From time immemorial till today, a number of women have rose up and challenged the status quo. They stood out as rebels who were willing to take on established norms and traditions, leaving a lasting mark in history. They have all had a significant influence on different aspects of life and people today, and subsequently changed how we perceive life.
Here are the top 10 most influential women in history.
Mother Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, honoured in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun and missionary. In 1950, Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, where members take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and also profess a fourth vow – to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
Teresa received a number of honors, including the 1962 Ramon Magsaysay Peace Prize and 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. She was canonised on 4 September 2016, and the anniversary of her death (5 September) is her feast day. A controversial figure during her life and after her death, Teresa was admired by many for her charitable work.
She was praised and criticized on various counts, such as for her views on abortion and contraception, and was criticized for poor conditions in her houses for the dying. Her authorized biography was written by Navin Chawla and published in 1992, and she has been the subject of films and other books. On 6 September 2017, Teresa and St. Francis Xavier were named co-patrons of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was an American political figure, diplomat and activist. She served as the First Lady of the United States from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, making her the longest-serving First Lady of the United States. Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady at the time for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights for African-Americans.
She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. On a few occasions, she publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Following her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life.
She pressed the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate from 1945 to 1952. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the time of her death, Roosevelt was regarded as “one of the most esteemed women in the world” and as often been ranked as one of the most admired people of the 20th Century. President Harry S. Truman later called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.
3. Marie Curie
Marie Skłodowska Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.
She was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and physicist Henri Becquerel. She won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Her achievements include the development of the theory of “radioactivity” (a term she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.
4. Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony was an American social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. She is known for her cause in; social reform activities primarily in the field of women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and equal rights for both women and African Americans. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicized trial.
In 1878, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Introduced by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA), it later became known colloquially as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. It was eventually ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Anthony traveled extensively in support of women’s suffrage, giving as many as 75 to 100 speeches per year and working on many state campaigns.
She worked internationally for women’s rights, playing a key role in creating the International Council of Women, which is still active. When she first began campaigning for women’s rights, Anthony was harshly ridiculed and accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. Public perception of her changed radically during her lifetime. She became the first female citizen to be depicted on U.S. coinage when her portrait appeared on the 1979 dollar coin.
5. Margaret Fuller
Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli was an American journalist, editor, critic, translator, and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first American female war correspondent, writing for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, and full-time book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States.
By the time she was in her 30s, Fuller had earned a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female, and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College. Fuller was an advocate of women’s rights and, in particular, women’s education and the right to employment. She revolted against Boston-Cambridge’s learned professions because she was barred from entering as a girl.
Fuller wanted to stay free of what she called the “strong mental oder” of female teachers. She also encouraged many other reforms in society, including prison reform and the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Many other advocates for women’s rights and feminism, including Susan B. Anthony, cite Fuller as a source of inspiration.
6. Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales was a member of the British royal family. She was the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, and the mother of Prince William and Prince Harry. Diana’s activism and glamour made her an international icon and earned her an enduring popularity as well as an unprecedented public scrutiny, exacerbated by her tumultuous private life. Diana came to prominence in 1981 upon her engagement to Prince Charles, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, after a brief courtship.
As Princess of Wales, Diana undertook royal duties on behalf of the Queen and represented her at functions across the Commonwealth realms. She was celebrated in the media for her unconventional approach to charity work. Her patronages initially centered on children and youth but she later became known for her involvement with AIDS patients and campaign for the removal of landmines.
She also raised awareness and advocated ways to help people affected with cancer and mental illness. As princess, Diana was initially noted for her shyness, but her charisma and friendliness endeared her to the public and helped her reputation survive the acrimonious collapse of her marriage. Considered to be very photogenic, she was a leader of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s. Her legacy has had a deep impact on the royal family and British society.
7. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Gail Winfrey (born Orpah Gail Winfrey) is an American talk show host, actress, television producer, media executive, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, broadcast from Chicago, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and ran in national syndication for 25 years from 1986 to 2011. Dubbed the “Queen of All Media”, she was the richest African American of the 20th century and North America’s first black multi-billionaire.
She has been ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history and sometimes ranked as the most influential woman in the world. Credited with creating a more intimate, confessional form of media communication, Winfrey popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre. Through this medium, Winfrey broke 20th-century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream through television appearances. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
By the mid-1990s, Winfrey had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, mindfulness, and spirituality. Though she was criticized for unleashing a confession culture, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and having an emotion-centered approach, she has also been praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and honorary doctorate degrees from Duke and Harvard. In 2008, she formed her own network, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
8. Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships at the time, received more attention than her writing. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and her works as important influences.
During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
9. Rosa Parks
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was an American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The United States Congress has called her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver’s order to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled, leading to her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws.
Parks’ prominence in the community and her willingness to become a controversial figure inspired the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year, the first major direct action campaign of the post-war civil rights movement. Parks’ act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.
She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.. Parks received national recognition, including the NAACP’s 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, becoming the thirty-first person to receive this honor.
Joanne Rowling, better known by her pen name J. K. Rowling, is a British author, screenwriter, film producer, television producer, and philanthropist. She is best known for writing the Harry Potter fantasy series, which has won multiple awards and sold more than 500 million copies, becoming the best-selling book series in history. The books are the basis of a popular film series, over which Rowling had overall approval on the scripts and was a producer on the final films.
She also writes crime fiction under the name Robert Galbraith. Rowling has lived a “rags to riches” life in which she progressed from living on benefits to being named the world’s first billionaire author. She lost her billionaire status after giving away much of her earnings to charity. She is the UK’s best-selling living author. She’s often ranked among the most influential people in the world, noting the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given her fans. She has supported multiple charities.