The annual International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women and their impact on the world.
From great writers and designers to political activists, religious leaders and scientists, there is an endless list of women who have left an indelible mark on the world for the better.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we’ve taken a look at some of the most influential women in history.
Jane Austen, author (1775 – 1817)
One of England’s finest novelists, Jane Austen is famed for works set among the higher echelons of English society. Loaded with her fabulous wit, powers for social observation and an insight into the lives of women in the Georgian era, Austen’s works have a rare longevity and remain as popular as ever.
One of eight children, Austen was born into a close-knit family in the village of Steventon, Hampshire in 1775. After beginning to write as a teenager, Jane’s brother Henry supported her negotiations with a publisher and her debut novel, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was published anonymously in 1811. ‘Pride and prejudice’, Austen’s favourite work, soon followed to favourable reviews with ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Emma’ rounding off the novels published in her lifetime. Two more novels, ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ were published posthumously, following her death in 1817.
Novelist and literary critic Margaret Drabble wrote of Austen’s premature death: “There are some writers who wrote too much. There are others who wrote enough. There are yet others who wrote nothing like enough to satisfy their admirers, and Jane Austen is certainly one of these.”
Coco Chanel, fashion designer (1883–1971)
Coco Chanel is a name synonymous with luxury and timeless style. Chanel created designs and perfumes that are still sought after and became a leading style icon along the way – known for sophisticated outfits and her trademark strands of pearls, few would fail to recognise Coco Chanel.
Born in 1883, in Saumur, France, Chanel’s formative years were a far stretch to the glamour she would later be known for. She was put in an orphanage by her father following her mother’s death and raised by nuns, it was here however that she gained a skill that would lead to her life’s work – she was taught how to sew.
Her nickname Coco (she was born Gabrielle Chanel) was given some years later during her brief career as a singer, where she performed in clubs in Vichy and Moulins. Chanel herself said that Coco was a: “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman.’”
After creating the Chanel No. 5 fragrance in the early 20s, Chanel revolutionised the world of women’s fashion in 1925 with the reveal of the classic suit with collarless jacket and fitted little black dress. The 20s also saw Chanel begin a decades-long relationship with the Duke of Westminster, to whose marriage proposal she replied: “there have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!”
Rosa Parks, political activist (1913-2005)
Rosa Parks’ singular act of resistance reverberated throughout America and triggered what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Her moniker “the mother of the modern day civil rights movement” came about when in 1955 she refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama for which she was arrested.
The arrest triggered a wave of protests and a boycott of the city bus line that lasted 381 days. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was appointed the spokesperson for the Bus Boycott which snowballed into protest throughout the country in the form of sit-ins, eat-ins, swim-ins and similar causes in segregated establishments.
Armed with the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which stated that segregation had no place in education, a legal team challenged the so-called ‘Jim Crow laws’ which allowed for racial segregation on public transport. Rosa’s attorney filed the suit at the U.S. District Court which in 1956 declared racial segregation laws unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision, combined with the financial loss resulting from the boycott, forced the city of Montgomery to end segregation on its transport systems.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott remains one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history.
Malala Yousafzai, political activist (1997 – Current day)
Born in the Swat district of northwestern Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai has spent her young life struggling for the right of all children to an education. After the Taliban began attacking girls’ schools in her home district, Malala gave a speech in September 2008 titled: “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
Soon after, she began writing for the BBC about her experiences of the Taliban’s growing presence in the region, so much was her influence that in 2012 the Taliban attempted to assassinate her while she was on the bus home from school. She survived, and has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education as well as the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Marie Curie, scientist (1867 – 1934)
Marie Curie’s achievements include being first woman to teach as a professor at the University of Paris, first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes in different fields, Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.
Together with her husband, Pierre Curie who tragically died in 1906, Marie Curies worked to investigate radioactivity, discovering new chemical elements, polonium and radium in 1898. Their work was crucial in the development of the use of x-rays in medical surgery. On the outbreak of the First World War, Curie helped to equip ambulances with mobile x-ray equipment, which she subsequently drove to the front lines. The International Red Cross made Curie the head of its radiology services and she and her co-workers would go on to provide classes for doctors on how to utilize the new x-ray technique.
Marie Curie died in 1934 from leukaemia caused by exposure to high-energy radiation from her research.
Emmeline Pankhurst, political activist (1858 – 1928)
Emmeline Pankhurst was a leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. Born into a family noted for its radical political views, Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and supporter of the suffrage movement who authored the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep any money or property acquired before and after marriage.
In 1889, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections before she helped form the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) whose members were the first to be christened ‘suffragettes’. British society was shocked by the demonstrations, window smashing, arson and hunger strikes of the suffragettes and Emmeline herself was arrested on numerous occasions and went on hunger strikes that resulted in violent force-feeding.
This WSPU’s militancy ended on the outbreak of the First World War, when Pankhurst decided to focus on supporting the war effort.
Pankhurst’s ambitions were partially realised in her lifetime. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30 before women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21) shortly before her death in 1928.