Mythology and legend are packed with powerful and influential women. Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, war and the arts, presented humans with the chariot, plow, flute and bridle. It's hard to imagine life without her benevolent intervention. Pandora, on the other hand, cracked open a jar and let loose a world of pain and suffering.
But you don't need to delve into fiction to find great women. History is full of significant females, from queens and criminals to artists and scientists. They've been rated, compared and inventoried. Lists often contain many of the same names: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Mother Teresa and Amelia Earhart, to name just a few. These women are truly remarkable, but there are others just as worthy who often go overlooked.
In compiling a new list, how do we decide who merits inclusion? How should women's relative levels of influence be ascertained? This is a subjective process, but criteria must be established and acknowledged; new inventory, therefore, was developed using the following standards:
- The women changed the opinions or actions of others.
- Their impact was international.
- Their influence was positive. (Sorry, Pandora.)
- The effects were sustained over time.
- They come from a variety of professions and geographic locations.
With those stipulations in mind, here is a chronological list of the top 10 influential women.
10. Maria Montessori (1870-1952): Education Pioneer
Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Montessori is known for her educational philosophy encouraging children to be self-directed learners. Perhaps this stemmed, in part, from her school experiences. Montessori followed an autonomous course, despite being born during an era of societal disinterest in women's education. As an adolescent, she enrolled in a boys' school and studied engineering. Next came medical courses, and, in 1896, she became the first woman in Italy to earn an M.D. [source: Pendleton].
Her work in medicine, especially in psychiatry, put her in contact with many special-needs students, and Montessori began to develop principles that would promote the achievement of disenfranchised children. In 1907, she opened the "Casa dei Bambini" in an impoverished area near Rome; her "House of Children" intrigued international visitors [source: The International Montessori Index].
Montessori's work broadened to include children of all kinds. At the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco, Montessori presented an unusual educational display: 21 children, new to her school program, progressing rapidly, even under the scrutiny of fair attendees [source: The International Montessori Index].
Interest in her philosophy intensified. Montessori continued to refine her beliefs in India during World War II, while in exile for anti-fascist convictions. After the war, she opened a Roman Montessori school, where children surpassed local curricula [source: The International Montessori Index]. Such schools are now found worldwide; their child-centered tenets include the following:
- Children's potentials are not preordained.
- Children's interests should direct their learning within a natural environment, which changes depending upon needs [source: Pendleton].
- Learning situations should include individual exploration and mixed-age grouping.
Helena Rubinstein (1871-1965): Unexpected Entrepreneur
Some women joke about the hard work involved in looking beautiful. But what about the labor that goes into creating beauty products? Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer in this field, and at an early age, developed the drive and vision required to succeed when most women had no career outside of the home.
Born in Poland in 1871, Rubenstein was soon dissatisfied with the choices available in her homeland and immigrated to Australia at age 18. By 20, she had started a business selling face cream containing herbs, almond essence and Carpathian fir tree extract [source: Helena Rubenstein Foundation]. This proved quite popular, and soon Rubenstein was able to hire the Hungarian chemist who originated the cream to help develop products for specific skin types [source: Alpern]. The business expanded, and she eventually opened stores in London in 1902, Paris in 1906 and New York in 1912 [source: Helena Rubenstein Foundation].
Rubenstein pursued professional development relentlessly, seeking to improve her knowledge of beauty, diet and cosmetics. She paused once, in the late 1920s, when she sold her firm to the Lehman Brothers in an unsuccessful attempt to save her deteriorating marriage. She was able to buy back her company for pennies on the dollar during the Great Depression [source: Alpern].
But Rubenstein was more than a business whiz; she was also a philanthropist. An avid art collector, she was a benefactor to many in that field. Her greatest charitable achievement was establishing the Helena Rubenstein Foundation, an on-going endeavor to provide resources for education, community service, health and the arts.
8. Margaret Mead (1901-1978): Tireless Anthropologist
Bioterrorism, genetically modified foods, infectious diseases, renewable energy, climate change, sustainability: There are numerous complicated, controversial issues facing the world. Clear, accurate and comprehensive scientific explanations help stakeholders develop the science literacy necessary to make informed decisions. But transmitting that scientific data to lay persons is challenging. Perhaps no scientist has been as effective a communicator as anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Born in Philadelphia in 1901, Mead led a nontraditional life, graduating with a doctorate from Columbia University in 1929 [source: University of South Florida]. As an anthropologist, she believed a major purpose of her work was to share information about cultures to help people better understand themselves, leading to more benevolent and responsible societies. Whether her contributions made a difference to human behavior is debatable, but she did raise public awareness of anthropology [source: American Museum of Natural History].
As a social scientist, Mead focused primarily on women's status, parenting, childhood and personality. Her research took her to many parts of the world, but she is, perhaps, most renowned for her work in New Guinea, Bali and Samoa, the subject of her best-selling book "Coming of Age in Samoa" [source: University of South Florida]. She wrote 43 other books, more than 1,000 articles and was a regular contributor to Redbook magazine. The writings were enhanced by her photography, a seldom-used tool of other anthropologists at the time. Her additional communication efforts included lectures, radio and TV interviews, congressional testimonies, work for the American Museum of Natural History, and serving as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
7. Grace Hopper (1906-1992): Dedicated Computer Scientist
Grace Hopper was a trailblazer, ahead of her time as a woman and computer scientist. Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper was curious about machines from childhood, and regularly dismantled clocks to understand how they operated. Encouraged by her family (who probably wanted to keep their clocks intact), she obtained a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale, and then landed an associate professorship at Vassar College [source: Norman].
When World War II intervened, Hopper felt compelled to serve her country and joined the Naval Reserves. She was assigned to a computer project at Harvard, and became a programmer of the Mark I, a revolutionary computer that used weather factors to determined Naval warship gun angles. The Allies benefitted, and Hopper remained on the project, coding subsequent Mark versions [source: Norman].
At the end of the war, Hopper was forced to retire from active service. She became a research fellow at Harvard and then a mathematician in the private sector [source: Norman]. During her professional work, Hopper created the first compiler, which translated mathematical code into computer code [source: San Diego Computer Center]. She had a vision of widespread computer use, with a goal of making computers more accessible. Her next compiler understood 20 English words and helped lead to the development of COBOL, a momentous advance in computer programming [source: Yale].
Hopper retired from the Reserves in 1966, but, apparently, the Navy couldn't function without her: Seven months later she was called back to perfect its computerized payroll system [source: Norman]. She earned many awards for her business accomplishments, and in 1985 the military recognized her contributions to the Navy by promoting her to Rear Admiral.
6. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): Suffering Artist
American painter Rick Rotante is credited with saying that the creative life seems indelibly linked to struggle and strife, and the world believes that artists by nature are meant to suffer [source: The Painter's Keys.] Not all great artists lead tormented lives, but, certainly some have faced strife and expressed it through their work. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is renowned for her honest and reflective paintings. Physically, her life was a struggle. As a child, Kahlo contracted polio; then, at age 18, she was nearly killed in a streetcar accident. The damage was severe: She suffered a crushed pelvis, broken bones in her back, ribs and collarbone, and injuries to her shoulder and foot. Kahlo faced many operations and lifelong pain [source: National Museum of Women in the Arts]. She wore traditional longs skirts and shawls to hide her disfigurements [source: Cotter].
The accident sidetracked Kahlo's studies, a pre-med program she began at age 15. She turned to oil painting during her long recuperation and, through it, demonstrated her strong will and private pain [source: National Museum of Women in the Arts]. Painting in a traditional folk art style, Kahlo chose bold colors to accentuate her still life canvases and numerous self-portraits, tackling controversial subjects such as religion, politics, sex and identity [source: National Museum of Women in the Arts]. The images also conveyed personal struggles, such as her crushed backbone and several miscarriages [source: PBS].
One great source of pain and pleasure was the artist Diego Rivera, whom Kahlo married, divorced and remarried. It was a tumultuous pairing, hindered by infidelities, professional pressures and poor health. Kahlo died at 47, when complications from her accident eventually took their toll.
5. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): Feminist Philosopher
Simone de Beauvoir led a seemingly fearless life for a woman of her time. Born to a middle class French couple in 1908, she made nonconventional choices, like embracing atheism as a teen, leaving home to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, joining the French Resistance during World War II and ultimately refusing to marry.
While at the Sorbonne, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, who became her lifelong partner. They both excelled in their studies and graduated at the top of their class, [source: European Graduate School]. But, due to the chauvinism of the era, outsiders saw de Beauvoir as Sartre's student rather than a scholarly peer [source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].
Her writing challenged the status quo, patriarchal society, sexual double standards, violence, freedom, religion, racism and politics. Her controversial works include the following:
- "She Came to Stay," a philosophical examination of violence, freedom and relationships.
- "America Day by Day," a criticism of U. S. social problems.
- "The Second Sex," a feminist petition for sexual equality.
- "Force of Circumstance," a moving examination of the French/Algerian War.
- "Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre," a reflection of her relationship with the existentialist, written after his death.
As de Beauvoir slowly began to recognize herself as a feminist, her readers did, as well. While she initially believed women were accountable for a large part of their oppressed status, de Beauvoir later modified that stance, acknowledging the interaction of personal responsibility and social pressures [source: North Virginia Community College].
4. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994): Nobel Prize-winning Chemist
A young girl puts band-aids on her teddy bear, and her mother, a physician, sees medical school in the future. That same girl makes an impassioned plea for ice cream after dinner and her father, a lawyer, sees her arguing in front of the Supreme Court. Many parents hope their children follow in their professional footsteps, and, surely, some people are attracted to the work they see from a young age. Sometimes, though, humankind benefits from a child who pursues her own dreams.
Dorothy Hodgkin was born in Cairo in 1910 and shared her father's love for archaeology; a summer break experience at a dig in Jordan nearly resulted in her switching majors. She stuck with chemistry, however, and the world is undoubtedly a healthier place for that [source: Nobelprize.org].
After studying at both Cambridge and Oxford, Hodgkin taught and conducted research at Oxford's Somerville College. She sought to determine the structure of organic molecules using equipment, which, at the time, was very advanced. Her first breakthrough came in identifying the structure of penicillin, which led to the creation of new antibiotics. She accomplished the same analysis for vitamin B-12 and insulin [source: The Times, London]. The structural discoveries helped improve the use of these medications for pernicious anemia and diabetes, respectively. In 1964, Hodgkin became the first British woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry [source Wilton].
3. Gertrude Elion (1918-1999): Inspired Medical Researcher
Gertrude Elion's inspiration for success was close to home: her grandfather's death due to cancer. She never gave up on her goal to find a cure for cancer, even when she faced gender discrimination within her profession. She was born in New York City in 1918, and earned a chemistry degree from Hunter College, but as a woman, she couldn't find work in her field. To make ends meet, she attended a secretarial institute and taught high school while earning a Master of Chemistry from New York University.
World War II had a great impact: With fewer men available to work in industry, Elion was hired as a chemist at Burroughs Wellcome (later GlaxoSmithKline). Once in the lab, she excelled, co-creating two of the first viable drugs for leukemia and another that prevented kidney transplant rejection [source: Avery]. Although she never had time to complete her doctorate, she guided Duke University medical students, who assisted her in research [source: Nobelprize.org].
Elion earned 45 patents and received 23 honorary degrees, but, arguably, her most prestigious award was the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Cancer had not yet been cured, but many lives were improved or saved through her perseverance [source: Avery].
2. Doris Lessing (1919- ): Humanist Writer
Some authors are inspired by the supernatural, like J.K. Rowling and her "Harry Potter" series. Other writers observe history, as Patrick O'Brian did in "Master and Commander." Still others, like Mark Twain, reflect upon the cultural and social climate of their own era. Doris Lessing, the 2007 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, drew upon her vast life experiences for material.
She was born in Persia (now Iran) and moved to southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), but left home at the age of 15 to work in childcare. After leaving home, Lessing earned money selling short stories to magazines, but it wasn't until she moved to London in 1949 that writing became her career [source: DorisLessing.org]. There are reoccurring themes in Lessing's works, like her experiences in Africa, politics (including social and racial injustice), personal struggles, individual versus group needs and colonialism [source: The New York Times].
Her books were popular with the masses, but not the elites; for years, she was banned from southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Some critics, too, disliked her for the "unladylike" portrayal of women as angry and aggressive. Her titles include the following:
- "The Golden Notebook," recognized as a feminist and political novel.
- "The Good Terrorist," a novel about disenchantment with the communist movement.
- "Under My Skin," her autobiography.
- "Briefing for a Decent into Hell," a novel about mental illness.
1. Queen Noor (1951- ): International Humanitarian
As of mid 2010, the latest estimates of nuclear weapons caches were daunting. Russia had 12,000, and the United States had at least 9,600. Examining other countries shows there's a sharp decrease in nuclear readiness: France with 300, China with 240, and the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan and India with fewer than 100. North Korea didn't have 10, yet [source: Federation of American Scientists]. What are the plans for these arsenals?
Using them, obviously, would be cataclysmic. What about reduction and eventual elimination? That's the goal of Global Zero, an organization established in 2008. One of its founders, Queen Noor of Jordan, is an international crusader battling poverty, nuclear arms and cultural intolerance. She consulted on the 2010 movie "Countdown to Zero," a documentary tracing the historical development of nuclear weapons and their present dangers [source: Los Angeles Times].
Born Lisa Najeeb Halaby in the United States, Queen Noor married King Hussein in 1978 and began working to promote cross-cultural and political understanding. Along with nuclear disarmament, one of her main areas of concern is the advancement of Arab-Western relations. A sampling of her other humanitarian interests includes the King Hussein Foundation International where she advises on economic, educational and cultural causes; the International Commission on Missing Persons where she assists with missing persons related to War in the Balkans; the United Nations where she counsels on central Asia; and Refugees International where her role is assisting displaced persons [source: King Hussein Foundation].
Queen Noor, like all the women on this list, has used her considerable talents to positively impact the world, not just once, but throughout the course of her life. Pandora just can't compete.
Lots More Information
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