Some people were born to be leaders, and our lives are better for it. Where would we be without the brave women who step forward into the spotlight to help light the way? From historical heroes to present-day pioneers, kids should know these women’s names as well as their incredible stories. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are 25 diverse, famous women in history to share with students in your classroom along with links to learn more about each one. We’re feeling inspired!
Along with her Jewish family, Anne Frank hid in a secret annex with four other people throughout World War II until they were discovered and sent to concentration camps in 1944. During this time, 12-year-old Anne kept a journal, which was published by her father, the lone member of the Frank family to survive. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated into nearly 70 languages and is a message of hope, love, and strength in the face of one of the darkest moments in history.
Learn more: Anne Frank
In 1964, Shirley Chisholm became the second Black person to serve in the New York State Legislature. But “Fighting Shirley” also accomplished a lot of “firsts” in her career. Just four years after her service in the legislature, she became the first Black woman to serve in Congress. She went on to become the first Black person and the first woman to run for president of the United States. She was also the first Black woman to serve on the House Rules Committee and even co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Learn more: Shirley Chisholm
Long before there was Mary Kay and Avon, Madam C.J. Walker introduced door-to-door hair and beauty care for Black women. As a result, Walker became one of the first self-made female American millionaires and eventually built an empire of 40,000 brand ambassadors.
Learn more: Madam C.J. Walker
If you’re into the literary arts, you’ve probably heard of Virginia Woolf, but many don’t know her life story. An early feminist writer, Woolf was a survivor of sexual abuse who spoke out about the disadvantages women faced as artists. Her work helped expand women’s access to the heavily male-dominated literary world.
Learn more: Virginia Woolf
Paving the way for future famous women in tennis history like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Coco Gauff, the incredible Lucy Diggs Slowe became the first Black woman to win a national tennis title in 1917. Off the court, she dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights; helped found Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first Greek society for Black women; and eventually went on to serve as the dean of women at Howard University.
Learn more: Lucy Diggs Slowe
After being born without a functioning left hand, Sarah Storey faced a lot of bullying and prejudice growing up. She didn’t let that stop her, though. Instead, she went on to become Britain’s most decorated Paralympian, earning 27 medals, including 17 gold medals, in cycling and swimming.
Learn more: Sarah Storey
Born into a family of eight children, Jane Austen started writing in her teens and went on to become what many consider the original queen of romantic comedies. Her novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are classics, but at the time of their writing, she hid her identity as the author. It wasn’t until after her death that her brother, Henry, shared the truth. Her work continues to be relevant and influential to this day.
Learn more: Jane Austen
The first Black female billionaire, Sheila Johnson built her empire by co-founding Black Entertainment Television (BET). She then went on to become the first Black woman to hold a stake in three professional-level sports teams: the Washington Capitals (NHL), the Washington Wizards (NBA), and the Washington Mystics (WNBA).
Learn more: Sheila Johnson
After flying on the Challenger in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space. She encouraged women and girls to pursue STEM careers, serving as director of the California Space Science Institute, writing children’s books, and collaborating with science programs. Following her death, it was revealed that she’d spent 27 years with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, making her the first-known LGBTQ astronaut. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, which was accepted by O’Shaughnessy. A Barbie doll was created in her honor in 2019.
Learn more: Sally Ride
A former columnist and reporter for the Boston Globe, Jackie MacMullan helped open doors for women in sports journalism. The Hall of Fame basketball writer was awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 for Literary Sports Writing. She retired from ESPN in 2021.
Learn more: Jackie MacMullan
As a glamorous, beautiful film star, Hedy Lamarr made a name for herself during the golden age of Hollywood. Her legacy extends far beyond this, though. Lamarr and composer George Antheil actually developed a system that essentially invented basic GPS technology. Unfortunately, because she wasn’t an American citizen, the woman that many have dubbed “the Mother of Wi-Fi” was left off the patent and was never compensated—but we haven’t forgotten! Her contributions definitely earn her a spot among the most famous women in history.
Learn more: Hedy Lamarr
A pioneering physicist in a male-dominated field, Marie Curie is best known for discovering the elements radium and polonium, coining the term “radioactivity,” and inventing the portable x-ray machine. The Polish-born scientist was also the first person to win two Nobel prizes and remains the only person to win for two different sciences (chemistry and physics).
Learn more: Marie Curie
After choosing to marry her country instead of a man, Elizabeth I referred to herself as “The Virgin Queen.” There were many strikes against her—she was not only a woman, but she was also the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s most-hated wife—but she ascended the throne and became one of the most intelligent and strategic leaders in European history (and one of the most famous women in history!).
Learn more: Queen Elizabeth I
Growing up in a Pakistani village, Malala’s father was a teacher who ran an all-girls school—until the Taliban enforced a ban on girls being educated. At just 15 years old, Malala spoke out against the actions of the Taliban, leading a gunman to shoot her in the head on a school bus. Not only did she survive this horrific attack, but she also emerged as a vocal activist on the world stage and was 17 years old when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
Learn more: Malala Yousafzai
Born into privilege as the child of Lord Byron, a famously romantic but unstable poet, Ada Lovelace went on to make a name for herself as the world’s first computer programmer. A mathematician, she was loved by society and was friends with Charles Dickens. Tragically, she died of cancer at just 36 years old, almost a century before her notes became recognized as an algorithm intended for a computer and software.
Learn more: Ada Lovelace
You can’t make a list of the most famous women in history without this legend! Growing up in Kansas, Amelia Earhart pushed against gender norms. She played basketball, took auto repair courses, and enrolled in college before leaving to pursue a career as an aviator. She earned her pilot’s license in 1921 and became not only the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic but also the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland. During her attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. The wreckage was never found.
Learn more: Amelia Earhart
A Montana Republican, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. She passionately advocated for women’s rights and was among the 50 representatives to vote against entering World War I. This decision, unfortunately, is believed to have cost her reelection two years later.
Learn more: Jeannette Rankin
Elizabeth Anne “Lizzie” Velásquez was born with marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, an extremely rare congenital disease that, among other things, prevents her from gaining weight. After years of being bullied and even called the “World’s Ugliest Woman” in a YouTube video, Lizzie has become an activist, motivational speaker, and author.
Learn more: Lizzie Velásquez
In 1966, after two years of training to run the Boston Marathon, Bobbi Gibb received a letter from the race director informing her that women weren’t physically able to run long distances. She spent four days on a bus from San Diego and hid in the bushes near the starting line on race day. Wearing her brother’s Bermuda shorts and a sweatshirt, she started to run. When it was discovered that she was a woman, the crowds cheered her on and then-governor of Massachusetts John Volpe waited to shake her hand when she crossed the finish line after three hours, 21 minutes, and 40 seconds. A statue of Gibb called “The Girl Who Ran” was unveiled at the Hopkinton Center for the Arts in 2021.
Learn more: Roberta Bobbi Gibb
When she was just seven years old, Edith Cowan’s mother died in childbirth. Eight years later, her father was convicted of murdering his second wife and was executed. This tragic family history led Cowan to become a pioneer for human rights as Australia’s first female member of parliament. There’s a university in Western Australia named after her and her face appears on the Australian $50 bill. If your face is on currency, you definitely belong on this list of famous women in history!
Learn more: Edith Cowan
During World War II, Marion Pritchard risked her own life to protect the Jews. She found ways to sneak food into ghettos, provide fake IDs, and even place infants in non-Jewish homes. She hid a family under the floorboards in her living room when three Nazis and a Dutch collaborator appeared at her door. They’d remained undetected until the collaborator later returned. She shot and killed him to protect the family. In total, it’s believed that Pritchard saved 150 Jews during the Holocaust.
Learn more: Marion Pritchard
At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Soraya Jiménez became the first Mexican woman to win a gold medal at the Games.
Learn more: Soraya Jiménez
In her youth, Frida Kahlo contracted polio and then survived a devastating bus accident when she was 18 years old. Although she spent so much of her early life bedridden in pain, she went on to become one of the most significant, celebrated artists of the 20th century. Her pride and passion for her Mexican heritage, as well as her ongoing health struggles and tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, shaped and influenced her groundbreaking art.
Learn more: Frida Kahlo
Cixi was born to a low-ranking official in the winter of 1835 but received a good education during the Chinese Qing dynasty. In 1851, she was chosen as one of the Xianfeng emperor’s concubines and quickly became a favorite. When the emperor died, she became his successor and is considered the last empress of China. For more than 50 years, she shaped policies, rebellions, and the court of Imperial China, modernizing the country and leaving behind quite a legacy.
Learn more: Empress Dowager Cixi
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School, there were only nine women in the class of 500 students. She graduated after transferring to Columbia Law School, but despite finishing at the top of her class, she couldn’t find a job. She eventually became a law professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963 and focused on gender discrimination. Out of six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as a lawyer, she won five.
Thirty years later, she herself became a Supreme Court justice, having been nominated by President Bill Clinton. On the bench, she worked tirelessly for nearly three decades, where she continued to champion equality and civil rights as she battled recurring health issues and cancer. When she died in September 2020, people around the world mourned the loss of a woman so smart, determined, and fearless that she’d earned the nickname “The Notorious RBG.” She’s a legend among the most famous women in history.
Learn more: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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