#6. Kathrine Switzer
It might seem strange to say that the simple act of running a marathon changed a life, but that’s exactly what happened to Kathrine Switzer back in 1967. She wasn’t the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, but she was the first woman to officially register – as K.V. Switzer, the same way she signed her college papers to avoid unfair judgement by the professor.
It began as a normal marathon morning, but ended in an iconic photograph. One of the course officials attacked Kathrine as she ran, trying to tear the entry numbers from her chest. He cursed and screamed at her as her boyfriend used his body to block him, allowing Kathrine to keep running.
The photograph is listed among Time-Life’s “100 Photographs that Changed the World,” and it certainly did that for Kathrine. She finished the race and considered herself radicalized in the women’s movement from that day forward. She won the New York marathon in 1974 and led a successful campaign to bring women’s racing into the Olympics. Her television commentary has won an Emmy award and she’s authored 3 books.
Most notably, perhaps is that she continues to work around the world to empower women through running. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
We never know beforehand what moments will change our lives, the important thing is that we take advantage of them – the future, it would seem, is watching.
Favorite Quote: “Life is for participating, not for spectating.”
#5. Jeanne Manford
It was 1973, and Jeanne Manford had lost one son to drugs. So, when she got a call that her younger son had been hospitalized after a bad beating, there was no doubt in her mind that she had to do something. Which sounds like a normal reaction, except for the fact that her son had been beaten for being gay in the early 1970s.
“It’s a little hard to imagine now what that period was like, how revolutionary it was for a parent to walk in the gay pride march in New York City carrying a sign that said, ‘Parents unite in support of our gay children,” says Eric Marcus, the author of a history on the gay rights movement in the US. “The timing was right, the time really called for someone like Jeanne, and Jeanne was there.”
And she didn’t just march with her son, Morty, either. Nope. This shy, soft-spoken teacher from Queens became a staunch activist for gay rights in general, founding a national support group called Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She organized the first meeting in 1973, and since then the organization has grown from 20 people in a church basement to over 350 groups nationwide with thousands of members.
Writer Dan Savage explained why her actions meant so much to so many, and how they really changed the conversation surrounding gay rights at a time when so many refused to even acknowledge the community existed.
“What Jeanne Manford did was she put it in people’s heads that gay and lesbian people had parents, that we were somebody’s children, and that was the first real big step in the movement toward full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people.”
I wish that she and her son, who died from AIDS complications, had been here to see their rights supported by the Supreme Court, but we thank them for their courage in getting us here.
Favorite Quote: “I have a homosexual son, and I love him.”
#4. Anne Bonny
Maybe society would tell you that pirates aren’t the type of folks one should look up to, but this article is all about women who broke the mold and made way for others, and Anne Bonny certainly fits the criteria, pirate or not.
Back in the 1700s and 1800s, women were not pirates. In fact, women weren’t even allowed on pirate ships because they were said to be bad luck. But Anne Bonny (born Anne Cormac, most likely), had never been a woman to follow the rules. Legends are all we have left of her, with sources scarce and details foggy, but she is said to have been the illegitimate daughter of a prominent Irish barrister, William Cormac, and his maid. Disgraced when the affair came to light, Cormac took his lover and their daughter and headed for a new life in Charles Towne (Charleston, SC).
Anne wasn’t an easy child, not by a long shot. It’s said that, as a young woman, she beat a man who tried to rape her so badly that he had to be hospitalized (go, girl), so when her father attempted to wed her to a respectable, older man, naturally Anne resisted. Instead, she married a military man and followed him to Jamaica.
James Bonny wasn’t for Anne, either, but he had served his purpose in extracting her from her father’s plans. Once in Jamaica, she met and ran away with notorious pirates Calico Jack Rackham, the two of them commandeering a ship in port and sailing away into the horizon.
She may not have been conventional, but she had a mind of her own and didn’t mind using it to get her own way. I know that this woman, for one, has found inspiration in Anne’s fierce strength and independence, even if I don’t plan to run off marauding anytime soon.
Favorite Quote: None available, but I like to imagine her just giving me the finger for asking for one.
In 1960, 24-year-old Margaret Hamilton took a job as a programmer at MIT, intending to support her husband during his 3 years at Harvard Law…and ended up helping America put a man on the moon, instead.
Though people criticized Margaret for continuing to work despite having a young daughter, she paid them no mind, bringing 4-year-old Lauren to her office overlooking the Charles River, where she slept on the floor while her mother created programs that would eventually find their way into the Apollo’s command module computer.
Her career began in an era when the software world was on the precipice of exploding, thanks in large part to the Apollo program. It was also a world, like today, mostly populated by men. Hamilton didn’t mind, stating more than once that when at work she was “one of the guys.”
There was no course in computing in the 1960s – these were pioneers, inventing the field as they went along. In that lab at MIT, Margaret and her coworkers invented the core ideas we use today in computer programming – ideas that eventually put men on the moon. In fact, the US depended on Margaret’s work so much that the pressure kept her up at night. She recalls running back to the lab after a late-night party, desperate to correct a piece of code she’d suddenly realized was flawed. “I was aways imagining headlines in the newspapers, and they would point back to how it happened, and it would point back to me.”
In point of fact, an incident in which her daughter was playing with the computer and accidentally crashed the system led to Hamilton programming in a failsafe that ending up saving the Apollo astronauts’ lives when they accidentally hit the same combination of buttons.
Favorite Quote: “…continue even when thing appear to be impossible, even when the so called experts say it is impossible; stand alone or be different, for only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
#2. Marie Curie
The woman who discovered radium and made major scientific advances in a time when women weren’t supposed to do anything but look pretty, please their husbands, and raise babies needs no introduction, but any list of amazing female pioneers wouldn’t be complete without her.
Marie’s life began unassumingly in Poland, where she received a rudimentary education before leaving for Paris and the Sorbonne. There, she excelled in physics and mathematics and ended up marrying one of her professors (get it girl), who she worked with closely following the completion of her studies.
Together, Marie and Pierre Curie pioneered work with radioactive substances that earned them a Nobel Prize, and, after his death in 1906, she took over his role as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences – the first time a woman had ever held the position.
In her later life, Marie Curie was appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, earned a second – solo – Nobel Prize, had her work published in many respected scientific journals, and had many, many other awards bestowed on her in Europe and in the United States.
Marie Curie is, in the simplest terms, proof that women can do whatever they want, and – if they want to – they can have it all.
Favorite Quote: “Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.”
#1. Malala Yousafzai
She’s not even 20 years old, but Malala Yousafzai has had more of an impact on the world than most of us will manage in a lifetime. As a girl, she found the courage to stand up to the Taliban in the form of public speeches. She continued her education in Pakistan, an act of defiance that left her on the wrong end of a Taliban gun.
When she was 15 years old, Taliban terrorists stopped her school bus, boarded, and shot her in the face. Malala survived, but her family was forced to leave Pakistan. They haven’t been able to return to their homeland, something that she says in her book, I Am Malala, hurts her heart every single day.
Many people would have shut up and backed down after taking a bullet to the face, but not this teenage girl. Instead, Malala has continued to fight for the right for girls to get the same education as boys in the region where she grew up, and in other places in the world where girls aren’t valued outside the home the way that they are in the West.
She’s been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts and shows no indication of slowing down anytime soon – even while attending college in America.
I read and was enamored by I Am Malala, and I came away with just a little bit more hope that this world of ours might be in the capable hands of the next generation.
Favorite Quote: “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”
So, there you have it! 12 brave, smart, industrious, pioneering women who deserve to have their stories told and their names remembered – if not for what they have done, then for what they have given us all.