Nowadays, the self-made woman is practically a commonplace phenomenon. Women are highly educated, active in politics, unabashedly ambitious, and increasingly making the leap to start their own businesses. Compared to what life was like for women even as little as 50 years ago, today’s reality is pretty amazing. What’s even more amazing is that even though history is full of examples of the subjugation of women, it’s equally full of examples of astonishing women who defined it. Instead of looking at the present for models of female entrepreneurs, let’s take a look into the past at some of the extraordinary women who changed the world.


Born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BC, the details of the life of this ancient Greek lyrical poet are lost to history. However, her work, and her legend remain influential even today. With sharp and beautiful imagery, and a melodic word selection, Sappho’s poetry was probably meant to be sung and not spoken. Praised in antiquity by the likes of Plato, there was a revitalized interest in her work during the Renaissance.


Joan of Arc

Burned at the stake for heresy at the age of 19, Joan of Arc was later declared a martyr and patron saint of France. Born a peasant, she claimed divine intervention and went on to be an incredible successful military leader, ensuring countless French victories during the Hundred Years War. Her aggressive tactics and passionate rhetoric changed the course of the war, and her memory lives on with the help of frequent artistic depictions, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to modern films.


Catherine the Great

Talk about team building! Catherine the Great, the renowned empress of Russia, ruled over the country as it became the largest and most powerful it had ever been. Her success was in large part due to enlisting the assistance and advice of the most esteemed generals and nobles she could find. Often called the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, the era in which she ruled saw many reforms and architectural advancements. She was also in charge when Russia established the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.


Florence Nightingale

Born to an upper class English family during an age when marriage and family we’re considered the ultimate achievement for women, Nightingale decided instead to create a profession. Of course, there were nurses before Nightingale, but she changed the game and laid the foundation of modern nursing as a career. Later in life, she helped to issue reforms that would improve British healthcare, expand opportunities for women in the workplace, and help ease hunger in India.


Marie Curie

Curie holds the distinction of being the only person, male or female, to win the Nobel Prize in multiple sciences. A Polish physicist and chemist, Curie made clear that science was not only a man’s game with her pioneering research into radioactivity. She would continue to break ground, becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris.


Rosa Parks

December 1st, 1955, a department store seamstress on her way home from work refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on-board a Montgomery, Alabama bus. That woman was Rosa Parks, and that action not only got her arrested, it sparked a movement in the form of a citywide, 381-day bus boycott.  Later, when asked why she refused to give up her seat, Rosa recalled that it wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in. Her courage that day and in the days to come would earn her a place in history as a Civil Rights pioneer and a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the recipient of many prestigious accolades and awards. In 1999, TIME Magazine recognized Rosa Parks as one of “The 20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.”  


J.K. Rowling

We’ve got to end the list with a modern representative of a spectacular woman, so why not choose the author of the best-selling book series in history? A single mother struggling to stay afloat with the help of social security checks, Rowling is a true rags-to-riches story. Her stories of wizards and muggles proved to be just what the public wanted, and Harry Potter made her a multi-millionaire in five years, not to mention help reawaken a passion for reading in children around the world.


There are certainly hundreds of women to choose from, and the list only continues to grow. Nowadays, it may be filled with CEOs and media moguls, but let’s never forget the women who helped shape the society in which we live.

Who is an inspirational historical figure that inspires you? Share your favorites in the comments below.