Heroines who've made history
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said that “well-behaved women rarely make history”, which is true of these 11 trailblazing and infinitely inspirational women who have made waves, pushed boundaries, and fundamentally changed the world we live in. From space exploration to computer programming, their accomplishments have shaped our world, but they also continue to inspire us to shape our future.
Ida B. Wells
Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells devoted her life to educating people about the horrors of discrimination and lynching. As editor and co-owner of The Memphis Free Speech, she channeled the power of the written word to awaken the nation's consciousness about the treatment of African Americans.
In 1908, Ida B. Wells helped organize and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League. The following year, she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In Crusade for Justice, her autobiography published posthumously in 1970, she explained that she wrote to record "the gallant fight and marvelous bravery of the black men of the South, fighting and dying to exercise and maintain their newborn rights as freemen and citizens."
Rukmini Devi Arundale
In the early 20th century, the ancient Indian dance form of bharatanatyam was dying out. Traditionally practiced by lower status women in Hindu temples, the bharatanatyam and its practitioners were overlooked.
Meanwhile, Rukmini Devi Arundale traveled extensively conducting work for the Theosophical Society, a Western organisation interested in Asian religion and esotericism. While traveling, Arundale met the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, who encouraged her to learn ballet. This sparked her fascination with classical dance, and this interest grew into a passion for her own Indian traditional dance forms.
Arundale subsequently opened several schools, including the Kalakshetra Foundation, an arts school that specialized in bharatanatyam. Arundale saved the tradition form from obscurity, and reinvented it with modern dance principles in the process.
Cecilia Grierson was a physician, activist, author, inventor, reformer and, most notably, the first woman to receive a medical degree in Argentina.
In 19th-century Argentina, medical school was off-limits to women—in fact, very few women enrolled in secondary education of any kind. Grierson’s perseverance earned her a degree, and the struggles she faced fueled her work as a human rights activist. As vice president of the International Council of Women, a suffragist organization, she fought tirelessly for social causes like welfare benefits, maternity leave for working women, and the end of the slave trade. As a physician, she furthered studies in gynecology and kinesiology, and was the first to suggest medical service vehicles have alarm bells (what we now know as the ambulance). She also founded the first nursing school in Argentina, at the Hospital Británico de Buenos Aires, seen here in Street View.
Historically, tennis was a rigid affair. Amateurs couldn’t compete with pros, and participation fees were high. And then along came Suzanne Lenglen.
Lenglen picked up her first racket in 1910 and, in less than five years, became the sport’s youngest champion and the world’s first female tennis star. More importantly, she broke down barriers through her passionate play, non-traditional wardrobe, and outspoken stance against the sport’s formalities. With Lenglen’s influence, tennis became a sport for all.
Lina Bo Bardi
Born in Italy in 1914, Lina Bo Bardi moved to Brazil in 1946. Lina Bo Bardi was a pioneering Modernist architect who designed many iconic buildings, including The Glass House, where she lived with her husband, and the The São Paulo Museum of Art (otherwise known as MASP). MASP is one of the greatest landmarks in São Paulo, an architectural masterpiece with its innovative floating gallery that was complemented by the floating picture frames that Bo Bardi designed for the interior.
But Bo Bardi’s reach extended well beyond her architecture career: she was also a publisher, teacher, designer, curator and political activist. Bo Bardi was both a pioneer and a polymath.
After earning her doctorate from the University of Istanbul in 1940, Halet Cambel fought tirelessly for the advancement of archaeology. She helped preserve some of Turkey’s most important archaeological sites near the Ceyhan River and established an outdoor museum at Karatepe. There, she broke ground on one of humanity's oldest known civilizations by discovering a Phoenician alphabet tablet that unlocked the code to Hittite hieroglyphics. Her work won her a Prince Claus Award for preserving Turkish cultural heritage.
But as well as unearthing the secrets of the past, she also firmly addressed the political atmosphere of her present. As just a 20-year-old archaeology student, Cambel went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, becoming the first Muslim woman to compete in the Games. Cambel was later invited to meet Adolf Hitler but she rejected the offer on political grounds.
Born in Johannesburg during an economic recession, and witnessing the introduction of apartheid in 1948, Miriam Makeba’s early life was marred by tragedy and hardship.
But Makeba was a singer, and her voice was a vessel that would transport her out of her impoverished upbringing and challenging surroundings.
Makeba found success in the US with her hit songs “Pata Pata” and “The Click Song”, and she used her newfound fame to draw attention to the suffering and oppression of South Africa under apartheid. Makeba was exiled from South Africa for over 30 years, but continually worked to improve the lives of her countrymen and women. Nelson Mandela said, "Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us."
You might think that being the daughter of one of history’s most famous poets would inspire you to pursue a career in the arts – but not so for Ada Lovelace, daughter of George Gordon, aka. Lord Byron. Lovelace made her mark in a very different field: computers.
In fact, Ada Lovelace is generally recognised as the world's first ever computer programmer. She was an English mathematician and writer who worked on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. All the way back in 1843, she imagined a machine capable of extraordinary things, limited only by the creativity of its programmer, nearly a century before the first modern computers were built.
While completing her Ph.D. in physics, Sally Ride read an article in the Stanford student newspaper about NASA looking for astronauts for the new space shuttle program. For the first time, women were allowed to apply. Ride joined NASA’s 1978 class of astronauts that included six women.
When Ride blasted off aboard the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman to fly in space. Ride's historic flight made her a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls.
After retiring from NASA, Ride became a physics professor and an award-winning co-author of children’s science books. Ride also cofounded a science education organization to ignite students' enthusiasm for science. Ride inspired all of us to reach for the stars.
Lotfia El Nadi
In an era when Egyptian women were still fighting for equal rights, Lotfia El Nadi was dreaming of soaring through the sky as a pilot. She took flying lessons in secret, telling her father that she was attending a study group, and worked at the newly founded Almaza airport to fund her passion.
El Nadi is considered to be the second woman to ever fly solo, following her good friend Amelia Earhart. In 1933, El Nadi made headlines by competing in an international race between Cairo and Alexandria, showing that women were capable of conquering the skies.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in Mexico City, in her parents’ home, “La Casa Azul,” or “The Blue House.”
Kahlo’s early life was blighted by physical illness and impairment. Kahlo was just 18, on September 17th, 1925, when she was involved in a tragic bus crash, breaking several bones and causing significant damage to her spine. After the accident, in a full body cast and unable to move, Kahlo passed her time in bed. It was here that her mother brought her a portable easel and box of paints, and an artist was born.
Kahlo’s artistic talents only grew in both skill and recognition. Primarily known for her self-portraits and vivid depictions of her own body, Kahlo is revered for the way in which she captured female experience and embodiment in her artworks. Her paintings melded pain and passion, suffering and beauty, to powerful effect.
After her death, her beloved Blue House was opened as a museum in 1958, and is now dedicated to celebrating the life and work of this iconic artist and feminist thinker.
Some went thousands of miles to space to make their mark, while others made history from home, but all of these women were pioneers in their fields and are inspirations to us all.
Learn more about how women have impacted arts, culture, science, history and politics here.