7 Couples Who Changed The World

Each in their own way, these unions had a profound impact

It is perhaps clichéd to say that love makes us stronger. But it is certainly true that, throughout history, the power of some partnerships has been greater than the sum of their parts. Here are some of the most exceptional couples who together had a transformative and lasting influence on the world.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott was studying voice and violin at the New England Conservatory of Music when she met Martin Luther King, Jr., who was preparing his doctorate in theology at Boston University. Wed in 1953, the couple moved the following year to Montgomery, Alabama, where Dr. King became a pastor. The two became lifelong partners in the fight for civil rights in America.

Vine City Civil Rights Demonstration, 1966. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King with Atlanta residents protesting their living conditions.

A lifetime of commitment

The nonviolent movement Dr. King championed in the 1950s and 1960s led to sweeping political action on civil rights. In 1963, over 25 million people participated in the March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended legal discrimination against minorities in education, hiring and public housing. That year, at just 35 years old, Dr. King became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act eliminated further barriers to voting for African Americans.

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
Coretta Scott King, Poor People's Campaign, Washington, D.C.

Continuing Dr. King’s legacy

Following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Coretta worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy. She was the driving force behind the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta, which hosts the largest archives of Civil Rights documents. She also fought to see her husband’s birthday observed as a national holiday.

But Coretta was also an influential activist in her own right. In 1974, she founded and served as co-chair of the National Committee for Full Employment and the Full Employment Action Council, which sought to promote equal economic opportunities. Her commitment to civil rights took her around the world, from Greece to South Africa. Coretta Scott King died in 2006, and is buried in The King Center alongside her husband.

Coretta Scott King remained a lifelong advocate of civil rights.

2. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

Together, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns forever changed Modern art. The two artists sought to push beyond Abstract Expressionist painting, which dominated the New York art scene in the 1950s. Their revolutionary work linked Abstract Expressionism to Pop, performance art, and conceptual art.

Robert Rauschenberg in his studio, 1953.

Partnership and artistic inspiration

When the two met, Rauschenberg was recently divorced from the painter Susan Weil, and had come out of a relationship with the famous artist Cy Twombly. Rauschenberg and Johns began to work together as window designers, under the name Matson-Jones. As their relationship deepened, their union became its own form of artistic expression, offering the kind of freedom that, as gay men, they could not find within the Abstract Expressionist circle.

Robert Rauschenberg at work in 1951.

New ways of seeing

Rauschenberg and Johns moved in crucial new artistic directions after meeting one another. Johns turned to painting, and his practice, which asked the viewer to look at familiar objects in new ways, earned him a reputation as one of the most important artist of the 20th century. Rauschenberg’s work began to more explicitly incorporate culture and politics. The two split in 1961, and both left New York.

Jasper Johns with his work.

3. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre met in 1929, when they were both studying philosophy in Paris. They are perhaps the power couple par excellence: he is considered the father of Existentialism; the publication of De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 inspired the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s.

De Beauvoir and Sartre in 1946.

An unconventional arrangement

Sartre famously proposed an open relationship—and de Beauvoir agreed. As she would later write, “The comradeship that welded our lives together made a superfluous mockery of any other bond we might have forged for ourselves.” Their exceptionally close partnership lasted a tumultuous, affair-filled 51 years, providing the foundation from which their groundbreaking contributions to philosophy, literature and political theory could flourish.

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s tumultuous relationship changed the course of modern thought

4. Mildred and Richard Loving

In 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving traveled to Washington, D.C., to be legally married. Mildred was of African-American and Native American descent, and Richard was white, and at the time, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, where they lived. The couple was arrested just weeks after their return, and charged with "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth."

The Lovings

A landmark decision

The Lovings avoided jail by moving to Washington, but in 1963 Mildred decided to take action. She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which took her case, and by 1967 it had reached the United States Supreme Court. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings, striking down miscegenation laws nationwide.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision in favor of the Lovings.

5. Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867. At age 24, she traveled to Paris to study physics and math at the Sorbonne. "It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty," she would later write. By 1894 she had graduated with degrees in physics and math. It was around this time that she met Pierre Curie, eight years older than Marie and already a renowned physicist. The two married in 1895.

The Curies in their laboratory at the Ecole de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris, circa 1898.

A radioactive relationship

After the birth of their daughter, Irène, in 1897, Marie turned to the study of uranium rays. To carry out her research, she used an electrometer Pierre had designed for his own earlier pioneering research on crystals. Marie and Pierre began to study natural ores that contained uranium, and stumbled upon an entirely new substance, which they named polonium. A few months later they discovered another highly active element, which they called radium. Their research also brought the world a new word: radioactive.

The Curies with their daughter Irène in 1904.

A scientific legacy

Together the Curies embarked on a period of painstaking and physically demanding research to confirm their findings. In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches.”

Tragically, Pierre was killed in a road accident in Paris in 1906, leaving Marie a single mother. But she did not slow down. In 1908, she was the first woman to be named a professor at the Sorbonne; in 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, in Chemistry, for her work on radium and polonium.

Marie died in 1934– one year before her daughter Irène, with her son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.

Pierre and Marie Curie at work in their laboratory, circa 1898.

6. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

When Rivera and Kahlo met, Rivera was a highly respected artist, known for his vibrant, politically-inflected murals depicting Mexican culture, history and workers’ struggles (he also had two marriages under his belt). Kahlo was a young art student. The two began courting in 1925 when Kahlo was just 18 and Rivera was twice her age. Married in 1929, they remained together until Rivera’s death in 1954. Their partnership was famously peppered with affairs on both sides (including, on Kahlo’s part, liaisons with Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky). But their torrential, all-consuming love gave rise to some of Mexico’s most extraordinary art.

Photograph of Diego Rivera in his studio at San Angel, Mexico, 1940, with a lipstick mark kiss from Frida Kahlo

Icons of invention

If Rivera has become known as the most important Mexican artist of the 20th Century, Kahlo’s Surrealist art, which foregrounded her physical and psychic suffering, made her a feminist icon. Kahlo became the first Latin American woman to have a painting in the Louvre.

Kahlo and Rivera were lifelong political activists. Rivera’s murals inspired President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration program, which created jobs for artists during the Great Depression. Days before her death in 1954, Kahlo appeared with Rivera to protest American intervention in Guatemala.

Kahlo’s extraordinary love letters to Rivera, written over the course of their 27 years together, reveal the simmering intensity of their relationship. “I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love,” she wrote.

A portrait of Frida Kahlo by photographer Nickolas Muray, 1939 (printed 1941)

7. Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith

Jane Addams, one of the Progressive Era’s most important reformers, is considered the founder of social work in America. Chief among her many pioneering efforts was the co-founding in 1889 of Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house for European immigrants. A committed suffragist, she was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920; in 1931 she became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jane Addams in 1910

Mothers of social work

Addams’s longtime partner was Mary Rozet Smith, a Chicago native and a trustee of Hull House. Smith was involved in many social improvement initiatives in Chicago, including settlement houses, juvenile protection organizations and women’s groups. Addams referred to her relationship with Smith as a marriage; when Smith died in 1934, they had spent 40 years together.

A view of Hull House in 1961

Individually, these extraordinary men and women made waves in their fields – be it art, science or politics – but together they inspired cultural sea-changes. In some cases, their very union was an act of political or social defiance.

Continue exploring the Love project here.

Story by Rebecca Appel
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google