Today is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate we have selected 10 inspirational and influential women from past and present. This list isn’t scientific and they’re not ranked in any particular order. We just wanted to tell you a little about each one and why they are fantastic in their own right.
Joan of Arc
Nicknamed ‘The Maid of Orleans’, Joan of Arc was a military leader, martyr and saint who led the French Army to victory over the English during the Hundred Years’ War, a long running dispute over who would be the heir to the French throne. By the tender age of 17, Joan had been given a suit of armor and a horse by the then-King Charles, and rode into battle at Orléans with the French army. Over the course of a few days, Joan helped seal victory against the English; her bravery commended with a seat at the King’s coronation.
Despite Joan’s heroism and her large role in his becoming the King of all France, Charles turned his back on the young woman when she was eventually captured in battle and turned over to the English. Believing that her prowess on the battlefield came from demonic possession, she was tried under numerous offences including heresy and, due to her military attire, cross-dressing. On May 30th 1431, at merely 19 years old, Joan of Arc was executed by burning at the stake and, to prevent collection of possible relics, her body was burned twice more and reduced to ashes.
To this day, Joan of Arc remains a prominent female figure in history, being depicted in film, theatre, television, music and even video games. Her martyr death places her as one of the secondary patron saints of France, and she remains a national symbol of France.
Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in 1867, Marie began her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels, where she met husband-to-be Pierre Curie. Her achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), and the discovery of two elements, polonium (named after her native country) and radium. Under her direction, the world's first studies into the treatment of neoplasms (more commonly known as tumors) were conducted 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. In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel." At first, the Committee intended to honour only Pierre and Becquerel, but one of the committee members and an advocate of women scientists alerted Pierre to the situation, and after his complaint, Marie's name was added to the nomination. Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
On 4 July 1934, she died from aplastic anaemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.
One of the most prominent figures of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks was born and grew up in a world where the colour of your skin dictated how many basic human rights you should have. Whilst many people at the time knew how unfair the situation was, Rosa was one of the few to say ‘no more.’ One of the more ridiculous segregation tools being utilised at the time was on public transport, where white people had priority over the free seats on busses. Black riders were relegated to the back of the bus, even made to stand if there weren’t enough ‘white’ seats for the white customers. Whilst the black community had complained about the unfairness of this system for years, it remained.
On 1st December 1955, Rosa boarded the bus home from work as usual. Seated in the first row of ‘black’ seats, the journey proceeded uneventfully, until all of the ‘white’ seats filled up, and a number of white customers were forced to stand. The driver, James F. Blake, approached four of the black customers and ordered them to stand, so that the white riders would be able to sit. Of the four, Rosa was the only one who refused to move, and was subsequently arrested.
Rosa’s defiance sparked a 381-day boycott of 40,000 members of the black community, who refused to ride the bus until the nonsensical segregation was abolished. After severely damaging the bus transit company’s finances, the city of Montgomery repealed its segregation laws on public busses; an action that may never have happened if one woman hadn’t had the courage to say ‘no.’
Known as the ‘Queen of Pop,’ Madonna Louise Ciccone has been a constant pop culture and musical icon since her ascent to stardom in the 1980s. Her self-titled debut album, released in 1983 rocketed to number 8 on the Billboard 200, yielding two top-ten singles as well as the song ‘Holiday’, her first international top-ten hit.
Her unique style massively influenced female fashion in the 1980s; fishnet stockings, bracelets and big, bleached hair were everywhere, thanks to Madonna and her stylist, Maripol. Her second album Like a Virgin propelled her popularity to global levels, and set the record as the first female album in history to sell over 5 million copies in the US. Madonna also began her foray into acting, with her role as Eva Perón in Evita becoming iconic in both the world of musicals and pop music in general.
Not satisfied with simply being one of the most influential female recording artists of all time, Madonna is also a successful business woman in her own right, with numerous fashion and beauty lines culminating in an estimated net worth between $580 million and $800 million. She founded the Raising Malawi charity in 2006, to help bring health and education programs to Malawi’s one million orphans.
With 2018 being the 100th anniversary of UK women receiving the right to vote, it seems only fitting to include the leader of the famed British suffragette movement. Born in 1958 in Manchester, Emmeline’s parents were political activists in their own right, and cultivated the young woman’s interest in women’s suffrage.
After years of suffrage bills being defeated in parliament, and the sudden death of her husband Richard, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, focusing on direct action to win the vote, and opening the group only to women. After using non-violent means to gain attention, the group (including Emmeline’s daughters) became more aggressive in their protesting. Emmeline herself was purposefully arrested after striking a police officer in the face twice, believing that their cause would gain urgency if they were imprisoned.
On 18th November 1910, Emmeline led 300 women on a protest march in Parliament Square, a day that has become known as Black Friday. The police response was aggressive, with officers punching and assaulting the marchers. Eventually Emmeline was allowed to enter Parliament, however the Prime Minister of the time refused to see her. During World War I, the WSPU halted their activities to aid the fight against the ‘German Peril,’ and finally the Representation of the People Act in 1918 granted women over the age of 30 the vote (a discrepancy only included to prevent the male vote being a minority after the many casualties of war).
Whether you love her or hate her, there is no doubt that Joan Rivers (born Joan Alexandra Molinsky) paved the way for female comedians since her debut in 1965, with her sarcastic and often controversial wit. Appearing regularly on The Tonight Show, Joan was busy during the 60s and 70s writing and directing her own films, such as The Girl Most Likely to… and Rabbit Test. During this time she also was the opening act for a number of singers on the Las Vegas Strip.
Continuing with stand-up throughout the 80s, Joan even secured her own daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which earned her a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host. In 1994, Joan first hosted the Golden Globes pre-awards show for E! Entertainment Television, which she continued annually until 2003. Joan became known during this time for her up-front and uncensored approach to celebrity culture and fashion.
Whilst Joan received much criticism throughout her career, for being perceived as ‘too personal’ or ‘insensitive,’ she remains one of the great female comics in history. Never afraid to tell it as she saw it, no subject was off-limits for her, even making jokes about the Holocaust and arguing “This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humour.” Her sometimes caustic demeanour challenged the social perceptions of how a woman should be, and influenced notable comediennes such as Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
Although still only 20 years old, Malala Yousafzai deserves a mention on this list for showing defiance and bravery where most others would have failed. Growing up in Pakistan, Malala was educated mostly by her father, in an environment where the Taliban restricted young girls’ rights to basic education. She was only 10 years old when she began to speak out for education rights, both in person and anonymously on her BBC Urdu blog; the latter being an activity that her peers’ parents deemed too dangerous for their children to be involved in.
The Taliban imposed a ban that no girls would be able to attend school after 15th January 2009, going so far as to destroy several schools in the area. Despite the violence, Malala continued to speak out until the ban was lifted on 17th March, when the Taliban announced that girls would be allowed to attend school as long as they wore burqas. Throughout this time, Malala wrote in her blog that she could hear constant artillery fire and shelling outside her home.
She was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize in 2011, as well as the National Peace Award for Youth. A secondary school was renamed in her honour and by 2012, Malala was planning to organise a foundation to help poor girls attend school, raising her public profile further and inciting multiple death threats. Finally, the young girl was shot by a Taliban gunman as she rode home on a bus; the bullet went through her head and neck before ending up in her shoulder.
Discharged after making a full recovery in 2013, Malala now lives in Birmingham, where she has founded the Malala Fund and continues to campaign for education rights. She was announced as the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
Sometimes named as one of the favourite missing people in history, Amelia Earhart began her career in aviation in 1921, after saving up $1,000 for her first ever flying lesson. A year later, in her first ever Kinner Airster biplane (nicknamed ‘The Canary’), she flew to an altitude of 14,000 feet, setting the world record for female pilots at the time. Yet another year after that she became only the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot’s licence by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
Unsatisfied with her prior achievements, Amelia set her sights on a round-the-world flight. Whilst not the first trip, it would be the longest, following 29,000 along the equator. After an unsuccessful first attempt, Amelia regrouped and set out to try again, this time in the opposite direction. The journey began without issue, with Amelia arriving at Lae, New Guinea on 29th June 1937 and taking off again to complete the last 7,000 miles on 2nd July with her navigator, Fred Noonan. Somewhere over Howland Island, where they were due to refuel, radio contact was lost with the plane, and the crew were never seen again.
Whilst there is much speculation and controversy around the disappearance of Ameila and Noonan, there is no doubt that this brave woman paved the way for future female pilots. We may never know exactly what happened on that doomed flight, but Amelia Earhart’s legacy is clear to see.
Also known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp,’ Florence Nightingale had a passion for the art and science of nursing from a young age. She claimed to have a call from God at the age of 17, prompting a strong desire within her to devote her life to the service of others, despite her parents’ disapproval. During her young adulthood, she travelled as far as Greece and Egypt, learning about culture and philosophy wherever she went. In 1850 she visited a religious community in Germany, where she received four moths of medical training. Returning to England, she finished her training at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London.
Florence found her calling during the Crimean War, when she and her volunteer staff (trained by Florence) were sent to Selimiye Barracks in what is now Istanbul. The situation at the barracks was grim; low medicine supply, poor hygiene and infection were rife among the wounded soldiers. Florence reduced the death rate from 42% to 2% simply by improving the hygiene levels in the hospital, as well as soothing the soldiers at night whilst making her lamp-lit rounds.
Returning after the war, Florence campaigned for better sanitation in private houses, as well as pioneering the use of infographics and statistical graphics in her written works. She is somewhat of a feminist icon for the time, as she rejected the social norms for women at the time (marrying, bearing children) in favour of educating herself and having a career in her own right.
One of the most successful women in sports, Serena Williams has been playing tennis since she was a mere 3 years old. Her career in the sport seemed to be cemented from this young age, as her father firstly home-schooled her and her sister, Venus, before enrolling them in the Rick Macci tennis academy when Serena was 9; at 10 years old she was ranked No.1 among players of her age in Florida.
Serena’s career has seen her ranked as world No.1 on 8 separate occasions between 2002-2017, totalling 319 weeks spent on the top spot. She and her sister are unbeaten in Grand Slam doubles finals, winning 14 together as a team. Serena has also won four Olympic gold medals as well as the Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Award four times. In 2017, she was the only woman on Forbes list of the 100 highest paid athletes, totalling $27 million in prize money and endorsements.
A strong female role model not only in the African-American community, but for young women in general, Serena Williams is not afraid to speak about issues she cares about. She has spoken out for the Black Lives Matter movement, and her charity work provides university scholarships for underprivileged students in the United States.