100 Most Important Women in World History

Famous Women Who Have Made a Difference

100' drawn with a sparkler
Martin Diebel / Getty Images

From time to time, people publish lists of "top 100" of women in history. As I think about who I'd put into my own Top 100 list of women important to world history, the women in the list below would at least make it to my first draft list.

Women's Rights

  • European and British:
  1. Olympe de Gouges: in the French Revolution, declared that women were equal to men
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft: British author and philosopher, mother of modern feminism
  1. Harriet Martineau: wrote about politics, economics, religion, philosophy
  2. the Pankhursts: key British woman suffrage radicals
  3. Simone de Beauvoir: 20th century feminist theorist
  • Americans:
  1. Judith Sargent Murray: American writer who wrote early feminist essay
  2. Margaret Fuller: Transcendentalist writer
  3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: women's rights and woman suffrage theorist and activist
  4. Susan B. Anthony: women's rights and woman suffrage spokesperson and leader
  5. Lucy Stone: abolitionist, women's rights advocate
  6. Alice Paul: organizer for the last winning years of women's suffrage
  7. Carrie Chapman Catt: long time organizer for woman suffrabe, organized international suffrage leaders
  8. Betty Friedan: feminist whose book helped launch the so-called "second wave"
  9. Gloria Steinem: theorist and writer whose Ms. Magazine helped shape the "second wave"

Heads of state:

  • Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance:
  1. Hatshepsut: pharaoh of Egypt who took male powers for herself
  1. Cleopatra of Egypt: last pharaoh of Egypt, active in Roman politics
  2. Galla Placidia: Roman empress and regent
  3. Boudicca (or Boadaceia): warrior queen of the Celts
  4. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, married to Justinian
  5. Isabella I of Castile and Aragon, ruler of Spain who, as a partner ruler with her husband, drove the Moors from Granada, expelled unconverted Jews from Spain, sponsored Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World, established the Inquisition
  1. Elizabeth I of England, whose long rule was honored by calling that time period the Elizabethan Age
  • Modern:
  1. Catherine the Great of Russia: expanded Russia's borders and promoted westernization and modernization
  2. Christina of Sweden: patron of art and philosophy, abdicated on conversion to Roman Catholicism
  3. Queen Victoria: another influential queen for whom a whole age is named
  4. Cixi (Tz'u-hsi or Hsiao-ch'in), last Dowager Empress of China, wielding enormous power as she opposed foreign influence and ruled strongly internally
  5. Indira Gandhi: prime Minister of India, also daughter, mother and mother-in-law of other Indian politicians
  6. Golda Meir: Prime Minister of Israel during Yom Kippur War
  7. Margaret Thatcher: British prime minister who dismantled social services
  8. Corazon Aquino: President of Philippines, reform political candidate

More Politics

  • Asian:
  1. Sarojini Naidu: poet and political activist, first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress
  • European and British:
  1. Joan of Arc: legendary saint and martyr
  2. Madame de Stael: intellectual and salonist
  • American:
  • Barbara Jordan: first Southern African American woman elected to Congress
  • Margaret Chase Smith: Republican Senator from Maine, first woman elected to both the House and the Senate, first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a Republican party convention
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: wife and widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his "eyes and ears" as president hampered by polio, and a human rights activist in her own right

Religion

  • European and British:
  1. Hildegard of Bingen: abbess, mystic and visionary, composer of music and writer of books on many secular and religious topics
  2. Princess Olga of Kiev: her marriage was the occasion of the conversion of Kiev (to become Russia) to Christianity, considered first saint of the Russian Orthodox Church
  3. Jeanne d'Albret (Jeanne of Navarre): Huguenot Protestant leader in France, ruler of Navarre, mother of Henry IV
  • American:
  1. Mary Baker Eddy: founder of Christian Science, author of key scriptures of that faith, founder of The Christian Science Monitor

Inventors and Scientists

  1. Hypatia: philosopher, mathematician, and martyred by the Christian church
  1. Sophie Germain: mathematician whose work is still used in construction of skyscrapers
  2. Ada Lovelace: pioneer in mathematics, created the concept of an operating system or software
  3. Marie Curie: mother of modern physics, two-time Nobel Prize winner
  4. Madam C. J. Walker: inventor, entrepreneur, millionaire, philanthropist
  5. Margaret Mead: anthropologist
  6. Jane Goodall: primatologist and researcher, worked with chimpanzees in Africa

Medicine and Nursing

  1. Trota or Trotula: a medieval medical writer (probably)
  2. Florence Nightingale: nurse, reformer, helped establish standards for nursing
  3. Dorothea Dix: advocate for the mentally ill, supervisor of nurses in the U.S. Civil War
  4. Clara Barton: founder of the Red Cross, organized nursing services in the U.S. Civil War
  5. Elizabeth Blackwell: first woman to graduate from medical school (M.D.) and a pioneer in educating women in medicine 
  6. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: first woman to successfully complete the medical qualifying exams in Great Britain; first woman physician in Great Britain; advocate of women's suffrage and women's opportunities in higher education; first woman in England elected as mayor

Social Reform

  • Americans:
  1. Jane Addams: founder of Hull-House and of the social work profession
  2. Frances Willard: temperance activist, speaker, educator
  3. Harriet Tubman: fugitive slave, underground railroad conductor, abolitionist, spy, soldier, Civil War, nurse
  4. Sojourner Truth: black abolitionist who also advocated for woman suffrage and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House
  5. Mary Church Terrell: civil rights leader, founder of National Association of Colored Women, charter NAACP member
  6. Ida Wells-Barnett: anti-lynching crusader, reporter, activist for racial justice
  7. Rosa Parks: civil rights activist, especially known for desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama
  • More:
  1. Elizabeth Fry: prison reform, mental asylum reform, reform of convict ships
  2. Wangari Maathai: environmentalist, educator

Writers

  1. Sappho: poet of ancient Greece
  2. Aphra Behn: first woman to make a living through writing; dramatist, novelist, translator and poet
  1. Lady Murasaki: wrote what's considered the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji
  2. Harriet Martineau: wrote about economics, politics, philosophy, religion
  3. Jane Austen: wrote popular novels of the Romantic period
  4. the Bronte sisters: author of key early 19th century novels by women
  5. Emily Dickinson: inventive poet and recluse
  6. Selma Lagerlof: first woman to win Nobel Prize for Literature
  7. Toni Morrison: first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993)
  8. Alice Walker: author of The Color Purple; Pulitzer Prize; recovered work of Zora Neale Hurston; worked against female circumcision