March is Women’s History Month, where we take time to celebrate women’s role in history, culture, and society. So, we’ve compiled a list of 12 women from across the globe whose work has and continues to pave the way for women today.

While we can’t include everyone here, we hope that you find our list inspiring.

In the words of social-political activist Gloria Steinem, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist or any one organisation, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

1. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I’ve always tried to do”

Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to protecting democracy and the environment – and in 2004, she became the very first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai believed that environmental neglect, poverty, and conflict are interconnected, so, in 1977 she founded The Green Belt Movement with the purpose of planting trees across Kenya.

The Green Belt Movement offered more than 900,000 Kenyan women relief from poverty, who were able to have jobs selling seedlings for reforestation. Together, they helped to plant over 30 million trees across Africa. Maathai’s work also inspired the United Nations to launch a campaign that has led to over 11 billion trees being planted worldwide.

Maathai endured many battles during her life, including personal ones – but remained undeterred. Her husband divorced her for being “too strong-minded for a woman”, and she was beaten unconscious by state police after protesting against President Danial arap Moi’s deforestation plans.

2. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves”

Mary Wollstonecraft was a women’s rights activist and is widely recognised today as the first feminist.

In her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft claimed that men and women should be considered equal and argued that all people, no matter their background or ethnicity, should “be allowed their birthright – liberty”.

With this, Wollstonecraft spoke for the first time about the importance of intersectional feminism. This is the idea that true equality can’t be achieved until all women, despite social standing, religion, ethnicity, and so on, are equal. Unfortunately, this is something that’s still being learned today.

The publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1972 struck 18th-century society like a lightning bolt. In fact, the backlash meant that it wasn’t reprinted until the mid-19th century. Today, it’s considered one of the earliest and most important works in advocating equal rights for women.

3. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

Rosa Parks

“I’d like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people also to be free”

On 1st December 1955, 42-year-old African American seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a mostly empty bus in Montgomery after a long day at work. Passing by several rows of seats marked as ‘Whites Only’, Rosa sat in the middle of the bus – somewhere she was allowed to sit so long as no white people were standing.

As more and more white people boarded, the bus driver ordered those in Rosa’s row to move. Everyone moved except Rosa, and she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white male passenger.

Rosa’s single act of bravery set in motion a boycott that lasted for 381 days. It only ended once the city of Montgomery finally removed its law enforcing racial segregation on public buses – after which, Rosabecame a key symbol of the Civil Rights Movement and an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.

Parks later wrote in her autobiography, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I wasn’t tired physically…no, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

4. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Emmeline Pankhurst

“We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers. I would rather be a rebel than a slave”

Emmeline Pankhurst was an English political activist who dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights. In 1903, she helped found the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – an organisation whose members were the first to become known as suffragettes.

Like many other suffragettes, Emmeline was arrested, subjected to ridicule and beatings, and went on hunger strike many times – but remained committed to her cause and inspired many others to fight alongside her.

In 1918, voting rights were given to women over 30 with the Representation of the People Act. But it wasn’t until 1928, the year of Emmeline’s death, that her 40-year campaign succeeded in granting women equal voting rights with men.

5. Malala Yousafzai (1997–present)

“I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up”

On 9th October 2012, a masked gunman boarded 15-year-old Malala’s school bus in Pakistan. He asked “Who is Malala?”, before shooting her in the head for speaking publicly on behalf of girls and their right to learn.

Waking up 10 days later in a hospital in Birmingham, England (where she was flown to receive specialist medical treatment), Malala committed her life to fighting for every girl’s right to receive an education.

In 2013, she established Malala Fund – a charity dedicated to giving every girl the opportunity to create the future she chooses. And, in 2014, at the age of just 17, Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, Malala continues to travel across the world, meeting with girls who are fighting against poverty, gender discrimination, wars, and child marriage. She encourages them to go to school and holds leaders accountable for their promises to young girls.

6. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth

“If the first woman that God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, these women together ought to be able to turn it right again”

Sojourner Truth was an author, abolitionist, evangelist, and women’s rights activist who today is regarded as one of the most influential black women in American history.

As a child, Sojourner was separated from her family and sold into slavery. But, after escaping to freedom in 1826, Sojourner spoke publicly on the abolition of slavery and equal rights for everyone. She’s best known for her speech delivered at an 1851 women’s convention in Ohio, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Sojourner’s activism earned her an invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 – and when the Civil War ended, she worked continuously to help free African-Americans who were weighed down by poverty by finding them jobs.

7. Gloria Steinem (1934-present)

“Don’t think about making women fit the world – think about making the world fit women”

Gloria Steinem’s career in activism has long inspired women to fight for their rights, take risks, and protect the rights of other people. She dedicated her life to creating a world that fits the needs of its people.

Steinem was an acclaimed journalist in the late 1960s, and over the years has become one of the most well-known, passionate leaders and spokeswomen of the women’s rights movement in the US throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Her achievements include co-founding the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1971, which raises money to help underprivileged girls and women; as well as the Women’s Media Center in 2005 – a non-profit organisation that works to make women more visible in the media.

In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Steinem the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work.

8. Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Marie Curie

“You must never be fearful of what you are doing when it is right”

Marie Curie was a Polish-French scientist who dedicated her life to scientific research. Today, she’s remembered for her discovery of radium and polonium (highly reactive metals), pushing for the development of X-ray technology, and huge contributions to finding treatments for cancer.

In 1903, she became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize alongside her husband Pierre, for their work on radioactivity. She received another Nobel Prize in 1911 and became the first female professor at Sorbonne University in Paris.

Today, Marie Curie’s work continues to inspire the national charity that’s named after her. Their mission is to help people living with a terminal illness and their families make the most of their time together – through expert care, emotional support, and research.

9. Coco Chanel (1883-1971)

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different”

Most of us will recognise the name Coco Chanel – perhaps for the brand’s famous No.5 perfume or striking handbags. But this famous designer also made monumental changes to women’s history that are still felt today.

For centuries women had been expected to wear uncomfortable clothing like corsets, and French-born Coco Chanel wanted to change this.

Inspiring women to live more freely and comfortably, she made a number of hard-hitting changes in the world of fashion – including the creation of iconic pieces that remain well-loved today. Think the little black dress, fitted skirts, collarless jackets, and women’s suits.

Coco Chanel’s innovations marked a new freedom and space for expression for women.

10. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

“The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be”

A century before the first computer was built, writer and mathematician Ada Lovelace defied the expectations of both her class and gender by writing the world’s first machine algorithm.

Laying the foundations for the computer software we have today, Ada Lovelace is often credited with being the first computer programmer in the world.

To mark these achievements and those of other women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM), Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated every second Tuesday in October.

11. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale

“Never give nor take an excuse”

Also known as The Lady with the Lamp, to many people, Florence Nightingale represents the beginnings of modern nursing.

Nursing was considered a low-status job in the 1820s, but by the time of her death in 1910, Florence Nightingale had transformed it into a highly respected profession. Her work involved improving hospital sanitation methods and teaching the importance of treating patients with respect and dignity.

In 1907, when she was 87, Florence Nightingale became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, which recognised her nursing services during the Crimean War and pioneering work in the healthcare field.

More than 200 years after her death, Florence Nightingale continues to inspire nurses and other healthcare professionals.

Final thoughts…

With so many amazing women throughout history, it’d be impossible to include them all in one list. However, from the bravery of Rosa Parks to the innovations of Coco Chanel and the unstoppable drive of Gloria Steinem, we hope you’ve found these women inspiring.

If you’re interested in more history-related content, head over to the art and culture section of our website where you’ll find everything from must-see Tudor and Victorian sites to unmissable history films.

Alternatively, you might be interested in some of the upcoming Rest Less history events – including our Women in History series – which you can browse using the button below.