Top 10 Most Famous Women in History

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While most famous historical figures have traditionally been men, there are a few women who managed to reach the rarified air of either notoriety or power usually reserved for their testosterone-prone contemporaries; which, considering the patriarchal nature of society for the last ten thousand years, is no small feat.

It was difficult to determine who qualified as most famous from the candidates available. I looked for women who were genuinely famous (most people have heard of them). They also either obtained a high degree of political power or wielded considerable influence on their society- influential to such a degree that they were able to change perceptions and, in some cases, even shape policy. While I recognize that there are many worthy women who didn’t make my list, here is my best attempt to ascertain the top 10 most famous women throughout history.

10. Harriet Tubman

Few people could imagine that a poor black woman born into slavery could go on to become one of the best known figures of the nineteenth century, but that’s exactly what Harriet Tubman became. Born in Maryland around 1821, Tubman’s life was one of hardship and deprivation from childhood that even marriage to a free black man named John Tubman could not erase. Finally having enough of being bought and sold as property, she finally escaped her master in 1849 and fled northward with the help of the Underground Railroad, which Thomas Garrett and other white abolitionists had established. Reaching safety in Philadelphia, she went on to help other slaves—by some accounts as many as 300, including members of her own family—find sanctuary in northern states over the next eleven years. Her efforts made her a hunted woman in the south, resulting in as much as a $40,000 price being put on her head at one point. When the Civil War broke out, her work with the Underground Railroad ended but her service to the Union cause did not.  During the war she served, in turn as: a nurse, a scout for the Union, and, at one time, even a Union spy. After the war, she remained a tireless advocate for civil and human rights and a figure in the woman’s suffrage movement right up to the year of her death in 1913. Widely known and well-respected while she was alive, after her death she became an American icon. She is frequently referred to as the “Moses of her people” for her tireless efforts at freeing slaves, even at great personal danger to herself, serving as an inspiration for future generations of civil right activists.

9. Mary Magdalene

Mary-Magdalene

Many might be surprised to find one of the more obscure figures in the Bible named to this list, but what constitutes obscurity is a subjective opinion. While Mary the Mother of Jesus is probably better known, the evidence suggests that the widow from Magdala (whom many traditionally believed to have been a prostitute—a position that has since been revised by the church) may have been a far more important figure than the traditional gospels suggest. In fact, according to some of the Gnostic Gospels (commonly referred to as the “lost books” of the Bible), she may have been a senior disciple who was instrumental in spreading the Christian doctrine during the early decades of the church. Some scholars even suggest she may have been Jesus’ wife, making her the subject of many a Dan Brown novel. Even if she was merely a follower and friend of the Rabbi from Galilee, however, her influence in the early church—and particularly within the mystical branches of it—may have been substantial, forcing many theologians to consider revising the history of Christianity to include this Mary alongside Jesus’ mother.

8. Eleanor Roosevelt

No first lady ever had more power and prestige than Eleanor Roosevelt. One of the first women elected to the Senate in 1911 and well known for her involvement with many charitable organizations prior to becoming first lady, it wasn’t until she moved into the White House in 1933 that she really got into high gear. Eleanor Roosevelt acted as the disabled president’s “eyes and ears” at a time when most political wives were delegated to the role of hostess-in-chief. She held regular press conferences, wrote a daily news column, and used her considerable influence with the President to get him to push for and pass child welfare, housing reform and equal rights laws for racial minorities and women. A type of ambassador known for her frequent travels and speeches, she continued her work after the President died in 1945 instead of quietly fading into the background like so many former first ladies. In 1946 she was named a delegate to the newly founded United Nations. In 1947 she became the first chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, during which time she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the time of her death in 1962, few could argue that regardless of what they may have thought of her personally, she had forever transformed the role of first lady and set a standard that most Presidents’ wives have trouble living up to today.

7. Marie Curie

Born Maria Skladowska in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867, Marie Curie was to seriously test the old adage that a woman’s place was in the home. A largely penniless student who worked as a governess and tutor while pursuing her dream of becoming a physicist (an unheard of occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century) she eventually found her way to Paris in 1891 where she found work at the laboratory of physicist Gabriel Lippman while continuing her studies at the Sorbonne.  While there, she met a physics and chemistry instructor by the name of Pierre Curie, in whom she found a kindred spirit. The two married in 1895, becoming the first husband and wife science team in history, and set about on a short but spectacular career that would make them Nobel Prize winning physicists and their names synonymous with the science of modern chemistry. What makes Madame Currie so remarkable—besides being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, was that she continued to carry on with her husband’s work after his death in 1905 (likely as a result of their experiments with radiation), going on to become the first female head of Laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris and winning a second Nobel Prize, this one in Chemistry, in 1911 (which made her the first person to win two Nobel prizes—an accomplishment not to be repeated until Linus Pauling was awarded a second prize in 1962). No doubt her accomplishments served as a source of inspiration for the thousands of women scientists and researchers who were to follow later.

6. Marie Antoinette

Ever since her grisly demise at the end of an executioner’s blade in 1793, her name has become synonymous with ostentatious luxury by the super rich and indifference to the hardships of the poor. Whether such criticism was deserved remains a source of some debate even to this day. Certainly, she was a byproduct of her environment: born into nobility and opulence, she was no different than thousands of other women of the era born into such a high station in life. That she would lose her head on the guillotine for it, however, seems not only a bit excessive but most likely undeserved. Obviously her and her husband, King Louis XVI, had simply become a target for all the inequities and injustices the royal system was known for, making them forever symbols of the people’s rejection of the old monarchial form of government that had been in place since antiquity. In essence, she was a victim of incredibly bad timing; had she been born a half century earlier probably no one would have heard of her. Born when and where she was and considering the political climate of her era, she becomes famous not only as a symbol of affluent indifference and the consequences thereof, but for being the first female monarch ever to be executed—a probably undeserved and certainly unsought fate if ever there was one.

5. Indira Gandhi

Possibly one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century, few could deny that she was one of its most powerful political figures, doing much to make India the mighty nation that it is today. A paradoxically well-loved and greatly hated Prime Minister at the same time, Gandhi (no relationship to the spiritual and political leader by the same name) ruled India on and off for almost twenty years until her death at the hands of Sikh extremists in 1984 (making her the only sitting female head of state ever assassinated). She was also one of only three female heads of state to oversee a military conflict while in office (the war with Pakistan in 1971 that created the nation of Bangladesh)—the other two being Margaret Thatcher of England and Golda Meir of Israel. She had her critics: many accused her of being a devious and corrupt politician and she was often roundly condemned for implementing an unpopular forced sterilization program in an effort to control the growth of India’s quickly burgeoning population. The Gandhi name also seemed to be living under a dark star as well: just seven years after her death at the hands of an assassin, her son, Rajav, who became Prime Minister after her assassination, also lost his life when he was blown to smithereens by a Tamil woman with a bomb planted in her backpack.

4. Queen Victoria

Few women in history have had the opportunity to rule an entire Empire but Alexandrina Victoria Hanover, the daughter of George III’s son Prince Edward, did precisely that. Reigning for an astonishing 63 years (from 1837 to 1901), she oversaw an Empire that stretched from India to the Americas, and from Africa to the Far East. (So vast was the Empire, that the sun was always overhead on some part of it at any time. Of course, some wags claim that the reason the sun never set on the British Empire was because God couldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark, but this is probably anecdotal.) Of course, the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has reigned almost as long (since 1952) but hers is a ceremonial role. Victoria, on the other hand, had real power and used it to double England in size and keep it almost free of war (with only three small exceptions). She also formed the Liberal and Conservative parties, and broadened suffrage with the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. Her death in 1901 so traumatized the British that some of them aren’t over it yet. In fact, her name became synonymous with an entire era of history, which we today refer to as the “Victorian Age.” Not even George Washington had an entire era named after him!

3. Joan of Arc

What can you say about a seventeen-year-old girl who takes a disheartened army and rallies it to victory in the face of overwhelming odds? Her story is one of those rare events in history that not even the most imaginative novelist could have conjured up, but which actually happened. Joan of Arc, a young girl born to simple farmers in the tiny village of Domremy, managed to defeat a well-trained British Army and make herself a member of the royal court in just one year- all the while dressed in white armor and surviving multiple injuries. To what degree she personally led the armies of France is a source of some debate even to this day, but most historians agree she was certainly a superb strategist and an imposing leader. Captured in May of 1430, her subsequent trial and death for heresy by burning at the stake was one of the most notorious show trials in history and served only to enhance her reputation as a martyr and heroine. She got her day in court, albeit posthumously: her conviction on the politically motivated charge of heresy was later overturned by an ecclesiastical court in 1456 and in 1920 she was even canonized and made one of the five patron saints of France.

2. Cleopatra

I doubt if few women throughout history are as well known or have been depicted in literature and by Hollywood more than Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Egypt and lover to both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Okay, so she was a shady person who had her sisters killed and had a tendency to sleep with whoever might prove helpful to her efforts to gain power. Also, she did betray Mark Antony, but then no one is without a few minor flaws. What she couldn’t be faulted for was her intelligence and determination in being able to accomplish so much mischief within the highest level of the Roman government, and her charm in getting people to agree to the most extraordinary things—often at their own great peril. While she didn’t live long enough to see her fortieth birthday (some unfortunate business having to do with a snake bite, I understand), she did live long enough to oversee an Empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Asian subcontinent. It is also one of those great imponderables to imagine what turn history might have made had Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s fleets won at Actium and Octavian’s armies been defeated in Egypt.  It certainly wouldn’t have been dull, one can surmise.

1. Mother Theresa

Mother Teresa-most-famous-woman-in-the-world

Perhaps the most famous woman of the twentieth century is a small, frail-looking nun by the name of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who became much better known to the world simply as Mother Theresa. Born in 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia, after leaving for Ireland in 1928 to learn English, she was eventually sent as a missionary to India where she was to teach at the Loreto convent school in Calcutta. It was soon after the end of the Second World War when she felt a calling from God to work with the poorest of India’s half a million citizens. Establishing the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 with just 13 members, eventually it would grow to a staff of 4,000 nuns who would run dozens of orphanages, AIDS hospices, and charity centers worldwide. Her work quickly came to the attention of the international community as well, inspiring countless other organizations to follow her example in many third world countries helping the poor and societies’ “undesirables.” Her establishment of a hospice for dying destitutes in 1979 eventually won her a Nobel Peace Prize and made her not only a household name, but made the name Mother Theresa synonymous with compassion and charity. Though sometimes criticized for her strict religious views, especially in regards to abortion, she remained one of the bright lights of the twentieth century right up to her death in 1997, while the work she began continues to light the world to this day.

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.


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52 Comments

  1. You are worng in case of Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv, he was assasinated by Sri Lankan Tamil Group LTTE woman, not a Sikh woman.

  2. Its wrongly written that Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Sikh woman. He was killed by a bomb planted by the LTTE from Sri Lanka whose roots go to the Tamil people of Tamilnadu, India.

    • Dimple Jariwala on

      I totally agree with you. It seems that many people don’t know this fact. It should be brought to their notice.

  3. never heard of Harriet Tubman… heard of Florence Nightingale though

    Princess Di is not famous anymore?!

    “famous Women”?
    again, pointless…

    • You aren’t the first person to question the inclusion of Harriet Tubman. The writer was an American she is certainly famous here in the United States for helping free slaves. I guess her fame didn’t cross our US borders. At least you learned something new, right?

      • I’ve heard of Harriet Tubman and I’m English. I think the problem here is that, as usual, 10 just isn’t enough to cover what everyone considers to be famous women. I mean surely there are film actresses more famous than some of the people on this list, and what about the current Queen Elizabeth II? Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of her?

        I’d argue against Mary Magdalene on the list though. There are enough famous women whose existence we’re certain of before having to include (probably) fictitious characters.

  4. How about Mary, the mother of Jesus – a woman revered by 2 of the world’s major religions (who herself was a member of a third)?

    Queen Elizabeth II?

    God help me, what about Hillary Clinton? She’s been one of the most powerful people on the planet for the past 20 years.

    • Who would you include? That is what the comments are for: making suggestions for missing people, places or things on the list and then giving your reasons why the person, place or things should have been included.

    • Yes there are many famous Asian women just because this person did not include one on her list does not mean there are not…Like lets take for instance the Empress Dowager of China Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng Xian…Who ruled from 1861 to 1908 the time of her death she was a women who when her husband had passed away ruled the land very successfully! Then we have the first Empress to rule like a Emperor Empress Wu Zetian who reigned from 690 ad to 705 she was highly educated she could read and write and was extremely smart she brought Buddhism as the main religion to China, I could name more but then this would go on far longer than I intended to.

  5. I would have included Mary who gave birth to the Son of God. Fairly important stuff for us Christians. And whether you believe that to be true or not isn’t important as it pertains to this list – she is famous regardless.

  6. Keith Watabayashi on

    Yeah this list needed more work. Aside from Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Mary Mags this list is basically no older than the 16th century and has pretty glaring omissions, like, oh I dunno…the most famous woman in history: Helen of Troy? And of course what about Mary, Khadija (Mohammad’s 1st wife) or Eve?

    If we don’t want to stick with mythology and religion there is also Mona Lisa, Empress Wu, Lady Godiva, Empress Theodora, Heloise the fateful lover of Peter Abelard, Anne Boleyn, etc. etc. I would say nice try, but it wasn’t even that. Maybe if you titled the list “Most famous women in recent history”. Because if you’re going as far back as Cleopatra but have 7 entries that people born 500 years ago never knew of, you can’t claim it’s a historical list.

    • The list of people you’re naming is a real confused, hotch-potch of a list. Mona Lisa? Is Anne Bolyne more famous than any of Henry VIIIs other wives? Khadija is someone who, frankly, hardly anyone has ever heard of (this is FAMOUS women, not important women) and how you can think Helen of Troy is THE most famous woman ever is beyond me. Lady Godiva hardly knows fame outside of England. Eve never existed and it’s doubtful Mary did either, so should we really be including fictional characters?

      In summary, you have a very strange idea of what constitutes fame.

  7. Your quote ” Her death in 1901 so traumatized the British that some of them aren’t over it yet. ” would have us belive that there are still those that are alive that would even remember the queen? They would be over 100 years old had they been born even the day of her death.

  8. How is queen victoria on here if queen Elisabeth isn’t? U know, the elisabethian era? She was far more influentail and famous.

    • You’re not so much biting as feeding. You know very well which one is imaginary. I’ll give you clue: it’s not Queen Victoria.

      • research man !!! ya gotta do some… maybe a year or 2 will do..
        try to find out why the world is not about what you think…
        its about what you don’t know that really runs the world.. research, research…

  9. Saying that religious characters live Eve, Mary and Magdelene are fictional is insensitive to peoples beliefs. To many people they were real, its a matter of faith. And in light of recent archeological discoveries in the holy land, not only insensitive also ignorant.

  10. “….she becomes famous not only as a symbol of affluent indifference and the consequences thereof, but for being the first female monarch ever to be executed—a probably undeserved and certainly unsought fate if ever there was one”

    Not even close, two of Henry VIII’s wives were executed in 1536 and 1542. Lady Jane Grey, who unlike the before mentioned was a Queen Regent, was executed in 1554. Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Those are just the ones that I can think of now, and that’s just British history, don’t forget the Romans, Egyptians, Russians, and others who may have had queen’s both regent and consort executed.

    Where did you obtain your knowledge? A Wikipedia article?

  11. People that should be on the list: Golda Meir, Queen Elizabeth 1, Princess Diana, Catherine the Great, Queen Isabella, Clara Barton

    • Yes exactly…..Where is Marilyn Monroe in this list? She has one of the most recognized faces in the world! The public loved and still love Marilyn Monroe! She’s an icon and a legend!
      (I’m from Sweden so please excuse any grammatical errors)

  12. Marie Antoinette was not the first female monarch to be executed there are actually quite a few before her, first we have Mary queen of Scots who was executed February 8th 1587. Then we have the 9 day queen Lady Jane Grey who was executed February 12th 1554 then we have Anne Boleyn who was queen of England as she was married to king Henry the 8th she was executed May19th 1536 then we have Queen consort of England Katherine Howard who was also married to King Henry the 8th who was executed February 13th 1542 so needless to say Marie Antoinette was not the first by any means.

  13. OMG, people, stop getting so het up about a list.
    On the internet.
    that has no references.
    That ultimately has no bearing on ANYTHING. I enjoyed it. I’m from New Zealand and it was nice to see someone else’s opinion…

    I know who *I* think is a famous woman, I just wanted to get some different options for a costume party; not write a thesis on modern fame in the realm of gender or anything.

    • I’m with you sister… What’s with all the woman on woman hate here? This list never claimed to be cumulative, and it doesn’t represent these women poorly (‘Mother Teresa wasn’t that kind of person’ What are you talking about?? It gives basic facts about her work and charitable nature). The point of this page is to show some of the important work that women did to show that woman are capable of great things! Marilyn Monroe is cool, but she had an affair with a married man and didn’t do too much philanthropologically speaking (yes that’s a word)… and Princess Diana was also an icon, but, so was Jackie Kennedy.. and Jackie O did Wonders for the fashion world, but for heavens sake Mother Teresa went into impoverished villages filled with sick, dying people and fed and cared for them! Come on ladies, just be realistic here, you are each awesome in your own way I am sure… so let’s hear some positive feedback and support each other!!

  14. Mary, wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, remains, by a large margin, the most famous woman in history.
    To deny that is to be politically correct.

  15. The one notable exception is Florence Nightingale – the’ Lady with the lamp’. She would walk into any list with her enormous contribution to humankind.

  16. Never heard of Harriet Tubman. Why isn’t Elizabeth I not on this list? This strange list is obviously written by an American Liberal. Mothers Theresa at no.1??? She shoudn’t even be oon the list. Indira Ghandi? Really? How can she be on it and not Margaret Thatcher?

    • Dimple Jariwala on

      what problem you have with Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa . Is it becauze they they were Indian . you are such a bloody hipocrite !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Sure you are a British!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wanting Elizabeth
      1 on that list .

  17. Dimple Jariwala on

    According to me women from all fields should be included in this list ‘cauze what about Marilyn Monroe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. Since, I was young I always want to be the successful women who can help many people but I do not know how I can achieve my goal. That is also the reason I always searching for the famous women in current and history. Thank you so much for this web and such and inspiring post!

  19. Beverly Hollywood on

    What about Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus etc? How can you be the most famous women in history WITHOUT THE INTERNET AND MEDIA?

  20. How did Marilyn Monroe NOT make this list? There is more written about her than all of the other women on this list, combined. She’s become as much an Icon as The Virgin Mary. Gross oversight.

  21. Regarding Indira Gandhi… She was the first prime minister to announce emergency in India. She was killed by her Sikh body guards (to avenge for Blue Revolution, a normalising operation by the Indian Government to counter the Sikh’s demand for a new country).
    Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who was immediately brought to power after his mother’s assassination, was killed in a bomb blast, planned by LTTE from Sri Lanka, by a woman named Thanu(or Dhannu), who was Tamilian by birth, with the help of a Belt Bomb (Not Back Pack)

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