100 Famous Women of the 20th Century

They made an immense impact on the world

The women presented here have written books, discovered elements, explored the unknown, ruled countries and saved lives, plus so much more. Browse through this list of 100 famous women from the 20th century and be amazed by their stories.

Activists, Revolutionaries and Humanitarians

A picture of Helen Keller.
American writer, educator and advocate for the disabled Helen Keller, circa 1910. (Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Helen Keller, born in 1880, lost her sight and hearing in 1882. Her story of learning to communicate despite these immense barriers is legendary. As an adult, she was an activist who worked to support those with disabilities and for women's suffrage. She also was a founder of the ACLU. Rosa Parks was an African-American seamstress living in Montgomery, Alabama, and on Dec. 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. In doing so, she lit the spark that would become the civil rights movement.

Artists

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Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, circa 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Frida Kahlo is revered as one of Mexico's greatest artists. She is most known for her self-portraits but is equally well-known for her political activism as a communist. She shared this passion with her husband, Diego Rivera, also a prominent Mexican painter. Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, is known for her groundbreaking modernist art, most especially her flower paintings, New York cityscapes, landscapes and paintings of northern New Mexico. She had a legendary relationship and marriage to early-20th-century photography giant Alfred Stieglitz.

  • Lois Mailou Jones
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Lee Krasner
  • Georgia O'Keeffe
  • Grandma Moses

Athletes

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American tennis player Althea Gibson in action at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships on June 26, 1956. (Photo by Folb/Getty Images)

Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis -- she was the first African-American to play at the U.S. National Championships, in 1950, and made the same landmark appearance at Wimbledon in 1951. Tennis is also the sport where Billie Jean King broke more barriers -- she pushed for equal prize money for women and men, and at the 1973 U.S. Open she achieved that goal.

  • Bonnie Blair
  • Nadia Comaneci
  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias
  • Althea Gibson
  • Steffi Graf
  • Sonja Henie
  • Billie Jean King
  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee
  • Martina Navratilova
  • Wilma Rudolph

Aviation and Space

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American aviator Amelia Earhart on May 22, 1932, upon arriving in London after having become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic alone. (Photo by Getty Images)

Aviator Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic alone in 1932. But that wasn't enough for this courageous woman. In 1937 she began her longtime goal of flying around the world. But she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, and their plane disappeared in the middle of the Pacific, and they were never heard from again. Ever since, searches and theories have tried to tell the tale of her last hours, but the story still does not have a definitive ending and continues to be one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, with her trip on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. She was an astrophysicist who was a mission specialist on the shuttle and is credited with breaking this extremely solid glass ceiling.

  • Jacqueline Cochran
  • Bessie Coleman
  • Raymonde de Laroche
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Mae Jemison
  • Harriet Quimby
  • Sally Ride
  • Valentina Tereshkova

Business Leaders

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French fashion designer Coco Chanel, circa 1962. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fashion designer Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion for women with her emphasis on comfort and lack of uncomfortable underpinnings. She's synonymous with the little black dress (LBD) and timeless, trademark suits -- and, of course, the iconic fragrance Chanel No. 5. Estee Lauder built an empire on face creams and her innovative fragrance, Youth-Dew, which was a bath oil that doubled as a scent. The rest is history.

Entertainers

Picture of Marilyn Monroe wearing a fur stole around her bare shoulders.
Marilyn Monroe in a studio portrait circa 1955. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marilyn Monroe needs no introduction. She's one of the most famous movie actresses of all time and known as the quintessential sex symbol of the mid-20th century. Her death from a drug overdose in 1962 at age 36 is still the stuff of legend. Jane Fonda, actress daughter of Hollywood royalty Henry Fonda, has won two Oscars. But she is equally famous (or infamous) for her political activism during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War.

Heroines and Adventurers

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Edith Cavell, British nurse and humanitarian, circa 1915. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Edith Cavell was a British nurse serving in Belgium in World War I. She and Belgian and French nurses helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from Belgium during the German occupation. She was caught and arrested by the Germans and shot by firing squad in October 1915. Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker in the Warsaw Underground who saved 2,500 children of the Warsaw Ghetto from the Nazis in German-occupied Poland during World War II. She was caught by the Germans in 1943 and was tortured and beaten and scheduled for execution. But friends from the Underground bribed a guard, who allowed her to escape into the woods, where her friends found her. She spent the rest of World War II in hiding. After the war she tried to reunite the children she had carried to safety with their families, but most were orphans; only 1 percent of the Jews who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto survived the Nazis.

  • Harriet Chalmers Adams
  • Gertrude Bell
  • Edith Cavell
  • Irena Sendler
  • Helen Thayer
  • Nancy Wake

Scientists

Picture of scientist Marie Curie.
Marie Curie, the Polish scientist and Nobel prize-winner, circa 1926. (Photo by Henri Manuel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Groundbreaking scientist Marie Curie, a physicist and mathematician, was awarded half the Nobel Prize in 1903, along with her husband, Pierre Curie, for their study of spontaneous radiation. She received a second Nobel in chemistry in 1911 for her study of radioactivity. Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist known for her theory that the culture rather than heredity shapes personality and making anthropology an accessible subject for all.

Spies and Criminals

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The infamous Dutch spy Mata Hari, whose real name was Margarete Geertruida Zelle. (Photo by Walery/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mata Hari was a Dutch dancer who was a spy for France during World War I. She shared information she received from members of the German military with the French government. But the French began to suspect she was a double agent, also working for the Germans, and she was executed by firing squad in October 1917. It's never been proven that she actually was a double agent. Bonnie Parker, the infamous lover and partner in crime with Clyde Barrow, traveled around the Midwest in the 1930s robbing banks and stores and killing people along the way. Parker and Barrow met their ends in a deadly ambush by law enforcement in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, in May 1934. She was made famous in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde."

World Leaders and Politicians

A picture of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir at a London press conference on Nov. 5, 1970. (Photo by Harry Dempster/Express/Getty Images)

Golda Meir, an immigrant to the United States from Russia, became the first female prime minister of Israel in 1969 after a lifetime in Israeli politics; she was one of the signers of the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948. Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and held the influential swing vote in many controversial decisions until she retired in 2006.

Writers

Picture of Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.
Dame Agatha Christie, British writer of crime and detective fiction, in 1954. (Photo by Walter Bird/Getty Images)

British novelist Agatha Christie gave the world Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and the play "The Mousetrap." The Guinness Book of World Records lists Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. American novelist Toni Morrison has won both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for her landmark, beautifully written works that explore the African-American experience. They include "Beloved," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, "Song of Solomon" and "A Mercy." She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "100 Famous Women of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/famous-women-of-the-20th-century-1779903. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2017, October 9). 100 Famous Women of the 20th Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-women-of-the-20th-century-1779903 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "100 Famous Women of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-women-of-the-20th-century-1779903 (accessed October 19, 2017).