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20 Iconic Women Who Changed the World

March is not just any month—it’s Women’s History Month, a time to crank up the volume on the achievements of women who’ve turned the tide, shattered glass ceilings, and scribbled outside the patriarchal lines of history. It’s about celebrating the badassery of iconic women, those fierce trailblazers whose courage and determination have carved paths in politics, science, art, and beyond. From the courtroom brilliance of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the defiant ink of Anne Frank, these women didn’t just make history—they rewrote it with a flair that’s as inspiring as it is unapologetic. So, as we dive into their stories, let’s do so with the energy worthy of their legacies. Here’s to the women of the past, the powerhouses of the present, and the rising stars of the future. They’ve not just made the world a better place; they’ve kicked ass doing it. Buckle up, because we’re about to celebrate the kind of women who make history happen—on their own terms.

Rosa Parks

Often referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement,” Rosa Parks’ act of defiance on December 1, 1955, became a defining moment in the fight against racial segregation. Her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Parks was a lifelong activist, deeply passionate about equality and justice. Her courage earned her numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the United States’ highest honors for civilians. Parks’ legacy is commemorated through statues, the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, aimed at educating the youth about civil rights.

Marie Curie

A pioneering physicist and chemist, Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and remains the only person awarded Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911). Her work on radioactivity—a term she coined—laid the groundwork for significant advances in medicine and science, including the development of X-ray machines. Curie was passionate about science and education, often facing gender-based discrimination with resilience. She founded the Radium Institute (now Curie Institute) in Paris, dedicated to medical research. Curie’s contributions have been honored with numerous memorials, including the naming of the element curium in her honor and her enshrinement in the Panthéon in Paris, a rare honor for a woman.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, symbolizes courage and the spirit of adventure. Her achievements in aviation, at a time when flying was extremely dangerous and women pilots were rare, made her an international hero. Earhart was passionate about advancing women’s rights and opportunities in aviation. She was a founding member of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. Although Earhart disappeared in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, her legacy endures through numerous awards, scholarships, and memorials, including the Amelia Earhart Airport in Kansas, and her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Malala Yousafzai

A Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai became a global symbol of the fight for girls’ education after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Her advocacy has highlighted the importance of education for girls in regions where they are systematically denied schooling. Malala’s passion for education, despite the dangers she faced, has sparked international support and led to the founding of the Malala Fund, aimed at ensuring every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, and quality education. She has received numerous awards for her activism, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and the United Nations’ Human Rights Prize.

Katherine Johnson

A mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the United States’ first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights, Katherine Johnson broke through barriers of gender and race. Working for NASA, her work was pivotal for the success of the Mercury and Apollo missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing. Johnson was passionate about mathematics and education, striving to achieve excellence despite facing significant racial and gender discrimination. Her contributions were recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Johnson’s life and career have been celebrated in various ways, including her portrayal in the film Hidden Figures and the naming of NASA’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, an American media mogul, philanthropist, and actress, rose from poverty to become one of the most influential and wealthy women in the world. Her talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” was the highest-rated television program of its kind and was instrumental in breaking down societal barriers and promoting empathy and understanding. Oprah’s passionate advocacy for education, child welfare, and women’s rights led her to establish the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which supports educational initiatives worldwide. She has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has launched several educational endeavors, including the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist known for her seven autobiographical books, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Her work explores themes of economic, racial, and sexual oppression and is celebrated for its insightful portrayal of African-American women’s lives. Angelou was also an influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou’s legacy is preserved through the Maya Angelou Foundation, which supports educational excellence and healthcare equity.

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico, drew international attention to Mexican folk culture and became an icon of feminism, disability, and LGBTQ+ movements. Her work, which explored themes of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society, continues to inspire many. Though she did not receive major awards in her lifetime, her legacy has been immortalized through museums, such as the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, and her inclusion in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She is often considered the first computer programmer, thanks to her notes on the engine that included what is recognized as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine. Though unrecognized in her own time, today she is celebrated for her contributions to computer science, with the Ada Lovelace Award given in her honor to women who have made outstanding contributions to the field.

Harriet Tubman

An American abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery but escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved people using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. She was passionate about freedom and equality, dedicating her life to these causes. Tubman has been honored with numerous memorials, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, and is set to appear on the U.S. $20 bill.

Virginia Woolf

A pivotal figure in modernist literature, Virginia Woolf’s novels, essays, and critiques transformed the structure of the novel and influenced generations of writers. Woolf was an advocate for women’s rights and an early critic of gender inequality in society and literature. Her works, including “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse,” explore the complexities of human consciousness and the role of women in society. Woolf’s legacy is celebrated through various literary awards in her name, and she remains a central figure in the study of feminist literature.

Aretha Franklin

Known as “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist. Franklin’s powerful voice and emotive music made her a cultural icon, with hits like “Respect” and “I Say a Little Prayer” becoming anthems for the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Her contributions to music and society were recognized with numerous awards, including 18 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Franklin’s philanthropic efforts were focused on civil rights, health care, and education in the African American community.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa, born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun and missionary known for her charitable work with the poor and sick in Kolkata, India. Founder of the Missionaries of Charity, she dedicated her life to serving “the poorest of the poor,” and her organization now operates in over 130 countries. Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work. She was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 2016, and her legacy continues through the ongoing work of the Missionaries of Charity.

Simone de Beauvoir

A French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist, Simone de Beauvoir is best known for her seminal work “The Second Sex,” which is credited with pioneering modern feminism. De Beauvoir’s work challenged the traditional roles of women in society and advocated for gender equality. Her contributions to feminist philosophy and theory have made her a foundational figure in feminist literature, and her legacy is celebrated through various awards and recognitions in her name, including the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for women’s freedom.

Billie Jean King

An American former World No. 1 professional tennis player, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles and was an advocate for gender equality and social justice in sports and beyond. King famously defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, a pivotal moment in public recognition of women’s tennis and the broader women’s movement. She co-founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, which have been instrumental in advocating for equal pay and opportunities for women in sports. King has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who became an enduring symbol of the Holocaust through the publication of her diary, “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Written while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II, her insightful reflections offer a haunting, personal perspective on the war and the human spirit. Despite her young age, Anne’s mature insights and hopes for a peaceful world continue to inspire millions. Her diary, translated into more than 70 languages, has made her one of the most important figures in promoting peace and human rights. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and numerous educational programs worldwide continue her legacy, teaching tolerance and the importance of human rights.

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was an American politician, educator, and author who made history as the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress, representing New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983. As a passionate advocate for education and social justice, Chisholm’s work laid the groundwork for future generations of women in politics. In 1972, she became the first African American candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously awarded in 2015, recognizing her contributions to American democracy. Chisholm’s legacy is celebrated through scholarships, educational initiatives, and the Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn, New York.

Jane Goodall

Dame Jane Goodall, a British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, is considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. Goodall’s 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania has redefined the relationship between humans and animals in ways that challenge scientific convention. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, and she has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. Goodall’s honors include the Kyoto Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, and she was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations. Her work continues to inspire a global environmental movement.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist and United States Navy officer. A pioneer in the field, she was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and developed the first compiler for a computer programming language, which led to the development of COBOL, a major programming language still in use today. Hopper’s work laid the foundations for modern computing and she is often celebrated for her contributions to making software more accessible. She received the National Medal of Technology and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference is named in her honor, inspiring women to enter and excel in the field of computing.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneering figure in the fight for women’s rights and served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020. Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg was known for her sharp legal mind, her advocacy for gender equality, and her powerful dissents on the Court, which earned her the nickname “The Notorious RBG” among her admirers. Before her Supreme Court appointment, she argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the Court, winning five. Ginsburg’s legal legacy includes her advocacy for the rights of women and minorities, her commitment to civil liberties and equality for all under the law. Her work led to significant legal advancements for women’s rights and equal protection under the law, making her a key figure in American legal history. Ginsburg received multiple awards throughout her career, including the American Bar Association’s highest honor, the ABA Medal, and she was posthumously awarded the Liberty Medal for her efforts to advance liberty and equality. Ginsburg’s life and work have been celebrated in films, books, and memorials, ensuring her legacy endures as a champion for justice.

Time to Celebrate in Style

We covered some amazing women going beyond the norm to ensure a brighter future for women, and the world. Why not celebrate them with an outfit that shows your pride? At Abracadabra NYC, we have a vast assortment of historical costumes for adults, as well as a whole historical selection just for kids; perfect for wearing to school for a class project or school play, especially if you need an old-fashioned wig to add to it. No matter the occasion, there’s always a reason to celebrate and champion the women who continue to inspire us all to achieve and succeed, no matter how difficult.