30 Women Pioneers Who Changed the World
Whether they are already household names or a hidden figure deserving of more recognition (and an uplifting biopic), the following ladies changed the world with their enormous contributions to science, politics, technology, art, sports, entertainment, and the military and thus ensured that the future could be female.
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We can only approximate when Murasaki Shikibu was born, and even her real name is lost to history—the name we use for her today combines her father’s title with the name of her literary heroine. But that hasn’t stopped this Japanese lady-in-waiting, who was alive around 1000 AD, from having a major historical influence. In her youth, she exhibited great intelligence and a love of learning that eventually encouraged her father to allow her to study Chinese and Buddhist literature, despite such study being primarily a male pursuit at the time. According to New World Encyclopedia, it was her love of and talent for writing that earned her the attention of the empress. Serving under the empress at the time, she produced what is widely considered the world’s first novel, a 54-chapter-long story called The Tale of Genji.
Joan Ganz Cooney
This TV pioneer made waves in a time when few women had power in the media industry. In 1966, she was producing and creating programs for New York public television when she caught the attention of Carnegie Corporation executive Lloyd Morrisett, and they began a discussion about whether TV (then seen as a hotbed of risqué and violent content) had the potential to be an educational medium for children. Ganz Cooney gained funds and did research, and when her proposal was rejected by the station where she worked, she left to join the Carnegie Corporation. She and Morrisett would found the Children’s Television Workshop, of which Ganz Cooney would be appointed Executive Director. She and other employees at the CTW would team up with puppeteer Jim Henson and, in 1969, would produce the CTW’s first show, Sesame Street. The rest is history, and Ganz Cooney is recognized in both the Television Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. This year, Ganz Cooney will celebrate her 90th birthday!
She’s known as the “First Lady of Song” for a reason! The first-ever woman to win two Grammies and first African-American to win the award, period, got her start in a pretty incredible way. In 1934, a teenage Fitzgerald won the opportunity to compete in the Apollo’s “Amateur Night” talent show in a weekly drawing. According to her website, she originally planned to dance but changed her mind at the last minute and sang instead. She was noticed by a celebrated jazz saxophonist and began performing more talent shows, and her fame only grew. When she released a rendition of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”—in 1938, when she was 21—it rocketed to number one on the pop charts and secured her future as one of the women who changed the world. In her life, she would perform at Carnegie Hall 26 times and win 11 Grammies after her history-making first two.
Twenty-two years after the first-ever successful mission to the top of Mount Everest, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the peak. She led a team of 15 women, accompanied by six Sherpas, and reached the summit with one of the Sherpas on May 16, 1975. But she wasn’t done climbing—far from it. She went on to become the first woman to climb the highest mountain on every continent (known as the Seven Summits), reaching the seventh in 1922. With a five-foot stature and a weight of only 92 pounds, Tabei shattered stereotypes about how a strong, athletic person could look.
This computer whiz with a bachelor’s degree from Vassar and a PhD in mathematics from Yale worked on the Mark I project, one of the original functioning computers, through Harvard and the United States Naval Reserve, as well as its future iterations Mark II and III. She led the team that invented COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), the first programming language that used words instead of numbers. It is still used today. She is also credited with coining the term “debug” (as in ridding your computer of code or glitches) after removing a live moth from the inner workings of a Mark II. Among her honors: a National Medal of Technology, Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Google Doodle subject, and, ironically, the Data Processing Management Association’s Computer Sciences Man Of The Year Award. Check out other women you should thank every time you use a computer.
The Queen of Waves, who also happened to be deaf, was the first woman to swim across the English Channel. And not only did the International Swimming Hall of Famer finish one of the world’s most difficult long-distance swims, she set a record doing it in 1911. Fighting through cold temperatures and strong tides that change direction every six hours for 22 miles, she clocked a time of 14 hours and 34 minutes.
Journalist and women’s rights activist Betty Friedan helped ignite the fire of feminism with her articles, lectures, and most famously with her book The Feminine Mystique, which explored the idea that women could find happiness outside traditional roles. She co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, organized the Women’s Strike for Equality, helped launch the National Abortion Rights Action League (today known as NARAL Pro-Choice America), and worked with leading 1960s and 1970s activists like Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm on starting the National Women’s Political Caucus.
When Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected the prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960—the first woman to hold a PM position in the world—it was so unusual to have a female head of government that newspapers were unsure how to address her. She was a member of one of the wealthiest families on the Indian Ocean island country, then known as Ceylon, and married a politician who started his own party before becoming prime minister. After he was assassinated, she campaigned for her husband’s party and became the leader of it in May of 1960. She took power six years before Indira Gandhi became India’s first woman prime minister and nine years before Golda Meir was appointed PM of Israel. She made the country a republic, nationalized companies and church schools, and squashed a Marxist insurrection. She also gave birth to the future female president of the country Chandrika Kumaratunga. Check out these other inspiring women who are changing lives across the world.
Generations of parents owe this American doctor a huge thank you, as she developed the Apgar Score, the first standardized system of tests to assess if newborn babies were healthy once they made their way from womb to world. Apgar, who was a gifted cellist and violinist in her spare time, also happens to hold the title of the first woman to be hired as a full professor at the medical school at Columbia University.
The Emmy and Peabody Award winner became the first Asian and only the second woman—the first was Barbara Walters—to anchor one of America’s major network newscasts. She was hired in 1993 as the first woman to co-anchor the CBS Evening News. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., this Chinese diplomat’s daughter seemed destined to cover politics and got her start post-college at a hometown TV station. After being hired by CBS, her first big score was an exclusive sit-down with President Richard Nixon during Watergate. She has since worked at ABC, NBC, CNN, and on shows like 20/20. For more stories of political women, read these 44 little-known facts about America’s first ladies.