11 remarkable women who changed the world in the last decade

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As we bid farewell to the 2010s, we salute the women who defined an integral decade in the fight for equality, feminism and women’s rights.

If the noughties was characterised by the dawning of a new millennia filled with hope (and a black president finally entering the White House), then the 2010s was the decade when society was forced to wake up, speak up and take action.

The arrival of big tech, alongside the rise of fourth-wave feminism, Netflix and the increasingly divisive political landscape of the second-half of the decade (think Brexit and President Donald Trump), brought the opportunities and urgency we needed to make our voices heard. And these women did exactly that; whether they were campaigning for action on the climate crisis, redefining what it means to be royal, standing up against powerful male abusers in Hollywood, pioneering a new way to tell the stories that deserve to be heard or writing empowering lyrics extolling the virtues of self-love.

While progress may have felt slow (or, let’s face it, non-existent) at times, let’s not forget that in 2010 abortion was illegal across Irelandclimate change was largely ignored and the balance of power was very much tipped in the opposite direction. We have come a long way in 10 short years – and women have led the charge.

As we bid farewell to an integral decade in women’s history, we salute those who were at the forefront of the ongoing fight for a fairer world. 

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai has triumphed over extreme adversity this decade

In 2012, at the age of just 14, Malala Yousafzai suddenly became a household name. She had been campaigning for girls’ education in her home country of Pakistan since she was 12, when she boarded a bus to take her to school. Malala wouldn’t make her lessons that day, because on that short journey she was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out.

Having been airlifted to Britain for life-saving medical treatment, Malala quickly became a symbol of strength, bravery and defiance – an activist for the rights of girls the world over. Eight years on, and now 22, she is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize; her memoir, I Am Malala, has sold almost two million copies worldwide and a degree from Oxford University is imminent. 

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, the investigative journalist behind Serial 

We have Sarah Koenig to thank for our obsession with podcasts. She’s the investigative reporter who introduced us to binge-worthy true crime via our smartphones with her groundbreaking 2014 This American Life podcast, Serial

The gripping first series of the multi award-winning audio show, which has now notched up 175 million downloads, told the story of US man Adnan Syed who was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for the murder of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee. He maintains his innocence, and his case continues to make headlines today with a recent appeal for a retrial rejected by the Supreme Court just last month.

Thanks to Sarah, podcasts now provide a much needed form of escapism and a connection to the wider world – along with an opportunity to listen to unreported stories that matter.

Meghan Markle

Meghan Markle has experienced sexism and racism since marrying into the British royal family

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s Windsor wedding was one of the defining news stories of the decade. But the newly-anointed Duchess of Sussex could never have envisaged the disgusting daily tirade of racism and sexism she later would suffer at the hands of the tabloid press as she walked down the aisle to marry Harry in May 2018. 

Former Suits actress Meghan has used her new found status to speak out about issues such as abortion and gender violence. Yet her admission that she’s not OK in a candid TV interview earlier this year resonated the most. Women on Twitter stood with her using the hashtag #WeLoveYouMeghan. They included a cross-party group of female MPs who came together to write an open letter of support to the Duchess. Her words served as an essential reminder that looking out for – and listening to – each other is vital whoever you are.

The Women Of #MeToo

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey were awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for their Weinstein invesigation

In 2016, New York Times journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor published their explosive investigation into sexual harassment claims against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Within days the reporters, and the women who risked their reputations to courageously speak on the record for their exposé, had sparked a global movement. Suddenly millions of people were speaking out against sexual assault and harassment using activist Tarana Burke’s hashtag #MeToo.

Since then, 80 women (including Ashley Judd, Cara Delevingne, Lupita Nyong’o and Rose McGowan) have accused Weinstein of abuse. Twohey and Kantor have won the Pulitzer Prize for their investigation and prominent predatory abusers have been called to account for their actions. Weinstein will stand trial on five counts of sexual assault against two women in Manhattan next year. He denies all allegations and charges.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Phoebe Waller Bridge's shaggy pixie crop
We have Phoebe Waller-Bridge to thank for Killing Eve and Fleabag

The 2010s just wouldn’t have been the same without the woman who brought us Killing Eve and Fleabag: Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Not only does everything the writer/producer/actress/all-round genius touch turn to TV gold (and become the only thing we can talk about), but she’s repeatedly stolen our hearts with her characteristic wit and, perhaps most importantly, her refusal to be anything else but herself.

The good news is 2020 will bring us even more from Waller-Bridge because she’s been busy jazzing up the latest James Bond script. Oh, and recently signed a $20 million deal with Amazon Prime. We. Cannot. Wait.

Margaret Atwood

margaret atwood

Margaret Atwood turned 80 in 2019. Her work is arguably more relevant now than ever before

Canadian author Margaret Atwood turned 80 this year. Her career has spanned five decades, but her work is perhaps more poignant now than ever before. 

The Handmaid’s Tale, her 1985 dystopian novel set in Gilead – a near-future version of North America in which the Constitution has been overthrown and women’s rights and identities have been stripped away – became an almost prophetic Emmy-winning TV drama set against the very real backdrop of the Trump White House’s assault on abortion, women’s health and feminism. Its sequel, The Testaments, has also quickly cemented itself as essential reading for a new generation of female activists. 

Lizzo

Lizzo's festival performances have been full of self-love wisdom

While Beyonce had us vying for Glastonbury tickets and Taylor Swift’s Thanksgiving parties became the stuff of legend, latecomer Lizzo was – without a doubt – the breakout popstar of the decade. 

The singer, rapper and flautist’s feel-good tunes and lyrics extolling the virtues of self-love were the soundtrack we desperately needed when the world got a bit, well, bleak. She twerked her way through epic sets at Coachella and Glastonbury, won awards aplenty, brought some much needed body positivity to Instagram and taught us all to take life a little bit less seriously. All this and her 80s earworm Juice was only released in January… 

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg says Trump is terrified of people like her bringing change

The climate crisis was largely ignored until 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg refused to be silenced on the issue. Her protest started small: she abstained from school for 20 days in the run up to the Swedish general election in August 2018 to sit outside the country’s parliament building clutching a homemade sign that read: ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ or ‘School strike for the climate’. 

Since then, she has inspired a global movement among young people, addressed the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos (whom she urged to wake up and realise their “house is on fire”) and been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. All the while she has faced down critics, like President Trump, who refuse to believe that we are at a crucial juncture for the future of our planet. Her individual stand against climate injustice continues.

The Women Who Fought To Decriminalise Abortion In The Republic Of Ireland and Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland abortion

Abortion has now been decriminalised across Ireland

Rewind to 2010 and the very notion that abortion could be decriminalised in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by the end of the decade may have seemed unthinkable. Especially to the women having to travel to England, Wales or Scotland to receive a legal termination or risk a prison term for ordering abortion pills online. 

The Assembly of Ireland voted to grant its citizens the right to safe, legal abortions by a landslide in 2018. Then women in Northern Ireland were finally given bodily autonomy too, as abortion (and same-sex marriage) finally became legal in October 2019.

A truly momentous occasion made possible by the thousands of Irish and northern Irish women who tirelessly marched and campaigned for women’s reproductive rights for decades.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went from waiting tables to representing the Bronx in Congress

To say Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC as she has become known) has disrupted the political landscape would be an understatement. For a start, the left-wing Latina from the Bronx began her 2018 campaign for US Congress while waiting tables at a taqueria in New York City, “operating out of a paper grocery bag hidden behind the bar”. 

Now in office, the freshman congresswoman has continued to do things her way, whether that’s pushing forward with policies she believes in, exposing the suffering of migrant womengrilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or having no time for racist rhetoric from the President.

Sheryl Sandberg

sheryl sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg launched the Lean In philosophy, now she wants women to try it in their relationships.

The 2010s were all about big tech and there was one woman who was at the helm from the start: Sheryl Sandberg. She started the decade by joining Facebook’s board as COO, the first woman to do so. Then her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead, a manual for advancement at work, became a bestseller as she encouraged us all to speak up in the boardroom and called on men, and companies, to do their bit to help women climb the career ladder. 

Sheryl was dealt a huge personal blow in 2015 when her husband died suddenly while on a family holiday in Mexico. She dealt with the heartbreak with her signature honesty and openness; penning a beautiful essay on grief that resonated with many who had lost a loved one unexpectedly. “There is no end to grief … and there is no end to love,” she wrote, reminding us all about the power of kindness and compassion at life’s lowest ebbs.

Images: Getty.

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