank is a symbol of the Holocaust, famous for her diary, in which she detailed what it was like to live in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Despite the horrors that she recounted and endured, Anne believed in the good of the people. Her diary, which was turned into a book known as The Diary of a Young Girl, has sold roughly 30 million copies to date.

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8. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962)

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Eleanor Roosevelt may have been President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife, but she’s known well beyond that. Before, during, and after her stint as the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor established herself as an activist, diplomat, and humanitarian—advocating for civil rights and women’s rights—and an eventual spokesperson in the United Nations.

9. Katharine Graham (1917 – 2001)

“No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”

When you hear about the Pentagon Papers or the breaking news Watergate scandal, you likely think of the authors that wrote them. If you go beyond that, however, you’ll find the publisher that approved them for print: Katharine Graham, the first 20th-century female publisher of a major American newspaper. In short, she was a female trailblazer in the world of publishing and media.

10. Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Rosa Parks is famous for being the catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, Rose refused to give up her front seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, which she was jailed and fined for. The experience led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and countless other Civil Rights protests, and cemented Rosa as a symbol of dignity and strength amidst racial segregation.

11. Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Maya Angelou was a world-renowned poet, singer, and activist whose award-winning memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became a beacon of hope for abuse survivors, as well as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

12. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933 – 2020)

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a women’s rights activist, not to mention the second female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As a pioneer of gender equality, RBG co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, which “empowers poor women, women of color, and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality.”

13. Gloria Steinem (1934 – Present)

“Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”

Gloria Steinem is revered as one of the most passionate leaders of the women’s liberation movement. For decades, Gloria has toured the country, leading marches and speaking to the masses about the importance of gender equality. In 2013, Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts.

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14. Dolly Parton (1946 – Present)

“You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

Many people know Dolly Parton as an iconic country music star with style (and a silhouette) that’s hard to miss. In reality, Dolly is one of the most notable celebrity philanthropists of our time. She created the Imagination Library, a program that gifts free, age-appropriate books to children from birth to age five, in 1995 to instill a love of reading and imagination in generations to come. She’s donated nearly 2 million books to date. She also donates to science. In 2020, she donated $1 million toward the research behind Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.

15. Greta Thunberg (2003 – Present)

“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

Greta Thunberg may only be 20 years old, but she’s making history as we speak. The young woman is a well-respected environmental activist who is working to ensure the next generation is well-equipped for the climate fight. In 2018, she founded Fridays for Future (AKA School Strike for Climate), a youth-led climate strike movement that aims to keep the world informed.

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