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
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.
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
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