Some of these women you’ve probably heard of, but others might be new names to your ears. I had only seen pictures of a few in passing, or heard their names here and there, but I can safely say that, after researching this article, I won’t ever forget any of them.
They’re women who were pioneers, who tossed societal conventions out the window, who stood up for the rights of women, LGBT people, and other oppressed groups, or who just generally did not give two shits what they were supposed to be doing. Instead, they stayed focused on the paths they knew in their hearts they were meant to follow.
Their contributions are invaluable to each and every lady alive today, so read up, and take a moment to say thank you for all of the rights and opportunities you now have because of their determination and sacrifices.
#12. Maud Stevens Wagner
Tattoos are considered controversial and even unladylike in our culture still today – but a female tattoo artist in 1900? Completely unheard of…until Maud Stevens Wagner leapt onto the scene. And as you can see from the above photograph, she not only gave them, she had them. LOTS of them.
Maud was making her living as an acrobat, aerialist, and contortionist at the Saint Louis World’s Fair when she met Gus Wagner, a contemporary tattoo artist who worked by hand with the stick-and-poke method, rather than using a machine. He not only tattooed Maud (eventually from head-to-toe), but taught her the craft, making Wagner the first woman on record to learn to do it herself.
The history of tattooed women is complicated and, in the case of Native Americans, pervasively racist. At first, they were nothing but sideshow attractions, put on display as objects of freakish desire or, in the case of Native women, primitivism. As the years have passed and more and more women followed in Maud’s footsteps, tattooed ladies have gone through a slow metamorphosis to become not only fairly normal, but sexualized.
Maud’s legacy is one of female independence and entrepreneurship that led to the scads of female tattoo artists today. Her entire life, the tattoo culture was made up mostly of men – getting and giving them – but she obviously could not have cared less about convention.
More power to her and, by proxy, to us.
Favorite Quote: I couldn’t find any recorded, but I think her ink speaks for itself.
#11. Emmeline Pankhurst
Americans may not have heard of her, but without Emmeline Pankhurst and her willingness to tear shit up, there’s a good chance women still wouldn’t have the right to vote.
Born Emmeline Goulden, she was the eldest of 10 children born to parents who were active in both the abolitionist and suffrage movements in England. Even so, she wasn’t a fan of the fact that her parents prioritized her brothers’ education before hers – which was perhaps as influential to her as her first suffrage meeting at age 14.
In 1879, after completing her education, she met and married Richard Pankhurst, a man 24 years her senior but with like political views. Together, they remained active in politics while raising 5 children.
In 1903 she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group focused specifically on getting the right to vote. The group was viewed as militant in their tactics, which escalated quickly to include window breaking, vandalism, and arson. The resulting arrests led to hunger strikes and forcible feeding, among other distressing treatment of the women working to secure the right to vote in England.
In 1918, some women were granted the right to vote, and later that same year, they received the right to be elected to Parliament. Emmeline died young in 1928, only 69 years old. She missed seeing the fruits of her labor come to be by 3 weeks – British Parliament granted the right to vote to ALL women about 3 weeks after she died.
Favorite Quote: “Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”
#10. Carrie Chapman Catt
Move over, Susan B. Anthony – Carrie Chapman Catt is the lady who came up with the “winning plan” to pass the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote in the USA. Catt worked as a teacher to pay her own way through college before taking work as a journalist, then taking over the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900. She was in and out of public life for several years due to her first and second husbands’ failing health, but returned with a vengeance in 1915 after being widowed a second time.
As she worked on the plan that would eventually see the 19th amendment passed, she presciently established the League of Women Voters, so that women would be ready to exercise their new rights once the bill was passed.
Catt, a staunch pacifist her entire life, remained active in women’s rights, and after the 19th Amendment passed, she went abroad to help women in other countries with their own struggles.
Favorite Quote: “No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by popular opinion.”
#9. Simone Segouin
What were you doing when you were 18 years old? No matter whether you had your shit together or not, I’m guessing you weren’t running around occupied France capturing Nazi soldiers.
But that’s exactly what young Simone Segouin was up to in the summer of 1944. Maybe it wasn’t such a stretch for her, being born into a farming family with three brothers, to join the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans – a combat group of militant communists and French nationalists – at such a tender age. Maybe.
Or maybe she was just that awesome.
In an attempt to protect her family in the case of her capture, she took on the nom de plume of Nicole Minet, with papers claiming she hailed from Dunkirk. The fact that the port had been bombed early on made it hard for anyone asking to verify details, which made it the perfect cover.
“Nicole” proved to be a quick study at spying and sabotage, graduating quickly from ferrying messages to weapons use, blowing up bridges, and assisting in the capture of German soldiers. Soon after, she met and fell in love with Roland Boursier, who happened to be in command of the Thivars Operation (which was in her hometown) and recruited her help.
She was instrumental in the liberation of Chartres before marching on to Paris with France’s 2nd Armoured division. During her time serving her country, she killed two Germans and assisted in capturing 25 more.
After the war, France awarded her the Croix de Guerre, and she was promoted to lieutenant. Considering that women made up 10% of the Resistance fighters, their success and drive inspired a change in the way women were treated in France – in fact, their efforts directly led France to allow women the vote in 1945.
Simone spent the rest of her life as a pediatric nurse in the hometown she helped save, where a street is named after her. She’s been described as “one of the purest fighters of heroic French Resistance who prepared the way for the Liberation.”
High praise for a country girl who just happened to have nerves of steel and a steady trigger finger. She might be my new hero.
Favorite Quote: “I was a resistance fighter, that’s all. If I had to do it all again, I would, because I don’t regret anything.”
#8. Harriet Tubman
Yes, she was a determined Abolitionist and an integral part of the Underground Railroad, but did you know that she was a Union spy during the Civil War? Yeah, neither did I.
In 1863, she worked with Colonel James Montgomery to free the slaves from the rice plantations lining the Combahee River in South Carolina, setting fire to buildings and destroying bridges in the process.
Tubman and the other spies risked their lives to return to Confederate territory, and once there, they learned of the opposing army’s plan and sent dispatches back North. Since she was a known abolitionist, it would have taken double the courage for Harriet to return South time and time again. As former Salisbury University professor Claire Small put it, “she wanted to be free, she wanted other people to be free. Otherwise she would not have risked her life.”
She’s an American hero, one who will soon take her place front and center on the $20. Don’t feel too sorry for Andrew Jackson, though, since he was a staunch hater of the idea of paper money during his lifetime.
Favorite Quote: “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.
#7. Amelia Earhart
No article about badass women would be complete without Amelia Earhart. There’s no better example of a woman who stepped into a man’s world without apology, and quickly determined that she would do something no man had done before – in this case, fly across the oceans.
Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, and was just the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot’s license. She became the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, and she later became the first person ever to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – and then, in 1937, she disappeared.
As a girl, she excelled in both science and sports, and some believe that her father’s inability to shake his alcoholism and support his family may have led to her independent tendencies. If he wasn’t going to help, she needed to be able to take care of herself.
While volunteering as a nurse with the Red Cross in Toronto during WWI, Amelia became enamored with watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield. Her fascination with planes and flying continued after she relocated to California, and a plane ride at the Long Beach air show in 1920 cemented her dream – she had to learn how to fly. In order to make that dream a reality she worked as a photographer, a truck driver, and more, before finally earning enough to take lessons from pioneer female pilot Anita “Neta” Snook.
Nothing mattered to Amelia except flying, and she spent much of her time at the airfield. She cropped her hair short and even slept in her leather aviator’s jacket in order to make it appear more worn-in. In her second-hand Kinner Airster biplane, nicknamed “The Canary” due to its bright yellow paint, she flew to 14,000 feet – the altitude record for a female pilot at that time (1921).
The first time she crossed the Atlantic was as a passenger, since the men of the day had decided it was too dangerous an endeavor for a woman to undertake alone. Earhart wasn’t impressed after making the return trip, commenting that she “was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes …maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
She did just that, of course, taking off on the morning of May 20, 1932. She intended to fly to Paris, mimicking Charles Lindbergh’s flight, but mechanical difficulties forced her to put down in Ireland. Which still, of course, made her the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic alone. A later flight from Honolulu to Oakland, made her the first pilot, male or female, to also cross the Pacific.
Earhart disappeared in 1937, and it has recently come to light that her remains may have been found on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean.
As far as her personal life, Earhart became a celebrity after her first passenger trip across the ocean, and she strove to use her influence to set an example of female courage, intelligence, and self-reliance, hoping that her feats could help beat back the negative stereotypes about women, opening doors for them in every field.
I think, all of these years later, we can all agree that her courage, smarts, determination, and willingness to ignore the so-called limitations of the day managed to do just that.
Favorite Quote: “Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.”
#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.