For millennia, women have left their mark on the world, at times changing the course of history and at other times influencing small but significant spheres of life. Only in the past century, however, have concerted efforts been made to represent women’s contributions more fully in history books. Consequently, changes in status for many women in modern times—the right to own property, to vote, and to choose their own careers—may obscure the accomplishments made by women of earlier eras. In selecting 300 influential women, Encyclopædia Britannica has included both contemporary women who are changing today’s world and those whose contributions have endured through the ages.
Some, though they lived centuries ago, are still alive in popular culture; music and poetry by the Roman Catholic abbess Hildegard can be heard in contemporary recordings, and Murasaki Shikibu‘s The Tale of Genji, one of the greatest works of Japanese literature, continues to inspire new translations. Many women overcame the oppression of their surroundings through determination and ingenuity; Harriet Tubman, for example, escaped slavery and risked her life helping others to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Other women grew up in privileged surroundings; the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia and the historian Ban Zhao were born to families that permitted the education of girls in an era when females were rarely even taught to read.
Not all the women represented here changed the world for the better. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl produced propaganda films that glorified Adolf Hitler’s brutal Third Reich. Jiang Qing, who fought bitterly to advance her own political powers during China’s Cultural Revolution, caused great suffering.
Some, such as Boudicca, who led a bloody rebellion against the Romans, were warriors. Others advocated peace: Bertha, baroness von Suttner, influenced the creation of the Nobel Peace Prize that would eventually be won by many women, including Wangari Maathai and Mother Teresa. Like Mother Teresa, many of these women were driven by religious conviction. Khadijah‘s belief in her husband Muhammad’s revelations helped lay the foundation of Islam. Joan of Arc‘s divine inspiration led the French in a decisive victory against the English. Her feats were celebrated by the poet Christine de Pisan, who also penned some of the earliest commentaries on women’s roles in society.
We invite you to learn about 300 women who changed the world—review their accomplishments, locate their birthplaces, and discover the eras in which they lived. Examine topics in women’s history, such as feminism and Mother’s Day. Explore the particular events that make up the timeline of women’s achievements over the course of human history. Select a link on the left to begin.
© 2014 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.