While the media has recently focused on groundbreaking women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, and their efforts to promote feminism in modern society, they actually follow in the footsteps of a long line of influential women. While there are numerous women throughout history that have challenged norms and stood up to societal pressure, we can’t possibly cover them all. Here are 8 women who broke the mold decades—sometimes even centuries—before their time.
Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780)
In 1740, Maria Theresa inherited the rule of a country that was penniless and poorly governed. Though her father had ensured her succession, he had not educated her on matters of the state. She eventually chose her own advisors and deftly delegated responsibilities. She turned around the economy, revitalized the military, and instituted mandatory public education for both boys and girls in the country. She held onto her rule amidst 2 wars, and managed all this while still giving birth to 16 children.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Perhaps best known for her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft was anything but a traditional young English woman. She became an intellectual and a writer, and believed strongly that women should be educated as men. She took lovers and had a child out of wedlock when such things were scandalous, and her reputation was tarnished for decades. However, it is believed that her works strongly influenced writers like Jane Austin, and during the women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800’s her writings, particularly her ideas about educating women, became the backbone of the feminist movement.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Queen Victoria inherited the throne at the age of 18, and was the longest ruling monarch in British history, until her granddaughter surpassed her record in 2015. She presided over one of the largest empires the world has ever known, and was beloved both in England and in many of the British Colonies. She managed to maintain her rule and continue to build the modern constitutional monarchy while remaining largely independent of party politics.
Coco Chanel (1883-1971)
While a fashion icon may seem to be a trivial representation of a great female leader, Coco Chanel was remarkable in her forward thinking and indifference to societal expectations. Choosing to wear trousers and “men’s” clothing, she released women from corsets and other encumbering clothing, focusing on casual comfort instead, and revolutionizing women’ She challenged society on social level as well, choosing never to marry or have children, while publicly embracing intimate relationships with men on her own terms.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt began her influential career when she was in her teens, becoming active in social work, before meeting her future husband. She was an early advocate of civil rights, and as First Lady of the United States, was independent and outspoken on the rights of women and African-American’s, long before the onset of the Civil Rights movement. She wrote a daily newspaper column that reached vast people, in which she defended women’s rights and other humanitarian causes. After her husband’s death, she continued working as a delegate to the UN, where she advocated for people, taking a non-partisan stance on most issues. She fought all her struggles, whether personal or political, with honesty and straightforwardness.
Indira Ghandi (1917-1984)
Though she is a controversial figure, Indira Ghandi is a stunning example of a woman who managed to gain power in a time and place where women were generally treated badly. Groomed for the position by her father, she became the first, and only, female prime minister of India. She took a very troubled country in dire straits and turned around the government and the economy. She was also a strong advocate for women’s rights, and helped to advance India on the international stage. Unfortunately, she was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards in 1984, in response to an attack on a Sikh temple by Indian forces while trying to remove a political opponent.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933-)
Still going strong, Ruth Bader Ginsberg remains one of the most influential women in modern history. Being one of the first women ever to enroll at Harvard Law School, she had a prestigious academic career before she went on to argue cases for women’s rights that have helped to try and level the playing field for women. She has fought against gender discrimination every step of the way, and continues to do so from her esteemed seat on the United States Supreme Court.
Oprah Winfrey (1954-)
With the longest running daytime talk show on television, broadcast in 145 countries around the world, it’s easy to recount the leadership of this incredible woman. Beginning her life in poverty, she went on to become the single wealthiest African-American, and has in turn dedicated herself to trying to lift others out of poverty as well. She established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and invested over $40 million of her own money in the project.
These great women paved the way for the modern feminist movement, and the changes that they managed to bring about have altered the course of history for all women. The one thing they all seem to have in common is refusing to stay in a box that society tried to put them in. Take a lesson from them and learn not to take “no” for an answer.
Corinne Ledling is a businesswoman who’s very passionate about her job. She’s a Content Manager at Bizstats.co.uk and loves to share career tips and tricks.