22 Famous Women in History You Need to Learn About ASAP

famous women in history  sally ride
You Need to Know These Trailblazing Women's NamesGetty/Cosmopolitan


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It should come as no shock that some of the most incredible advocates, inventors, writers, politicians, and activists in history have been famous women. Chances are you've already heard about a whole bunch of them: Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Vera Wang, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kamala Harris, Indira Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Frida Kahlo, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just to name a few badass ladies. You know Simone Biles, you know Beyoncé (obv). You know Venus and Serena Williams.

But it's also unsurprising that so many more trailblazing women, who completely changed how we see and move through the world, are just starting to get the recognition they deserve. They might be famous now, yes, but you might not know the full extent of their amazingness. Or, they were/are well-known and recognized in their field, but now they're becoming known by ~everyone~. We've got the "Queen of Carbon" who helped invent the tech in all our smartphones. We've got one of the first movie directors, like, ever. We've got the Black sci-fi author with a cult following who kinda predicted the future. And we've got the famous actress who also invented the basic GPS technology pretty much everyone uses 24/7.

Whether you want to feel inspired by some female-identifying icons, want to do some research on women you'd like to emulate, or want to learn more about incredible figures who probably shaped your life, we've got a big ol' list of famous women that you should learn about ASAP. Below, read more about 22 history-changing women you should know about immediately.

Dolores Huerta

One of the most renowned civil rights activists and prominent union activists in history, Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez. Before organizing farm workers in California and New Mexico, she worked to register voters and improve economic conditions for Hispanic Americans. She led labor strikes and consumer boycotts to enact real change. She is also a leading figure in intersectional feminism and was the inaugural recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998.

the landmark westwood presents opening night screening and panel for a song for cesar
Amanda Edwards - Getty Images

Queen Lili'uokalani

Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha of the Kamehameha Dynasty was the last ruling monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. She was arrested and overthrown in a coup d'etat in the 1900s that ultimately led to Hawaii's statehood after 100 years and a series of turbulent events. Lili'uokalani fought for her people and the sovereignty of her nation until she died in 1917. It wasn't until 1993 that the United States government officially acknowledged their role in the overthrow of the Kingdom.

Lili'uokalani also composed many songs, including "Aloha Oe," which was popularized in America by singers like Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley (and, for the Disney kids, in Lilo & Stitch).

queen liliuokalani of hawaii
Bettmann - Getty Images

Hallie Flanagan

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the country out of the Great Depression by creating jobs under the Works Progress Administration. This included positions in the performing arts. Hallie Flanagan was the director of the Federal Theatre Project, an organization dedicated to producing theatre not just on Broadway in New York City, but all over the country by establishing regional and local theaters. Flanagan made theatre accessible for all Americans in a way that had never been done before. Under Flanagan's leadership, the project also focused on racial integration and justice in the performing arts. Unfortunately, due to liberal views and alleged Communism, Congress deemed the Federal Theatre Project controversial and pulled its funding. Flanagan was one of the first to testify in front of the Dies Committee, which would later become the House Un-American Activities Committee.

hallie flanagan
Wikimedia Commons

Anna May Wong a.k.a. Wong Liu Tsong

Wong was the first Chinese American movie star, both in Hollywood and internationally, and the first Asian American woman to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She overcame discrimination and racism in her personal life and in Hollywood; and ultimately changed how Asian people are viewed on screen for the better. Not only was she initially cast in stereotypical parts, but there were actual rules against interracial couples, called anti-miscegenation laws, that prevented her from being cast as a romantic interest at all. Wong was undeniable: she learned French and German when talkies became popular. She founded her own, albeit short-lived, production company. She worked on Broadway and lead a detective television show. Wong was a multi-hyphenate well before that became the norm.

actress anna may wong
Bettmann - Getty Images

Corazon Aquino

Corazon Aquino was President of the Philippines from 1986-1992 under some extraordinary circumstances. She was a Senator's wife and became a political leader in the People Power Revolution after her husband, a vocal opponent of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was assassinated. Her election ended Marcos' two-decade rule. While her presidency was not without controversy, she restored a bicameral congress and democracy to the Philippines.

philippine president corazon aquino at white house
Bettmann - Getty Images

Isabelle Allende

You may have read Chilean American author Isabelle Allende's novel The House of the Spirits in high school, but her contribution to literature and magical realism cannot be overstated. Allende wrote The House of the Spirits when she was exiled in Venezuela following a political coup. She was the first woman to receive the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 1998. The award is given to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life."

portrait of isabel allende
Douglas Elbinger - Getty Images

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman and first Black person in general to receive a pilot's license. Because of gender and racial discrimination, she learned French and went to Paris to do so. When Bessie returned to the United States, she was a celebrity. She did dangerous stunts for money, earning the nicknames Queen Bess and Brave Bessie. She also refused to speak at any event that was segregated or didn't permit Black people to attend and stood up against segregation at aviation events with some success. Unfortunately, her story has a tragic ending–she died in a plane crash in 1926 during a test flight when she was only 34 years old.

pioneer aviator bessie coleman
George Rinhart - Getty Images

Alice Guy-Blache

In 2024, it feels like pulling teeth to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists to recognize woman directors. But that doesn't change the fact that women have been directing film since its invention. In fact, French director Alice Guy-Blache was arguably the inventor of narrative film, meaning the first to use moving pictures to tell a story, along with her contemporaries the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. Regardless of who was or was not the first, she was a pioneer filmmaker who made dozens of films and we never talk about her!

alice guy blache portrait
Donaldson Collection - Getty Images

Zaha Hadid

Only a handful of women have ever won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, and Dame Zaha Hadid was the first in 2004. She was called the "Queen of Curves" and considered to be the greatest female architect in the world when she died in 2016. She also designed furniture and even a set of cutlery. Her museums, stadiums, bridges, towers, and public housing estates can be found all over the world.

opening of the new serpentine sackler gallery designed by zaha hadid
Oli Scarff - Getty Images

Margaret Chung

The first American-born Chinese female physician was a woman named Margaret Chung. She was ambitious from a young age and worked for a newspaper and as an English teacher before graduating from medical school. She served as a volunteer surgeon in World War II. She treated celebrities, including Mary Pickford. She dallied in the criminal underground with opium traffickers. She "adopted" military pilots who nicknamed her "Mom" Chung. She would have up to and sometimes over 100 people over for Sunday and Thanksgiving dinners, where the only rule was that the men cleaned up. She helped establish the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, aka WAVES, but was not allowed to join because the government thought she might be a lesbian–which, even though the Lavender Scare officially started a few years later, was still grounds to blacklist people like Chung.

margaret chung portrait
Wikimedia Commons

Mildred Dresselhaus

You may not have heard of the scientist and engineer, but Dresselhaus fundamentally changed our lives for the better. One of the first female professors at MIT, her research was at the cutting edge of carbon-based materials. She and her group made huge advances in carbon nanostructures, and the related technology appears in microelectronics, concrete, sports equipment, and elsewhere in our daily lives. She also fought for equality for women and helped create support systems for female scientists in academia. She's now known as the "Queen of Carbon"! (Fun fact: Dresselhaus was interviewed by Cosmo all the way back in 1976.)

mildred dresselhaus, usa, loreal unesco award for women in science, 2007 laureate for north america, for her research on solid state materials, including conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes photo by micheline pelletiergamma rapho via getty images
Micheline PELLETIER - Getty Images

Octavia E. Butler

The first sci-fi author to get a MacArthur Fellowship, Butler authored the Xenogenesis trilogy and The Parable series, among other works. Often considered one of the best science fiction authors of all time, she took a critical look at humankind—writing about possible futures to serve as a warning to her readers. Butler's novels are considered even more relevant today: She predicted the rise of U.S. political extremism, climate change, and religious fundamentalism, questioned the norms of gender identity, and told stories that centered on multi-ethnic communities. So it's no surprise she also made our list of Top Books to Read by Black Authors.

octavia e butler photo by malcolm aliwireimage
Malcolm Ali - Getty Images

Virginia Woolf

You probably know Woolf if you studied her literature, but you may be less familiar with her life: A bisexual who pursued relationships with women, she was an early feminist writer and helped expand access to the (male-dominated) literary world. She actively spoke out about the disadvantages female artists face and inspired many other women in her wake. All this is even more impressive, considering Woolf was also a survivor of early sexual abuse, and it's speculated she may have had what we now call bipolar disorder.

english novelist and critic virginia woolf 1882 1941 photo by george c beresfordhulton archivegetty images
George C. Beresford - Getty Images

Sally Ride

The first American woman and the third woman ever to go to space, flying on the Challenger in 1983, Ride was also the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut. She spent 27 years with her partner Tam O'Shaughnessy (and when President Obama bestowed Ride with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, O'Shaughnessy accepted the award). After leaving NASA, Ride served as director of the California Space Science Institute; She also strove to help women and girls who wanted to study STEM subjects, working with science programs and authoring children's books. She was immortalized as a Barbie in 2019.

original caption johnson space center, houston, texas on board scene astronaut sally k ride, sts 7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the earth orbiting space shuttle challenger dr ride holds a tape recorder the photograph was taken by one of her four fellow crewmembers with a 35mm camera
Bettmann - Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm

Know your Black history heroes! The first Black woman to serve in Congress in 1968, Chisholm (nicknamed "Fighting Shirley") was also the first Black person and the first woman to run for U.S. president. In 1964, she became the second Black person to serve in the New York State Legislature. She then co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, was the first Black woman to serve on the House Rules Committee, and spent her life championing equality, pacifism, and ending poverty.

american politician us representative shirley chisholm 1924 2005 speaks at a congressional black caucus event related to the state of the union address, washington dc, january 31, 1973 photo by warren k lefflerus news world report magazine photograph collectionphotoquestgetty images
PhotoQuest - Getty Images

Jackie MacMullan

MacMullan helped pave the way for women in sports journalism. She's a Hall of Fame basketball writer and former Boston Globe reporter and columnist who won the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing in 2019. "As I went along in my career, there were all these incredibly talented young women that were just looking for a little guidance, and it was my pleasure to provide that guidance," she said. She retired from ESPN in 2021, but she's still working, just unveiling a podcast miniseries with The Ringer network interviewing NBA superstars like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

new york, new york september 26 jackie mac macmullan attends the basketball a love story new york screening at the paley center for media on september 26, 2018 in new york city photo by nicholas huntgetty images
Nicholas Hunt - Getty Images

Sarah Storey

Storey is Great Britain's most decorated Paralympian, with 17 (!!) gold medals and 27 (!!) Olympic medals total. Born without a functional left hand, she dealt with bullying, eating disorders, and prejudice before becoming one of the world's most decorated, popular, and visible Paralympians. She and her husband run Storey Racing, which is focused on mentoring young women, and Storey's been vocal about equity in sports participation and coverage, saying, "It still doesn't receive the mainstream TV coverage and column inches that it deserves." As an advocate for accessibility, she's the Cycling & Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester.

tokyo, japan august 31sarah storey of team great britain celebrates winning the gold medal during cycling road women’s c5 time trial on day 7 of the tokyo 2020 paralympic games at fuji international speedway on august 31, 2021 in tokyo, japan photo by moto yoshimuragetty images
Moto Yoshimura - Getty Images

Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson played a pivotal role in the progress of LGBTQ+ rights. In her own words, her middle initial, "P," stood for “Pay It No Mind,” which was her response when asked about her gender. She was present at the Stonewall Riots and cofounded one of the first transgender rights organizations in the country: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Johnson, who identified as a transvestite but who is seen now as a transgender woman of color, is now being recognized more fully as the transformative figure she was.

marsha p johnson famous women in history
The Legacy Project Chicago

Ida B. Wells

Born as an enslaved person, Wells was a civil rights leader and one of the founders of the NAACP. In 1883, she was removed from a train because she refused to give up her seat; She sued the railway company. Wells became editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper in 1889 and wrote about a myriad of issues around inequality, including revealing the practices of lynching. A white mob destroyed the newspaper office, but she continued to be an outspoken advocate of women's rights and civil rights. After her death, she received a Pulitzer Prize citation; She was also just immortalized in Barbie form for her "fearless activism."

american journalist and civil rights activist, ida b wells 1862 1931, 1920 photo by chicago history museumgetty images
Chicago History Museum - Getty Images

Leslee Udwin

This former filmmaker is a human rights campaigner whose films include India's Daughter, which centered around the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. Based on what she learned, in 2016, she founded Think Equal to promote early childhood development, and has dedicated her life to ensuring every child around the world has access to foundational education that will enable them to live better lives. In 2019, she won the UN Women for Peace Activism in Arts and Education Award.

london, england october 19 producer lesley udwin attends the west is west premiere during the 54th bfi london film festival at the vue west end on october 19, 2010 in london, england photo by samir husseingetty images
Samir Hussein - Getty Images

Hedy Lamarr

Lamarr's most known for being a glamorous film actor, but did you know that she also helped invent the basic GPS technology that you use every day? Along with composer George Antheil, they developed radio frequency-hopping as a radio-guiding system for American torpedoes during World War II (which was ahead of its time and eventually used in the 1960s). The "Mother of Wi-Fi"was left off a patent of her invention, though, because she was not a citizen, and she died without ever being compensated.

original caption hedy lamarr, wearing large picture hat and black lace gloves
Bettmann - Getty Images

Tarana Burke

If you've participated in the #MeToo movement, you're supporting the cause that Burke started in 2006. A rape and sexual abuse survivor, she has had a lifelong career as a community organizer and founder. She was named one of TIME's Person of the Year in 2017, and the #MeToo hashtag has been used more than 19 million times. In 2021, she announced the launch of "We, As Ourselves"with actor Jurnee Smollet and in partnership with the National Women's Law Center and the TIME'S UP Foundation. She aims to reshape the narrative about sexual violence and enable Black survivors to share stories and be supported.

los angeles, california april 22 in this image released on april 22, 2021, tarana burke speaks onstage during essence black women in hollywood awards in los angeles, california photo by randy shropshiregetty images for essence
Randy Shropshire - Getty Images

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