Celebrating International Women’s Day
On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of women from all across the globe, reflect on how women have made the world a better place, and band together to create a brighter future. As a part of our celebration this year, we’re taking a moment to honor the achievements of some of the most influential women in history. From scientists who made incredible discoveries to brave civil rights activists who fought tirelessly for change, here are 16 inspiring women who changed the world.
1. Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)
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Marie Curie is a physicist and chemist with a truly extraordinary resume of achievements. Alongside her husband and research partner Pierre, Curie discovered two new elements: radium and polonium. Their discoveries earned them a Nobel Prize in Physics, making Marie the first woman to ever receive the Prize. Following Pierre’s sudden death in 1906, Curie continued to research radioactivity, the term she invented to describe her work, on her own. After successfully isolating radium in 1910, she became the first person to ever be awarded a second Nobel Prize. In addition to discovering two elements and winning two Nobel Prizes, Curie developed a portable X-ray machine during WWI, opened up the Radium Institute research facility in Warsaw, and conducted research that would later result in the development of successful cancer treatments involving radioactivity.
2. Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852)
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Mathematician and First Computer Programmer
Though computers as we know them today weren’t invented until the 1940s, Ada Lovelace was writing in what many consider to be a programming language an entire century earlier.
Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815 in England, Ada was the child of famed poet Lord Byron and mathematician Lady Byron. From a young age, Ada’s mother encouraged her to pursue her interest in mathematics, in part because she believed it would help Ada be less like her erratic father. By the time Ada was a teenager, she was working alongside another British mathematician, Charles Babbage, who has been nicknamed the “father of computers.” Babbage spent a great deal of time working on his concept of the Analytical Engine, a type of mechanical computer.
In 1843, Ada translated an article on Charles’ Babbage’s Analytical Engine from Italian to English, but included her own annotations. These detailed notes provided an elaborate explanation of how the Analytical Engine could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers. Ada’s annotations are an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine or, in modern terms, a computer program. While Ada’s notes were never implemented due to lack of funding for the Analytical Engine, many consider it the first computer program.
3. Alice Augusta Ball (1892 - 1916)
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Alice Augusta Ball was an African-American chemist who found a cure for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) when she was just 23 years old. Ball came up with her treatment after she began working with leprosy researcher Dr. Harry T. Hollman. Hollman saw Ball’s paper on the properties of the kava plant in a scientific journal and asked her to work with him on improving the most effective treatment for leprosy, chaulmoogra oil. This oil sometimes had a positive effect on patients, but produced inconsistent results and was extremely hard for patients to tolerate.
Ball agreed to work with Hollman and quickly developed a method that would make chaulmoogra oil an effective treatment for leprosy. By chemically modifying the ester compounds in the oil, she helped it maintain its therapeutic properties while simultaneously allowing it to be safely absorbed by the body through injection. Ball’s treatment, now known as the Ball Method, would end up saving the lives of countless people suffering from Hansen’s disease.
4. Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000)
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Hollywood Actress and Self-Taught Scientist
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born American actress that starred in over 30 films. In her spare time, she was also a self-taught scientist that enjoyed making inventions. One of her inventions, signal hopping, is the basis for modern wireless communication, including WiFi and bluetooth.
The story of Lamarr’s invention of signal hopping begins during WWII. Lamarr actively wanted to help the war effort and attempted to join the National Inventors Council, but was repeatedly denied by members who insisted she would be more helpful if she used her fame to sell war bonds. Lamarr participated in a war bond selling campaign, but also continued to work on inventions on her own.
Lamarr’s idea for signal hopping came when she learned that radio-controlled torpedoes, a new naval technology during WWII, could be set off course if their signal was jammed. She came up with an idea for a frequency-hopping signal that couldn’t be jammed, then reached out to a composer friend to help her make it. Lamarr’s friend George Antheil, a composer and pianist, successfully did so using a tiny player-piano mechanism synched to radio frequencies. The pair patented their design in 1942.
While signal hopping wouldn’t be used in the war effort (the Navy was uninterested in implementing civilian-developed technology at the time), it would be used by the military in later years. And, alongside similar spread-spectrum technologies based off of signal hopping, it would also be used in bluetooth technology and early WiFi technology.
5. Vera Rubin (1928 -2016)
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Vera Rubin was an American astronomer who made one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century: evidence of dark matter. Rubin’s discovery occurred in 1968, when she was observing a spectra of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy on a clear night in the mountains of Arizona. Rubin and her colleague Kent Fort were making observations in an effort to determine more about the motions of the galaxy. When analyzing their findings, Rubin and Kent were baffled. In their recorded rotation curve, stars at the outer spirals of the galaxy moved at the same speed as stars near the center, and the stars in the outer spirals were also moving so quickly that they should have flown apart. Essentially, this meant that the visible stars in the galaxy weren’t enough to hold it together, which meant that there was matter that was there that couldn’t be seen.
After making this initial discovery, Rubin would continue to record the rotation curves of many galaxies, all of which had the same baffling rotational curve that pointed to invisible matter. Rubin determined that the missing matter was evidence of dark matter, the concept that was first proposed by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933. Today’s modern astronomers agree. Largely due to Rubin’s work, we now know that only around 20% of the universe can be seen, while the remaining 80% is dark matter.
6. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 - 1997)
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Chien-Shiung Wu was an experimental physicist that made industry-shaping contributions within her field. Wu was one of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, during which she created a process that could enrich uranium in large quantities. Post war, Wu worked as a research professor at Columbia University, where she became the first scientist to confirm Enrico Fermi’s theory of radioactive beta decay. After physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang heard of Wu’s work on radioactive decay, they asked her to come up with an experiment that would prove a theory of theirs: the theory of parity didn’t apply to beta decay. Wu did so, which led to Lee and Yang receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics. But despite creating the experiment that disproved the theory of parity, Wu’s work was not recognized by the Nobel committee.
Though Wu did not receive the Nobel Prize alongside her colleagues, she has been honored by other institutions for her many contributions to the field of experimental physics. Wu’s awards include the Wolf Prize in Physics, the National Medal of Science, and the Comstock Prize.
7. Florence Nightingale (1820 - 1910)
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Founder of Modern Nursing
Florence Nightingale, the founder of the modern practice of nursing, became a nurse against her affluent family’s wishes because she believed it was her calling to serve others through nursing. The catalyst for her major contributions to the field occurred during the Crimean War in 1853, when she took 38 nurses to work at a military hospital in Turkey. Nightingale found the conditions at the hospital to be very poor, so she immediately began working on a campaign to improve them. At that time, it was more common for soldiers to die of disease than of their wounds, but Nightingale’s campaign to improve sanitation, nursing standards, and safety would soon change that. After the war, Nightingale would continue her mission to improve medical services and nursing practices. This led her to publish an industry-defining book, Notes on Nursing, and to open the first scientifically based nursing school, the Nightingale School of Nursing.
8. Susan B. Anthony (1820 - 1906)
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Social Reformer and Women’s Rights Activist
Susan B. Anthony, one of the most well-known figures in the Women’s suffrage movement, began fighting for equality from a young age. Born into a Quaker family with a passion for social reform, Anthony was collecting anti-slavery petitions by the time she was 17. Anthony’s most notable work began after she met her long-time organizing partner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Alongside Stanton, Anthony published the woman’s newspaper the Revolution, formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and traveled the country to promote women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
Anthony worked for over 50 years of her life advocating for women’s suffrage. She famously cast a ballot in the 1872 Presidential election, which led to her being arrested and convicted for illegal voting. While she was never able to vote legally in her lifetime, with the help of Stanton, Anthony arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment that would give women the right to vote in 1878. This amendment, nicknamed by many the Susan B. Anthony amendment, would eventually become the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.
9. Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937)
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Trailblazing pilot Amelia Earhart was adventurous from a young age. She began gaining flying experience when she was in her 20s, then became famous after being the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Soon, however, she would become even more well-known for her own achievements as a pilot. Earhart earned a long list of records throughout her career. She was famously the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She was also the first woman to fly solo and nonstop across the United States, the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to mainland California, and the first woman to fly an autogiro.
Due to her records, charisma, and embodiment of the adventurous spirit, Earhart became an icon of her era. She normalized the idea of women in aviation and helped to increase public acceptance of aviation, which was low around the turn of the century. And though her time as a pilot was tragically cut short when she disappeared during a flight record attempt in 1937, Earhart continues to be an inspiration to pilots and adventurers to this day.
10. Harriet Tubman (1822 - 1913)
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Civil Rights Advocate, Civil War Nurse, and Spy
Harriet Tubman was an activist who is most famous for her work conducting the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1822, Tubman escaped in 1849 with the help of the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses that helped enslaved people escape into Canada and free states. Once in free territory, Tubman thought of her family that was still enslaved in Maryland. She decided she would help them escape, despite the risk it would put her in. Over many expeditions, she slowly helped her relatives escape slavery. Eventually, she would also guide dozens of other enslaved people to freedom, never losing a single person to recapture.
While she’s best known for her work with the Underground Railroad, Tubman also did important work for the Union Army and the women’s suffrage movement. Over the course of the Civil War, Tubman was a cook, a nurse, a spy, and an armed scout for the Union Army. One of Tubman’s most famous achievements during the war came during the raid at Combahee Ferry, during which she helped to free over 700 enslaved people. After the war, Tubman largely retired, but stayed active in the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1913.
11. Helen Keller (1880 - 1968)
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Helen Keller was one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians. When Keller was nineteen months old, an illness caused her to lose her sight and hearing. Keller initially learned to communicate using movements. Then, at age seven she learned how to read and write, and how to speak and understand speech using the Tadoma method. Keller attended both traditional schools and speciality schools before attending Radcliffe College of Harvard, where she became the first deafblind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts.
After completing her studies, Keller became a highly prolific author, writing 14 books and countless speeches. Keller became famous after publishing her successful autobiography, The Story of My Life, in 1903. Throughout her life, Keller used her platform to advocate for human rights and causes she believed in. Keller was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities, women’s suffrage, world peace, and labor rights. Notably, she was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which she helped co-found in 1920.
12. Sappho (Approx. 625 B.C.)
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Sappho, the most famous lyric poet from Ancient Greece, is considered to be one of the most important poets in western civilization. While little is known about Sappho’s life, much can be gleaned from her prolific poetry, which was often about her passionate relationships with women. The english words sapphic and lesbian are derived from the poet’s name and city of residence, Lesbos. At times, the content of Sappho’s poetry has made her work controversial, but the importance and excellence of her poetry has been well understood since ancient times. Sappho is credited as creating the foundation for lyrical poetry and she has undoubtedly influenced generation upon generation of poets.
13. Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954)
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Influential painter Frida Kahlo is often hailed as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Born in 1907 in Mexico City, much of Kahlo’s art would be informed by the chronic health issues that began in her youth. At the age of six, Kahlo contracted Polio, leaving her with a life-long limp. At the age of eighteen, Kahlo was in a horrific bus accident that sent a steel pole through her back, fracturing her spine, pelvis, collarbone, ribs, and leg. While Kahlo survived these incidents, she was left with lifelong health issues and terrible chronic pain, and would endure dozens surgeries in an attempt to heal her ailments.
It was Kahlo’s health issues that led her to paint. While she was recovering from her life-changing bus accident in bed, she stole oil paints from her father to give herself something to do. Throughout her life, Frida would continue to paint in bed during times of worse health and pain using a special easel.
Kahlo is best known for her brilliantly colored self-portraits that explore themes of culture, identity, the human body, emotional pain, and chronic physical pain. Kahlo is also known and celebrated for extending the history of Mexico into her art. She is generally considered to be the country’s best-known modern painter. Many consider Kahlo to be an iconic and inspiring figure due to her incredible work and successes, particularly in the face of so much adversity.
14. Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014)
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Poet and Civil Rights Activist
Maya Angelou was a poet and civil rights activist that inspired the world with her words. Before becoming a poet, Angelou worked as a singer, a dancer, a journalist, and a civil rights activist. It was after the assassination of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., who she had been working alongside, that Angelou began to write. Angelou’s first book, her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, explored themes of racism, identity, rape, literacy, and patriarchal society. The book was critically acclaimed and an instant best seller, and it would come to be regarded as one one of the most influential books of the modern era.
After I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou went on to write seven memoirs, five books of poetry, three books of essays, and numerous plays, children’s books, movies, and television shows. Angelou’s writing has been praised for its direct voice, compelling metaphors, and powerful subject matter. Angelou has received numerous awards and honors for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou has also received more than 50 honorary degrees and has had over 30 medical
15. Claudette Colvin (1939-)
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Pioneer of the 1950s American Civil Rights Movement
Most people have heard the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus and give up her seat to a white person, but far too few know the story of Claudette Colvin-- a teenager who did the same thing on the same bus system nine months prior to Rosa Parks.
On March 2 of 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was taking the bus home from high school when the bus driver ordered her to move. Colvin refused, told the driver that she had paid her fare, and asserted that it was her constitutional right to remain seated. Two police officers then arrived, put Colvin in handcuffs, arrested her, and put her in jail.
Local civil rights leaders took note of Colvin’s arrest and thought of using it as justification for a city-wide bus boycott in Montgomery. However, they were unsure that she would be the right figurehead for the movement due to her age and other factors. Later, they’d find who they felt would be the right person for the moment: Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old secretary who had done previous work with the NAACP. Nine months after Colvin, Parks would refuse to give up her seat and civil rights leaders would start the bus boycott, making Colvin’s initial refusal to get up from her seat the catalyst for a civil rights movement.
In addition to providing the spark that started one of most notable civil rights movements of the 20th century, Colvin was part of a crucial federal civil rights case. Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, which challenged bus segregation laws in Montgomery. Colvin was a key witness in the case, which resulted in an end to bus segregation in the state of Alabama.
16. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933 - 2020)
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Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazing attorney who is widely considered to be a feminist icon of the modern era. While Ginsburg is best known for her time serving on the Supreme Court of the United States, she did decades of important work as a lawyer and civil rights advocate even before becoming a justice. A notable example of Ginsburg’s earlier work would be her direction of the highly influential Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s, during which she argued and won six landmark cases in front of the Supreme Court. After working for the ACLU, Ginsburg accepted an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia from President Jimmy Carter. She served there for thirteen years before President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, making her the second woman ever appointed.
As a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg has been characterized as a judge that favors restraint, caution, and moderation. She’s also been noted as a strong advocate of gender equality and worker’s rights. Ginsburg wrote many notable majority opinions and dissenting opinions during her time as a justice, and was noted to be unshy about giving guidance to Congress when she felt it was needed. Ginsburg’s dedication and tenacity was apparent in every element of her work as a justice, from her oral arguments to her written opinions to her stellar attendance record. Ginsburg hardly missed a day of work, even when undergoing chemotherapy or dealing with grief the day after her husband passed away in 2010. Her commitment, diligence, intelligence, and sense of moral fortitude are among the many reasons she’s considered an icon today.
Final Thoughts: Celebrating International Women’s Day 2021
Since the first International Women’s Day (IWD), people have gathered together to advocate for women’s equality and work toward creating a gender equal world. On that date in 1911, more than one million women and men attended IWD events that spanned across Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. In the years that followed, many countries and organizations would join the observation of International Women’s Day. This includes the United Nations, which recognized the global day in 1977. Today, over 80 countries celebrate International Women’s Day. In some countries, such as Guinea-Bissau and Russia, IWD is an official holiday. In others, like the United States and England, the holiday is a more grassroots celebration that’s marked by individual action and organized events in large cities, such as New York City and London.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we celebrate International Women’s Day. Many won’t be able to meet in person due to pandemic safety regulations. Still, organizers are encouraging people to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women in whatever way they can on IWD. People are encouraged to reflect on history, champion change and advocacy, and make a commitment to creating a more equal future. The IWD website notes that supporting women-owned businesses, women creatives, and female-focused charities are common action goals for women on IWD. The International Women’s Day website also encourages people to raise awareness for the day by sharing pledges and messages on social media using the hashtags #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge, which is the theme of the event for the year.
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021, #ChooseToChallenge, is reflected again and again in the lives of the women we profiled here today. Whether she was challenging oppressive laws, exclusionary organizations, or rigid ideas about what women can or should do, every woman on this list chose to challenge during her lifetime. In choosing to challenge the world, these women changed it. On March 8th of this year, the eighth day of Women’s History Month, IWD organizers encourage you to do the same.