Many women have made history by shaking up the status quo, inventing and discovering new things and fighting for their rights (or the rights of others). If you can name more badass men in history than women, it’s time to do a little more research. We decided to look into several history books, and compiled a list of some of the most iron-willed, courageous, and badass women in history.
- Althea Gibson
- Oprah Winfrey
- Buffalo Calf Road Woman
- Tamar the Great of Georgia
- Greta Thunberg
- The Night Witches
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Florence Nightingale
- Irom Chanu Sharmila
- Mileva Maric
- Policarpa Salavarrieta
- Ida B. Wells
- Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
- Hypatia of Alexandria
- Aretha Franklin
- Hillary Clinton
- Bessie Coleman
- Harriet Tubman
- Misty Copeland
- The Mirabal Sisters
- Marie Curie
- Dolly Parton
- Malala Yousafzai
You’ll get to learn how these women struggled due to patriarchy and other societal factors, as well as how they have made a profound difference in their communities— and even the world. From a Georgian queen to a professional gamer, here are 25 women from all walks of life who empower us.
Althea Gibson was Venus and Serena Williams before there were Venus and Serena Williams. The first major African-American female tennis player, Gibson was an unstoppable force who dominated the sport. She was the first Black player to compete at Wimbledon and the first African American to win a Grand Slam title. Fun fact: Gibson was also pro women’s golf tour and an accomplished singer who went on tour and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Iconic media executive and talk show host Oprah Winfrey grew up in poverty with an unmarried teenage mother in Mississippi and went on to build one of the largest entertainment empires the world has ever seen. An inductee to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Oprah is the richest Black woman in America and has donated nearly half a billion dollars to charities in her lifetime.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman
Nicknamed “Brave Woman,” Buffalo Calf Road Woman was a 19th-century Cheyenne warrior who strategically fought and rallied others at the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of Little Big Horn. While little is known about her life, she is considered one of the most heroic fighters in American history.
Tamar the Great of Georgia
Tamar was crowned co-ruler of the Georgian kingdom in an epically cool move by her father and began her 29-year reign in 1184 upon his death. She went on to take the moniker of “King” and commanded a gang of intense medieval knights before building one of the most unstoppable armies in history. Under Tamar’s badass rule, Georgia became a major power known for its military campaigns from Trebizond all the way to Iran.
TIME Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year was Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Her iconic and powerful address to world leaders (theoretically putting old political cronies in their place) echoed through the speakers of computers and cellphones, forever changing the world’s perspective on climate change and the lack of action being taken to assure young people of a future, inhabitable planet. Thunberg will no doubt go down in history, and her legacy is only beginning to take shape.
The Night Witches
There’s no hiding how terrified Nazi troops were of these all-female Russian fighter pilots, who bombed WWII targets under the cloak of night. Formally, The Night Witches were the 588th Night Bomber Regiment who braved frigid temperatures, dark skies, and a hail of bullets in stripped-down plywood airplanes. To top it off, they frequently turned off their engines (to go into stealth mode) so they could silently approach their targets while gliding.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The second female justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, RBG was a notorious gender-rights champion. In the 1960s, she faced gender discrimination in the workplace despite having top-notch academic credentials. But the shackles of patriarchy did not stop RBG from succeeding as she was one of only nine female students during her time at Harvard and became the lead counsel for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. RBG can be credited with building a better legal foundation of women’s equality. Watch the 2018 RBG documentary ASAP.
You don’t earn the title “The Wrestler Princess” by not being a badass. Genghis Kahn’s great-great-granddaughter, Khutulun is written in the history books as helping her father with military strategy during the decline of the Mongol Empire. Khutulun’s father relied on her badassery instead of asking his 14 sons. Marco Polo even writes about Khutulun saying, “Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father.”
Dubbed “The Lady With the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale began her nursing career during the Crimean War and was inspired to improve health care. Even taking a job at all was considered improper for a woman of her position since she was expected to marry a wealthy man instead. She founded the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860 and vastly improved sanitation procedures in health care.
Irom Chanu Sharmila
For more than 16 years, Irom Chanu Sharmila fasted in protest of India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gave the government power to search, arrest, and abuse anyone who acted suspiciously against the state. Sharmila became an icon of resistance, constantly imprisoned and re-released during her extensive hunger strike. She’s been nicknamed the “Iron Lady of Manipur.”
You may recognize Serbian mathematician Mileva Marić from her former last name, Einstein-Maric. Mileva was the first wife of Albert Einstein and many believe his most profound discoveries (hello, Special Relativity) and scientific productivity should be co-credited to Mileva, who was the only woman at Zürich’s Polytechnic School alongside Albert at the time. Despite her brilliance, gender inequalities kept Mileva out of scientific textbooks.
Colombian-born Policarpa Salvarrieta, also known as La Pola, is famous for being a seamstress for Spanish royals in the early 1800s. It was this skill that allowed her unsuspecting access to secret information, which she would bring back to Revolutionary Forces during the Spanish Reconquista. She. Was. A. Badass. Spy. A figure beloved by the country of Colombia, which eventually gained independence from Spain, Salvarrieta is quoted frequently from her last words before being publicly executed for treason: “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!”
Ida B. Wells
African-American journalist Ida B. Wells was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, battling sexism, racism, and the threat of extreme violence. Born into slavery, Wells’ journalistic skills opened up the world to the inhumane conditions of the South, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Having traveled abroad, she was also busy on the ground floor boycotting and filing lawsuits to fight injustice.
We all know the stars are made of hydrogen and helium, and the only reason we know that is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She made the discovery in grad school, and at the time, nobody believed her. Can you imagine? During her time, science was a boy’s club. She crushed this ridiculous gender norm with intense passion and intelligence. She was also the first person to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College and later the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Harvard. Studying her impact is as expansive as looking at the night sky.
Hypatia of Alexandria
One of the first female mathematician whose life is somewhat recorded, Hypatia of Alexandria lived in ancient Rome and was revered as a brilliant counselor, philosopher, astronomer, and teacher. In fact, she’s been called the greatest scholar of the time. Hypatia suffered brutally under the hate of religious zealots and sexist ignorants, eventually being torn apart and murdered by a vicious mob. We mean very, very vicious. This tragic demise is, however, part of her lore. Hypatia has since become an icon for women’s rights and martyr for philosophy.
A modern lyricist, Civil Right activist, and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a career that produced 18 Grammys, 75 million record sales worldwide, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a top spot on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Recognized as a prodigy, Franklin recorded her album The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin when she was only 14 years old. Talk about a badass achievement!
One of the most famous women in American history, Sacagawea traveled with Lewis and Clark across the plains, Rocky mountains, and to the Pacific Ocean. Her jobs included gathering, translating, and guiding the expedition across difficult terrain. During the journey, a boat tipped, and she managed to rescue much of the supplies before they slipped into the water while others in her party were too busy panicking (all while holding her baby, mind you).
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impressive resume includes 67th United States Secretary of State, United States Senator, First Lady of the United States, and former Presidential candidate. She was the first woman to earn the nomination from a major political party and continues to encourage others to run for office and support important causes, like ending sexual violence worldwide.
The first woman of African-American and Native-American descent to hold a pilot’s license, Bessie Coleman didn’t just cruise the friendly skies — she is famous for performing gut-twirling tricks. This steel reserve earned Coleman the nickname “Brave Bessie.” Her career was almost cut short when she suffered an extreme crash two years in. Coleman cracked her ribs and broke a leg, but it didn’t stop her. She saved up, bought her own plane, and the rest is history.
The Queen of the Underground Railroad and the “Moses for her people,” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery but became a spy, scout, guerrilla soldier, nurse, and leader of the Underground Railroad, helping other slaves escape. She had a bounty on her head, once suffered a broken skull, and is one of the strongest people to have ever existed.
You might have seen Misty Copeland in Under Armour ads, but the American ballet dancer is more than physically strong. Growing up with a single mother, Copeland’s determination drove her to become the first African-American female principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater. She is an outspoken advocate for diversity and the support of young girls.
The Mirabal Sisters
When the Dominican Republic was run by dictator Rafael Trujillo, the fearless efforts of three ordinary sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal, helped expose the corruption and brutality of Trujillo’s regime. The sisters were assassinated; however, their deaths led to Trujillo’s own assassination six months later. The United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in honor of the Mirabals.
Raised by poor school teachers, Marie Curie is the first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes (one in Physics and one in Chemistry) and to discover the elements polonium and radium. The highly esteemed scientist also liked studying and reading on her own (hint hint).
Musician. Businesswoman. Activist. Actor. Dolly Parton has contributed to so much to so many different things, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where she was inducted in 2022), numerous philanthropic causes, and even Covid-19 vaccine research. She also founded Imagination Library which donates more than a million books per month to children.
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