Women have set records in every industry and areas of life, from the writers of romance, the ladies who live out their dream jobs every day, the celebrities we admire, change-makers, to the political leaders, it’s safe to say that women make the world go round. As March is also known as Women’s History Month, 8th March explicitly celebrates International Women’s Day. Here is a list of a few of the many women who have changed the world entirely, from the history-makers you’re familiar with to lesser-known names you should have on your radar.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Born Elizabeth Cochran, she adopted the pen name “Nellie Bly” to go undercover as an investigative journalist in the 1880s. Bly eventually moved to New York City and, by feigning mental illness, got herself committed to a notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Her reporting on the unfair treatments patients endured led to the New York City municipal government shelling out more money to improve conditions for the mentally ill. Bly achieved another great feat: In 1889, she travelled around the world in 72 days—setting a world record for circumnavigating the globe. The movie 10 Days in a Madhouse is based on her life and legacy.
Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003)
In 1997, after being named a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia by NASA, Chawla became the first woman of Indian descent to fly in space. The shuttle orbited around Earth 252 times in a little over two weeks. Her second—and last—trip to space came in 2003 when she and six other astronauts completed more than 80 experiments over the course of 16 days. She and the entire crew died when the ship disintegrated upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. In 2020, Northrop Grumman, an aerospace, defence, and security company, named a spacecraft after Chawla in her memory.
Donyale Luna (1945-1979)
Before Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, there was Donyale Luna (née Peggy Ann Freeman). Luna is hailed as “the first Black supermodel,” and she was the first African American model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in March 1966. Luna also appeared in several indie films, including Andy Warhol’s Camp in 1965. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 33 from an accidental heroin overdose in Rome, Italy.
Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
In 1975, Tabei became the first woman to summit Mount Everest. On top of that, she was also the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” climbing the tallest mountain on each continent. Tabei’s Everest expedition was made up of all women—unheard of at the time—and even survived an avalanche. Her motto followed suit: “Do not give up. Keep on your quest.”
Judith Heumann (1947-)
A longtime disability rights advocate, Heumann contracted polio at age 2 and has used a wheelchair ever since. At age 5, Heumann’s school deemed her a “fire hazard” and wouldn’t let her attend—setting Heumann on the path to fight for increased accessibility and rights. She was the first teacher in New York to use a wheelchair (after successfully suing the Board of Education), protested for the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, advised Presidents Clinton and Obama, and pushed for the globalization of disability rights.
Effa Manley (1897-1981)
During a time when sports predominantly consisted of white male owners and athletes, Effa Manley refused to subscribe to gender and racial stereotypes. Along with her husband, Abe, Manley co-owned the Newark Eagles, a baseball team in the Negro Leagues. The team won the Negro League World Series in 1946, and when Abe died in 1952, she became the sole owner. Manley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 (the first and only woman to have this honour). Her life is chronicled in the picture book She Loved Baseball.
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)
Constance Baker Motley has a long list of historic achievements. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to serve in the New York State Senate. She then became the first woman to be Manhattan Borough President. In 1966, she became the first Black female federal judge. Motley won significant civil rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court—like writing the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and representing Dr. King. Motley also paved the way for Ketanji Brown Jackson, the very first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
No longer a “hidden figure,” Katherine Johnson’s famous mathematical computations—which launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962 and later sent Apollo 11 to the Moon—were finally highlighted in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures (she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson). In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Following her death at the age of 101, in 2021 Northrop Grumman named a spacecraft after her, and her posthumous memoir, My Remarkable Journey, was released.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Not only was French and Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but she also won the award twice (and is the only woman to do that, too). Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium, which became monumental in research for cancer treatment and cures. She also created portable X-ray machines and used them to treat soldiers on the front lines of World War I.
Ibtihaj Muhammad (1985-)
In 2016, fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim woman to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, where she won a bronze medal and was the first Olympian to wear a hijab. That same year, Time included Muhammad on the 100 Most Influential People list, and two years later, Mattel created a hijab-wearing doll in her honour.
These are only a few of the many women who have made a strong impact on the world as we know it today. This International Women’s Day, make sure you support the women around you, because every woman out there is working towards something bigger. To all the women out there, Happy International Women’s Day!