12 Women Who Changed the Path of History
Down the pages of history, women have donned multiple roles in fields as diverse as science, sports, politics, literature, humanitarianism, monarchy and more. While hundreds and hundreds of women have impacted human history in unprecedented ways, some have managed to cause revolutionary changes, transforming the way the world has perceived or wanted women to be.
Here are 12 such influential, impactful women with stories that continue to inspire both men and women for generations down the lines.
Mileva Maric (1875-1948)
“The world has become full of illiterates. Especially with the king who speaks from behind the skirt of jargon.”
The Serbian physicist and mathematician Mileva Maric, also known as Mileva Maric-Einstein, was the second woman to finish a full program of study at the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Zurich Polytechnic. She was the only women among Albert Einstein’s fellow students at the university and went on to become his first wife.
Although the scientific community continues to debate about her contributions and collaboration with Einstein, the latter’s letters reveal that she played a significant part throughout his university and professional career. She was methodical and organized, excelled at experimental work and outscored Albert Einstein in most of their papers at the university. In his letters to her dated 27 March 1901, he wrote: “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion.”
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Maya Angelou was a celebrated poet, gifted singer, actress, composer and dancer, distinguished diarist and revered civil rights activist. Recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees and dozens of awards, she is best known today for her writing career. Angelou has authored more than 30 books, including the award-winning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Through her literary themes of racism, sexual oppression, individuality and identity, Maya Angelou emerged as one of the loudest voices of America’s Civil Rights Movement. Angelou was subject to a difficult childhood herself, that had left her traumatized for many years. Through her evergreen literature, she has taught the world that strength of character can help overcome all odds. Maya Angelou continues to be one of the most influential American women in history.
Maga Magazinović (1882 – 1968)
Serbian librarian and journalist Maga Magazinovic are credited with being the first woman to bring modern dance to the country. She also played an instrumental role in sowing the seeds of the struggle for gender equality.
Maga Magazinovic was the first female journalist of the newspaper Politika, where she wrote about various forms of physical and spiritual education of the youth, especially women. She was the first woman to graduate from the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade in the year 1904 and also the first female librarian in the National Library of Serbia, besides being the first female journalist by vocation.
Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)
“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”
Polish-born Marie Curie created history by becoming the first person ever to be awarded two separate Nobel Prizes, one for Physics and the other for Chemistry. The revered scientist continues, to this day, to be the only person to have been awarded Nobel Prizes for two different sciences, irrespective of gender.
However, throughout her career, Curie faced several hardships in her career, which were almost entirely male-dominated at the time. This did not stop the pioneering scientist from making huge and revolutionary contributions to the field of science, for which the world remembers her to this day. Credited with coining the term radioactivity, Curie discovered two new elements – radium and polonium – along with inventing the portable X-Ray machine.
She also became the first woman in France to earn a Ph.D. in Physics; the professors who reviewed her doctoral thesis declared it as the greatest single contribution to science ever written.
Draga Ljočić (1855 – 1926)
Serbian physicist, socialist and feminist, Draga Ljocic Milosevic was the first Serbian woman to be accepted at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, 1872. She worked as a medical assistant for the Serbian army during the ruthless Serbia-Ottoman Empire was, after which she took up medicine and graduated as a doctor in 1879.
One of the leading figures to be associated with the women’s rights movement, Draga Ljocic, was also the first female doctor in the Balkan Wars and the Great War. During her time, all of Europe had only a dozen women working as doctors.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796)
“I beg you take courage; the brave soul can mend even disaster.”
Catherine II, popularly known as Catherine the Great, was the longest-ruling female leader of All Russia. History talks of her as a ruthless and powerful woman who knew what she wanted. She not just oversaw the expansion but also the modernization of the Russian empire during her rule.
Catherine the Great ascended the throne following a coup d’etat overthrowing her husband, with whom she shared a loveless marriage. She established the first state-funded school for girls, encouraged the development of the economy, trade, and the arts, and faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign. Catherine is known to have several partners and always parted on good terms with each of them, bestowing them with several riches before sending them away.
Katarina Milovuk (1844 – 1913)
The principal and director of the first institution of higher learning for women in Serbia, Katarina Milovuk, is remembered as an educator and a women’s rights activist. In 1875, Milovuk founded the first women’s organization in Serbia, called the Women’s Society of Belgrade. This organization continued to dominate women’s causes for several decades, focussing on humanitarian issues, including helping war orphans.
Malala Yousafzai (1997- )
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
The youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, at just 17 years of age, Malala Yousafzai is an international icon and inspiration. Born in Pakistan, she was born to Ziauddin Yousafzai, who ran an all-girls school in a small village in Pakistan. However, with the Taliban taking over several parts of the country and spreading their propaganda, all girls were banned from receiving education in schools.
15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, however, chose to speak out publicly against discrimination and atrocity. The result was not pleasant – she was shot in the head while in her school bus by a gunman who forcibly boarded the bus and terrorized all students and the driver. However, Malala survived.
She then moved to the UK and took to the global stage to discuss the importance of women's rights, education, and freedom. In what has been an incredible journey of courage, conviction, and faith, Malala Yousafzai has molded history in a never-before way for women all over the world.
Diana Budisavljević (1891 – 1978)
Austrian humanitarian Diana Budisavljevic is remembered for leading the relief efforts in Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Together with several co-workers, Budisavljevic organized assistance and support chiefly to Serbian Orthodox women and children languishing in the Ustase camps in Croatia.
The rescue operation, named ‘Action Diana Budisavljevic’ after the brave humanitarian, managed to save more than 10,000 children.
Diana’s team sent supplies of food, medicines, clothes, and money to various camp inmates at different locations across Yugoslavia. She coordinated with local communities, officers and railway authorities, and organizations such as the Croatian Red Cross to provide men, women, and children with the help they needed. Donning a Red Cross nurse's uniform, Diana also assisted in relocating inmates, especially children, away from camps to families and rural communities.
Almost forgotten after the War, rarely mentioned in public discussions and fora, Diana Budisavljevic led an ordinary life with her husband in Zagreb and later in Innsbruck. Her wartime diary was published by the Croatian State Archives in 2003 and earned her posthumous recognition, besides making her a legend. A 2019 biographical film, The Diary of Diana B., tells her story and has won several Golden Arena awards.
Valentina Tereshkova (1937 - )
“Once you have been in space, you appreciate how small and fragile the Earth is.”
The first and youngest woman to have flown in space, Valentina Tereshkova is a Russian State Duma member, an engineer, and a former cosmonaut. She spent three days in space and orbited the Earth 48 times. Soon after, she became an international role model for millions of women.
Valentina Tereshkova used to work in a textile factory and was an amateur skydiver. The latter became a key reason for her selection to the Soviet Space Program. The director of cosmonaut training, Nikolai Kamanin, was firm upon having a Soviet woman as the first woman to be in space after learning that America was training female pilots for the task. Tereshkova was selected out of 400 candidates and inducted into the Soviet Air Forces in the female cosmonaut corps.
Called ‘Gagarin in a skirt,’ Tereshkowa is the only woman to fly to space solo and logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date in a single flight.
Anne Frank (1929-1945)
“How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Anne Frank was a German teenage girl caught in racial atrocity during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. She is remembered as the author of one of the most poignant yet powerful accounts of the Second World War – The Diary of Anne Frank. Having been translated into more than 70 languages, it was published by Anne’s father – the only one to survive from the Frank family after they were discovered from hiding and sent to concentration camps in 1944.
The diary is revered as a classic of war literature, intimately depicting the greys of the darkest phases of modern history. Anne Frank managed to put forth the mixed, confused feelings of a teenager along with the universal sentiments of passion and desire, fear and hope, dismay and strength.