7 remarkable women who defied the odds to make history

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From Greta Thunberg to Brigid Kosgei and Christina Koch – this International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the individual achievements that have given us hope in an overwhelming world.

Struggling to focus on the positives this International Women’s Day? Granted, 2020 hasn’t got off to the best of starts (and, yes, we know it’s only March) but in the spirit of 2020’s theme, #EachforEqual, we think it’s important to celebrate the individual achievements – or as the IWD 2020 campaign calls it, the “collective Individualism” – that reminds us of how far we’ve come. And, simultaneously, how far we still have left to go.

Who could forget Serena Williams’ extraordinary return to the Wimbledon Championships just 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, following a traumatic labour that threatened her life in 2017? Or what about Greta Thunberg: the David against the Goliath of climate change denial?

The world may seem overwhelming right now, but to keep that wave of inspiration going, we’ve rounded up seven remarkable women who defied the odds - sexism, poverty, illness and injustice - to make history.

1. Serena Williams

Serena Williams plays at Wimbldeon
Williams almost died giving birth but came back better than ever.

Where to even start with this powerhouse athlete? Serena Williams has won more major singles titles than any man or woman in the Open Era. She holds the record for Grand Slam singles titles on hard court (13), the most women’s major singles matches (349), among many others. 

Williams was also the highest-paid woman in sport in 2016 and 2017, when she was the only woman on Forbes’s list of top salaries among athletes.

We could go on and on about her achievements - and a special mention should go to her sister, Venus, for sharing many of her world records - but Williams, 38, is also known for her incredible comebacks after adversity.

In 2017, she nearly died giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia, after a pulmonary embolism and emergency c-section. The delivery left her bedridden for six weeks.

But despite ongoing health complications, she was soon back on the court, returning to Grand Slam tennis at the 2019 French Open. 

2. Professor Karen Uhlenbeck

Karen Uhlenbeck. Image: Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study
The American mathematician became the first woman to win the Abel Prize.

In March 2019, this “maverick mathematician” became the first woman to win the Abel Prize, often called the Nobel prize for mathematics. 

Professor Karen Uhlenbeck won the prestigious award from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for her “pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems”, leading to “revolutionary advances” at the intersection of maths, physics and geometry. (No, we don’t know either.)

The 77-year-old pioneer spent more than two decades as a professor at the University of Texas, in Austin, where she became known as a pioneer for encouraging women to study maths and science. 

She co-founded the Women and Mathematics program in 1993, and said that it was her work in education, rather than maths, that gave her the most pride. 

3. Christina Koch

Christina Koch: astronaut
The US astronaut set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman.

Christina Koch is living her best life about 250 miles above Planet Earth, on the International Space Station. 

Every day, she sets a new world record.

The 40-year-old astronaut and engineer is the woman who has spent the longest continuous time in space - a record-breaking 328 days - beating Peggy Whitson who previously held it with 288 days.

Last October, she and Jessica Meir participated in the first all-female spacewalk.

By the end of her mission next month, Koch will have spent a mind-boggling 328 days in space.  

She told Space“I like to think of the record as not so much about how many days you’re up here, but what you bring to each day, so [it is] another great reminder to just bring your best.”

4. Brigid Kosgei

Kipchoge, Kosgei and Prince Harry
Kosgei poses with Prince Harry and fellow marathon winner Eliud Kopchoge.

This super-runner smashed the world marathon record in Chicago last October, with a time of 2 hours 14 minutes and 4 seconds. That’s nearly 1.5 minutes quicker than the previous record-holder, Paula Radcliffe – and she even told reporters that she could run faster. No wonder Radcliffe told The Guardian that it was a bittersweet moment for her. Kosgei, from Kenya, was only 25 at the time. 

Kosgei has attributed her ambitious spirit and record-breaking prowess to her difficult childhood as one of seven children growing up a single-parent household, jogging to her primary school every day. Her medals don’t lie: Kosegi has finished in the top two in eight out of the nine marathons she has run and also won the Chicago Marathon in 2018.

When she won the London Marathon in 2019, she became the youngest woman to ever do so. 

Kosgei now holds the world record for women running in a mixed-sex race. 

5. Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern
At 37, Ardern became New Zealand's youngest head of state since Edward Stafford.

She’s been called a leader for our times – and for good reason. When Jacinda Ardern took office in New Zealand in October 2017, she became the world’s youngest female head of state. The following September, she made history by becoming the first woman to bring her baby into the U.N. assembly, trailblazing for working mothers everywhere. 

But you may be surprised to learn that Arden – now regarded as one of the most powerful women in the world – began her career here in the UK as the former policy adviser to Tony Blair focuses on tackling housing and social inequality.

Arden has never been afraid to stand up and speak her mind, even if that means critiquing US gun laws in order to push the dialogue into a new direction. In 2019, New Zealand was rocked by one of the worst atrocities in its history: the Christchurch mosque mass shootings. 

Ardern was widely praised for leading the country through the aftermath and introducing stricter gun laws in response. 

6. Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg showed her frustration during her speech at the UN's climate summit
Greta Thunberg showed her frustration during her speech at the UN's climate summit

In 2019, Greta Thunberg, became Time magazine’s youngest ever Person of the Year. She was described by the American weekly news magazine as the “unlikely teenager” that “somehow got the world’s attention.”

She got our attention alright. The Swedish 16 year old spent the year sailing to global climate summits and imploring world leaders to act on the crisis - and her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York made headlines around the world. 

She has inspired a new wave of green activism among young people around the world, and when she addressed the Davos economic conference this year, she spoke for every passionate teenager when she levelled with the global political elite: “Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour.”

Thunberg’s scathing attacks haven’t escaped the notice of President Donald Trump – and her witty Twitter clapbacks have got her even more acclaim. Who could forget her swift response to Trump’s jibe that she had an “anger management problem” in 2019? Thunberg quickly changed her Twitter bio and the world applauded. “A teenager working on her anger management problem,” it read.

7. Marta Viera da Silva

Marta has been named world player of the year six times.

If the 2019 Women’s World Cup was a watershed moment for women’s football, then Marta Viera da Silva was the tidal wave.

The Swedish-Brazilian forward, widely described as the best female player of all time, became the leading World Cup goalscorer of all time, overtaking the male German striker Miroslav Klose. 

The 33 year old took the title with a penalty against Australia in the 27th minute - her 16th goal during a World Cup. 

Marta has been named FIFA world player of the year six times. Known for her pace and striking ability, she has also been compared to Ronaldinho. But she has also made waves off the pitch, especially when it comes to empowering young girls to take up the sport. When Brazil were knocked out of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Marta made an impassioned speech to the cameras, imploring Brazilian girls to value women’s football more, to “cry at the beginning so you can smile at the end”. The interview went viral on Twitter. 

philosophy is the wellbeing beauty brand inspiring you to look, live and feel your best and is the official partner of Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards 2020.

Images: Getty

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