From Asia to America, in science, sport, and art – women trailblazers have been leaving their mark for decades. Find inspiration in the stories of these incredible women who meaningfully shaped society and culture for their sisters who came after.
Amelia Earhart quite literally gave wings to women’s dreams in the 1920s. She was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928. She was also the sixth woman ever to earn a pilot’s license during the time. Women in aviation were courageous trailblazers — all heart with wills of steel.
Earhart, who once called fear “paper tigers,” not only broke world records, she did everything in her power to encourage women aviators through “The Ninety-Nines” – a collective of fierce female pilots. In 1937, Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Her disappearance remains a mystery.
Eleanor Roosevelt was never one to draw attention to herself. But despite her quiet ways and petite frame, Roosevelt redefined the role of a First Lady from merely ceremonial to politically engaged. ER — as she was affectionately known — was the first to organize a White House press conference for women reporters only in 1933.
She used her platform to promote causes close to her — especially women’s rights, racial equality, and children’s rights. ER became “First Lady of the World” when her husband’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (1946-51).
Mathematician Grace Hopper is the female tech role model the world needs. She was among the few women to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1934 and became a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. Hopper was the force behind the first fully functional digital computers in the U.S.
In 1952, she completed the first-known compiler – a computer program enabling people to use English-like words instead of numbers. Modern programming languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL depend heavily on Hopper’s research and ideas.
Frida Kahlo – an artist and a revolutionary — is one of the most recognizable faces in the art world. Kahlo did most of her paintings and political writing while bedridden after a horrifying accident crushed her hips and spine. Despite the tragic accident, Kahlo spent her life creating surrealist art inspired by magical realism and her home, Mexico.
She was the first Mexican artist whose works were featured in the Louvre. Kahlo’s life and legacy were bright, bold, and thought-provoking — much like her art.
The glamorous Hedy Lamarr is synonymous with Hollywood’s Golden Age. She rose to fame with the release of the Oscar-nominated “Algers” in 1938. But when she wasn’t on the red carpet, the actor fiercely pursued a second passion – invention.
As WWII raged, reports of the Germans jamming British torpedo signals were making headlines. Lamarr, with composer and former weapons inspector George Antheil, developed a frequency-hopping system, allowing Allied ships to communicate undetected via numerous radio frequencies. A ground-breaking technology that informed wireless technology and how we communicate today.
The attack on Pearl Harbour changed American history, and Naomi Parker wanted to do her bit. She became one of the first women at the Almeda Naval Station machine shop to do things most considered a man’s job — drilling, welding, bucking, and riveting.
In 1942, a photographer took a photo of Parker dressed in overalls and hair pulled back in a polka-dotted bandana while working the machinery. The iconic photograph inspired “Rosie the Riveter” – an allegorical symbol of American feminism and women in the wartime workforce. It was originally a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation with the now-famous phrase, “We Can Do It.”
Historians and readers have a young Jewish girl’s diaries to thank for deep insights into the Holocaust. Anne Frank died in a concentration camp in 1945. In 1947, her father, Otto Frank, who escaped the camps, published his daughter’s incredible diaries – chronicles of her life in hiding.
Anne Frank’s writings gave voice to 6 million people whose lives were brutally silenced. Her story offers glimpses into young people’s experiences and identity struggles that are still prevalent today. This is why people continue connecting with her message.
In 1951, “I Love Lucy” made its television debut, quickly becoming America’s most beloved sitcom, and Lucille Ball became a household name. With complex storylines on marriage (not always perfect) and working women, “I Love Lucy” broke several gender barriers for the time.
As the show’s producer, she proved that women are brilliant both in front of the camera and behind it. Ball co-founded Desilu Productions, a company that produced other classics such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Star Trek.” Ball wasn’t one to bank on luck. For her, "luck" meant recognizing opportunity and working hard for it.
Queen Elizabeth II
In 2022, shortly before her passing away, Queen Elizabeth became the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee – 70 years on the throne and the country’s longest-reigning monarch.
Through social upheavals, recessions, or the will-they-won’t-they chaos of Brexit – the Queen remained a constant anchor. Her work and values are so highly-regarded that even anti-monarchists have little criticism. Ever diligent, present, and mindful of her royal duty, the Queen’s participation in and service to public life was real and tangible.
Rosa Parks made history on December 1, 1955, by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in deeply-segregated Montgomery, Alabama. She had no clue of what was to come.
Her quiet act of defiance inspired Black communities, igniting a 381-day boycott until the city repealed the law on bus segregation. But this was only one of her incredible achievements. She finished high school at a time when that was rare. Parks was already an active member of the NAACP. Her fateful arrest sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." Like her quote, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy in music is all heart and grit. When people call her the “greatest singer on earth,” it is no exaggeration.
The iconic jazz singer overcame a tumultuous family life, financial troubles, and racial discrimination to get where she did. In 1958, she became the first African-American woman to win a Grammy for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance.
Before Serena and Venus Williams, there was Althea Gibson. In 1951, Althea Gibson broke color barriers in tennis by becoming the first African-American player to compete in Wimbledon. The rough-and-tumble Gibson was an unlikely icon for tennis — a sport traditionally reserved for rich, white folks during the ’50s.
Gibson persisted despite growing up in a violent home and having no money, husband, or backing. She won the 1956 French Open title and became the first-African American Wimbledon champion in the tournament's 80-year history. Gibson was also the first to personally receive a trophy from Queen Elizabeth II.
In an era when discussions about women’s healthcare or family planning were taboo, Margaret Sanger dared to introduce the term “birth control.” Sanger was one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s reproductive rights in the early 20th century.
She opened a women’s health clinic and wrote numerous pamphlets to educate the public. Decades of research and effort culminated in her biggest achievement in 1960, when the FDA approved Enovid – the first oral contraceptive.
Rita Moreno is best known for her role in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story.” She became a household name and a regular in Hollywood and Broadway. But the road to stardom was far from easy. Movie stars looked like Elizabeth Taylor, did they not? Moreno’s Puerto Rican heritage seemed to be getting in the way.
Many struggles and epiphanies later, she knew the best course was staying true to herself. Moreno went on to have a seven-decade career, becoming the first Latina to earn an EGOT — an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.
In the 1960s, Dr. Jane Goodall’s ground-breaking research revealed that chimpanzees are complex, social animals capable of making and using tools and feeling emotion. In providing insights into the minds of chimpanzees (our closest relatives), Dr. Goddall upended established understandings of the world and, perhaps, ourselves.
Decades later, she continues her pioneering work – illuminating the relationship between improving human rights and a more compassionate world. One where wildlife and humans can peacefully co-exist.
Indira Gandhi became the third prime minister of independent India in 1966 – the first and only woman PM of the country so far. The formidable Gandhi remained in power for over two decades. Among her progressive reforms were the Green Revolution (an enormously successful agriculture program) and India’s Nuclear Program.
As a complex woman leader, Gandhi was no stranger to controversy, but she ruled with an iron fist. Her undoing came in 1958 when she ordered an attack on militants holed up inside the Golden Temple, a place sacred to the Sikh community. Outraged by the desecration, her two bodyguards assassinated her.
Katherine G. Johnson
Katherine G. Johnson’s story received prominence after the 2016 Academy Award-nominated film “ Hidden Figures.” The film chronicles the achievements of a group of Black women who worked at NASA in the 1960s when this was not an accepted norm. Dubbed “human computers,” Johnson was a math genius who calculated space trajectories by hand, and whose exceptional talents guided Alan B. Shephard’s mission in 1961.
Johnson’s skills helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth. In 1969, she guided Apollo 11 on its trajectory to the moon – arguably among the greatest scientific feats accomplished by the U.S.
Celia Cruz was the undisputed “Queen of Salsa” over her six-decade career. She unabashedly embraced her Cuban heritage at a time when being different could decimate lives and careers. She encouraged many Afro-Latino Americans to celebrate and own their heritage, of which salsa was an intrinsic part.
Cruz’s career took off in 1950 when she teamed up with the popular group “La Sonora Matancera.” Cruz carved her space in the male-dominated salsa music industry, becoming one of the most iconic musicians in Latin America. She was an outspoken critic of Fidel Castro, championing the cause of fellow Cubans suffering under his government.
Shirley Chisholm broke gender and racial barriers throughout her life. The world knows her best for her 1972 Presidential run – the first African-American woman to contest — but Chisholm’s legacy goes beyond. She experienced community activism early on as an educator.
She became a member of the NAACP, the Urban League, and the League of Women Voters. Chisolm made history in 1968 as the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Fittingly dubbed “Fighting Shirley,” she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation in her political career – most centered around rights for children, the poor, and racial and gender equality.
Angela Davis is a prominent writer, educator, activist, and feminist who has been at the forefront of several causes for over 50 years. Davis is one of the leading voices for prison reform and the Black liberation movements. In 1970, the state of California wrongfully imprisoned Davis for her alleged involvement in an armed standoff inside a county courtroom. Authorities released her in 1972, and the undaunted Davis picked up right where she left off.
She founded Critical Resistance — a grassroots organization aiming to abolish the prison-industrial complex. The activist continues advocating for gender, race, and class equality through her writings and community work.
Shonda Rhimes has been inspiring audiences for eons through her nuanced storytelling. She’s the force behind some of our most beloved shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Scandal.”
Rhimes creates worlds where women are in charge. She stays true to her purpose even off-screen. Through her company Shondaland, the acclaimed writer and producer advocates passionately for inclusivity in the entertainment industry. She leads the charge in diverse casting and storytelling and supports female television directors at every turn.
We adored her as Hermione in “Harry Potter.” Not too different in real life, Emma Watson is as much of a bookworm. Watson revealed during an interview that stepping out of Hermione’s shadow was crucial for her growth.
Not only did she succeed, but she’s also become unstoppable! Watson uses her power and privilege for the greater good. She’s a climate change activist and an advocate of women’s rights – truly the role model millennials need. In 2014, Watson was a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and led a gender-equality campaign called #HeForShe – challenging men to stand with women and call out sexism.
Apart from being a fabulous dancer, actor, and singer, Jennifer Lopez is committed to leaving a positive impact. There’s so much more to Lopez than her body of work, impressive as it might be. She’s aware of her success and responsibility as a Latina star.
Lopez hustled her way to stardom. All this, despite the naysayers and the industry perennially objectifying her. She co-founded the Lopez Family Foundation with her sister to provide healthcare to women and children from marginalized communities. She was also the UN Foundation’s first Global Advocate for Girls and Women. The star shows no signs of slowing down!
It’s tough articulating the innumerable ways Amy Poehler inspires the world. She gave us the inimitable Leslie Knope – one of the most iconic TV characters the world has seen. Poehler’s incredible friendship with Tina Fey is #BFFgoals – exemplifying the core message of “Parks and Recreation.” She also supports younger women comedians and produces women-led projects through her organization “Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.”
In essence, Poehler is the very definition of walking the walk. What’s more, she humbly puts her efforts down to just being who she is – a woman and a feminist.
Mariska Hargitay is best known for her flawless portrayal of Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU”. What she should be equally famous for are her compassion and fierce loyalty. Hargitay fights for the safety and support of survivors of violence.
She started the Joyful Heart Foundation to support survivors’ healing by changing how society responds to domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. The ultimate aim is to end – yes, end – the violence forever. Hargitay also produced the HBO documentary “I Am Evidence” on the national backlog of untested rape kits.
Oprah Winfrey overcame more adversity than one can imagine. Her spirit prevailed – taking her from multi-award-winning talk show host to America’s first Black female billionaire. What distinguished Winfrey right off the bat was her generosity and authenticity.
She has never shied away from sharing her fortune. These days, Winfrey shares opportunities instead of giving out cars. She founded the “Angel Network” to assist humanitarian projects and offer grants to non-profits. Winfrey also founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which supports academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in South Africa.
The “Grey’s Anatomy” star famously called out remarks suggesting that her exorbitant pay raise caused two co-stars to be written off the show. A classic sexist tale of pitting one woman against another. Pompeo herself has fought long and hard to get the pay she deserves. When she learned that her co-star, Patrick Dempsey, was paid nearly double the amount she was, Pompeo was determined to demonstrate her worth.
She persevered and secured not only more money but creative freedom. Pompeo continues using her power to fight for equal pay and representation.
Real-life Mindy Kaling possesses equal sass and confidence as her iconic on-screen characters, if not more. It’s hard to tell where Kelly Kapoor ends and Mindy begins — one of the reasons why we love her. Kaling is a feisty brown woman who upended stereotypical portrayals of Indians on TV.
In her wildly successful sitcom “The Mindy Project,” Kaling plays a flawed, sexy, messy, emotional, successful, and hilarious woman, who is unmarried, to boot! Mindy is also a New York Times Bestselling author. In short, a total boss.
She may have risen to fame playing a somewhat ditzy blonde, but Reese Witherspoon is anything but that. Like Elle Woods, there’s much more to Witherspoon than meets the eye. Over the years, she’s emerged as a passionate advocate for diverse female voices in film.
Witherspoon ran a woman-centric production company called “Hello Sunshine” and continues actively working with numerous women's advocacy groups. In 2017, her company produced the critically acclaimed “Big Little Lies,” starring A-listers Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz.
Meghan Markle’s philanthropic work began long before her celebrated marriage to Prince Harry. Markle spoke truth to power at the wee age of 11 when she called out sexist stereotypes in a washing-liquid ad. The voiceover said, “Women are fighting greasy pots and pans.” Markle appeared on TV to say it was wrong for kids to grow up thinking, “Mom does everything.”
Proctor & Gamble changed the voiceover to “people” instead of “women.” There has been no looking back for Markle — from portraying the fiercely independent Rachel in the sitcom “Suits” to serving as a UN Advocate for Women's Political Participation and Leadership.
Kerry Washington earned wide acclaim for her portrayal of Olivia Pope in the ABC hit series “Scandal.” She’s also a gladiator off-screen, frequently advocating for issues like equal pay, affordable healthcare, education, and women’s rights. Whether on-screen or off, her mantra is to ensure people are seen and heard – regardless of who they are.
Washington believes that actors are, by default, activists. Art embodies all the good in humanity and everything people can be if they are inclined to try. Washington pays little heed to thoughtless naysayers who say actors should stick to acting. And the world is better off for it.
From racism to sexism and even ageism – Alicia Keys fought many battles to be who she was. Her fierce authenticity stood out in a world of cookie-cutter pop stars. It won her numerous Grammys, legions of fans, and a coveted judge’s spot on “The Voice.”
Keys is painfully aware of what it’s like to be the only woman in a room. She has received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award. Her feminist anthem, “Girl on Fire,” smashed music charts everywhere. In 2012, Keys freed herself from the pressure to wear makeup.
Aretha Franklin's destiny was greatness. The Queen of Soul had numerous hit songs to her name – classics such as "Chain of Fools," "Rock Steady," and "Respect." She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Her powerful songs not only moved hearts but became anthems of political and social change. Franklin championed civil and women’s rights throughout her life. Her compassion, soulful music, and all-encompassing love influenced many other artists.
Junko Tabei was a mountaineering pioneer who shattered gender stereotypes in her home country Japan and abroad. In 1975, Tabei became the first woman to summit Mount Everest. Before she died in 2016, Tabei joined the elite group of mountaineers who have climbed the “seven peaks” – the holy grail of mountaineering feats.
The seven peaks in question include the tallest mountains in each continent — Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt. Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Vinson in Antarctica, Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea, and Mt. Everest in Asia.
In 2018, a track called “Makeba,” by French singer Jain took over dance floors everywhere. But not many know that the song is about Zenzile Miriam Makeba, a South African singer, civil rights activist, actor, and United Nations goodwill ambassador.
Makeba is a legend in the African continent for using her music to amplify the plight of black South Africans. After moving to the U.S., she met Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor. Her Grammy-winning solo album “An Evening With Belafonte and Miriam Makeba” (1960) was a cry against apartheid and the first album in the U.S. to feature songs in Swahili, Zulu, and Soto.
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister, after a military coup unseated her father’s government. In an unprecedented move, Bhutto pushed for open elections and won. Her career was a landmark moment for women in the Muslim world and new hope in the fight against religious extremism.
Like all political leaders, Bhutto’s legacy was deeply polarizing. Accusations of corruption-plagued her throughout her career, but her efforts to champion democracy will endure. Benazir Bhutto inspired many young people – Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai among them.
Meryl Streep has earned a reputation for doing everything exceedingly well – from breathing and walking to the iconic roles she chooses to portray. Streep is flawless – whether she’s playing a bohemian pop star past her heyday in “Mamma Mia” or a ruthless, exacting boss in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
As if being an Oscar-winning film icon wasn’t enough, Streep is also a fierce spokesperson for gender equality and women’s rights. The star never minces words, calling out sexism in the industry at every turn. Streep has funded workshops for female writers and campaigned relentlessly for equal pay.
In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel on the Challenger shuttle and into space. The astrophysicist beat out over 1,000 NASA hopefuls for a spot in the program. In a period when the world wasn’t fully committed to doing right by its women, Sally Ride inspired countless people and dedicated her life to science, learning, and inclusive spaces.
Ride wasn’t just the only woman in the room, she was also gay. The astronaut kept her sexuality hidden until her last days while battling cancer. She entrusted her surviving partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, to tell the world about it through her obituary.
Sandra Day O’Connor
“This chance will stand before you only once.” One of the many inspirational sayings by the indomitable Sandra Day O’Connor – the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court who held the position for over 20 years. She became one of the most prolific women in U.S. law and politics.
Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, O'Connor won a unanimous vote in the Senate. Justice O’Connor played an instrumental role in upholding landmark cases like Roe v. Wade before things recently came crashing down.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Anyone unfortunate to dismiss Ruth Bader Ginsburg due to her diminutive stature quickly learned things the hard way. “Notorious RBG” was the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.
She doggedly pursued justice for the rights of minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. Justice Ginsburg knew all too well about exclusion. RBG stood her ground against micro and macro levels of sexist aggression throughout her career. She was a legend on the bench and a pop culture sensation.
Amy Tan lost her brother and father to cancer when she was young, and life spiraled out of control. She rebelled against her conservative mother and rejected her Chinese heritage. A trip to China in 1987 changed everything – rekindling half-memories and lost connections.
It inspired her to write “The Joy Luck Club,” which became the longest-running New York Times best-seller in 1989. The book was not only a personal achievement for the author but also told the stories and struggles of an under-represented Asian-American community at the time.
Seer, truth teller, and Nobel-Prize-winning author –Toni Morrison dedicated her life to chronicling the African-American experience. She shot to national fame after her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” in 1970 – a haunting depiction of racial oppression and violence against women.
Morrison also taught literature and creative writing at various colleges. She continued writing beautiful prose about black lives, winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” in 1988. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Depending on who you ask, Elizabeth Taylor is best known for her numerous romantic liaisons, beauty, or incredible screen presence. But Elizabeth Taylor was also a champion for people with HIV AIDS at a time when the stigma around it was all-encompassing.
In 1991, she started the Elizabeth Taylor HIV AIDS Foundation after her close friend, Rock Hudson, passed away from the disease. She was among the few people with the conviction to stand with HIV patients. Neither her fellow stars nor politicians were talking about it.
Tegla Loroupe knew that choosing sports was how she would change the world. She became an elite long-distance runner and the first African-American woman to win the New York Marathon – twice. Loroupe also won the London marathon in 2000 and several half-marathon world titles.
Even as she shattered glass ceilings, Loroupe’s work outside sports began having a lasting impact. She created peace marathons among warring groups in Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan. Laroupe also set up an orphanage and school for children from her hometown in Kenya.
In 1996, President Clinton selected Madeline Albright to represent the interests of the United States in foreign affairs. The appointment made Albright the first female Secretary of State. Albright was an outspoken advocate for human rights. She brokered peace in the Middle East and was one of the few diplomats against the expansion of nuclear weapons.
Albright left a legacy of hope for women, girls, and minorities. From a young girl who fled Nazi aggression in Czechoslovakia to serving in one of the highest diplomatic ranks in the United States – Albright was inspirational.
Figure skater Michelle Kwan is no stranger to picking herself up after falling. Kwan’s star quality burned brightly in an arena with big names like Sasha Cohen and Tara Lipinski.
She is a five-time World Champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist. Kwan was one of the most celebrated figure skaters in the ’90s. Watching her glide through the ice gave many Asian kids hope that they could do the same one day.
Taylor Swift is the most successful singer-songwriter this generation has seen. And she’s a force to be reckoned with outside her music. She fights passionately for equal pay and women’s rights. Her songs resonate deeply with a massive Gen Z and millennial fanbase that idolizes her. From a young age, Swift has been the subject of media scrutiny and biting ridicule from critics and peers alike – but has never backed down.
The artist’s powerful conviction about her craft comes through in her compelling, narrative songwriting style. Swift has sold over 13 million albums and won countless awards to date.
Sherly Swoopes is a WNBA legend AKA the “female Michael Jordan.” A formidable title and well-deserved too. Swoopes was one of the first women signed onto the WNBA. Her career paved the way for other basketball greats, but they continue to have big shoes to fill.
Swoopes is a three-time WNBA MVP, a three-time Olympic gold medallist, and ranks at the top of every conceivable WNBA player list. Since Swoopes joined the WNBA, the number of women players and viewership has undeniably increased.
A story of remarkable firsts — Kamala Harris became the first woman Vice President of the United States on January 20, 2021. She’s also the first South Asian and African American woman to occupy the office.
Harris is a determined fighter who has been breaking gender and color barriers throughout her life. She was the top prosecutor in San Francisco and the first woman to serve as California’s Attorney General. Born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris grew up embracing both cultures while living a proudly American life.