15 Women from World History Who Made a Difference
World history is full of remarkable women who changed the way we live today. During Women’s History Month or any time of the year, their stories can inspire your students to dream big and make the difference they want to see in the world.
Polish-born scientist Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and is the only woman to date to receive a Nobel Prize in two different fields. Despite facing opposition from male scientists, Curie made groundbreaking discoveries, including discovering the elements radium and polonium. Her work in radioactivity helped develop the x-ray technology we use today.
During WWII, Golda Meir advocated for Jewish war refugees who fled to Palestine, and on May 14, 1948, she signed Israel’s independence declaration. She became Israel’s first female prime minister in 1969 and sought to establish peace between Israel and Arab states. When the Yom Kippur War took the country by surprise, Meir helped form a new coalition government. Though she resigned from her position in 1974, she remained an active political figure. The public didn’t know until after her death in 1975 that she had been battling leukemia for 12 years.
Activist Jane Addams co-founded one of the first settlement houses in the US, called the Hull-House. She and other residents provided essential services to immigrant and low-income families in the Chicago area, including job training, daycare, cooking, and English classes. Her work inspired other social reformers to start settlement houses in their communities.
Addams also lobbied for abolishing child labor, forming the juvenile court system, and improving working conditions for men and women. During WWI, she promoted international peace despite public criticism. In 1931, she co-won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley’s son, Emmett, was tortured and killed because of his race. Till-Mobley had to fight to reclaim her son’s body because local politicians wanted to cover up what happened. Despite death threats, she held an open-casket funeral and did a national speaking tour to raise awareness of what Black Americans faced in the segregated South. Although the men who murdered her son were acquitted, her courage gave the Civil Rights Movement a much-needed spark.
Noblewoman Manuela Saenz played an important role in Ecuador’s fight for independence from Spain. On September 25, 1828, she saved Simon Bolivar – the revolution leader – from being assassinated by political rivals. Because of her courage, the Ecuadorians called her the Liberator of the Liberator. Today, she is still honored as a national hero.
Archaeologist and educator Eulalia Guzmán fought for women’s rights during and after the Mexican Revolution. She co-founded the Corregidor de Querétaro Vocational School, which taught women new skills to improve their job opportunities. Later in life, she was one of the first women to work in Mexican archaeology and the first person to study the pre-Columbian site of Chalcatzingo. Impressed with her work, the national museum hired her as the director of archaeology. Her life proves women can not only break into male-dominated fields but excel in them.
Aviator Maude Rose ‘Lores’ Bonney broke several world records including being the first woman to circumnavigate Australia. In 1937, she became the first woman to fly from Australia to England and the first person to fly from Australia to South Africa. She continued to blaze a trail for women in aviation by serving as governor of the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics and presiding over the Queensland branch of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. After her death in 1994, she was inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame.
A woman of Kaurna-Ngadjuri descent, Gladys Elphick dedicated her life to promoting Aboriginal and women’s rights in Australia. As founding president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, she improved the quality of life for Indigenous people in her community. She also encouraged Aboriginal women to learn English and develop public speaking skills so they could confidently express their ideas. Known as Auntie Glad, her legacy inspires Australian activists today.
Dowager Empress Cixi indirectly ruled China during the Qing dynasty for about 50 years. In 1856, she gave birth to emperor Xianfeng’s only son, Tongzhi. When the emperor died, Cixi ruled with her son as regent. Her son died young, and Cixi used her political shrewdness to appoint her 4-year-old nephew Guangxu as the new emperor. She again took power when she opposed efforts to modernize Chinese society. Today, she is considered one of the most powerful empresses in Chinese history.
Daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi was born with politics in her veins. She became India’s first female prime minister in 1966 and dramatically improved the country’s agriculture. During the Pakistan war, she initiated an agreement that led to peace and the formation of the independent nation of Bangladesh. In 1980, she was re-elected and served as prime minister before her bodyguards assassinated her in 1984.
Singer and songwriter Miriam Makeba used her musical talents to speak out against South Africa’s apartheid regime, which denied equal rights to Blacks. Her anti-apartheid songs raised awareness of the injustice happening in her native homeland. As a world-renowned singer, she also helped popularize African music. In 1966, she won a Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai was a stalwart women’s rights activist and the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She came up with the idea for Kenyan women who lived in rural areas to plant trees to combat deforestation while also providing themselves with food, firewood, and a small income. Her innovation inspired other countries to use similar strategies to conserve natural resources and improve the lives of African women.
Known as the Mother of Marine Geology, Maria Vasilyevna Klenova was one of the first female scientists to work onshore in Antarctica. In 1930, she headed the Laboratory on Marine Geology at the Floating Marine Research Institute and later became a professor at the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology. She sought opportunities to research in Antarctica, but the people who headed expeditions kept turning her down because of her gender. Determined, she continued to argue her case and finally joined an Antarctic expedition in 1955. Her work during that time contributed to the first Antarctic atlas.
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