Famous women A-Z
Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was an African-American author and poet, best known for her series of seven autobiographies the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became an immediate bestseller in 1969. Born in St Louis, Missouri, Angelou suffered a traumatic childhood and as a result did not speak for almost five years. She studied dance and acting in California, and had a son a few weeks after graduating from high school. As a single parent, she looked after her son and took on a variety of jobs. In the 1950s she toured Europe with a production of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, and recorded her first album.
In 1959, Maya Angelou moved to New York and became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, starting work on her autobiography. She also became involved in the civil rights movement, and met both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. During the 1960s she acted in many plays and movies, as well as writing a TV series, and directing her own theatre productions. Her publications include her autobiography, collections of poems, children’s books and cookbooks. In 1993, she was invited to write and read a poem at the inauguration of president Bill Clinton. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mary Anning (1799–1847) was an English fossil-hunter and self-taught palaeontologist who was once described as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew". A fossil discovered and excavated by Mary and her brother Joseph in 1810–11 was the first complete ichthyosaur fossil to be found, and it brought Mary to the attention of collectors and scientists in London. Amongst many other later finds, Mary discovered the first complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus in 1824, and the flying reptile Pterodactylus in 1828. As a woman, Mary Anning was not permitted to become a member of the newly formed Geological Society of London. Yet many palaeontologists sought her advice for their research. Her discoveries significantly helped the work of many British scientists by providing them with specimens to study.
Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) was an American social reformer who played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement (the campaign to win the right to vote) in the USA during the 19th century. She was also a leading activist in the anti-slavery campaign and the temperance movement, which aimed to limit or stop the production and sale of alcohol. In 1851, Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at an anti-slavery conference. Together they founded the Women’s Temperance Society. At a temperance conference held in Albany, Anthony was not allowed to make a speech—because she was a woman. These and other experiences led Anthony to focus much of her attention on suffrage and the fight for women’s rights over the subsequent years. She organized anti-slavery meetings and spoke out fearlessly in favour of a racially integrated society. Her views were highly controversial at that time, and she often encountered violence as well as receiving threats. Although Susan Anthony did not live to see universal women’s suffrage in the USA, which was finally won in 1920, her work was instrumental to ensuring the movement's eventual success.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, October 2013Aung San Suu Kyi (born 1945) is a Burmese human rights activist who has become an international symbol of peaceful protest in the face of political oppression. In 1988, Suu Kyi organized rallies all over Burma, speaking out against the military dictator General Ne Win and calling for reform. In September 1988 there was a military coup, and the army moved to suppress the demonstrations, killing thousands of protesters. The following year Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon (she was not allowed to leave her house). The government offered to release her if she would leave the country, but she refused until reforms had been introduced and political prisoners released. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for long periods of time until 2010, during which she won the Nobel Peace Prize (1991). After her release in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected a member of parliament and is now actively involved in politics in Burma.
American biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907–64) is famous for writing about global environmental issues. As a child she developed a great passion for nature through exploring the countryside near her family farm. She studied biology at Pennsylvania College for Women and zoology at Johns Hopkins University. She developed a passion for the ocean, and wrote a number of books, articles and radio scripts about marine life. In the 1940s and 50s, Carson became more and more concerned about the effects of chemicals and pesticides on the environment. Her most famous book, Silent Spring, was published in 1956. Focusing especially on the impact of the use of pesticides on birds, the book alerted the public to the dangers of damaging the environment. Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964.
Edith Cavell (1865–1915) was an English nurse who, during World War I, cared for wounded soldiers of both sides. Based at a Red Cross hospital in Belgium, Edith became involved in secretly helping Allied (French, British and Belgian) soldiers to escape to the Netherlands, which was a neutral country. She sheltered the soldiers until they could make their way to safety, led by guides organized by a Belgian architect named Philippe Baucq. It was dangerous work, and in August 1915 an informer betrayed them. By that time Edith had helped about 200 soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium. She and Baucq were arrested and shot by the Germans. Her execution caused outrage, and she became a much-publicized heroine for the Allies.
Emily Davison (1872–1913) was an English suffragette who was fatally injured at the Epsom Derby in 1913 when she stepped out on to the racetrack and collided with King George V’s horse. In Britain at the start of the 20th century, women could not vote in parliamentary elections or stand as MPs. Campaigners for women’s suffrage—the right to vote—had set up groups in most major towns. In 1903 a new militant organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was set up in Manchester led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. Members of this new group were called suffragettes and would use any means necessary, including violence, to get the vote. Some women, for example, chained themselves to railings, broke shop windows and attacked paintings in the National Gallery in London. Many, including Emily Davison, went to prison. It is not known whether Emily intended to give her own life for her cause; it has been recently suggested that she was trying to attach a scarf to the horse's bridle.
Amelia Earhart, 1937Amelia Earheart (1897–1937) was an American aviator who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. She attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world. Having she successfully completed more than three-quarters of the journey, Earhart’s plane disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. Neither the wreckage nor her body were ever found. Amelia Earhart was much celebrated during her lifetime, and helped to open up the new profession of aviation to other women.
Anne Frank (1929–45) was a young German Jewish girl whose account of being forced to go into hiding with her family during World War II has since become a classic of war literature. To avoid being sent to work in Nazi work camps, the Frank family, along with other family friends, went into hiding in an empty space at the back of Anne's father's company building in Amsterdam, 1942. There, 13-year-old Anne, who had already began recording her life before she went into hiding, wrote about what it was like to live in such cramped and frightening circumstances. The Gestapo, the Nazi Secret State Police, eventually discovered the Franks' hiding place in August 1944. Taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Anne and her sister died from typhus just before the end of the war, in March 1945.
Rosalind Franklin (1920–58) was an English chemist. She made a crucial contribution to the understanding of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA confirmed that the molecule had a shape of a double helix. X-ray diffraction is a scientific method for discovering the structure of a crystal. A crystal's atoms cause a beam of X-rays to diffract (spread out) in many different directions. By measuring the angles and intensity of the diffracted beams, scientists can produce 3D images showing the positions of the atoms making up the crystal.
Rosalind Franklin's work was shown in 1952—without her approval or knowledge—to biologist James Watson (born 1928) who at the time was working with Francis Crick (1916–2004) on identifying the structure of DNA. The evidence was crucial to Crick and Watson's success in discovering DNA's molecular structure. Crick, Watson and Rosalind's colleague Maurice Wilkins jointly received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions to the discovery. But Rosalind had died in 1958 and therefore could not be nominated.
Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) was an English Quaker who dedicated much of her adult life to helping those in need. A compassionate and brave campaigner, she became well known for her fight to improve the conditions of women prisoners in the early 19th century. She was first alerted to the situation when she visited Newgate Prison in London in 1811. She was appalled by what she found, particularly the plight of the women and children. She immediately began to provide practical help in the form of clothing and other essentials for the prisoners. Her pioneering work inspired other women to play a fuller role in society, and her ideas for reforms in prisons, asylums and elsewhere continued to be influential long after her death.
Dame Jane Goodall (born 1934) is an English primatologist (an expert on primates). She is best known for her 45-year study of the lives of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Goodall began her studies in 1960. She soon became aware that the apes had distinct personalities and formed relationships with each other. Her research also showed that chimpanzees were not only highly intelligent, they were also were tool-makers; at the time it was believed only humans could make and use tools. She observed a chimp carefully inserting twigs into a termite mound, then removing them—covered with termites, which it ate. Goodall also witnessed chimps, once thought to be vegetarian, participating in hunts for monkeys.
Amy Johnson (1903–1941) was an English aviator, who became a celebrity in her own lifetime after becoming the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, in 1930. Born in Hull, Yorkshire, Johnson graduated from the University of Sheffield before going to work in London. She started flying as a hobby, getting her pilot’s licence in 1928. In the same year she became the first British woman to qualify as a ground engineer. Her father and Lord Wakefield, a wealthy businessman, helped her to buy a Gipsy Moth aircraft, which she named "Jason". It was in this plane that Amy Johnson made her record-breaking flight. Taking off from Croydon in the UK on 5th May she flew to Darwin in Australia, reaching it on 24th May—a distance of 17,700 kilometres (11,000 miles).
Johnson went on to set many other records, some with her husband Jim Mollison, whom she married in 1932 (they divorced in 1938). When war broke out in 1939, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a group of experienced pilots who could not serve in the RAF. On a routine flight on 5th January 1941, Johnson crashed into the River Thames and drowned. Her body was never recovered.
A childhood illness left American Helen Keller (1880–1968) blind and deaf. With the help of a remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen overcame her disabilities to lead an extraordinary life as a political and social activist, and a strong advocate for blind people all over the world. Having received a college degree in 1904, Helen began to use her celebrity to try to improve the lives of others, particularly those with disabilities. She also spoke out as a suffragist in favour of the right to vote for women, as a pacifist, and as a supporter of birth control—all highly controversial issues at that time. Lecture tours took her all over the world, and centres were established in her name in many places to help the blind. Her remarkable life became the subject of many books, films and plays.
English mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815–52) first met Charles Babbage (1791–1871) in 1833. In her Notes of 1843, accompanying an article explaining how Babbage's Analytical Engine, a device designed to perform calculations using punched cards (but never actually built) would work, Lovelace wrote about her belief that such a machine had the potential to perform much more elaborate functions than simply making mathematical calculations—just as modern computers do today. She demonstrated this by completing a program for the Analytical Engine: a method for calculating a certain mathematical sequence. Effectively, she had written the world's first algorithm, a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Ada Lovelace is today considered the world's first computer programmer.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an English nurse who worked to improve the quality of medical care for British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–56). Amongst other innovations, she greatly improved sanitary conditions in the Scutari hospital where she worked, reducing the spread of disease which caused so many unnecessary deaths. Her work in the Crimea and later writings on nursing led to major changes in the way that hospitals were run. Her influences can still be found in hospital wards today. Florence Nightingale grew up in a society in which nursing was not a respectable job for a woman, but through her efforts and determination she paved the way for women from all backgrounds to follow her example. In 1907 Florence Nightingale became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. A year later she was given the Freedom of the City of London, an award which recognized her outstanding achievements.
Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was an African-American civil rights activist. It was in Montgomery, Alabama, on 1st December 1955, that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. At that time and place, the seats on buses were segregated between white and black people. Rosa was sitting in the "coloured section" of the bus and the "white section" was full. She was arrested for violating the city’s segregation laws. In response, the African-American community decided to boycott (refuse to travel on) the city’s buses. An organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with Martin Luther King as its leader. In 1956 the US Supreme Court ruled that the buses must be desegregated. Meanwhile, however, Rosa had been fired from her job as a seamstress in a department store. She later moved to Detroit. From 1965 to 1988, she worked as secretary to US Representative John Conyers, also an African-American. She received national recognition for her action, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Pocahontas (c.1596–1617) was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, chief of the Native American Powhatan tribe. Her father nicknamed his beloved daughter, whose birth name was Matoaka, Pocahontas, which means "laughing and joyous one". English settlers arrived in Powhatan territory (now part of Virginia) and founded the settlement of Jamestown there in 1607. The Powhatan initially welcomed the English, but relations worsened as the English began to demand more food than the Indians could spare. According to legend, Pocahontas saved the life of English adventurer Captain John Smith from execution by the Powhatans by placing herself in front of him just as he was about to have his head clubbed.
In 1613 the English decided to capture Pocahontas and use her as a bargaining tool with the Powhatan. They demanded a ransom of English prisoners and weapons for her return, which was paid by her father. But Pocahontas was never released. Instead, she married an English settler, John Rolfe, the following year.
In 1616 Pocahontas sailed with her husband and young son to England, where she was presented as a "princess", daughter of the "most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia", and was entertained by King James I. After boarding the ship for the voyage home Pocahontas was taken ill and died in 1617.
Mary Seacole (1805–81) was born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British army; her mother was a free Jamaican. Mary developed an interest in medicine from watching her mother, a "doctress" skilled in traditional medicine, at work. In 1836 she married a merchant named Edwin Horatio Seacole. In 1850 Mary treated patients during a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people in Jamaica. By this time she had become a shrewd businesswoman, setting up a hotel in Panama for travellers making their way to the goldfields of California.
In 1854, Mary visited Britain to deal with her own investments in the gold-mining business. While she was in London, she read reports of the plight of soldiers injured while fighting in the Crimean War. Although her attempts to join the nurses were unsuccessful, Mary travelled to the Crimea and worked as a "sutler"—selling food and other supplies to the British troops. With her business partner, she ran the British Hotel near Balaclava on the Crimean Peninsula. She met Florence Nightingale, and became a familiar figure at the hospitals on the front, where her medical knowledge allowed her to work with the sick and comfort the dying.
After the war, she published an autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), which became a bestseller. She died in London in 1881.
Marie Stopes (1880–1958) was an English academic and pioneer in the field of birth control. She grew up in a wealthy and educated family, and took a degree at London University, before continuing her studies in palaeontology. She was the first female lecturer at the University of Manchester. She married in 1911, but the marriage broke down and came to an end in 1914. Drawing on her experiences she wrote a book, Married Love, which was published in 1918 and quickly became a bestseller. A second book about birth control, Wise Parenthood, quickly followed. In the same year she married Humphrey Verdon Roe, who supported her views. In 1921, Stopes and her husband founded the first family planning clinic in the UK, in north London. Over the following years, other clinics were established in towns and cities across the UK. In her later years, Stopes turned to writing poetry and plays.
Blessed Mother Teresa (1910–97) was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity. Together with the other sisters of the Order she dedicated her life to caring for the poor and needy, particularly in India. In the 1950s and 60s, she opened a number of centres across India. These were places where people suffering from leprosy or with terminal illnesses who had nowhere else to go could come to die in dignity and peace. There also homes to care for the blind, elderly and disabled. She was widely recognized for her work, which extended worldwide by the time of her death in 1997.
American anti-slavery and women rights' campaigner Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) escaped slavery to become one of the leading abolitionists in the time before the American Civil War (1861–65). She was put to work as a house servant at around the age of five or six years old, and experienced physical violence, including whippings, from that time. Having escaped and fled to Philadelphia, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad and served as a scout, a nurse and a spy in the Union forces during the Civil War. In later life she spoke out for women’s suffrage, giving speeches in favour of women’s right to vote. Her bravery and generosity of spirit has continued to inspire generations of Americans.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was an English champion of women’s rights. She is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues for educational equality for women. She was a governess before working as a translator and reviewer in London. She went to France in 1792 to experience the French Revolution, and had an affair with an American adventurer called Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter. When the relationship broke down she attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. On her return to London she married the journalist William Godwin, in 1797. She had a second daughter, named Mary (who was later to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and write the novel, Frankenstein), but died soon after giving birth. During the 20th century, Mary Wollstonecraft came to be regarded as one of the earliest pioneers of feminism.
Malala in 2014Malala Youafzai (born 1997) is a Pakistani campaigner who from an early age spoke out publicly against the activities of the Taliban as they tried to suppress girls’ education in her homeland. Malala’s efforts to protect girls’ education—appearing on television and writing blogs—led the Taliban to issue death threats against her and her family. On 9th October 2012, a masked gunman attacked the 15-year-old Malala, shooting her in the head. She survived the assassination attempt, and has since received numerous prizes and accolades for her work promoting the rights of girls and women all over the world.
Consultant: Philip Parker