A list of famous influential women. Including women’s rights activists, female poets, musicians, politicians, humanitarians and scientists.
Sappho (c 570 BC) One of the first published female writers. Much of her poetry has been lost but her immense reputation has remained. Plato referred to Sappho as one of the great 10 poets.
Cleopatra (69 -30 BC) The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra sought to defend Egypt from the expanding Roman Empire. In doing so she formed relationships with two of Rome’s most powerful leaders Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar.
Mary Magdalene (4 BC – 40AD) Accounts from the Gospels and other sources suggest Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most devoted followers. Mary Magdalene stood near Jesus at his crucifixion and was the first to see his resurrection.
Boudicca (1st Century AD) Boudicca was an inspirational leader of the Britons. She led several tribes in revolt against the Roman occupation. Initially successful her army of 100,000 sacked Colchester and then London. Her army was later defeated.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) Mystic, author and composer. Hildegard of Bingen lived a withdrawn life, spending most of her time behind convent walls. However her writings, poetry and music were revelatory for the time period. She was consulted by Popes, Kings and influential people of the time. Her writings and music have influenced people to this day.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) – The first Queen of France. Two of her sons Richard and John went on to become Kings of England. Educated, beautiful and highly articulate, Eleanor influenced the politics of western Europe through her alliances and influence over her sons.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) - The patron saint of France, Joan of Arc inspired a French revolt against the occupation of the English. An unlikely heroine; at the age of just 17, the diminutive Joan successfully led the French to victory at Orleans. Her later trial and martyrdom only heightened her mystique.
Mirabai (1498-1565) -Born to a privileged Hindu family Mirabai broke with the conventions of society to live the life of a mystic and devotee of Krishna. For her unconventional lifestyle her family tried to kill her, but on each occasion were unsuccessful. Her bhajans and songs helped revitalise devotional Hinduism in India.
St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) – Mystic and poet. St Teresa of Avila lived through the Spanish inquisition but avoided been placed on trial despite her mystical revelations. She helped to reform the tradition of Catholicism and steer the religion away from fanaticism.
Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) – Born in Florence, Italy Catherine was married to the King of France at the age of 14. She was involved in interminable political machinations seeking always to increase the power of her favoured sons. This led to the disastrous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) – Queen of England during a time of great economic and social change, she saw England cemented as a Protestant country. During her reign she witnessed the defeat of the Spanish Armada leaving Britain to later become one of the world’s dominant superpowers.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796) – One of the greatest political leaders of the Eighteenth Century. Catherine the great was said to have played an important role in improving the lot of the Russian serfs. She placed great emphasis on the arts and helped to cement Russia as one of the dominant countries in Europe.
Mary Wollstonecraft(1759-1797) – Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the most significant book in the early feminist movement. Her tract “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” laid down a clear moral and practical basis for extending human and political rights to women. – A true pioneer in the struggle for female suffrage.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) -One of the most popular female authors Jane Austen wrote several novels, which remain highly popular today. These include “Pride and Prejudice” “Emma” and “Northanger Abbey”. Jane Austen wrote at a time when female writers were not so high profile, helping pave the way for future writers.
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was an American women’s rights advocate. Her book Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was influential in changing perceptions about men and women, and was one of the most important early feminist works. She argued for equality and women being more self-dependent and less dependent on men.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) -Harriet Beecher Stowe was a life long anti slavery campaigner. Her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a best seller and helped to popularise the anti slavery campaign. Abraham Lincoln would later remark her books were a major factor behind the American civil war.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) Elizabeth Stanton was a social activist and leading figure in the early women’s rights movement. She was a key figure in helping create the early women’s suffrage movements in the US. She was the principle author of ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ in 1848.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) -Presiding over one of the largest empires ever seen, Queen Victoria was the head of state from 1837-1901.Queen Victoria sought to gain an influence in British politics whilst remaining aloof from party politics. She came to symbolise a whole era of Victorian values.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) – By serving in the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale was instrumental in changing the role and perception of the nursing profession. Her dedicated service won widespread admiration and led to a significant improvement in the treatment of wounded soldiers.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) -Susan Anthony campaigned against slavery and for the promotion of women’s and workers rights. She began campaigning within the temperance movement and this convinced her of the necessity for women to have the vote. She toured the US giving countless speeches on the subjects of human rights.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) – One of America’s greatest poets Emily Dickinson lived most of her life in seclusion. Her poems were published posthumously and received widespread literary praise for their bold and unconventional style. Her poetic style left a significant legacy on 20th Century poetry.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) – A British suffragette, Emily Pankhurst dedicated her life to the promotion of women’s rights. She explored all avenues of protest including violence, public demonstrations and hunger strikes. She died in 1928, 3 weeks before a law giving all women over 21 the right to vote.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) – Marie Curie was the first women to receive the Nobel Prize and the first person to win it for 2 separate categories. Her first award was for research into radioactivity (Physics 1903). Her second Nobel prize was for Chemistry in 1911. A few years later she also helped develop the first X ray machines.
Emily Murphy (1868-1933) – Emily Murphy was the first women magistrate in the British Empire. In 1927 she joined forces with four other Canadian women who sought to challenge an old Canadian law that said, “women should not be counted as persons”
Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) – A leading Marxist revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg sought to bring Social revolution to Germany. She wrote fiercely against German imperialism and for international socialism. In 1919, she was murdered after a failed attempt to bring about a Communist revolution in Germany.
Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965) – Helena Rubinstein formed one of the world’s first cosmetic companies. Her business enterprise proved immensely successful and later in life she used her enormous wealth to support charitable enterprises in the field of education, art and health.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) – At the age of 19 months Helen became deaf and blind. Overcoming the frustration of losing both sight and hearing she campaigned tirelessly on behalf of deaf and blind people.
Coco Chanel (1883-1971) – One of the most innovative fashion designers, Coco Chanel was instrumental in defining feminine style and dress during the 20th Century. Her ideas were revolutionary; in particular she often took traditionally male clothes and redesigned them for the benefit of women.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) – Wife and political aide of American president F.D.Roosevelt. In her own right Eleanor made a significant contribution to the field of human rights, a topic she campaigned upon throughout her life. As head of UN human rights commission she helped to draft the 1948 UN declaration of human rights.
Annie Besant (1847-1933) -Annie Besant was a campaigner for social justice, advocate of women’s rights and later member of the Theosophist society. She also actively campaigned for Indian independence.
Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) – An iconic figure of twentieth Century film Katharine Hepburn won 4 Oscars and received over 12 Oscar nominations. Her lifestyle was unconventional for the time and through her acting and life she helped redefine traditional views of women’s role in society.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) – One of the leading existentialist philosophers of the Twentieth Century, Simone de Beauvoir developed a close personal and intellectual relationship with Jean Paul Satre. Her book “The Second Sex” depicted the traditions of sexism that dominated society and history. It was a defining book for the feminist movement.
Mother Teresa (1910-1997) – Devoting her life to the service of the poor and dispossessed Mother Teresa became a global icon for selfless service to others. Through her Missionary of Charities organisation she personally cared for 1000s of sick and dying people in Calcutta. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979.
Dorothy Hodgkin 1910-1994 – Awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry Dorothy Hodgkin work on critical discoveries of the structure of both penicillin and later insulin. These discoveries led to significant improvements in health care. An outstanding chemist Dorothy also devoted a large section of her life to the peace movement and promoting nuclear disarmament.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) – Rosa Parks refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man indirectly led to some of the most significant civil rights legislation of American history. She sought to play down her role in the civil rights struggle but for her peaceful and dignified campaigning she became one of the most well respected figures in the civil rights movements.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – ) Since ascending to the British throne in 1952, Elizabeth has served as the second longest serving British monarch. She has witnessed rapid social and economic change and has been a unifying influence for Britain and the Commonwealth.
Millicent Fawcett (1846 – 1929) – Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a leading suffragist and campaigner for equal rights for women. She led Britain’s biggest suffrage organisation, the non-violent (NUWSS) and played a key role in gaining women the vote. She also helped found Newnham College, Cambridge.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) – Given the title “First Lady of the Blues” Billie Holiday was widely considered to be the greatest and most expressive jazz singer of all time. Her voice was moving in its emotional intensity and poignancy. Despite dying at the age of only 44 Billie Holiday helped define the jazz era and her recordings are widely sold today.
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) – First female prime minister of India. She was in power from between 1966-77 and 1980-84. Accused of authoritarian tendencies she only narrowly avoided a military coup by agreeing to hold an election at the end of the “emergency period” of 1977. She was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, in response to her storming of the Golden Temple.
Eva Peron (1919-1952) – Eva Peron was widely loved by the ordinary people of Argentina. She campaigned tirelessly for both the poor and for the extension of women’s rights. At the same time she was feared by some in power for her popularity. She was also criticised for her intolerance of criticism; with her husband Juan Peron they shut down many independent newspapers. She died aged only 32 in 1952.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006) – Leading feminist figure of the 1960s. Her book “The Feminine Mystique” became a best seller and received both lavish praise and intense criticism. Betty Friedan campaigned for an extension of female rights and an end to sexual discrimination.
Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013) The first female Prime minister of Great Britain, Mrs Thatcher defined a decade. In particular she is remembered for her emphasis on individual responsibility and belief in free markets. Developed close relationships with R. Reagan, but was more sceptical of European integration.
Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) Born Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn rose from childhood poverty to become one of the most iconic film legends. Her films were moderately successful, but her lasting fame came through her photogenic good looks and aura of glamour and sophistication.
Anne Frank (1929-1945) – Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most widely read books in the world. It reveals the thoughts of a young, yet surprisingly mature 13-year-old girl, confined to a secret hiding place. “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) -Leading female actor of the 1950s and 60s. Audrey Hepburn defined feminine glamour and dignity, and was later voted as most beautiful women of the twentieth century. After her acting career ended in the mid 1960s, she devoted the remaining period of her life to humanitarian work with UNICEF.
Germaine Greer (1939 – ) Leading feminist icon of the 1960s and 1970s Germaine Greer enjoys raising contentious issues. In particular her book “The Female Eunuch” was a defining manifesto for the feminist movement, which proved influential from the 1960s onwards.
Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011 ) Kenyan born environmentalist, pro-democracy activist and women’s rights campaigner. Awarded Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to prevent conflict through protection of scarce resources.
Betty Williams (1943 – ) Together with Mairead Corrigan, Betty Williams campaigned passionately to bring an end to the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. They founded the Community for Peace and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 (post dated for 1976)
Billie Jean King (1943 – ) One of the greatest female athletes Billie Jean King was one of the greatest female tennis champions who battled for equal pay for women. She won 67 professional titles including 20 titles at Wimbledon.
Shirin Ebadi (1947- ) An Iranian lawyer, Ebadi has fought for human rights in Iran – representing political dissidents and founding initiatives to promote democracy and human rights. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007) Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. She helped to move Pakistan from a dictatorship to democracy becoming Prime Minister in 1988. She sought to implement social reforms, in particular helping women and the poor. She was assassinated in 2007.
Oprah Winfrey (1954 – ) Influential talk show host, Oprah Winfrey was the first women to own her own talk show host. Her show and book club is tremendously influential, usually focusing on issues facing American women.
Madonna (1958 – ) Madonna is the most successful female musician of all time. She has sold in excess of 250 million records. In addition to being a great pop musician she has rarely been out of the limelight.
Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997) - Princess Diana combined the appeal of a Royal princess with her humanitarian charity work. Although her marriage to Prince Charles was overshadowed by affairs on both sides, her popularity remained undimmed as many were inspired by her natural sympathy with the poor and mistreated.
J.K.Rowling (1965 – ) J.K.Rowling is the author of the phenomenal best selling Harry Potter series. The volume of sales was so high, it has been credited with leading a revival of reading by children. She wrote the first book as a single mother, struggling to make ends meet, but is now one of most successful self-made woman.
Tegla Laroupe (1973 – ) Tegla Laroupe held the women’s marathon world record and won many prestigious marathons. Since retiring from running, she has devoted herself to various initiatives promoting peace, education and women’s rights. In her native Kenya, her Peace Race and Peace Foundation have been widely praised for helping to end tribal conflict.
Malala Yousafzai (1997 – ) Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for women’s rights, especially the right to education.
Women Who Have Changed the World
- Legends: Women Who Have Changed the World Through the Eyes of Great Women Writers at Amazon.com
- Legends: Women Who Have Changed the World Through the Eyes of Great Women Writers at Amazon.co.uk
Other Influential Women at Biography Online
- Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) French Queen executed during French revolution
- Brigitte Bardot (1934 – ) French fashion icon, actress and animal rights activist.
- Raisa Gorbachev (1932- 1999) Russian wife of Mikhail Gorbachev
- Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) aviation pioneer
- Hilary Clinton (1947 – ) US politician
- Sophie Scholl (1921-1943) Member of the German anti-Nazi resistance.
- Jane Goodall (1934 – ) Environmentalist and animal activist.
- Mary Seacole (1805-1881) British Jamaican women worked as nurse in Crimean war.
- Amy Johnson (1903-1941) Pioneering English aviator.
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 — 1962) Campaigner for civil rights. Wife of F.D Roosevelt.
- Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994) wife of JFK.
- Odette Sanson (1912-1995) British agent during WWII
- Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-) Burmese opposition leader
- Emily Bronte (1818-1848) English novelist (Wuthering Heights) and poet.
- Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001) English social activist opposed to liberalism on TV.
- Maya Angelou (1928 – ) American author and poet.
- Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge)
- Paula Radcliffe (1973-) English long distance runner
- Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) – prison reformer.
- Julie Andrews (1935- ) actress
Biographies coming soon
- Anne Boleyn (c.1504 – c.1536) – second wife of Henry VIII, executed
- Emily Davison (1872 – 1913) – 20th century militant suffragette
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) – Britain’s first qualified female doctor
- Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 – 1865) – Victorian novelist
- Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877) – Victorian campaigner for women’s rights
- Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) – Indian writer and political activist
- 100 people who changed the world – add your own choices
- Inspirational Women
- Women rights activists
- 100 Most Powerful Women – Forbes
- Women Who changed History
- Top 100 Most Influential Women
- Black women who made history
- Female Poets at Poetseers.org