From journalism to medicine and science, women have famously helped shape society in myriad ways. But there are still many unsung heroes all but forgotten by history, and those pioneers deserve equal recognition for their magnificent achievements. Here are 21 world-changing women you really should know about…
21. Dorothy Levitt: The first female racing driver
With motoring still in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century, female drivers were few and far between. In 1905, Dorothy Levitt put women drivers on the map in spectacular style. But before she became a world-record-holding car racer, she held an altogether different kind of record. Setting the fastest speed on water, she hit a whopping 19.3 miles per hour in 1903, the first to achieve such a feat. But that was as nothing compared to her other accolades.
Starting in 1905, Levitt set three world records in under two years. Setting the bar for the “longest drive by a lady driver,” she travelled over 400 hundred miles in two days. Then, she set the first-ever Ladies’ World Speed Record, driving at 79.75mph. The following year, she smashed her own ceiling with a top speed of 90.88mph. Unsurprisingly, she was dubbed the “Fastest Girl On Earth.”
20. Ada Lovelace: The world’s first computer programmer
Despite having been born in 1815, long before the invention of the home computer, Ada Lovelace wrote software. Having become interested in maths as a child, thanks to her mom’s insistence on a good education, Lovelace spent much of her adult life elbow-deep in mathematical problems. And in 1842, she wrote what would come to be considered the first-ever computer program.
While translating an Italian paper involving a machine that could calculate enormous sums, Lovelace hit upon the idea that this analytical engine was capable of much more. To prove it, she then wrote the software for the first-ever computer program. Although the engine was never built, this 19th-century visionary has long been credited with recognizing the potential of computers long before anyone else.
19. Henrietta Lacks: The immortal woman
Yes, Henrietta Lacks is technically immortal. And the story of this woman’s contribution to humanity is, frankly, astonishing. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, and a biopsy of the tumor was taken, as is routine. And once they were in the lab, doctors soon noticed something unusual about her cells.
Lacks’ cells seem to behave vastly differently to other people’s; specifically, they survive much longer in lab conditions. This amazing longevity means that researchers actually have the time to study them, something with which they had previously struggled. While Lacks herself died in 1951, her cells live on even today. Thanks to her, scientists have been able to learn more about cancer, radiation poisoning and A.I.D.S.. In fact, her cells even played a significant role in the development of a polio vaccine. Her incredible biology makes her one of the most important women in medicine.
18. Nellie Bly: The real Phileas Fogg
Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864, did many remarkable things in her life. As a journalist, she essentially invented undercover journalism when she spent ten days as a patient in an insane asylum. Her subsequent exposé told a bleak picture of abuse and neglect, and led to changes at the hospital in question. And then she did something else arguably even more amazing.
Spurred on by the journey completed by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, Bly decided to attempt to emulate the feat of its fictional hero. Incredibly, she beat that time by a whole eight days, using just trains and boats. And she did it entirely alone, in 1899. The journalist even held the world record, briefly, for circumnavigating the globe.
17. Sarah Breedlove: The self-made woman
Sarah Breedlove, better known to her customers as Madam C. J. Walker, was a 19th-century entrepreneur and giant of the beauty industry. Specializing in make-up and hair-care products she made herself, the company employed thousands of women at the height of her success. But that’s not why she’s on the list.
Breedlove’s product range was so successful that at one point, it was estimated that roughly 20,000 American women had trained to use and sell her products. And with such a large company came, it seems, a very tidy profit. When she died in 1919, she was the richest self-made woman in the United States. And with an estate worth close to $600,000, which in today’s money is about $8 million, you can see why.
16: Valentina Tereshkova: The first woman in space
While everyone has heard of Neil Armstrong, not quite as many are familiar with Valentina Tereshkova. Which is a shame, as not only did she become the first female astronaut, she was also the youngest. In addition, the Russian is still the only woman to have undertaken a solo space flight. And her incredible records don’t end there.
In total, Tereshkova spent three days in space, circumnavigating the globe a whopping 48 times. During that single mission, she spent more time in space than all the American astronauts combined had at the time. And, on her return, she produced yet another first. The Russian cosmonaut married a fellow space traveler in 1963; their daughter Elena is the first child born to two parents who have both left the Earth.
15. Florence Griffith Joyner: The world’s fastest woman
This flamboyant athlete was as well known for sporting six-inch nails and bright, asymmetric outfits as for smashing records. And during the 1988 Olympics, Griffith Joyner did all of those things in style. Having missed the 1980 Moscow games because of a U.S. boycott, Flo Jo made her Olympic debut at Los Angeles in 1984, where she scooped a silver in the 200m. But by the time the Seoul games rolled around in 1988, she was really hitting her stride.
During those summer games, Griffith Joyner took home one silver and three gold medals. And the speed records she set in the 100m and 200m races still stand, more than 30 years later. All of which means the sprinter was, and remains, the fastest woman the world has ever seen.
14. Rachel Carson: The first eco-warrior
Rachel Carson’s talent for popular science ‒ taking complex subjects and making them easier to understand ‒ actually changed America. The aquatic biologist and second-ever female employee of the Fisheries and Wildlife Service, she spent years researching and studying the effects of the pesticide DDT. And what she discovered shocked the country.
By studying the wildlife most affected by the chemical, as well as the humans that used it, Carson uncovered scandalous levels of destruction and illness. And, it seems, DDT was causing all of it. She revealed the results of her research in the 1962 book Silent Spring. The work then became the impetus for a grassroots environmental movement, which resulted in the banning of pesticides including DDT. The author’s ideas reportedly also led to the 1970 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
13. Beulah Henry: The female Edison
Over the course of Beulah Henry’s illustrious career, she successfully registered 49 patents and invented more than 100 wondrous things. Receiving her first patent at 25, for an ice-cream freezing machine, she went on to become an independent businesswoman, famous for her creativity. And believe it or not, that all started with umbrellas. Or, more specifically, parasols.
Henry, like many women of the early 20th century, carried a parasol. They were expected, however, to match the holder’s outfit, which meant owning multiple sun-shades. The inventor decided that wasn’t good enough, and came up with a version that included removable fabric panels. She also invented a typewriter that could duplicate documents long before the concept of photocopying had occurred to anyone. And, unusually for the age, she not only received credit for her ideas, she also got paid.
12. Hedy Lamarr: The Grand Dame of Wi-Fi
Once described as the “the world’s most beautiful woman” by movie producer Louis B. Mayer, Hedy Lamarr was far more than just a pretty face. Having escaped an abusive marriage in Europe before making it big in Hollywood, the star’s career then took a very unusual turn. And it involved military equipment.
The actor’s relationship with millionaire Howard Hughes gave her access to a team of engineers who would build anything she invented. But this wasn’t just the whim of an eccentric recluse. Lamarr was a keen scientist, and reportedly gave aviator Hughes the idea for more aerodynamic plane designs. And then she invented a frequency-shifting radio guidance system for the U.S. military. And those very ideas underpin both today’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology.
11. Katherine Johnson: The woman who put Neil Armstrong on the Moon
Mathematician extraordinaire Katherine Johnson once described herself as a “computer who wore skirts.” In fact, during her time at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (N.A.S.A.), so valued was her software-like brain, that she even checked the results of any digitally-completed work. And if not for her, humans might not have set foot on the moon.
Before anyone had heard of Neil Armstrong, Johnson successfully calculated the trajectory for America’s first-ever manned space flight in 1961. And when it came time for a lunar mission, the mathematician was front and center, making sure the Apollo craft hit its target. In 2016, her achievements, long overlooked, were celebrated in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.
10. Dorothy Lawrence: World War One’s undercover female reporter
Bold, inventive and, some would say, reckless, Dorothy Lawrence refused to take no for an answer when it came to following her dream. After the outbreak of World War One, she wanted to report from the front lines in France. After several newspapers turned her down, the would-be journalist came up with a novel way to get the story.
Lawrence made her way to France as a freelancer, and made friends with some British soldiers. She then persuaded them to smuggle out an army uniform for her, and teach her to march properly. The potential reporter then darkened her skin with boot polish, cut her long hair, and even dragged a razor across her face to imitate shaving rash. Disguised as Private Denis Smith, she spent ten whole days in the trenches before giving herself up.
9. Grace Hopper: The rear-admiral who changed computer language
Aside from being one of only a few women to ever achieve the rank of rear-admiral, Grace Hopper also invented something that has today become commonplace. Believe it or not, her work led to the creation of the phrases “bug” and “debug” with regard to computer programming, after a moth flew into a system she was working on. But that’s not the only reason she’s on this list.
Hopper invented a computer program that allowed those systems to translate English into their own language in the 1950s. Her ideas have since become the basis for many high-level programming languages that are still used today. But her achievements don’t end there. When she retired from the Navy aged 79, she was the oldest commissioned officer on active duty. And in recognition of her work, the computer scientist received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal in 1986.
8. Andrée Borrel: The first female spy to parachute into enemy territory
After working as a nurse in occupied France during the Second World War, Andrée Borrel joined resistance fighters. She worked at first helping Jews and British soldiers escape to Britain, but eventually found herself in England. Recruited by the government to work undercover in her native country, Borrel was trained and tasked with setting up a freedom fighters network near Paris. And to get there, she did something no other woman had done.
Borrel became the first woman to parachute into enemy territory in September 1942. There, she was the second-in-command of a resistance organization before the Gestapo arrested the freedom fighter in 1943. Executed by the Nazis roughly a year later, the British government recommended a posthumous award for the heroine. The application praised “her great bravery and devotion to duty.”
7. Alice Coachman: The first black woman to win an Olympic medal
Even as a teenager, it’s safe to say Alice Coachman excelled at sport. While still at high school, she broke the national record for the high jump. Once at college, her winning streak continued with records in the 50m, 100m and 400m relay. And she also dominated on the basketball court as her team won three conference championships. Then she set her sights on the Olympics.
Coachman was aiming for the top prize in the high jump at the 1940 games. Due to the Second World War, however, both they and the 1944 games were canceled. The athlete eventually got to compete at the 1948 Olympics in London, where she smashed the record with a 5ft 6in jump. King George VI himself presented her with the gold medal, the first ever won by a woman of color.
6. Mary Edwards Walker: The first ‒ and only ‒ female recipient of the Medal of Honor
Mary Edwards Walker was unusual for her time, and not just because she was often arrested for wearing men’s clothes. She qualified as a doctor in 1855, the lone woman in her graduating class, and went on to become the Union Army’s first female surgeon. And it was during the Civil War that she won her medal.
As far as Walker was concerned, her job wasn’t confined to treating wounded Union soldiers. In fact, she would often cross battle lines to treat injured civilians and enemy fighters. And while assisting a Confederate doctor during an amputation, she became a prisoner of war. Arrested, bizarrely enough, for being a spy, the surgeon spent four months in captivity. For this heroism and bravery, President Andrew Johnson personally awarded her the Medal Of Honor. She remains the only woman to receive one.
5. Margaret Sanger: Opened America’s first birth control center
Due to the illegality of talking about, sending or receiving birth control at the turn of the 20th century, many women found it difficult to plan their pregnancies. Margaret Sanger saw the problems unplanned parenthood could cause and she was determined to do something about it. And her steely resolve eventually resulted in a change to federal laws.
Opening America’s first-ever birth control clinic in 1916 led to Sanger’s arrest and incarceration. Her conviction sparked a movement across the country, leading to more clinics. After several legal victories for the movement, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed with the campaigner. It took nearly 50 years, but contraception was finally legalized nationwide in 1965.
4. Wilma Mankiller: First female leader of the Cherokee Nation
If the phrase “tough as nails” had a human inspiration, it could well be Wilma Mankiller. Over the course of her life, she battled injuries from a horrific car crash, breast cancer and kidney failure, among other things. Health problems never slowed her down, though, and after a stint as social worker, Mankiller made history.
At the end of 1985 Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. On the way she faced sexism, death threats and attacks on her personal property. Yet despite this opposition, she won by a narrow margin. The leader remained in power for nearly a decade, focusing on social programs such as school-building. But she also made the conglomerate that contains all of the Nation’s commercial interests multi-million-dollar profits.
3. Rosalind Franklin: The woman who discovered the structure of DNA
While Francis Crick and James Watson are famously credited for unveiling the structure of DNA, that simply wouldn’t have been possible without Rosalind Franklin. The Cambridge-educated X-ray crystallographer and chemist had a vital role in the discovery, but at the time, she had no idea of the part she’d played.
While working on the same problem as Crick and Watson, Franklin had taken some X-rays that hinted at DNA’s double-helix structure. However, the images were reportedly shown to Crick and Watson without the crystallographer’s knowledge. And it was these illicit results that led the pair to the answer for which they had been hunting. Their female colleague wasn’t credited for her contribution, and it’s only in recent times that she’s been recognized at all.
2. Junko Tabei: The first woman to summit Everest
Mountaineer Junko Tabei’s list of firsts starts in 1969 when she formed Japan’s original ladies climbing club. Despite facing harsh opposition from her male counterparts, who believed women should concentrate on raising children, Tabei would go on to reach the summit of some of the world’s most challenging climbs. And it all began in 1975, on Mount Everest – just after she nearly died in an avalanche.
Using home-made sleeping bags and gloves patched with recycled car seats, Tabei reached the top of the 29,000-foot mountain in May 1975. Even an avalanche, it seems, couldn’t stop her. From there, she took on one of the most grueling mountaineering trials on Earth: the Seven Summits Challenge. Climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents took 17 years, but she completed the trial in 1992. As a result, the climber is the first woman ever to have done it.
1. Antonia Novello: The first female Surgeon General of the United States
Having graduated from high school at just 15 years old, it was clear that Antonia Novello would go on to great things. While studying medicine, she was Michigan University’s first female Intern of the Year. From there, she set up her own private practice, but wanted to help people on a grander scale. So, in 1979, she joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
While on active duty, Novello devoted her time to pediatric A.I.D.S. research. That put her on the White House’s map and in 1990, President George W. Bush appointed her Surgeon General. Not only was she the first woman to hold the position, she was also the first person of Hispanic descent in the job. During her three-year tenure, she exposed the rise of A.I.D.S. among women and children, and campaigned against the marketing of tobacco to kids. By the time of her retirement, she’d achieved the rank of vice admiral.