To commemorate the end of Women’s History Month, here’s our list of the women who did nothing short of literally changing the course of history.
You’ll have heard of some but not all and we won’t go into too much depth but suffice to say, these are the women who overcame adversity, who stood up in the face of the most daunting challenges and injustices and who broke barriers.
They are in no particular order. No one woman on this list is any more deserving than any other but they all have one thing in common – they are all utterly and indisputably amazing and as a society and as a species, we are lucky they walked amongst us because without them, things today may look a whole lot different…
Marie Skłodowska Curie – Physicist, Chemist (1867 – 1934)
Born in Poland, Marie Curie founded the science of radioactivity – even inventing the word – and with it, her discoveries made (and continue to make) staggering breakthroughs in the cures for cancer. Not content with mastering physics, she mastered chemistry by identifying radium and polonium.
She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first (and so far only) woman to win the Nobel Prize twice and the only person (not woman, person) to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields of science.
Theodora, Empress of Byzantium – Actress, Politician, Women’s Activist (c.500 – 548)
A name you may not be so familiar with but Theodora was a courageous and influential woman in an age where women were little more than child-bearers and keepers of the house. From a humble start as an actress, she met and married Byzantine Emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Not only did she handle their political affairs, – Justinian called her his ‘partner in my deliberations,’ – she built lasting relationships with foreign leaders bringing harmony to warring factions and she was one of history’s first rulers to be vocal on the subject of women’s rights. As Empress, she amended existing divorce and property laws to benefit women, she built convents for former prostitutes, she introduced harsh (and in Roman times, harsh meant seriously harsh) penalties for rape and prohibited the trafficking of young girls.
Rosa Parks – Civil Rights Activist (1913 – 2005)
Called ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of the freedom movement’, Rosa Parks endured a daily struggle in a city where she could only go to certain (inferior) schools, drink from ‘coloured only’ water fountains and borrow books from the ‘black’ library. On December 1st, 1955 she decided enough was enough. She made a stand. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, thus starting one of the most important movements in US history – the move to end entrenched racial segregation. ‘I was tired of giving in.’
Her actions that day sparked the civil rights movement led by a local reverend called Martin Luther King Jr and a year later, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. The struggle for racial equality in America goes on but Rosa Parks left behind a rich legacy of resistance against discrimination and injustice.
Ada Lovelace – Mathematician, Computer Programmer (1815 – 1852)
We know what you’re thinking, there were no computer programmers in the middle of the nineteenth century, but you’d be wrong. Sort of. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and grew up fascinated by science and maths, certainly not something an upper-class girl and the daughter of a lord should have been concerning herself with.
When she was 17 she met Charles Babbage, the man whose ‘Analytical Engine’ could perform arithmetic functions. However Lovelace thought it could do more. She recognised that it had applications beyond simple mathematics and produced an algorithm that could govern applications and even compose music. She effectively defined the concept of a digital programmable computer and in recognition of her visionary brilliance, the second Tuesday in October is Ada Lovelace Day and celebrates women in science.
Mary Wollstonecraft – Gender Equality Champion (1759 – 1797)
Much maligned during her own time for her ‘unconventional’ lifestyle, Mary Wollstonecraft has since become a defining voice in the struggle for gender equality. Her most famous book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, is viewed by many as one of the foundational works of modern feminism.
She argued – quite rightly – that women were not naturally inferior to men but it just seemed that way due to the fact that they were not afforded the opportunities for education that men of the time were. She proposed that if women were educated in the same way as men, they would be able to get the same jobs and earn the same money. She died aged just 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter who you’ll know as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Mary Seacole – Nurse, Healer, Businesswoman (1805 – 1881)
As famous nurses go, Florence Nightingale is always top of the list. Mary Seacole, a half-Jamaican, half-Scottish healer who set up the ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War is always overlooked but she deserves joint top-billing.
In the mid-1850s she made her way to England to offer her nursing services but was laughed out of the room. Undeterred, she paid her own way to the Crimea and her ‘hotel’ near Balaclava was described as ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.’ Nineteenth century soldiers had no welfare support and she offered them a retreat from the battlefront they had never had before.
Eighty thousand people including veterans, politicians and members of the Royal Family attended a Thames waterfront gala in her honour in 1857. In 1991 she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit and in a 2004 BBC poll, she was voted the greatest Black Briton.
Vera Atkins – Intelligence Officer (1908 – 2000)
You’ve heard of Alan Turing and the remarkable work done by him and his colleagues at Bletchley Park cracking the Enigma code and, according to some sources, shortening WWII by two years and saving 14m lives but we bet you’ve not heard of Vera Atkins. She was the woman who made much of Turing’s work possible. She was born in Romania to a Jewish mother and fled to Britain to escape the rise of Fascism. She was a talented linguist and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the branch of British military intelligence conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. It’s also said that she was the model for Miss Moneypenny, M’s secretary in the James Bond films and novels.
At the start of the war, Atkins was part of an undercover mission to evacuate a team of Polish cryptographers who had reverse-engineered the Enigma machine. They went from Poland to Romania, making their way to France and then to Bletchley Park where they taught their British counterparts the cryptanalysis needed to eventually crack the code.
During her time with the SOE, she sent 470 agents abroad and of that number 118 didn’t come home. At the end of the war she joined the British War Crimes Commission to discover what had become of them, establishing how and where they died. She spent a year interrogating hundreds of German officers, soldiers and concentration camp guards, and she managed to determine the fate of all but one.
Would the Bletchley boffins have cracked the code without the help of the cryptographers she smuggled out of Poland? Yes, but it would have taken them far longer. That was thanks to Vera Atkins.
So this is a snapshot of a group of women who changed the course of world history. There are thousands of others equally as deserving of a place on this list – Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosalind Franklin, Florence Nightingale, Marie Stopes, Amelia Earhart, Benazir Bhutto, Valentina Tereshkova, even Cleopatra and Boudicca – but these were the ones we thought you’d like to know a little more about.