Influential Women Throughout History

Influential women have been around long before the word “feminist” existed. From Agnodice (400 BC, Greece) – the first gynecologist in history – to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1961, México) – a defender for women’s rights to education – female pioneers have shaped history worldwide.

Despite incredible developments in both of these innovators’ fields, their battles are long from ending. More than 800 women still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – 99 percent of them in developing countries. Disparities in education access are still very much present nowadays. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only 70 girls are registered for every 100 boys in tertiary level education.

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8th) and Women’s History Month, we will showcase prominent women and their impact on the world.

The History of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1857, in a demonstration by women workers in New York City. However, what established the holiday as we know it was the consequences of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York on March 25th, 1911. The fire killed 146 women workers, most of whom were Southern and Eastern European immigrants.

The year before, there had been an unsuccessful strike across the garment district – including that specific factory – in an attempt to get union recognition, better wages, and conditions. The Triangle's owners, however, refused to concede.

The tragedy gave emphasis to the newly declared International Women’s Day, and its impact on history is still felt and remembered. 

From 1860-1990s

Anna Filosofova (Russia)

Women’s rights activist and philanthropist Anna Filosofova understood it was better to educate and train the poor rather than offer cash benefits. In 1860, she co-founded a society to provide care to the underprivileged, involving not only inexpensive housing but also decent work for women.

Doria Shafik (Egypt)

Doria Shafik catalyzed a women’s rights movement in Egypt when, in 1951 she, alongside 1,500 women, stormed the parliament claiming full political rights, pay equality, and reforms to personal status laws. These efforts facilitated paved the way to women’s right to vote in 1956.

Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemala)

The first indigenous person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta Menchú canvassed for social justice, ethnocultural reconciliation, and indigenous peoples’ rights during and after Guatemala’s Civil War (1960–1996). In 2006, she co-founded the Nobel Women's Initiative to expand women’s work on peace, justice, and equality.

Vandana Shiva (India)

A devoted environmentalist, Vandana Shiva established the NGO Navdanya in India during the early 1990s to protect rare strains of seed crops and to educate farmers on eco-diversity. The organization created a program on biodiversity, food, and water, which empowers women in defending the livelihoods of their communities.

Unity Dow (Botswana)

As a plaintiff, Unity Dow won a historic case in 1992 giving women who are married to non-citizens the right to confer nationality to their children. Later, as Botswana's first female High Court judge, she gained international acclaim on a case that allowed Botswana’s San people to return to their ancestral homelands.

Marsha P. Johnson (United States)

Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, self-identified drag queen, and performer. She was a key figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Marsha went by “BLACK Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” which is what Marsha would answer to questions about her gender. It is the consideration of who “BLACK Marsha” was that inspired The Marsha P. Johnson Institute. So much of our comprehension of Marsha came from the interpretation of people who did not look like or come from the same place as she did. 

Contemporary Women

Loveness Mudzuru & Ruvimbo Tsopodzi (b. Zimbabwe, 1997, 1998)

Taking their government to court on child marriage, previous child brides Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi made history in 2016 when Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court ruled in their favor asserting that no one in the country may enter into marriage, containing customary law unions, before the age of 18.

Marielle Franco (b. Brazil, 1979)

Marielle Franco was a Rio de Janeiro city councilmember, and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberty. She was also a member of the LGBT community and a human rights activist, especially against police brutality in the favelas. On March 14, 2018, she was shot four times in the head. She symbolized Brazil’s fight for equality and equity for all.

Greta Thunberg (b. Sweden, 2003)

Named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2019, Greta put her years to use in making world leaders to act against climate change. At 15, Thunburg spent her school days outside the Swedish Parliament asking for action, which in turn inspired demonstrations worldwide that came to be known as “Fridays for Future,” where students went on weekly strikes to make a difference. She continues the act today and was selected for a Nobel Peace Prize both in 2019 and 2020.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b. Nigeria, 1977)

Chimamanda was born in Enugu in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, where her father was a professor, and her mother was the first female Registrar. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. Nowadays, she writes short novels, stories, and nonfiction. She was described in The Times Literary Supplement as "the most prominent" of a "procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors [which] is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature.” 

Muqadasa Ahmadzai (b. Afghanistan, 1992)

Muqadasa organized a system of more than 400 young women activists from the Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, to travel to nearby regions and help survivors of domestic violence. As a social and political activist, Muqadasa Ahmadzai has taken it upon herself to support women and their communities in the face of widespread misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic. She is a former member of Afghanistan’s Youth Parliament, where she worked for the rights of women and children. In 2018, she received an N-Peace award, given by the United Nations Development Programme to outstanding women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Emma Theofelus (b. Namibia, 1996)

She became one of Africa's youngest cabinet ministers, in 2020, at 24 years of age. Theofelus is a member of parliament and deputy minister for data and communication technology, with the duty of leading the country's official Covid-19 communication efforts. Beforehand, she was a youth activist, lobbying for gender equality, children’s rights, and sustainable development. She holds a law degree from the University of Namibia and a diploma in African feminism and gender studies from the University of South Africa.