Inspirational women of the 1990s

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Anna Brech
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Ah, the 90s. This decade of dangerous style and dodgy music was home to some incredible women, with entrepreneurs, writers, singers and politicians all lining up to break records and taboos with an abundance of flair and talent.

Take Martha Lane Fox, who cashed in on the power of the internet early by launching in 1998. Or punk rock band Bikini Kill, who kick-started a new wave of feminism. Then there's the SATC girls, who revolutionised the way sex and relationships were discussed on TV, and Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State.

From cultural icons to sporting legends and political trailblazers, here are 40 inspirational women of the 1990s...

Have we missed out your favourite 90s icon? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below or on Twitter

Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images, Words: Anna Brech

  • Betty Boothroyd

    "I like a robust parliament, the cut and thrust of debate. Silence in the House is neither golden, realistic nor democratic."

    Baroness Boothroyd, OM, was elected the first (and to date, the only) female Speaker of the House in 1992. "Madam Speaker" as she became known, was a respected and popular figure who took to miming a yawn if over-zealous MPs went on speaking for too long.

    She once famously switched off Ann Widdecombe’s microphone when she felt her argument was going off topic.

  • Helen Fielding

    "I will not fall for any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomanics, chauvists, emotional fuckwits or freeloaders, perverts."

    Not since the days of Jane Austen has a lead literary character resonated as much with the reading public as Helen Fielding's creation Bridget Jones did in 1996. Her book Bridget Jones's Diary hit home instantly with millions of women, who pounced on this chain-smoking, neurotic thirty-something heroine who fell out of taxis and in love with unsuitable men.

    "Finally!" we cried. "A woman we can relate to."

  • Mae Jemison

    "Don't accept other people's limitations as being reality. Understand that you have as much right as anyone else to be in this world, and to be in any profession you want. You don't have to wait for permission."

    NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

    "The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown," she recalled. Mae later retired from NASA and founded her own science technology company, as well as making a guest appearance on an episode of Star Trek.

  • Marjorie Scardino

    "If we want to help people across society make the most of their lives, we've got to reflect it. We need to add more diversity and we're going to be working very hard to achieve this."

    American Dame Marjorie Scardino soared her way through the glass ceiling in 1997, by becoming the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 company - publisher Pearson. She made it a priority to visit as many of the company's 40,000 staff as possible and invested heavily in the company's educational output.

    By the time she left 15 years later, she was one of the longest-serving FTSE 100 bosses and also Britain's highest-paid female director.

  • Madeleine Albright

    "I have to tell you, my seven-year-old granddaughter said to my daughter, her mother, 'So what's the big deal about Grandma Maddy having been Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretaries of State.' Most of her lifetime, it's true. But at the time it really was a big deal."

    In 1996, Madeleine Albright was sworn in as the first female US Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in government at that time. She played a central role in driving US policy during the Bosnian war and was also heavily involved in the Middle East peace process.

    At the end of the decade she became one of the highest level Western diplomats to meet Kim Jong-il, the late and elusive leader of North Korea.

  • Ab Fab's Eddy and Patsy

    "Darling, if you want to talk bollocks and discover the meaning of life you're better off just downing a bottle of whisky. At least that way you're unconscious by the time you start to take yourself seriously!"

    When Eddy and Patsy first hit our screens in 1992 they changed the face of TV for good. The Stoli-glugging, chain-smoking duo were the anti-heroines of the small screen and we loved them for it, sweetie dahling!

  • Bikini Kill

    "What I’ve heard from younger women and women my age is that the albums changed their lives or it was the first time they had heard feminism that they could relate to"

    Punk rock group Bikini Kill was the pioneer of underground feminist movement Riot grrrl that swept across the American Northwest in the mid-90s. It put feminism back on the agenda with hard-hitting lyrics that addressed issues of rape, domestic abuse, misogyny and female empowerment.

    As vocalist Kathleen Hanna explained, "I felt really scared that the next generation of women was going to believe this lie that feminism didn’t exist anymore, so they wouldn’t go looking for it."

  • Claudia Jean Kennedy

    "Gay men and lesbians are serving with honor and distinction. We should focus on people's performance, not on whom they're sleeping with."

    LTG Claudia Jean Kennedy made history in 1997 by becoming the US Army's first woman three-star general. In her position of Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, she was responsible 45,000 soldiers across the globe and worked hard to make them a force associated with order and respect. She is a vocal proponent of gay and women's rights within the armed forces.

  • Bonnie Blair

    "Whenever you do something for the first time, it has an unbelievable power and emotion behind it that is difficult to capture again."

    Olympic legend Bonnie Blair hit the headlines time and again in the 90s. The speed skating champion won four out of her five Olympic golds in that decade. She also set two speed records, penned a children's book, set up a charitable foundation and gave track cycle racing a go.

  • Tina Brown, CBE

    "I try to do the best job I can to bring a spotlight to the people who work for me. I've always tried to make the writers who work for me more successful than they were before."

    The 90s secured Tina Brown's status as a major power player in the world of publishing. In 1992, she was handed the task of re-vamping The New Yorker magazine as its first female editor. During her six years there, she increased circulation by 145% and nurtured a new generation of rising star writers.

    In 1998, she left to begin her own company, Talk Media.

  • The Spice Girls

    "You have got to/Swing it, shake it, move it, make it /Who do you think you are?/ Trust it, use it, prove it, groove it/Show me how good you are"

    Girl Power burst onto our radar in 1996 with the arrival of Posh, Sporty, Scary, Baby and Ginger Spice. We'd never seen anything like this pouting, butt-shaking troupe of feisty females and they changed the face of pop forever.

  • Angela Chase from My So-Called Life

    "My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying, 'How was that drive-by shooting?' You don't care how it *was*, you're lucky to get out alive. "

    Grunge girl Angela Chase was the face of teenage angst in 90s cult hit My So-Called Life. She and her friends brought to life a series of gripping and relevant issues, from gay rights to drugs and romantic obsessions, without the obligatory gloss of other series of the time. It was, and still is, must-see viewing.

  • Ann Bancroft

    "We think of ourselves first as people, but we are acutely aware of the fact that we were writing women into history."

    Ann Bancroft was the eminent explorer of the 90s, clocking up a series of world firsts. In 1992, she became the first woman to ski across Greenland and in 1993, she led the American Woman's Expedition to the South Pole on skis, in the first all-female mission of its kind.

    She was made an honorary member of the US National Women's Hall of Fame in 1995.

  • Janet Reno

    "I don’t feel any pressure except to do the women of America proud."

    Janet Reno chartered new territory in 1993 by becoming the first woman to serve as US Attorney General. Despite an early controversy with a deadly siege in Texas, she became known as one of the most respected members of the Clinton administration. As head of the Department of Justice, she created schemes to keep non-violent offenders out of jail, initiated a major lawsuit against tobacco companies and prosecuted those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    "All I want to do is graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die."

    Back when the vampire genre was fresh and new, Buffy gave us everything we wanted in a kick-ass TV heroine. Not only was she the face of some truly ground-breaking and innovative TV, she was also the antithesis of the cliché of what the show's creator described as, "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie."

  • Whitney Houston

    "I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow; if I fail, or if I succeed at least I did as I believe."

    Whitney's career hit a high in 1992 with the release of The Bodyguard, prompting the best-selling soundtrack of all time. Many of us tried to re-create that tremulous "I" note from I Will Always Love You, but none of us came close to Queen Whit.

  • Martha Lane Fox

    "There was no Google, there were no social networks when we launched. It's extraordinary the speed at which change happens."

    Dot com champion Martha Lane Fox co-founded in 1998, aged just 25. Her timing and management of the business was perfect, as the travel site came to define a generation of early internet success stories that capitalized on the dot com boom. Two years later she sold the site for a cool £571 million. And this is before anyone had even heard of Facebook...

  • Jung Chang

    "We have an eye for the good and the beautiful even in a world of ugliness and I think that‘s kept us from becoming bitter."

    Jung Chang's haunting and lyrical 1991 autobiography Wild Swans, charting the lives of three generations of Chinese women (herself, her mother and her grandmother) was an instant bestseller. Readers were drawn to both her heart-warming prose and the enormity of what she and her family had endured in a period of huge social and political upheaval.

    This wasn't an easy book for Chang to write, but it did become a classic and a powerful testimony to recent history.

  • Pulp Fiction's Mia Wallace

    "I'll be there in three shakes of a lamb's tail."

    Mia Wallace's appearance in 1994's Pulp Fiction introduced us to a whole different category of female leads, devoid of heroics or sentimentality. Complicated and chic, elusive and damaged, she was anything but predictable.

  • Dame Stella Rimington

    "In the service we did fight … well, we fought in a quiet kind of way which was appropriate for a secret organisation … for women not to be relegated to second-class careers, to be allowed to do all the work of the service – which they now do, bringing fantastic diversity."

    Stella Rimington had her work cut out for her when she was appointed director general of MI5 in 1992. Not only was she the first woman in the post, she was also the first person to have her name publicised, and led the re-direction of the agency's efforts from Cold War espionage to counter-terrorism.

  • Val Ackerman

    "I attribute my opportunities to luck and timing and knowing that, when I had the opportunity, I had to deliver."

    Val Ackerman (pictured here with Sheryl Swoopes) blazed an important trail in 1996 by becoming the first president of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Her eight-year tenure there helped put female team sports leagues firmly on the map.

  • Elle MacPherson

    "The Body is my brand; it's been a wonderful gift. I've used that moniker to my advantage, and I'm incredibly grateful for the people who still perpetuate it."

    Whether it was gloriously toned curves or her entrepreneurial spirit, Elle MacPherson's appeal went nuclear in the 90s. Not only was she known as "The Body", she also launched her own business Elle Macpherson Inc, which later diversified into a portfolio of brands including the massively successful Elle Macpherson Intimates.

  • Whoopi Goldberg

    "Why don't you go haunt a house? Rattle some chains or something."

    Whoopi Goldberg was at her zenith in the early 90s, stealing the show with a series of hilarious roles. Sister Act had us singing in the aisles but it was her performance as disgruntled medium Oda Mae Brown in 1990's Ghost that really stood out, bagging her an Oscar for best supporting actress.

  • Björk

    "I guess with each project I have some sort of personal taboo I have to break. I don’t know why. It’s some sort of a kick I get out of it."

    Björk had already changed the musical landscape some time before she scored a chart hit with 1995 cover It's Oh, So Quiet, but it's the screaming on that track we remember her for. The Icelandic singer is a risk-taker but she's not just about the hype: her legacy is long-lasting with a vocal intensity that's difficult to dismiss.

  • Rachel Whiteread

    "I've never set out to make things beautiful, I kind of enjoy it when they are sometimes but I also like making ugly things. "

    Rachel Whiteread, CBE secured a place in art history by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993. It was awarded for House, her concrete cast of the interior of a Victorian terrace, hailed by critics as extraordinary and mysterious.

  • Cher from Clueless

    "Okay, so you're probably going, 'Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?' But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl. "

    Cher's appearance in 1995's Clueless introduced us to a series of genius concepts, including guilt-free shopping and the infinite style potential of plaid skirts. Oh and let's not forget the inspired jargon. Surfing the crimson wave, anyone?

  • Donatella Versace

    "Fashion is a weapon that you can use when you need it. It's like armour that was useful to me in the first years after Gianni's death.

    When Donatella took over the reins of the Versace empire after her brother Gianni's tragic murder in 1997, some doubted she would make it. But she proved the naysayers wrong, injecting a sense of fun and lavish glamour into a brand that continues to be coveted by fashion's biggest names today.

  • Alanis Morissette

    "It's like rain on your wedding day/It's a free ride when you've already paid/It's the good advice that you just didn't take/Who would've thought... it figures"

    When Canadian singer Alanis Morissette burst onto the scene in the mid 90s, we all sat up and took notice. Her bittersweet lyrics and powerful rock-chick voice struck a chord, shifting 33 million copies of her smash hit album Jagged Little Pill.

  • Cindy Crawford

    "I'm all-American. Sexy but not intimidating. Not the kind of woman who's going to steal someone's husband."

    One of the group of original "supers" from the 90s - including Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer - Cindy Crawford was made all the more cool thanks to her trademark mole. And woe betide anyone who tried to airbrush it out; as Cindy once said: "Whenever they mess with the mole, I cringe!"

  • Ricki Lake

    "I want to spark ideas and conversations and inspire people to take active roles in their communities, relationships and their well-being."

    Ricki Lake engineered a fresh new look for the talk show genre with her seminal self-named show, which brought all manner of reality drama to our TV screens from 1993. Not as sleazy as Jerry Springer and more hard-hitting than Oprah, Ricki's combination of empathy and gall brought out the best in her guests.

  • Janet Jackson

    "Dreams can become a reality when we possess a vision that is characterized by the willingness to work hard, a desire for excellence."

    As part of the Jackson dynasty, fame would never ellude Janet Jackson but the 90s was really her time to shine. She went in on a high, touring in 1990 to showcase Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 - a concept album addressing social injustice - and landing a $32 million contact with Virgin Records in 1991.

    Her 1994 single Any Time, Any Place put her on par with Aretha Franklin as a female act with the most amount of certified-gold singles.

  • Christy Martin

    "This life gives us all hurdles. Life gave me some lemons and I have definitely made pink lemonade."

    Christy Martin was one of the best-known female boxers of the 90s, winning fights and crowd ratings with her strength and tenacity. Her performance in a series of high-profile clashes (including a 1997 match where she was photographed with a bloodied nose) put women's boxing into the media spotlight way before last year's Olympics, when it became an official sport.

  • Friends trio Monica, Phoebe & Rachel

    Phoebe: "Aw, Phebes..."

    Rachel: "Honey, that's your name."

    Phoebe: "That's short for Phoebe? I thought that's just what we called each other."

    Friends trio Monica, Phoebe and Rachel became our favourite faces during the 90s. Not only did they adorn our TVs, but also our pencil cases and our locker doors. Their combination of uptight (Monica), ditzy (Phoebe) and girl's girl (Rachel) made for some great chemistry and their on-screen bond showed us what sisterhood was all about.

  • Eva Herzigova

    "As a teenager coming straight from an ex-Communist country, I have learned a lot. I've traveled the world, met amazing people, and learned five languages."

    Czech model Eva Herzigova catapulted onto the public consciousness with a cover shoot for UK Vogue in 1992. Her 1997 Hello Boys campaign for Wonderbra was deemed so distracting that its billboards were blamed for causing passing cars to crash. If one poster could personify what was sexy in the 90s, that was it.

  • Gwen Stefani

    "We started the band because of English ska music. Everything I loved was all part of this English invasion... there were no girls in rock bands in the US at the time."

    With her flamboyant kooky style and her powerhouse voice, Gwen Stefani was a breath of fresh air when she appeared as lead singer for No Doubt in the mid-90s. Her hit single Don't Speak, written after she split from band mate and ex-boyfriend Tony Kanal, perfectly captured the raw emotions of a break-up in song.

  • Martina Navratilova

    "Whoever said, 'It's not whether you win or lose that counts,' probably lost."

    Martina Navratilova is often cited as one of the best tennis players of all-time. The 90s included some of the highlights of her career, spanning 18 grand slams and nine Wimbledon singles titles. She also fronted several high-profile campaigns for gay rights.

  • Ally McBeal

    "I like being a mess. It's who I am."

    Ally McBeal's neurotic-yet-smart persona took on something of a cult status thanks to her terrific blend of humour, drama and eccentricity. Her internal monologues, played to perfection by Calista Flockhart, chimed with all our finer instincts and suspicions about relationships and men in general.

  • Sally Gunnell

    "I felt overwhelming, uncontainable joy – a feeling I wanted to treasure forever. I watch that race now with disbelief and don’t know how I did it."

    Sally Gunnell has had many highs and lows throughout her incredible career and we've been with her for them all. Perhaps her best moment was the 400m hurdle triumph at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. She remains the only woman to have held the European, World, Commonwealth and Olympic 400m hurdle titles at the same time.

  • Shania Twain

    "I've known a few guys who thought they were pretty smart/But you've got being right down to an art/You think you're a genius-you drive me up the wall/You're a regular original, a know-it-all"

    Don't be fooled by Shania Twain's relaxed folk vibe. The queen of country folk gave a two finger salute to posers and egomaniacs with her 1997 hit That Don't Impress Me Much, a song that still has our mums (and us) dancing around the kitchen to this day.

    The album, Come On Over, from which the song is taken, remains one of the best-selling studio albums of all time by a female act.

  • The SATC gang

    Charlotte York: "I hate it when you're the only single person at a dinner party and they all look at you like you're a..."

    Carrie Bradshaw: "Loser?"

    Miranda Hobbes: "Leper."

    Samantha Jones: "Whore."

    We loved the Manhattan brunches and the deification of shoes, but above all we loved the topic of sex being dissected, discussed and dismissed like never before. It's fair to say Carrie and the girls on SATC revolutionised the way we examined sex and relationships.


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.