Traditional gender roles have existed in human societies for thousands of years. Many cultures have restricted women’s roles to focus on children and the household. It was not believed women needed education or to be involved in public life. Thankfully, that’s changed. Plenty of women throughout history have bucked the norms and defied gender roles to leave behind impressive legacies and history. The 25 women in this list (nowhere near complete – there are thousands of women who deserve to be here) were extraordinary for their times. Whether it be effectively ruling over the Roman Empire, pushing forward the boundaries of cytogenetics, or actively participating on countless battlefield, these women were pioneers and changed the hearts and minds of those around them. By refusing to accept traditional norms of what a woman should or shouldn’t do, they started dismantling the gender roles they so arduously fought against. Derive some inspiration from these 25 women who defied gender roles and made history.
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Most Americans know bits of the story of Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone Native American woman who helped Lewis & Clark in their westward expedition. What’s especially amazing about this woman is her true importance in American history – without a clever and tactile woman like Sacagawea in their presence, Lewis and Clark would likely have been seen as aggressive and attacked. (And when their boats overturned on the Missouri River, Sacagawea rescued their journals and notes from the waters, all while pregnant.)
Eleanor of Aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitane was one of the most powerful persons in Europe during the High Middle Ages. Beyond being Queen of England (married to King Henry II), she was previously Queen of France (married to Louis VII) and had considerable influence on both countries during her reigns. Eleanor was even the acting head of state while her son English King Richard I went on the Third Crusade.
Jeannette Pickering Rankin
Jeannette Pickering Rankin was elected as the first female member of Congress even before women across America could vote (women could already vote in about 40 states). A Representative elected both in 1916 and 1940, Rankin noticed she was “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.” Now that’s a way to defy gender roles!
Seen as the grandmother of the Israeli state, Golda Meir was referred to by then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as “the best man in the government”. Later becoming Prime Minister, Meir was one of the major contributors to the Jewish state’s foundation, even raising $50 million from American Jews and negotiating between the Jews and the British Mandate in Palestine.
Voted the greatest black Briton in 2004, Mary Seacole cared for sick British soldiers during the Crimean War. Though the British Army refused to admit her to the war effort due to being a woman, Seacole went to the battlefront anyways to help the sick and wounded. The soldiers she cared for later raised money for her when she lacked funds.
A leader in the development of Scottish/British medicine, Elsie Inglis was both a doctor and philanthropist. She is best known for organizing all-female, ready-to-go Medical Units during World War I. The French called up her units after the British told her to “go home and sit still”. Enraged at the state of healthcare in her country, Inglis became politically active and was a constant voice for healthcare reform.
Twice as impressive as Paul Revere but less than half as known, Sybil Ludington was a Revolutionary War heroine. At only 16 years of age, Ludington rode twice as far as Revere on a dark and rainy night to alert the colonists of the British advance. George Washington even commended her for bravery and valor.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
A prolific scholar and poet, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is considered one of the earliest writers of Mexican literature. Ordained a nun, de la Cruz was one of the earliest voices in the Americas calling for a woman’s right to education. She stood up to high-ranking officials such as the Archbishop of Mexico and called for more equality between the genders.
Æthelflæd, the lady of the Mercians, was a clever military strategist and tactician who is largely responsible for kicking the Danes out of England. Taking power after her husband Æthelred died, Æthelflæd led her home area of Mercia and allied with her brother Edward the Elder (of whom she was a great ally in all war efforts).
Susan B. Anthony
One of America’s most famous campaigners for women’s suffrage (voting rights), Susan B. Anthony was a spirited woman who defied any gender role she felt to be unjust. Much of her dedication comes from an old schoolteacher who told her it was irrelevant for her to learn maths because “a girl needs to know how to read the Bible and count her egg money, nothing more.” The founder of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, Anthony infamously refused to pay a $100 fine for voting illegally in the 1872 election.
A co-founder of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Jane Addams is a legendary American civil rights campaigner. Even selected by the 1915 International Congress of Women to head the commission to find an end to World War I, Addams is most famous for founding Hull House: a neighborhood center in Chicago aiming to alleviate poverty, the mixing of classes, and research neighborhood issues.
Barbara McClintock was a pioneer in cytogenetics: the study of a cell’s genetic structure and function, especially the chromosomes and their role in reproduction. Compared to Gregor Mendel in importance during her reception of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, McClintock was instrumental in studying maize and how its chromosomes changed during reproduction.
Joan of Arc
One of the better known heroines who defied gender roles of her time, Joan of Arc is one of France’s most highly-regarded war figures. The French prince was so moved by Joan’s resolve that he gave her armor and troops to fight the English in France. Joan of Arc started bad blood with the English by kicking them out of the city of Orleans at only 17 years old and beating them in successful battles of the Hundred Years’ War. She is famously known for being burnt at the stake at the hands of England’s French allies. Almost 500 years after her death, she was canonized and made a patron saint of France in 1920.
A staple in the White House Correspondent’s Room for almost half a century, Helen Thomas reported on the regimes of 11 Presidents – from Dwight D. Eisenhower all the way through to Barack Obama. The first female officer of the National Press Club and first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Thomas was truly a glass-ceiling-shattering journalist.
One of Hollywood’s pioneering film stars, Hedy Lamarr was more than just a pretty face meant for the silver screen. Lamarr’s interest in applied science led to the development of technologies which laid the groundwork for Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth. Had the U.S. Navy accepted her work earlier, it’s possible World War II would have ended sooner, too.
One of the founders of the feminist movement, Mary Wollstonecraft stood up to the idea of her time that women were objects and useful for few things outside the home. Arguing that women were not inferior to men but merely appeared so due to a lack of education, Wollstonecraft advocated for a society dominated by reason and authored many famous pieces on women’s place in society.
Marie Curie’s accomplishments rattle off a long list. The first woman in Europe to earn a PhD and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (which she did twice, in Physics and Chemistry), Curie was also the first female professor at the prestigious University of Paris. Polish by birth, Marie Sklodowska Curie developed a theory of a radioactivity (a term she coined) and found the elements radium and polonium (which she named after her native Poland).
Boudica was an Icenian ruler during the 1st century A.D. in what is now Great Britain. As Queen of the Iceni, Boudica fought back after her recently-deceased husband’s lands were annexed, her daughters raped, and she was publicly beaten. Boudica and her armies rose up against the Romans, even burning the city of Londonium, killing tens of thousands of Romans and Roman sympathizers. The stronger Roman forces ultimately prevailed and it’s claimed Boudica took her own life rather than be captured.
Sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X, Olimpia Pamphili in effect ran the Catholic Church and Rome behind the scenes in the early 17th century. Speaking about succession, papal historian Ludwig von Pastor said, “the misfortune of Pope [Innocent X] was that the only person in his family who would have had the qualities necessary to fill such a position was a woman.”
Sometimes called “the first modern lesbian”, Anne Lister was a wealthy British woman and a savvy businesswoman, owning multiple properties and industry shares. Along with her wife Ann Walker (yes, they were married, but without legal recognition), Lister was the first person to officially climb the Vignemale (the highest mountain in the French Pyrenees) and excelled at business.
Corrie ten Boom
A Dutch Christian, Corrie ten Boom was a woman who didn’t restrict herself based on gender roles but rather did what had to be done when she saved the lives of many Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. Extremely active in charitable pursuits, ten Boom raised foster children and ran a church for mentally disabled people. Arrested by the Nazis in 1944, ten Boom had already helped many Jews escape the Holocaust, even hiding many in her house’s secret room.
Bearing a full name of Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha-a-Kapaʻakea, Queen Lili’uokalani was the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands. A staunch opponent of the United States’s annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani was an accomplished poet and advocate for orphaned and indigent children.
A name likely attributed to more than one woman, Molly Pitcher often refers to Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. During the American Revolutionary War, women – including Pitcher and Martha Washington – cared for wounded soldiers and carried water to the battlefield to cool down cannon barrels. Pitcher was with her husband while he was fighting the British at the Battle of Monmouth. When he was carried off the battlefield after collapsing, Molly Pitcher defied all gender roles and jumped up to take his place loading the cannon. It’s even reported a British cannonball flew just between her legs, not injuring her but tearing off her lower skirt. Her epic response? “Well, that could have been worse,” before she went back to loading the cannon.
Referring to herself as a “plain housewife”, Corazon Aquino was a major contributor to the modern-day Filipino state. Aquino launched her bid for the Presidency after her husband was assassinated upon returning from exile in the United States. She is especially well remembered for leading massive peaceful protests after the electoral fraud of the 1986 elections. Aquino was the first female President in Asia and restored Filipino democracy after her predecessor’s 20-year rule.
One of Africa’s best-documented early-modern rulers, Queen Anna Nzinga (also known as Nzinga Mbandi) ruled over the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in 17th century Angola. A famous and well-respected stateswoman even in Portugal and Europe, Nzinga was a clever military tactician and an experienced politician. She was also influential in resettling former slaves and restricting European intrusion into Africa.