These women risked life, limb, and liberty to achieve great things in the last century. More importantly, they’ve taught us that incredible change can come from the power of one.
1. Anne Frank
Her diary of life during the Holocaust has been read by millions since its publication in 1947 and translation into English in 1953. Anne’s family lived in a secret room behind a store’s bookshelf in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, then were arrested and taken to Auschwitz (and later Bergen-Belsen) by the Gestapo.
Anne’s diary has become a major work of literature for the rest of the world to understand life under Nazi occupation. To this day, it remains a window into the lives of the persecuted.
2. Rosa Parks
Refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in an era of rampant racism, Rosa Parks’ name has become synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. Parks was not the first to refuse racial segregation, but this only made her act all the more fearless—she had seen what happened to the vast majority of people who took a stand, and she forged ahead anyway.
Rosa Parks has taught us that courage isn’t just about being the one who lights the torch, but the one who carries it in the face of overbearing odds.
3. Rigoberta Menchu
Her father was captured and tortured for his role in organizing the Guerrilla Army of the Poor against abusive Guatemalan landlords in 1980, and Rigoberta herself was exiled the following year.
She fled to Mexico, where she built a resistance organization to champion native rights, known as The United Republic of Guatemalan Opposition. She helped tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.
Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and ran for President of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011. She continues to work as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Her efforts have also led to the conviction of the commanding police officer who oversaw the investigation and murder of her father in 2015.
4. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
The first elected female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has remained President of Liberia since 2006. However, she was arrested as a political prisoner twice for opposing abusive dictators in the 1980s, then moved to the Ivory Coast in exile following James Taylor’s controversial election (supposedly 75% of the vote) in 1997.
Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, just four days before her re-election.
5. Aung San Suu Kyi
Rising to political power in Myanmar’s 1988 uprisings, Aung San Suu Kyi helped the recently formed National League for Democracy take 81% of Myanmar’s parliamentary seats in 1990. The military refused to hand over power, and placed her under house arrest for 15 years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while detained, and used the $1.3 million USD prize to establish a health and education trust for Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi currently serves as Myanmar’s First and incumbent State Counsellor.
6. Malala Yousafzai
Nearly assassinated for voicing the educational rights of women in Afghanistan, Malala Yousafzai recovered in Birmingham, England. There she started a non-profit fund that dedicated $7 million to education projects in remote areas.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her role in championing education for all, and continues her studies at an all-girls school in Birmingham, England.
7. Benazir Bhutto
The Bhutto family was placed under house arrest after the Pakistani government was overthrown in 1977, led by her father—who was hanged just two years later. Benazir Bhutto won the 1988 election, but her party was dismissed in 1990 for alleged corruption.
Her next and unsuccessful campaign in 1990 was later determined to be rigged by Pakistan’s intelligence service, according a supreme court ruling, and she became Pakistan’s Prime Minister again following the 1993 election. Benazir was assassinated on the 2007 campaign trail, which she led openly despite her supporters becoming targets of political violence earlier that year.
8. Shirin Ebadi
Earning her way through law school to become the first-ever female Iranian judge in 1975, Shirin Ebadi was demoted to a secretarial position following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
She received the 2003 Nobel Peace prize for her literature and advocacy of democracy and human rights in Iran, and—while it remains unconfirmed—the Iranian government was rumoured to have seized Ebadi’s prize upon her return from Europe.
She has lived in the United Kingdom since 2009 to avoid the persecution of Iran’s regime critics like herself.
9. Wangari Maathai
Maathai built a career in promoting sustainable energy in Kenya, most famously known as the Greenbelt Movement in 1977, decades before environmentalism became a mainstream topic in most other countries.
And she did that despite losing income for her children through divorce, nearly becoming impoverished due to related legal fees, being imprisoned for publicly disagreeing with the judge’s decision, and putting her children through university.
Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her role in organizing environmental and women’s movements despite facing overwhelming odds.
10. Josephine Baker
Born in Missouri, Josephine Baker became a sensational performer in Paris, France, where she became a global icon for the dance and the performing arts communities.
She earned French citizenship after a disheartening and racist-fuelled rejection from audiences in America. Josephine even smuggled messages for the French Resistance under the Nazi occupation of Paris, later earning her some of the highest military honours in France—the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War).
Baker went on to adopt 12 children at her estate in Southern France, and travelled to the US frequently to support the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.
11. Amelia Earhart
Despite her disappearance in 1937—at just 40 years of age—Earhart quickly became a symbol of female achievement. Not only did she win the Distinguished Flying Cross for becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone, but she involved herself heavily in female social advancement when it was unpopular to do so.
Earhart served as a counsellor for female students, founded an organization for female pilots called the Ninety-Nines, and contributed to the National Women’s party as a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.
Her disappearance is as curious as her contributions are inspiring.
12. Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina started her career as a textile worker with an interest in skydiving. Then she became the first women in outer space.
Tereshkova accomplished that 1963, but she had to become an honorary inductee of the Soviet Air Force to legitimize it (legally), making her the first civilian to fly in outer space as well.
She became a popular Soviet politician after the first group of female cosmonauts was dissolved in 1969, and remains a Russian pop culture icon to this day. She has even offered to take a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity ever arises.
13. St. Teresa of Calcutta
Most of us have heard of Mother Teresa. Yet few could name her exact achievements. It would take a separate article to detail her contributions and awards, but her crowning achievements are winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and creating the Missionaries of Charity—which now has over 4,500 active members around the world.
Her example has inspired compassion in everyone around the world, and she became canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on September 4th, 2016.
14. Ruby Bridges
Breaking school segregation was tough. But doing it when you’re six years old? That’s just what Ruby Bridges did in Louisiana, circa 1960.
Other students went to schools in groups of two and three, but Ruby attended William Frantz elementary all on her own—plus the four Federal Marshals that escorted her for her first year there.
She endured assassination threats, being mistreated by every teacher at William Frantz Elementary School (save for one, Barbara Henry, the only one willing to teach her), and having her family’s livelihood threatened in retribution. She succeeded anyway, and we owe her family a lot.
15. Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi began her career as her father’s assistant, then entered Indian politics on her own after he passed away. She joined the government as a cabinet minister in 1964, then succeeded her party’s leader as the new Prime Minister of India from 1966-1977.
Her next term ran from 1980-1984, when she was assassinated by her two bodyguards. But in that time she established India as the center of power in South Asia, earning her the title of “Woman of the Millennium” from the BBC.
Have suggestions on fearless women we can add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.