Throughout history and across cultures, women and girls have faced innumerable challenges and injustices. In support of the #WithStrongGirls campaign, we take a moment to look at 12 women who overcame adversity, broke through barriers and in doing so, changed the world.
Susan B. Anthony was raised in a Quaker family with deep roots in activism and social justice and became an advocate for women’s suffrage, women’s property rights and the abolition of slavery. In 1872, to challenge suffrage, Anthony tried to vote in the 1872 Presidential election. While Anthony was never able to legally vote, the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, was named the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.”
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school, after overcoming several odds against her – including admittance to an all-male institution and financing medical school. With Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, and her sister Emily, who also became a doctor, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1856. A medical college was also opened along with it in 1857, which broadened opportunities for women doctors by providing training and necessary experience, as well as specialized medical care for the poor.
3. Marie Curie
Born in Warsaw, Marie Curie became the first woman Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne (sometimes known as the University of Paris) in 1906. She had Masters Degrees in both physics and mathematical sciences and was the first woman to obtain a Doctor of Science degree. Madame Curie was also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. The first was in Physics in 1903, with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel, for their study in spontaneous radiation. The second was in Chemistry in 1911 for her work in radioactivity.
Originally from Macedonia, Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun. Although she spent the majority of her life in India, her international charity work included helping evacuate hospital patients in war torn Lebanon, doing earthquake relief in Armenia, and ministering to famine victims in Ethiopia. She founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to helping the sick and poor. Among many other honors, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.”
5. Anne Frank
Annelies “Anne” Marie Frank, was a diarist, writer, and one of the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Born in Frankfurt, her family moved to Amsterdam when she was four due to wide-spread anti-Semitism in Germany. In 1940, when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, the freedom Anne and her family had enjoyed for seven years ended abruptly. They spent two years hiding in an annex, during which time Anne wrote extensively as a means of self-expression and self-preservation. The family was ultimately discovered and sent to concentration camps.
Only weeks before the war ended, Anne died in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany. Her posthumously published wartime diary, “The Diary of a Young Girl”, was an intimate and remarkable account of both adolescence and the Holocaust and quickly became a classic of war literature.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa when she took office as the President of Liberia in January 2006. She signed a Freedom of Information bill (the first of its kind in West Africa) and made reduction of the national debt a cornerstone of her Presidency. To investigate crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war, she established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and became a global icon with her commitment to fighting dictators, corruption and poverty through empowerment of women and girls. President Sirleaf and two other female leaders (Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman), were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace prize for their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy and gender equality.
Wangari Muaathai was a Kenyan scientist, professor, environmental and political activist. She was the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and is credited with founding the Green Belt Movement, a community initiative that seeks to empower women through civic education and environmental stewardship. In 2004, for her work on sustainable development, democracy and peace, she became the first African woman, and first environmentalist, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San and she became involved in politics and activism after being inspired by the non-violent campaigns of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King and India’s Mahatma Gandhi. In 1988, during a time of major political upheaval in Myanmar, she organized rallies calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections. However, the demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the army, who seized power in a 1988 coup, and Aung San Suu Kyi, as Chairperson of the opposition party, was placed under house arrest.
She is one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners having been under house arrest for almost 15 until her most recent release in 2010. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her commitment to peaceful resistance against military-ruled Myanmar, and for a life spent championing democracy and human rights.
8. Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, human rights activist, and the first female judge in Iran. After Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 she was dismissed as a judge. She then opened a legal practice to defend people being persecuted by the authorities. In 2000 she herself was imprisoned for having criticized her country’s hierocracy. She won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially those of women, children and refugees. She is the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the prize. She is currently living in exile in the UK due to increased persecution of opponents of the current regime.
Born in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was a political activist from a young age and in 1984 she founded an underground organization to resist the military dictatorship. In 1988, she became Prime Minister at only 35 years old, making her one of the youngest chief executives in the world, and the first woman to serve as prime minister in an Islamic country. While in office, Benzair Bhutto initiated an anti-corruption campaign, electrified the countryside and built schools all over the country. She made hunger, housing and healthcare her top priorities, and sought to modernize Pakistan. She was assasinated in 2007 while leaving a campaign rally. Her efforts to promote democracy and women’s empowerment are an important part of her legacy.
10. Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison, an American physician, is the first African-American female astronaut. Before her career at NASA, she worked in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. She was accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987 and in 1992, as a science mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, she became the first African-American woman in space.
An indigenous Guatemalan woman of the K’iche’ branch of the Mayan culture, Rigoberta Menchú has dedicated her life to promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. She became active in the women’s rights movement as a teenager and later was a prominent workers’ rights advocate. In 1981, after most of her family had been killed and with her own life in danger, she fled to Mexico, where she continued her resistance work against oppression in Guatemala.
In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation for indigenous peoples in Guatemala and is the first indigenous person to receive the prize. In 2006, Menchú was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of female Laureates who work together to strengthen women’s rights worldwide.
12. Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani advocate for girls education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. In 2009, when Malala was just eleven she began blogging about life under the Taliban, speaking out directly against their threats to close girls’ schools. (Pakistan has the second highest number of children out of school and two-thirds of them are female.) The blog on BBC Urdu garnered international attention while also making her the target of death threats. In October 2012, a gunman shot her and two other girls as they were coming home from school. Malala survived the attack and in 2013 published an autobiography, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. In October 2014, Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.