50 women who changed the world

Posted by
Alessia Armenise

Whatever their chosen field - from politics and popstardom to fashion and feminism - Inspirational women have been leaving their mark on the world since time began. In celebration of these inspiring trailblazers - and to mark International Women’s Day this week - we’ve selected our top 50 females who have affected life as we know it in their own personal way…

You might like: 30 Inspirational Female Pioneers from History

Click an image to launch the gallery, and let us know on Twitter or in the comments section below which women on our list you most admire, who you don’t - and who we absolutely should not have missed.

By Anna Pollitt. images: Rex Features/Getty Images

  • Millicent Fawcett

    "A large part of the present anxiety to improve the education of girls and women is also due to the conviction that the political disabilities of women will not be maintained"

    An underrated leader of the suffrage movement, Fawcett dedicated her life to the peaceful fight for women's rights. Married to politician Henry Fawcett, an ardent supporter of women's rights, she enabled him to carry on his work after he was blinded in an accident.

  • Coco Chanel

    "Fashion fades, only style remains the same"

    The daughter of a laundrywoman and a marketstall holder, she worked as a club singer and hat maker before becoming one of the greatest fashion designers the world has ever seen.

  • Queen Elizabeth I

    "I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England"

    The formidable daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth oversaw the defeat of the Spanish Armada during one of the most successful reigns in England's history.

  • Marie Curie

    “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

    Best known for her work on radioactivity, the Polish-French physicist and chemist was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes, the first female professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to be enshrined in France's national mausoleum, the Paris Panthéon, on her own merits.

  • Diana, Princess of Wales

    "Everyone needs to be valued. Everyone has the potential to give something back"

    The well-loved "people's princess" led a Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign to ban landmines and dedicated much of her life to charity work - a work ethic she instilled in her two sons, Prince Harry and future King, Prince William.

  • Emmeline Pankhurst

    "We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers"

    The daughter of an anti-slave campaigner and a passionate feminist, the influential women's rights activist married a socialist lawyer and together they fought for women's rights in the late 19th and early 20th century - a fight she continued with her three daughters after his death. She formed The Women’s Social and Political Union - best known as the suffragettes.

  • Boudicca

    "If you weigh well the strengths of our armies, you will see that in this battle we must conquer or die. This is a woman's resolve. As for the men, they may live or be slaves"

    The British warrior queen led an unprecedented and bloody revolt against the occupying Roman Empire in 61 AD, making her an important cultural icon.

  • Benazir Bhutto

    "Democracy is the best revenge"

    As the 11th prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto was the first woman to head a Muslim state. She ended military dictatorship in the country, and was noted for her battle for women's rights. She was assassinated in a suicide attack in 2007.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft

    “It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men”

    Described as the mother of feminism, the 18th century British writer was best known for her most important work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was the mother of writer Mary Shelley, who would find fame as an author too for her novel Frankenstein.

  • Germaine Greer

    “English culture is basically homosexual in the sense that the men only really care about other men”

    A prominent feminist in the Sixties and Seventies, Greer's seminal text The Female Eunuch argued that traditional family life represses women's sexuality and that male-dominated society teaches women to hate themselves. The book became a best-seller on its release in 1970, and would usher in a new age of the feminist movement.

  • Madonna

    “I'm tough, I'm ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.”

    The imitable and constantly evolving singer has sold more than 300 million records, as well as turning her hand to songwriting, acting, film-directing and producing, fashion designing and writing children's books.

  • Oprah Winfrey

    “Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough.”

    Born to a poor single mother in Mississippi, the phenomenally successful US talk show host and media proprietor is reportedly worth $2.7 billion and is a generous philanthropist.

  • Hillary Clinton

    "In too many instances, the march to globalisation has also meant the marginalisation of women and girls. And that must change."

    Despite originally training and working as a lawyer, Clinton has become a powerful force in US politics. She was appointed head of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform by her newly-elected President husband Bill in 1992, became the first First lady to be a candidate for elected office in 1999 (in the race for New York Senator, which she won and served for two terms), and was named Secretary of State in 2008 by Barack Obama, after narrowly losing out to him as the Democratic Presidential candidate. She has been recognised with numerous awards for her work concerning women, health and children.

  • Jane Austen

    "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like"

    The 19th century romantic novelist is well-loved for her enduring novels such as Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Her style of writing - depicting ordinary people going about every day life - helped to define the modern novel.

  • Helena Rubinstein

    "Hard work keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and spirit"

    The Polish-born make-up entrepreneur emigrated to Australia in 1902 without money or the ability to speak English. She went on to create one of the world’s first cosmetic companies after mixing lanolin, the grease found in merino sheep wool with scented flowers - making her one of the world's richest women in the process.

  • Joan Of Arc

    “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

    A 15th century peasant girl known as a heroine of her native France and a saint to Roman Catholics after leading the French army through great victories during the Hundred Years’ War. She was found guilty of heresy in England at the age of 19 and burned at the stake, although 25 years later Pope Callixtus III, having examined the trial, pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr.

  • Margaret Thatcher

    "If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing"

    Loved and hated in equal measure for her controversial policies, the Linconshire-born Iron Lady is a grocer's daughter who graduated from Oxford University before becoming a research chemist and then a barrister. She became Britain’s first - and, to date, only - female Prime Minister in 1979 and is the country's fifth longest serving leader.

  • Mary Magdalen

    "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts."

    Generally viewed as a prostitute, the Biblical figure was treated with respect by Jesus and in the Gospel of Mark and Luke her devotion to Christ earned her forgiveness for her sins.

  • Mother Teresa

    “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

    A missionary who worked amongst the poorest people in Calcutta, in 1950 she was allowed to form her own order “The Missionaries of Charity”, whose main aim was to look after those who nobody else would look after. She won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, and worked tirelessly until ill health - including two heart attacks, pneumonia and malaria - forced her to step down in March 1997. She died in September the same year.

  • Rosa Parks

    "I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move."

    A pioneer of civil rights in a racially segregated 1950s Alabama, she famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott that crippled the state capital's public transport system.

  • Sappho

    “Stand and face me, my love, and scatter the grace in your eyes"

    The first published female writer, the ancient Greek was honoured by Plato for her great poems.

  • Nancy Wake

    “I was too busy to be afraid”

    The New Zealand-born allied secret agent was nicknamed the "White Mouse" by the gestapo during World War II for her ability to evade capture. A highly decorated hero of the French Resistance, her life inspired the film Charlotte Gray.

  • Katharine Hepburn

    "If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun."

    Noted for portraying strong-willed women in her film roles, Hepburn earned four Academy Awards for Best Actress - the most an actress has ever won. Her non-conformist, masculine style choices helped to make wearing trousers acceptable for women - something previously regarding largely as taboo.

  • Angela Merkel

    "Nobody in Europe will be abandoned. Nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together."

    The first female Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel presides over the largest and most powerful European economy and what is considered to be the third most powerful economy in the world after the US and Japan.

  • Virginia Woolf

    “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”

    Regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century for her revolutionary writing style and incorporation of feminism in her works, notebly her essay A Room Of One's Own, in which she proposed that "a woman must have moeny and a room of her own if she is to write" and theorised on the life of Shakespeare's sister.

  • Aung Sang Suu Kyi

    “In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.”

    Burmese opposition politician Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest at the hands of Burma's military regime for her pro-democracy campaigning, only gaining release in 2010 following an international campaign to she her freed. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with the committee stating "Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades."

  • Condoleezza Rice

    "Power matters. But there can be no absence of moral content in American foreign policy, and furthermore, the American people wouldn't accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we're naive and so on, but we're not Europeans, we're Americans - and we have different principles."

    The former US Secretary of State, voted the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2004 and 2005, drew both praise and criticism during her time as George W. Bush's right-hand woman. A talented musician, she originally set out to be a concert pianist.

  • Billie Holiday

    "No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music”

    Born in 1915, Holiday is generally regarded as the greatest female singer in jazz. Critic John Bush claimed that Holiday "changed the art of American pop vocals forever."

  • J.K. Rowling

    “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default”

    Author of the hugely successful Harry Potter books, Rowling struggled to make ends meet while writing the first work in series, but has now sold more than 400 million copies worldwide and has sparked a global industry incorporating film, merchandise and even a theme park.

  • Simone De Beauvoir

    “One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others”

    The French existentialist philosopher wrote The Second Sex in 1949, an articulate and influential treatise on women's oppression.

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe

    "Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn"

    The American abolitionist authored the controversial anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a tale which spurred many to seek the abolition of slavery.

  • Audrey Hepburn

    “The most important thing is to enjoy your life - to be happy - it's all that matters”

    One of the world’s best known actresses, she possessed an iconic style and characteristically dainty features. Her films include Roman Holiday, Sabrina, My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Later in her life she put her fame to good use by became a UNICEF Ambassador, which saw her travel to countries including Ethiopia, Ecuador and Bangladesh to highlight various causes, and also set a precedent for subsequent stars to follow.

  • George Sand

    “You can bind my body, tie my hands, govern my actions: you are the strongest, and society adds to your power; but with my will, sir, you can do nothing”

    The 19th century French novelist and essayist was a socialist who shocked the high society circles she moved in by wearing male clothing and smoking in public. A socialist, she started her own newspaper, which was published in a workers’ co-operative.

  • Diana Vreeland

    "You gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning. It's a way of life. Without it you're nobody. And I'm not talking about a lot of clothes."

    A hugely important influence on 20th century fashion, the columnist and editor worked for Harper’s Bazaar from 1937 to 1962 and for Vogue from 1963 to 1971. She is credited with discovering Lauren Bacall, Edie Sedgwick, Veruschka -- and with inventing the term 'pizazz'.

  • Cleopatra

    '"I will not be triumphed over"

    Famed for her beauty, the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt had affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony that helped secure Egypt, protecting her country from the Roman Empire for as long as possible.

  • Kathryn Bigelow

    "If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies"

    The US film director became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, with the war film The Hurt Locker.

  • Florence Nightingale

    "I think one's feelings waste themselves in words; they ought all to be distilled into actions which bring results"

    Known as ‘The Lady With the Lamp”, she famously nursed wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. Her dedication altered public perception of the profession and her insistence on sanitary conditions for patients is believed to have saved many lives.

  • Kate Moss

    "Never complain. Never explain."

    A woman of few words but many talents, the Croydon-born supermodel ushered in a new age of modelling in the Nineties with her waifish frame and razor-sharp cheekbones. She overcame turbulent relationships, a 2005 drug scandal and years of hard partying to become a multi-millionaire businesswoman.

  • Anne Frank

    "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart"

    The young Jewish girl's diary of her experiences while hiding from German forces in the Netherlands was published after her death at the age of 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It became one of the world’s most widely read books, and provided a unique, eye-witness account of life during the Holocaust.

  • Catherine The Great

    “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache”

    The 18th century Russian empress was the most powerful woman in the world in her time and is credited with westernising Russia and leading its growth to one of the great powers of Europe. She is also viewed as a man-eater after overthrowing her husband and taking a string of lovers.

  • Queen Elizabeth

    "I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else - I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations."

    During her 6o-year rule of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II has presided over some of the most turbulent times the country has ever seen and has modernised the British monarchy with a quiet dignity - as well keeping Prince Philip largely on the straight and narrow.

  • Mary Quant

    "Fashion is not frivolous. It is a part of being alive today."

    Long before Kate Moss pioneered the "London look", influential fashion designer Quant was shaping the image of the swinging Sixties and is credited with creating the mini-skirt and hot pants.

  • Michelle Obama

    "There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made"

    Raised in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago, she excelled academically and studied at Princeton and Harvard before becoming a lawyer. Considered the most stylish First Lady since Jackie Kennedy, Obama has used her style influence to champion American design labels such as Jason Wu and Thakoon. She also spearheaded a campaign to fight childhood obesity.

  • Wallis Simpson

    "For a gallant spirit there can never be defeat"

    The wealthy American divorcee caused a scandal by becoming the mistress of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, and sparked a constitutional crisis when he abdicated his throne to become her third husband.

  • Indira Gandhi

    “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave”

    The charismatic former prime minister of India for a total of 15 years, Gandhi paved the way for democracy in India until her assassination in 1984.

  • Marie Stopes

    "Each coming together of man and wife, even if they have been mated for many years, should be a fresh adventure; each winning should necessitate a fresh wooing"

    Best known for her achievements in pioneering birth control and sex education in the early 20th century, the British scientist broke barriers by publicly addressing romantic and sexual happiness in marriage through her controversial sex manual Married Love. However, she was also accused of racism and anti-semitism and was reportedly an advocate of selective breeding.

  • Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

    "It's quite a daunting prospect, but hopefully I'll take it in my stride"

    The Duchess of Cambridge as she is now may only be 30 and beginning to get into her role as the newest addition to the Royal family, but she has already made a difference to the way this centuries-old institution is regarded in the 21st Century. The daughter of a former pilot and flight attendant who set up a successful party-planning firm, Catherine's working class roots (her great grandfather was a miner in Durham), good looks and interest in fashion have endeared her to the world's press who hang off the future Queen's every word, and an estimated 2 billion people tuned in worldwide to watch her wedding to Prince William. Catherine has taken on the role of patron to a select group of charities the National Portrait Gallery, East Anglia's Children's Hospice and Action on Addiction.

  • Billie Jean King

    “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem.”

    The US tennis legend has won 20 Wimbledon titles, fought for equal prize money for male and female players and in 1973 famously beat Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon men's singles champion, for a $100,000 prize in a match dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes" after he taunted her that men were superior athletes.

  • Tracey Emin

    "I never grew up"

    The outspoken, party-loving, Margate native shook up the male-dominated British art scene in 1999 with her infamous My Bed installation, an unmade bed strewn with used condoms, dirty underwear, cigarette butts and booze bottles. It earned her a Turner Prize nomination and was a springboard to a successful career.

  • Amelia Earhart

    "Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others."

    In 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and in 1935 was the first pilot to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Embarking on a lifelong dream to fly around the world in 1937, her plane disappeared and she was never seen again.