46 Inspiring Women Who Have Changed the World for Good

3 inspiring women who have changed the world for good: Coretta Scott King, Malala Yousafzai, and Audre Lorde

The truth is, women deserve a lot more credit than they receive. Beyond Women’s History Month or International Women’s Day — and yes, even beyond a “Hi Barbie!” — women of all backgrounds deserve greater recognition (and equal pay).

In an attempt to bridge the gap many of us have in our knowledge of women’s history — and to appreciate the world-changing work of women everywhere, we’ve rounded up some stories of inspiring women you ought to know.

From athletes and writers to activists and scientists, this not-at-all-exhaustive glossary of greats will hopefully act as a launch pad for you to learn more about each of them — or go on and change the world yourself. 

Let’s meet them!

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Some of the world’s most inspiring women

Malala Yousafzai

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Photo courtesy of Southbank Centre (CC BY 2.0)

Malala Yousafzai made waves when she was just a young girl who spoke up about girl’s education, taking inspiration from her father, a teacher.

At 15, after she was shot on the bus while riding home from school, Yousafzai became a household name. The Pakistani girl was attacked simply because she was getting an education — something that was highly risky and taboo, as Yousafzai grew up in a time during which the Taliban was taking control of her home country.

Fortunately, Yousafzai survived the attack, and after intense rehabilitation, made a full recovery and went on to champion equal access to education. She became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate in 2014, and now in her 20s, continues her work as a human rights advocate to this day. 

Greta Thunberg

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Perhaps one of the most notable faces of the modern climate activism movement, Greta Thunberg has made headlines for her work since she was just 15 years old.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 2003, the young activist was quick to learn about climate change and made it to the world stage in 2018, when she led the School Strike for Climate. Thunberg skipped school for three weeks to camp outside of the Swedish Parliament and inspired youth across the globe to take action in their own ways, too.

Since then, she has been invited to speak at international climate summits, met with world leaders, and most importantly, continues to organize against climate change. 

In 2023, Thunberg was arrested and fined numerous times after refusing to abandon protest sites. 

Coretta Scott King

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Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was born on April 27, 1927 in Heiberger, Alabama. 

She studied music at Antioch College in Ohio, which informed her work as an advocate for justice and peace, and later paved the way for a series of Freedom Concerts as her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement grew. 

Following the murder of her husband, she quickly founded the King Center and became known as the architect of his legacy, while simultaneously continuing the fight against racism, war, homophobia, and other forms of social injustice. 

She is considered one of the most influential Black American leaders of her time, receiving honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities; authoring two books; maintaining a nationally syndicated newspaper column; founding organizations like the Black Leadership Forum, the National Coalition for Voter Participation, and the Black Leadership Roundtable; and more.

When King died in 2006, she was the first woman — and the first Black American — to lay in honor in the rotunda of the Georgia capitol. 

Michelle Obama

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Michelle Obama is a lawyer, writer, and advocate who was thrust into the global spotlight when she became the First Lady of the United States in 2008.

The wife of former president Barack Obama, she served as a role model and advocated for healthy families, service members and their families, higher education, and international adolescent girls’ education during her time at the White House

In her memoir, “Becoming,” published in 2018, she wrote about personal experiences with marriage, parenting, growing up, professional ambitions, and more, solidifying her role as a beacon of pride, determination, and optimism for women everywhere.

Eleanor Roosevelt

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Eleanor Roosevelt is best known for her last name, as the wife of 32nd president Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was an icon of her time and was the longest-serving First Lady throughout her husband’s four terms in office. 

But more than that, she was a humanitarian and tireless social justice activist, using her influence to champion the rights of the marginalized, fight for gender equality, and promote world peace

After her husband’s death, Eleanor was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations and served as a chairman of the Commission on Human Rights and played a major role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor was also desperate to elevate the voices of the oppressed, and was appointed chair of President John F. Kennedy’s chair of his Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, continuing the work of equal rights to her last days, when she died in 1962.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG, as she’s more casually known, was the second female Supreme Court Justice in the U.S. 

She received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, attended Harvard Law School, and received her law degree from Columbia Law School, becoming a prominent lawyer and law professor in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, Ginsburg became involved in the issue of gender equality and was the founding counsel of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. She co-authored a law school casebook on gender discrimination, became the first tenured female faculty member at Columbia Law School, and argued before the Supreme Court numerous times.

In 1980, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and in 1993, was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton, becoming the second-ever woman to serve on the court.

Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou was a renowned poet, author, singer, dancer, and activist who dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights and equality.  

With her first-hand experiences of racial discrimination and personal trauma, Angelou used her voice to speak out against injustice, working with civil rights organizations, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Angelou is most well-known for her poetry and writing, having penned numerous books and famous works like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” 

Throughout her life, Angelou received over 30 honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. Though she passed away in 2022, Angelou’s legacy lives on today through her powerful writing and tireless activism. 

Melinda Gates

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Melinda Gates is an American businesswoman and philanthropist. Alongside her ex-husband Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, she founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which works to solve health problems around the world, especially focusing on treatments and vaccines for malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, insect-transmitted diseases, and malnutrition. 

Alongside this work, Melinda founded Pivotal Ventures in 2015, which advocates for paid leave for all, access to mental health care for LGBTQ+ youth and children of color, as well as increasing the number of women in politics.

Melinda is a leading example of how to use one’s privilege for good, and in 2016 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Her book “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World” is a best-seller that details her life’s work of helping others.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller, born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and was also the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe. 

She was of Cherokee, Dutch, and Irish descent, and the surname ‘Mankiller’ derives from the high military rank achieved by a Cherokee ancestor.

In 1985, she became the Principal Chief of the tribe; her administration is known for lowering a high unemployment rate, increasing educational opportunities, and improving community health care. She also focused on the necessity of protecting Cherokee traditions and created the Institute for Cherokee Literacy. 

Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She died in 2010, after a life of advocacy and transformation.

Nellie Bly

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Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, was a trailblazing investigative journalist. When she began her work in the 1880s, she adopted “Nellie Bly” as a pen name, going undercover for a variety of stories, in which she covered topics like working conditions for girls in Pittsburgh, corruption in Mexico, injustice in jails, and bribery in the lobbyist system.

One of her most notable exposés is her work “Ten Days in a Mad House,” where she was committed to a mental health asylum to expose the inhumane conditions facing disabled community members in 1887. Her reporting led to improved conditions for mentally ill New Yorkers.

Bly also traveled around the world in 72 days in 1889, setting a world record, and solidifying the name “Nellie Bly” as a synonym for a star female reporter.

She became a writer for the “New York Journal” in 1920, just two years before her death.

Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most famous American television personalities and entrepreneurs in modern history.

Before she was a renowned actress and television host, Winfrey was a news anchor at just 19 years old for her local CBS station. After a few years of success in reporting, she was given a talk show hosting gig.

Her daily talk show, the “Oprah Winfrey Show” was syndicated nationally in 1986, and with its high success, paved the way for Winfrey to form her own production companies the same year. 

Following the success of her film and TV works, she launched “O, the Oprah Magazine” in 2000. By 2008, she had created her own television network (OWN), and ended her talk show in 2011 so she could focus on her other business endeavors.

Along with her massive success and wealth, Winfrey has been a dedicated philanthropist, most notably opening a $40 million school for girls in South Africa in 2007

She was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2010 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 and continues to advocate for justice and equality through her work today.

Dolly Parton

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Dolly Parton is a beloved country musician, actress, and style icon. She is a decorated performer, songwriter, and actress, and is known for bridging the gap between country and pop music, inspiring numerous young female musicians to do the same. 

Off the stage and screen, she is a dedicated philanthropist and business woman. In 1986, she opened Dollywood, a theme park dedicated to Appalachian traditions, in the Great Smoky Mountains. Two years later came the Dollywood Foundation, which provides inspiration and educational resources to children. 

This work has led to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which sends free books to 1 million children in the mail every month. In addition to this, she has continually shown up as an advocate (and icon) for LGBTQ+ rights, helped to fund (and publicly support) the Moderna vaccine, and keeps showing up to support communities after natural disasters

From Grammys to the National Medal of Arts, and everything in between, Parton has received countless awards for her contributions to arts and culture throughout her lifetime of achievement. 

Judy Heumann

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Born in 1947, Judith (Judy) Heumann was an educator and activist central to the disability justice movement and was instrumental in the implementation and passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Huemann served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and was the first-ever Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the U.S. Department of State between 2010 and 2017. She also co-founded the World Institute on Disability, which was one of the first global disability rights organizations founded and continually led by disabled people.

Just a few years prior to her death in March of 2023, Heumann’s work finally gained more visibility in the American mainstream. Her book, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist," co-authored with Kristen Joiner, and the documentary "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution" were released in 2020, mere weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy

Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy was a lawyer, radical feminist, civil rights advocate, lecturer, and activist.

In fact, in 1974, “People Magazine” called her “the biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause.” 

She was one of the first Black women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1951, and she fought in both the courts and the streets for women’s rights, civil rights, and reproductive rights. 

Kennedy was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, established the Media Workshop to fight racism in advertising, and founded the Feminist Party, which nominated Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm for president in 1972.

She also organized a “pee-in” in Harvard Yard in 1973 to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms in university buildings. Her spirit and tenacity were her trademarks up until her death in 2000.

Sarah McBride

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Sarah McBride, born in 1990 in Wilmington, Delaware, was the first-ever openly transgender state legislator in the country. She became a member of the Delaware Senate in 2021 and has passed legislation banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing, insurance, and public accommodations.

Prior to her election, McBride worked as the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign and was the first openly transgender person to address a major party convention in American history at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Her book “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality” remains a best-seller after being published in 2018. While she continues to serve in the Delaware Senate, McBride is now running for Congress, and if elected, would be the first openly trans member of Congress in U.S. history.

Serena Williams

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Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She revolutionized women’s tennis with her powerful style and won more Grand Slam singles titles than any other tennis player — man or woman — during her career, totaling 23 titles. 

Growing up in Compton, California, she and her sister, Venus Williams, were taught by their father, Richard Williams, at public courts in the area. In 1991, the family moved to Florida so the sisters could attend a tennis academy, and Serena turned professional in 1995. In addition to her many Grand Slam titles, Serena is a four-time Olympic gold medalist.

After years of success on the court, she retired from tennis in 2022 to focus her efforts on being a mother, pursuing her fashion line, and bolstering her philanthropic work at the Yetunde Price Resource Center in Compton, which supports families impacted by violence.

Katherine Johnson

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Katherine Johnson was a trailblazing mathematician who was integral to sending U.S. astronauts to the moon. 

Johnson was one of three Black Americans selected for her graduate program at West Virginia University, and when she began working as part of NACA’s West Area Computing group in 1953, she was among a group of Black women who analyzed test data and provided important mathematical computations. However, NACA was segregated at that time, and it wasn’t until the group was incorporated into NASA that more opportunities became available.

In 1960, Johnson became the first woman in her division in NASA’s Space Task Group to receive credit as an author of a research report, and she would go on to co-author 26 papers throughout her career.

She spent three decades working with the U.S. space program, and was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and following her death at age 101, a spacecraft was named after her.

Alicia Garza

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Alicia Garza is a political activist and leader best known for co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Since her college days at the University of California, San Diego, Garza has been a staunch advocate against gentrification, police brutality, equal rights, and equitable political power. 

In 2013, she founded the Black Lives Matter movement alongside Opal Tometi and Patrice Cullors, gaining national recognition. This led to the founding of the Black Futures Lab, which builds Black political power across the country.

Garza also works as the Strategy and Partnerships Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and is the co-founder of Supermajority, empowering other women activists. In 2020, she published her book “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.”

Amanda Gorman

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Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, captivated the world when she recited her hope-centric poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration in January 2021. She was just 22 years old. 

She is a graduate of Harvard University, was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate by Urban World, and has gone on to write for the New York Times and publish four books since that fateful performance. Her published works include “Call Us What We Carry,” “Change Sings,” “Something, Someday,” and the long-form version of “The Hill We Climb.”

Her poetry speaks to important issues like racism, climate change, feminism, marginalization, and social justice. Gorman has also performed multiple poems on television, spoken at events at the Library of Congress, graced the cover of major magazines, and even co-hosted the Met Gala.

She is the youngest board member of 826 National, the largest youth writing network in the country, continues to share her work and fight against book bans, and has long said that she intends to run for president in 2036.

Sonia Sotomayor

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Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court justice in 2009. She is the third female justice in U.S. history and supports women’s rights, criminal justice reform, and legal immigration in her role as a judge.

She credits the show “Perry Mason” for helping her decide she wanted to become a lawyer at age 10 — and she did just that. She attended Princeton University, Yale Law School, and worked as an editor at the “Yale Law Journal.”

Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney in New York for five years before moving to private practice at a law firm. She was appointed as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court in 1992, and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit in 1997 before assuming her role on the Supreme Court over a decade later. 

She remains in her role to this day and has also authored four books.

Mildred Loving

Mildred Loving, whose name perfectly encapsulates her impact on history, is one half of an interracial couple who changed the course of American history for good. Mildred, who was of Native American and Black descent, became a civil rights activist when she married her white husband, Richard. 

In 1958, the pair was arrested for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They took their case to the Supreme Court, which made it possible for people to marry outside of their race in the U.S.

The case, Loving v. Virginia struck down the law in 1967 and allowed the Lovings to remain a legal, married couple in the state until Richard’s death in 1975. Richard was survived by Mildred and their two children, up until her death in 2008.

Loving Day, celebrated on June 12, commemorates the couple’s triumph in the fight for love and equality for all.

Dylan Mulvaney

Dylan Mulvaney is a transgender actress, comedian, and content creator who is best known for her TikTok series “Days of Girlhood,” where she highlights her transgender journey.

Since the start of her transition in 2022, Mulvaney has delighted her over 10 million TikTok followers with queer joy and exciting milestones: from fun makeup routines, surgery consultations, and adding tampons to her purse to give to other women in the bathroom — to modeling in New York Fashion Week and attending the Forbes Power Women Summit

Most importantly, she’s made the Internet — and the world — feel like a safer place for other trans people. In 2023, she was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List, continued to build her acting and modeling career, and maintains a positive and uplifting space for LGBTQ+ people online, even in the face of political backlash.

Hillary Clinton

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Hillary Clinton has had a storied political career in American history: serving as the Secretary of State, Senator from New York, First Lady (of both the U.S. and the state of Arkansas), a practicing lawyer, and law professor. 

As the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2016, Clinton became the first woman to top the presidential ticket of a major party in the United States, after an already lengthy and meaningful career in Washington, D.C. 

In her many roles, Clinton has prioritized the rights of women and children, fighting for health care reform, assistance for low-income and military families, and more. Her role as Secretary of State was instrumental during the Obama administration, and she has remained a steadfast advocate for human rights (which include women’s rights), LGBTQ+ freedoms, and more. 

While Clinton earned over 65 million votes in the 2016 election, she conceded to Donald Trump. Inspired by the activism that came after the election, she founded Onward Together, an organization working to advance progressive politics in the U.S.

Jane Goodall

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Jane Goodall is one of the world's most celebrated primatologists and conservationists. Born in London, England in 1934, Goodall was fascinated by animals from a young age. 

In 1960, she began her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park. She became immersed in their lives, making huge discoveries about primate behavior that have continued to impact the scientific community. 

Gaining the respect of biologists and conservationists across the globe over the course of her five-decade career, Goodall has devoted her life to protecting chimpanzees and their habitats. 

In 2002, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which supports chimpanzee conservation efforts around the world, and inspires people of all ages to appreciate and respect animals and our natural environment. 

Emma Watson

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An actress best known for her childhood role as Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter series, Emma Watson has grown up to be a leader in both the arts and advocacy.

Outside of her on-screen performances, she is a dedicated activist in the fields of climate action, gender equality, and human rights. As a graduate of Brown University and supporter of Camfed International, Watson was named a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014, serving as an advocate for the organization’s HeForShe campaign. 

An avid reader, she also hosted an online feminist book club from 2016 to 2020, called Our Shared Shelf. 

In addition, her work in climate activism has brought her to the world stage at various COP gatherings. She is also passionate about sustainable style and even wore a dress made entirely of recycled plastic bottles to the 2016 Met Gala.

Rosa Parks

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Rosa Parks — often referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement” — is celebrated for her courageous act of defiance on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man. 

Parks was arrested and fined, and instead of paying the fees, accepted the help of the Montgomery NAACP — an organization for which she was the chapter secretary for 13 years — to appeal the conviction. 

Her resistance was a pivotal step in igniting the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days and spurred subsequent protests and boycotts of segregated spaces across the U.S. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregated seating was unconstitutional.

Beyond this iconic part of the Civil Rights Movement, Parks was an active civil rights activist throughout her life and remained active in the NAACP. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to provide career training for young people and education about the history of the civil rights movement.

Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is a celebrated environmentalist, writer, and creative based in Southern California. Her passion for the relationship between social justice and environmentalism led her to found her eco-blog @greengirlleah and nonprofit Intersectional Environmentalist.

Leah was the first to define the term “intersectional environmentalism,” giving advocates everywhere a vocabulary for a modern approach to social justice and environmentalism. Since 2020, Intersectional Environmentalist has provided educational resources, advocacy tools, and innovative programming to environmentalists everywhere.

In 2022, Thomas published her book “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” to provide a framework for a more intentional, accessible, and inclusive future for the climate movement.

In 2023, she was included in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.

Rashida Tlaib

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Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is a Palestinian American congresswoman representing Michigan. In 2008, she made history as the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature, focusing on environmental justice in Detroit.

She was elected to Congress in 2018 and was known as part of “The Squad,” a group of progressive young women representatives who were elected to Congress that year and were vocal against social justice issues during the Trump Administration. 

As a representative, Tlaib has focused her energy on justice for all, affordable housing and health care, environmental justice, and ending poverty. 

Audre Lorde

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Audre Lorde, a poet, professor, and activist, dedicated her life and creative skills to addressing injustices like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. 

Lorde’s writings on lesbian feminism and Black feminism became fundamental to greater social justice movements, with titles like “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House” and “Sister Outsider,” which are still taught in schools to this day.

Aside from her protest-laden poems, Lorde was also bold in her memoir works about her experience with breast cancer, and in her work to make diverse writing more accessible.

In 1981, she and fellow writers founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, to support the writings of Black feminists. At this time, she was also deeply active in the fight against South African apartheid and created Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.

Throughout her life, Lorde was a professor of English at John Jay College and Hunter College, had a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was New York’s poet laureate from 1991-1992. 

Marsha P. Johnson

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Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans drag queen and activist who dedicated her life to the liberation of the LGBTQ+ community. As a pioneer of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s, she took part in a number of Pride parades and events — most notably the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

Following Stonewall, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and later co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera. Together, the two led a movement advocating for gay and trans rights while providing housing to unhoused LGBTQ+ youth.

Johnson experienced many personal hardships, including a series of mental health breakdowns in the 1970s, a number of arrests, and in 1990, an HIV diagnosis. This did not stop her work, however, and she was a vocal AIDS activist.

In 1992, at age 46, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. While her death was initially ruled a suicide, the New York police reopened her case in 2012. Posthumously, Johnson remains one of the most recognized faces of LGBTQ+ history and is the namesake of many NYC parks and monuments, as well as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

Ava Duvernay

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Ava Duvernay is a Black American film director, writer, and producer who has made waves with her work. Although she did not pick up a camera until age 32, she has made history throughout her career.

Duvernay was the first Black American woman to win Best Director at Sundance Film Festival, be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and direct a film with a budget over $100 million. She is the highest grossing Black woman director in American box office history.

Her projects, which include titles like “When They See Us,” “Selma,” “13th,” and “Origin,” tell deeply compelling stories of racial injustice and civil rights in the United States.

Simone Biles

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Simone Biles is an American gymnast who is considered the sport’s greatest athlete. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she became the first female gymnast from the U.S. to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games, and she was the first gymnast to win three consecutive world all-around titles.

She was also the first African-American woman to claim the world all-around title in 2013, years before her Olympic debut. 

Biles is known for incorporating highly difficult moves into her routines and executing them with precision and exuberance, making her a star in the sport.

The gymnast took a break from the sport in 2018 for her mental health and announced she was a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of former U.S. national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. With Biles’ advocacy, Nassar was convicted of abusing numerous athletes

Biles returned to competition later that year and won a record-setting fifth all-around title at the national championships. She continues to be a vocal advocate for mental health, creating a legacy of resilience and achievement never seen in gymnastics before.

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. 

A daughter of immigrants, Chisholm grew up in both Brooklyn and Barbados and was an elementary teacher and nursery director. Outside of her work in education, she was an active member of the NAACP and represented Brooklyn in the New York state legislature. 

Once elected to federal office, Chisholm’s Congressional career lasted until 1983 and included a run for president in 1972, where she won 152 Democratic delegates before withdrawing from the race. 

As a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Chisholm’s career is remembered by her tireless advocacy for women’s rights, as well as her opposition to weapons development and war in Vietnam.

Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

bell hooks

Gloria Jean Watkins, or as she is better known, bell hooks, was a scholar, writer, and activist whose works are central to discussions about race, gender, and class. In fact, one of her most quoted sentiments is that “feminism is for everybody.”

As the author of over 30 books, she often examined the connections between these social constructs and explored the experiences of Black women and the development of feminist ideology. 

Hooks’ pseudonym is the name of her great-grandmother, which she chose to honor female legacies, spelling it in lowercase letters to bring attention to her work, rather than herself. During the 1980s, hooks established a support group for Black women called Sisters of the Yam — which later inspired a book with the same name that celebrates Black sisterhood.

In addition to her writings, hooks taught English and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California, African and Afro-American studies at Yale University, women’s studies at Oberlin College, and English at the City College of New York throughout her career.

In 2004, she became a professor in residence at Berea College in Kentucky, and in 2014, the bell hooks Center was founded at the college. 

Dolores Huerta

A picture of Dolores Huerta
Photo by Richard Strauss / Photo courtesy of National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dolores Huerta is an American labor leader and activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America. She is considered one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century, as well as a bold leader of the Chicano civil rights movement.  

Along with her contributions co-founding the UFWA, some of Huerta’s other milestones include coordinating nationwide lettuce, grape, and wine boycotts in the 1970s, leading to the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the first law recognizing the rights of farm workers to bargain collectively. 

She also helped develop the union’s radio station, speaking up and raising funds for causes like immigration policy and laborers’ health. Huerta served on the U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers from 1988 to 1993, which was created to evaluate the status of labor in the agricultural industry.

In 2002, she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Simone de Beauvoir

A picture of Simone de Beauvoir
Photo by 刘东 鳌 (Liu Dong'ao) (CC0 1.0)

Simone de Beauvoir was a French feminist writer who created works that became classics in feminist literature. Known primarily for her treatise “The Second Sex,” she became well-respected for her passionate and scholarly takes on feminist philosophy.

While she refused to identify herself as a philosopher, history has made it clear that Beauvoir has made enduring contributions to ethics, social and political philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, and feminist philosophy. 

In 1945, she helped found the leftist journal “Les Temps Modernes” with other French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir was a co-editor of the journal, which quickly became an important avenue for political essays of the time, especially as Nazi occupation mounted in Europe.

Since her death in 1986, Beauvior’s works have only gained popularity, solidifying her as one of the most impactful feminist thinkers of the 20th century. “The Second Sex” has been translated in 40 languages. 

Gloria Steinem

A picture of Gloria Steinem smiling
Photo by Mindy Kittay on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gloria Steinem is an American journalist, activist, and feminist icon whose work was central to the women’s liberation movement of the late 20th century. 

An avid writer and articulate speaker, she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 alongside Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm.

Around the same time, she created Ms. Magazine, the first magazine of its kind that wrote about contemporary issues from a feminist perspective which changed the popular media landscape in the 1970s.

Steinem also helped create a number of other feminist organizations, such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Voters for Choice, the Free to Be Foundation, and the Women’s Media Center.

Throughout her career, she has published 11 books and continues her work as an activist and lecturer. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2019, the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. 

Ada Lovelace

A portrait of Ada Lovelace
Artist Margaret Sarah Carpenter / Photo courtesy of Government Art Collection (PD)

Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician, has been called the world’s first computer programmer. As an associate of Charles Babbage, who created a prototype of a digital computer, she created a program.

More specifically, she made the discovery that a computer could follow a sequence of instructions, or a program. Babbage’s proposed computer, the Analytical Engine, was studied by Lovelace, who provided essential feedback and showed that the prototype could follow a series of steps to make complex calculations. 

Her efforts have been widely recognized in the programming world. In fact, the early programming language Ada was named for her — and on the second Tuesday of October, the world celebrates Ada Lovelace Day, honoring the contributions of women in STEM.

Billie Jean King

a picture of Billie Jean King
Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Billie Jean King is an American tennis player whose advocacy and athletic skill was pivotal in elevating the status of women’s professional tennis. 

Experiencing major success in her early career, King turned professional in 1968 and became the first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in one season.

Perhaps her most notable achievement, however, took place in 1973, when she beat Bobby Riggs in a highly competitive “Battle of the Sexes” match, which set the record for the largest tennis audience in the world. It was also at this time that King helped create the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first president, campaigning for pay equality. 

The following year, King co-founded the inclusive World TeamTennis co-ed circuit and started the Women’s Sports Foundation to help provide access to sports for girls. 

Unfortunately, King’s success would take a hit a decade later when she was publicly outed as a lesbian and lost all of her endorsement deals. Still, her fight for equality continued. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and became the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiling
Photo by Ståle Grut / Photo courtesy of NRKbeta on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often referred to by her initials, AOC, is a politician and activist representing New York’s 14th congressional district in the U.S. Congress.

Taking office in 2019 at age 29, she became the youngest woman — and youngest Latina — to serve in Congress, garnering support from a young, progressive base and shocking the political establishment. Her campaign in 2018 was driven entirely by grassroots volunteers and donations.

In office, she has been a vocal advocate for social and climate justice, introducing a Green New Deal resolution, as well as advocating to raise the federal poverty line, include immigrants in social safety net programs, strengthen renters' rights, eliminate student debt, and more. 

She has also become well-known for her skills as an effective questioner in committee hearings, holding her peers accountable in a way few politicians have in modern history. 

Sally Ride

A picture of Sally Ride smiling
Photo courtesy of Tim Wilson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sally Ride, a California physicist, was the first American woman to fly in space, in 1983. Getting a number of bachelor’s and advanced degrees from Stanford University, she joined NASA’s class of 1978, as one of only five women. On her week-long mission into space aboard shuttle Challenger STS-7, she was the flight engineer, breaking barriers as a young woman to operate the shuttle’s mechanical arm and conduct experiments in space. 

Ride also served as the director of the California Space Science Institute, was a physicist and physics professor at the University of California San Diego, and was a member of the president’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

While her private life was kept quiet throughout her life, after Ride’s death in 2012, it was revealed by her lifelong partner Tam O’Shaughnessy that the two had a 27-year-long relationship; Ride became the first acknowledged gay astronaut. In 2013, Ride was posthumously awarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and O’Shaughnessy accepted on her behalf.

Additionally, Ride and O’Shaughnessy established Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit that encourages STEM education for children of all backgrounds. 

Junko Tabei

A photograph of Junko Tabei smiling
Photo by Jaan Künnap / Photo courtesy of Jaan Künnap (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Junko Tabei was a Japanese mountaineer, author, and teacher, who, in 1975, became the first woman to summit Mount Everest. She was also the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” a challenge that consists of climbing the tallest mountain on each continent.

Tabei led a group of all women for her Everst climb: the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition. Made of 15 women from a variety of different professional backgrounds, they made a lot of their equipment, like gloves, pouches, and sleeping bags, in order to save money. 

They even survived an avalanche during the expedition, though with limited resources. Tabei was the only member of the group who actually summited the mountain, becoming the 36th person, and first woman, to do so.

After this history-making moment, Tabei remained financially independent and refused corporate sponsorships on her continued expeditions. Instead, she worked as a hiking guide and music and English teacher. 

Throughout her life, she had completed 70 major mountain climbs, written about her experiences, and completed her postgraduate studies in 2022, focusing on environmental preservation on Mount Everest. A few years prior to her passing, Tabei served as the director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, dedicated to the conservation of mountain environments.

Deb Haaland

A picture of Deb Haaland speaking
Photo by Jacob W. Frank / Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park (PDM 1.0)

Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican, made history as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary when she was named the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior in 2021. 

Prior to this role, she was New Mexico’s Lieutenant Governor, as well as a Congresswoman. She was one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, where she championed environmental justice, climate action, family-friendly policies, and the rights of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

As the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Haaland’s responsibilities include things like managing energy development, overseeing public lands, and meeting treaty obligations to 574 federally recognized tribes. 

During her tenure, she has worked to improve consultation efforts with tribal governments, allocate more resources to Native Americans, and launched an investigation into the federal government’s role in Native boarding schools. 

Toni Morrison

A picture of toni Morrison smiling
Photo courtesy of The American Library Association (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Toni Morrison was one of the most celebrated writers in the world, especially in Black feminist circles. Her work — which consists of novels, plays, and children’s books — deeply examines the diverse experiences of folks in the Black community. 

With classic works like “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” and “Song of Solomon,” Morrison was the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Morrison was also a professor at Howard University and Princeton University, as well as a book editor at Random House, where she helped edit textbooks, as well as fiction books by African-American authors. Morrison did not publish her own novels until she was 39 years old.

In the last decade of her life, Morrison earned an honorary Doctorate degree from the University of Oxford, was a guest curator at the Louvre Museum, and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

Tu Youyou

A picture of Tu Youyou speaking
Photo by Bengt Nyman on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Tu Youyou is a Chinese chemist and pharmacologist who made a ground-breaking discovery that led to the first line of defense against malaria.

When she was 16, Youyou contracted tuberculosis, and upon her recovery, realized she wanted to study medicine, to find cures for diseases like the one that afflicted her. At Beijing Medical College, she studied pharmacology and upon graduation, was assigned to work at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where she would stay for her entire career. 

Youyou’s great discovery came when she turned to ancient Chinese medical texts from the Zhou, Qing, and Han dynasties to find a traditional cure for malaria. Ultimately, she was able to extract a compound — artemisinin — for which she volunteered to be the first human subject.

The compound has since saved millions of lives, and has been called “the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.”nIn 2015, Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which she shared with her collaborators. 

Rachel Carson

A photograph of Rachel Carson
Photo by Smithsonian Institution / Photo courtesy of GPA Photo Archive on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rachel Carson was an American biologist and environmental activist best known for her groundbreaking writings on environmental pollution.

Carson studied biology and later joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, as well as Johns Hopkins. In 1936, her career as an aquatic biologist took off when she accepted a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (which is now called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

During her time here, she served as the editor-in-chief of the service’s publications and began writing her own books about the sea.

Carson’s biggest contribution, however, was her prophetic “Silent Spring,” which was published as a quickly best-selling book in 1962. “Silent Spring” was responsible for creating worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution, including the use of pesticides, and a warning of what would eventually come to be known as climate change.

Despite the threat of lawsuits from the chemical industry, Carson was strong in her convictions and testified before Congress in 1963, seeking new politics to protect human health and the environment. Although she died just a year later, Carson’s work has lived on as deeply influential in the environmental movement.

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March 1, 2024 5:00 AM
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