Women pioneers who changed the world exerted an influence in ways that reached far beyond their lifetime, despite the enormous obstacles they faced. These women refused to be bound by the restrictions of the society they lived in.
This list of Women Pioneers is far from extensive. Some women are well known, while others are lost in the Whispers of Time.
Women Pioneers Who Changed The World, Murasaki Shikibu 1000 A.D.
Murasaki Shikibu produced what is widely held as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, written between 1000 and 1012 A.D. It was a long and complex novel that took nearly a decade to finish, and is priceless to Japanese literature.
Shikibu created a new genre in literature and a poet, with a collection of over 128 poems. Her writing reflects the inception and evolution of Japanese writing from unscripted vernacular to a written language.
She was well educated and learnt Chinese, something that was the sole privilege of males. Shikibu married to a much older, distant cousin. She had a forceful personality that made for few friends. Loneliness was a real problem following her husband’s death.
Her writing caught the attention of the Empress, who employed Shikibu as a lady-in-waiting. She became a companion and tutor to the empress. Shikibu kept detailed records of Heian court life.
Women Pioneers Who Changed The World in the 1800s
Susan B Anthony 1820-1906
Susan B Anthony was an American social reformer and a women’s rights activist. She was a champion of temperance, abolition, the rights of labour, and equal pay for equal work. Antony was an accomplished orator, even though society said it was improper for women to speak in public. The threat of arrest did not deter her.
Susan was born into the Quaker tradition of independence and moral zeal. Like Thomas Jefferson, they believed in equality for all. In 1856, Anthony became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She was one of the most visible crusaders in the women’s suffragette movement.
Her discipline, energy, and ability to organize made her a strong and successful leader. Many admired her, while others hated her ideas.
In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting and fined $100. This brought national attention to the suffragette movement. Antony’s work paved the way for American women to receive the vote in 1920.
Elizabeth Blackwell 1821-1910
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, and the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council. British born Blackwell came from a large, prosperous, and cultured family and was well educated by private tutors.
Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles in college. Professors forced her to sit separately at lectures and often excluded her from labs. Local townspeople shunned her as a “bad” woman for defying her gender role. Blackwell pioneered education for women in medicine and opened her own medical college for women.
Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother supported female suffrage but condemned Woodhull’s free love philosophy in his sermons. A national uproar erupted over the story. U.S. Marshals arrested Woodhull, her husband, James Blood, and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, on charges of publishing an obscene newspaper.
Blackwell played an important role in both America and Britain, as a social awareness and moral reformer. Her sister-in-law, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, was the first ordained female minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination.
Harriet Taubman 1822-1913
Harriet Taubman was an American abolitionist and social activist. Born into slavery, Taubman escaped, leaving behind her free husband, children and parents. Her husband refused to go with her.
She subsequently made 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends. Taubman displayed extraordinary courage, persistence and iron discipline, which she enforced on her charges, at gunpoint.
She helped guide 300 people out of slavery, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Taubman never lost a charge. She became known as ‘Moses of the People’. Slaveholders offered $40,000 for her capture.
During the American Civil War, Taubman served as an armed scout, spy and nurse for the Union. In her later years, she was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage.
Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927
Victoria Woodhull was one of the women pioneers who changed the world with a far-reaching influence. Woodhull was an unconventional reformer who championed such diverse causes as women’s suffrage, free love, mystical socialism, labour reform and the Greenback movement.
Woodhull married at age 15 and was the first woman to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She was also the first woman to start a weekly newspaper.
Woodhull was an advocate of the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children without social restriction or government interference. She was a leader in the women’s suffragette movement.
In 1872, Woodhull ran for President of the United States, though it would be 50 years before women would have the right to vote. She was younger than the mandatory age of 35.
Anna Bissell 1846-1936
Anna Sutherland Bissell was a Canadian-American businesswoman. She was the first woman CEO in the United States, heading the Bissell Corporation. It was a time when the place of women was in the home.
Bissell helped co-found the company. Following the death of her husband, she moved the Bissell carpet cleaner onto the international market.
Bissell formulated many business practices which are still in use today, as well as being a generous philanthropist. In 1989, Bissell was honoured in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and the Grand Rapids Community honoured her with a statue in 2006.
Edith Wharton 1862-1937
Edith Wharton was born into a society where the only fit occupation for a woman was marriage and homemaking. As an aristocrat, it was considered below her position to become an author.
At age 17, Edith “came out” in society, observing the rituals of her privileged world. A world she would later gleefully skewer in her fiction writing. Still unmarried at 23, Edith was rapidly approaching “old maid” status.
Eager to escape Newport society, in 1901 Wharton and her husband bought 113-acres in Lenox, then designed and built The Mount. It was a home that would meet her needs as designer, gardener, hostess, and above all, writer. Every aspect of the estate, including its gardens, architecture, and interior design, evoked the spirit of its creator. The Whartons sold The Mount in 1911 and divorced in 1913.
Wharton broke through society’s strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers, publishing 40 books, across 40 years. Wharton was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1996, they posthumously inducted Wharton into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Women Pioneers Who Changed The World in the 1900s
Gertrude Ederle 1905-2003
Gertrude Caroline Ederle was an American Olympic swimmer and world-record holder in five events.
On August 6, 1926, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Society considered such a challenge beyond the strength of a woman, as she was the physically weaker sex. Among other nicknames, the press called Ederle, ‘Queen of the Waves’.
Her record of crossing the Channel in 7 hours, 11 minutes, lasted for 81 years. Ederle set 29 U.S. records and broke seven records in one afternoon. Unable to cope with the unwanted publicity, and shy by nature, Ederle suffered a nervous breakdown in 1928. Ederle’s hearing had been impaired following her cross channel swim.
Grace Hopper 1906-1992
Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was an innovator and maverick. Hopper
was an American computer scientist and one of the first programmers of
the Harvard Mark I computer. In 1962 she was named the computer science ‘Man of the Year’.
Harper was rejected by the navy at first, because of her age and diminutive size. She eventually retired as a rear admiral at 79-years of age. Her nickname was ‘Amazing Grace’.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike 1916-2000
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the world’s first woman prime minister. She rose to the position following her husband’s assassination in 1959. A committed socialist, she aimed to raise the standard of living in Sri Lanka and tried to reduce inequality.
Newspapers didn’t know how to address her, as it was unusual for a woman to be the head of government. She held the position of Prime Minister three times. Her pro-Buddhist and pro-Sinhalese policies alienated the Tamil minority, resulting in a bloody civil war.
That an Asian woman became the first female Prime Minister challenges the notion that Western countries have made more strides in equalizing gender opportunities.
Katherine Johnson 1918-2020
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician and NASA employee. Johnson was handpicked to be one of three black students to attend West Virginia’s graduate school. In 1937, she graduated with the highest honours and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
Johnson and a team of black women performed complex mathematical calculations for NASA’s engineers. NASA segregated the women, forcing them to take long walks to their bathrooms and dining facilities.
John Glenn led the orbital mission in 1962. Glenn refused to take his mission until “the girl”, Johnson, ran the numbers personally. He didn’t trust the computer. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and all subsequent American crewed spaceflights.
Junko Tabei 1939-2016
Junko Tabei was a Japanese mountaineer, author, and teacher. Tabei faced mid-20th century virulent sexism, where the only place for a woman was in the home.
Mountaineering clubs were forbidden to women, but the 1.5 metre tall Tabei was well known for breaking stereotypes and became a member. She displayed extreme courage and determination. Junko Tabei formed a mountaineering club for women in 1969.
Tabei led a team of 15 women and was the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in May 1975. She was also the first woman to ascend the Seven Summits, climbing the highest peak on every continent. She was a powerful activist for the mountain environment.
Other Notable Women Pioneers
Ruth Ginsburg was the oldest female serving justice in the American Supreme Court. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize twice and the only person to win it in two scientific fields. Florence Nightingale was an English social reformer, statistician, and the founder of modern nursing.
Women have a unique voice in their sphere of influence. They should not allow negative circumstances or disabilities to define who they are. They are the glue that holds society together.
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