From ancient times right up to the modern day women have been achieving great things and have changed the course of History.
Yet they do not always get the recognition that they deserve. Here are fifteen (in no particular order) of our favourite, inspirational women throughout time who have had a positive impact and changed the world we live in.
Looking for more women in History? You can find another fifteen inspiring women through time here.
1. Anne Frank
Anne Frank was a German born Jewish girl who was forced to go into hiding, along with her family in Holland, during the second world war. She started recording her feelings and experiences of the war in June 1942, at just thirteen years old. Anne spent just over two years hiding in an attic space in her father’s office building, along with seven other people.
In August 1944 the hiding place was discovered, and all the hidden people were arrested by the Nazi’s. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp where they were put to work. Anne, along with her sister Margot stayed at Auschwitz for only a few months before being transferred to a different concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. In early 1945 a typhus epidemic spread through the camp, killing over 15,000 people, including Anne and Margot.
Anne’s father, Otto, was the only member of the Frank family to survive the concentration camps and was presented with Anne’s diary after the war. Upon reading it, he decided to get it published. The diary was first published in 1947 in Amsterdam. Since then, the diary has been published in around 70 different languages and has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
2. Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is a primatologist and is considered to be the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees. Throughout her childhood she always had a love of nature, wildlife and conservation and this grew as she entered adulthood.
In 1960 she began a study on the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Her ground-breaking research taught us many new things about chimpanzees, including their diet and how they interact with each other.
Since then, she has set up numerous programmes to educate people about wildlife and conservation issues. In 2002 she was named a UN Messenger of Peace and at the age of 86 is still actively involved in her environmental mission.
3. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in New York during the 1790s. During her time as a slave, she was bought and sold four times, was forced to carry out physical labour and was subjected to violent punishments. In 1815 she met another slave who she had five children with.
In 1826 (a year before New York’s law feeing slaves came into effect) she fled, along with her infant child, but had to leave her other children behind due to a loophole in the slavery law, where they were required to serve until their twenties. Later she found out that her five year old son had been illegally sold on to someone in Alabama. In 1828 she went to court to recover her son and became the first black woman to win a case of this nature against a white man.
In 1851 she started a tour of lectures on women’s rights. During this tour she delivered her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech and challenged the ideas of the time on racial and gender inequality.
4. Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 and was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron. Her parents separated when she was a baby. She had an unusual upbringing where her mother encouraged her to pursue her interest in mathematics and logic.
When she was a teenager, her mathematical talents led her to a long working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, who is known as "the father of computers". In 1840 Charles Babbage was invited to give a lecture in Italy about the analytical engine he had developed. Ada was asked to translate a transcription of Babbage’s lecture into English. She wrote the translation and with added notes, which she spent almost a year writing. Ada’s comprehensive version of these notes were published in 1843 into Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initials AAL.
In her notes, Ada Lovelace wrote about the differences between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines. She noted the engines ability to solve problems of any complexity. Based on this work Ada Lovelace is now widely considered to be the first computer programmer and her work is recognised as the first computer program.
5. Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to go into space. She was born on 6th March 1937 in a small village to the North East of Moscow.
Valentina worked in a textile factory and at the same time trained as a competitive parachuter. After Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, she volunteered for the Soviet space program. Although she did not have any experience as a pilot, she was accepted into the program because of her 126 parachute jumps. At the time, cosmonauts had to parachute from their capsules seconds before they hit the ground on returning to Earth.
On 16th June 1963 Valentina Tereshkova launched in Vostok 6 and became the first and youngest (at 26 years old) woman in space. After an error in the spacecraft’s automatic navigation software, which she noticed and repaired she was able to land safely back on Earth.
She never flew in space again but became a test pilot and instructor. She earned a doctorate in technical sciences and remains active in the space community.
6. Jane Austen
Jane Austen is famous for the novels that she wrote about the gentry during the 18th century. Her books use a combination of realism and humour to explore the roles of women at the time and their need for marriage to pursue a particular social standing and security.
She was born in Hampshire on 16th December 1775. Her father was a clergyman and she had seven siblings. She had a varied and education and from the age of around eleven she wrote poems and stories for the amusement of both herself and her family.
Jane Austen wrote a total of six novels, including Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and most famously Pride and Prejudice.
Her novels were originally published anonymously and only brough Jane Austen moderate success during her lifetime. Jane Austen died in 1817 and it was only after her death that the novels were republished under her name, have become famous and have inspired a number of films.
7. Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan and is an activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her father, also an educational activist, gave her the same opportunities and education that a boy would have, despite this not being usual in Pakistan.
In January 2009 she started a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym, her blog spoke what life was really like for everyday people under the Taliban rule. Only a few weeks later the Taliban banned girls from going to school and destroyed over 100 girls’ schools. She started to speak out publicly about what was happening and in February schools reopened for girls until their exams in March.
She carried on speaking out about the rights of girls’ education and became more and more well known. She received regular death threats, which were delivered to her home and posted on Facebook, where she was an active user.
On 9th October 2012 Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala was rushed to hospital where the bullet was successfully removed. She was transferred to a hospital in Birmingham where she was in a coma until 17thOctober. She remained in hospital until January 2013 and underwent numerous surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
After joining her family in their new home in the UK she continued with her mission -to fight until every girl can go to school. Malala was recognised for her work and in December 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since then, as well as setting up a fund to fight poverty, wars, child marriage and gender discrimination, she has carried on with her own education and graduated from Oxford University in 2020.
Sappho is thought to have been born around 630 BC on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Little is known about her personal life, but she is famous for her lyrical poetry.
The poetry that she wrote was very popular in Ancient Greece. This poetry was written to be sung and accompanied by a lyre. She is sometimes referred to as ‘The Poetess’, just as Homer is sometimes referred to as ‘The Poet’. She wrote many different poems and often inspired other poets at the time. Unfortunately, most of her work has since been lost and mostly only fragments of her poems survive, with one or two exceptions, such as the Ode to Aphrodite.
Her poetry is still widely studied now and a type of verse, known as a Sapphic stanza, is named after her. A sapphic stanza consist of four lines, the first three contain eleven syllables and the last one contains five syllables. This type of verse was very popular with the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans.
9. Mary Anning
Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis. She was a palaeontologist and fossil collector. She was born into a relatively poor family, her father, who earnt his living as a cabinet maker, was also an amateur fossil collector.
From around the age of five years old Mary went out along the beaches round Lyme Regis with her father, looking for fossils. This was a very unusual activity for young girls at the time. She learnt how to look for the fossils, extract them from the rocks and clean them.
Mary did not have any formal education, like most girls in the Georgian era. However, she was able to read and took it upon herself to learn geology and anatomy.
During her time fossil hunting she found many controversial and previously unknown specimens including the first Ichthyosaur, which she painstaking excavated when she was only 12 years old; a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur and a jumble of bones of a winged creature, later called a Pterodactyl.
Despite her growing success and fame and fossil hunting and collecting the scientific world refused to give Mary credit for her work, simply because she was a woman. Throughout her life she continued to unearth fossils, many of which she sold, and many ended up in museums, which increased the interest of the public in the areas of geology and palaeontology.
Mary died from cancer in 1847. Many of her finds are still on display today in museums such as the Natural History Museum in London.
10. Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale is also known as ‘the lady with lamp’ and is most famously associated with being the founder of modern nursing.
She was born in 1820 in Florence, Italy to a wealthy British family. She was named after her place of birth. From a young age Florence showed an interest in caring for people, however her parents forbade her from pursuing a career in nursing, as this was not a suitable calling for a rich Victorian woman.
Florence went against her parents wishes and in 1844 she enrolled as a nursing student in Germany. During her time working as a nurse she significantly improved hygiene practices in the hospitals, which lowered death rates. During the Crimean war she worked in a military hospital in Constantinople, again she instigated cleaning protocols to improve hygiene in the hospital. She spent every waking minute caring for the soldiers. In the evenings she would walk through the dark hospital carrying a lamp while making her rounds, caring for each patient. This led to the soldiers in the hospital calling her “the Lady with the Lamp.”
By the end of her career she had set up a nursing school, numerous hospitals and written a book called “Notes on Nursing” which became a fundamental part of the curriculum on nursing courses.
11. Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she was born in 1533 and was Queen of England from 1558 until her death in 1603.
She was known as the ‘virgin queen’ because she refused to be pressured into marriage, never had children and is often said to have been ‘wedded to the country’.
Queen Elizabeth ruled for almost 45 years, during her reign she accomplished many great feats including reducing religious tension within England, defeating the Spanish Armada, holding her own in the male dominated parliament of the Tudor period and surviving numerous plots and rebellions.
Her reign is sometimes known as the ‘golden age’ because of the peace and prosperity that she brought to England during that time. When Elizabeth I she was an immensely popular monarch and many of the people mourned her.
12. Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly was an American Journalist who gained fame after completing a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. This trip was a race against the fictional character Phileas Fogg, who took 80 days to travel around the world in the novel by Jules Verne.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born on May 5, 1864. Her family owned a lucrative mill in Cochran, Pennsylvania. At the age of six her father died, and her mother struggled to maintain the land, house and finances for the family. Due to the family’s financial crisis, she was unable to finish her education and instead spent her time helping her mother to run a boarding house.
In 1885 she was offered a job for a newspaper called the ‘Pittsburgh Dispatch’, after sending in an irate letter in response to an article about the role of women. The editor was so impressed that he gave her a job as a reporter, and she started using the pen name ‘Nellie Bly’. During her journalism career she worked for various newspapers and was the first person to report using what is now known as investigative journalism, where a journalist pretends to be someone else in order to get inside information on a subject or organisation.
She died in 1922 in New York City, aged 57 years old.
13. Alice Owen
Alice was born to Islington landowner Thomas Wilkes and his wife in 1547, the same year that King Henry VIII died.
When Alice was a young girl she was out in the fields near Islington, these fields were commonly used for boys and young men to practice archery. There were said to be somewhere in the region of 160 targets of differing heights and distances from each other. Alice narrowly escaped with her life when a rogue arrow pierced through the hat she was wearing. She was so startled that she declared that if she lived to be a Lady, she would erect something on that very spot to commemorate the great mercy shown by God in that moment.
During her life Alice was married (and widowed) three times and as blessed with many children from these unions. It wasn’t until after the death of her third husband, Thomas Owen, that Alice was able to fulfil the vow she made all those years ago, after the ‘arrow in the hat’ incident.
Alice purchased an area of land in the Southern area of Islington and built alms houses on the which were ‘for the dwelling of ten poor widows’. After this she began her next project which was to build a school and a chapel in the same area, in order to teach the sons and daughters of the poor living in the area.
Alice ensured that the school would have enough funding by leaving money in her will specifically for that purpose. This turned out to be very important as the school was not opened until after Alice’s death in 1613. The school has been open since this date and although has since moved locations is still recognised as one of the oldest schools in the country.
14. Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei was born in 1939 in Fukushima, Japan. She was a mountaineer, author and a teacher. She became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975 and was also the first woman to ascend the seven summits, climbing the highest peak on every continent.
Junko began mountain climbing at the age of 10 years old. She loved the non-competitive nature of climbing as well as the stunning landscape views from reaching the top a mountain.
In order to be able to climb Everest Junko needed to find sponsorship, which was difficult as many people believed that women should not be climbing mountains. Luckily, she managed to get sponsorship from a newspaper and television channel. She taught piano lessons in order to help pay for her trip and saved money by making some of her own protective equipment, including making waterproof gloves out of a car cover, and trousers from curtains.
Her journey to the summit was not easy and included members of her team getting altitude sickness, crossing a thin ridge of ice and getting buried under an avalanche (which she needed to be rescued from). However, despite all this on 16th May 1975 she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest
15. Sophie Blanchard
Sophie Blanchard, also known as Madam Blanchard, was born in 1778 and became a famous balloonist during the early 1800s.
She was married to the ballooning pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Sophie Blanchard was not the first woman to ascend in a balloon, but is the first known woman to work as a professional balloonist.
She made her first ascent in a balloon in December 1804. The couple struggled with their finances and thought that a female balloonist could provide enough of a novelty to solve their money problems.
In 1809 Jean-Pierre Blanchard was killed from injuries he sustained after falling out of his balloon. Sophie continued to make ascents, specialising in night flights, often staying aloft all night. She carried out experiments with parachutes as her husband had, parachuting dogs, and launching fireworks from her balloon.
She became a favourite of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII of France, who bestowed upon her official aeronaut appointments.
Ballooning was a dangerous occupation and on more than one occasion she lost consciousness in the balloon, crashed and almost drowned. In 1819 she became the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident, when the fireworks she launched ignited the gas in her balloon, sending her falling to her death.
Want to see another fifteen women who made history? Check out our second article here.