You are here: History > Famous women

For famous female leaders, click here.
Maya Angelou in 2013

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (1928–2014) was an African American author and poet, best known for her series of seven autobiographies the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became an immediate bestseller in 1969. Born in St Louis, Missouri, Maya suffered a traumatic childhood and as a result did not speak for almost five years. She studied dance and acting in California, and had a son a few weeks after graduating from high school. As a single parent, she looked after her son and took on a variety of jobs. In the 1950s she toured Europe with a production of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, and recorded her first album. 

In 1959, Maya Angelou moved to New York and became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, starting work on her autobiography. She also became involved in the civil rights movement, and met both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. During the 1960s she acted in many plays and movies, as well as writing a TV series, and directing her own theatre productions. Her publications include her autobiography, collections of poems, children’s books and cookbooks. In 1993, she was invited to write and read a poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mary Anning and her dog Tray. The Golden Cap rock outcrop, between Charmouth and Bridport on England's Jurassic Coast, and where...Read More >>Mary Anning and her dog Tray. The Golden Cap rock outcrop, between Charmouth and Bridport on England's Jurassic Coast, and where Mary made a number of her finds, is in the background.

Mary Anning

Mary Anning (1799–1847) was an English fossil-hunter and self-taught palaeontologist who was once described as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew". A fossil discovered and excavated by Mary and her brother Joseph in 1810–11 was the first complete ichthyosaur fossil to be found, and it brought Mary to the attention of collectors and scientists in London. Amongst many other later finds, Mary discovered the first complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus in 1824, and the flying reptile Pterodactylus in 1828. As a woman, Mary was not permitted to become a member of the newly formed Geological Society of London. Yet many palaeontologists sought her advice for their research. Her discoveries significantly helped the work of many British scientists by providing them with specimens to study.

Susan B. Anthony, aged 50

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) was an American social reformer who played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement (the campaign to win the right to vote) in the USA during the 19th century. She was also a leading activist in the anti-slavery campaign and the temperance movement, which aimed to limit or stop the production and sale of alcohol. In 1851, Susan met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at an anti-slavery conference. Together they founded the Women’s Temperance Society. At a temperance conference held in Albany, Susan was not allowed to make a speech—because she was a woman. These and other experiences led Anthony to focus much of her attention on suffrage and the fight for women’s rights over the subsequent years. She organized anti-slavery meetings and spoke out fearlessly in favour of a racially integrated society. Her views were highly controversial at that time, and she often encountered violence as well as receiving threats. Although Susan Anthony did not live to see universal women’s suffrage in the USA, which was finally won in 1920, her work was instrumental to ensuring the movement's eventual success.


Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, October 2013Aung San Suu Kyi (born 1945) is a Burmese human rights activist who has become an international symbol of peaceful protest in the face of political oppression. In 1988, Suu Kyi organized rallies all over Myanmar (Burma), speaking out against the military dictator General Ne Win and calling for reform. In September 1988 there was a military coup, and the army moved to suppress the demonstrations, killing thousands of protesters. The following year Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home in Yangon (Rangoon). The government offered to release her if she would leave the country, but she refused until reforms had been introduced and political prisoners released. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for long periods of time until 2010, during which she won the Nobel Peace Prize (1991). After her release in 2010, Suu Kyi was elected a member of parliament and is now actively involved in politics in Myanmar.
Since 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her involvement in the Rohingya crisis. The Myanmar army are reported to have carried out a brutal campaign of violent attacks, murder and destruction of Rohingya villages. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Critics have accused Suu Kyi of silence on the issue, failing to admit, let alone trying to prevent, the persecution of the Rohingya.
A portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski, painted in 1905.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910) was the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree. She was born in Bristol, England. In 1832, her family moved to New York City, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1838. To begin with, Elizabeth worked as a teacher, but she saved the money she earned in order to attend medical school. Following many rejections, she was accepted by Geneva Medical School, New York State, after all the 150 male students voted to accept her. She received her degree on 23rd January 1849. In April that year she moved to Europe to continue her studies in Paris and London. Whilst in Paris she developed an infection and lost her sight in one eye. This would mean she could never become a surgeon.
In 1851, Elizabeth returned to New York, where, along with her sister Emily, she set up the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (indigent means extremely poor), which also trained nurses. In 1859, she became the first woman to have her name on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council, a record of all the people who have practised medicine in Britain. During the American Civil War (1861–65), Elizabeth and her sisters helped with nursing efforts. In 1869, Elizabeth returned to Britain where, in 1874, she founded the London School of Medicine for Women.

Rachel Carson in 1940

Rachel Carson

American biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907–64) is famous for writing about global environmental issues. As a child she developed a great passion for nature through exploring the countryside near her family farm. She studied biology at Pennsylvania College for Women and zoology at Johns Hopkins University. She developed a passion for the ocean, and wrote a number of books, articles and radio scripts about marine life. In the 1940s and 50s, Rachel became more and more concerned about the effects of chemicals and pesticides on the environment. Her most famous book, Silent Spring, was published in 1956. Focusing especially on the impact of the use of pesticides on birds, the book alerted the public to the dangers of damaging the environment. Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964. 

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell (1865–1915) was an English nurse who, during World War I, cared for wounded soldiers of both sides. Based at a Red Cross hospital in Belgium, Edith became involved in secretly helping Allied (French, British and Belgian) soldiers to escape to the Netherlands, which was a neutral country. She sheltered the soldiers until they could make their way to safety, led by guides organized by a Belgian architect named Philippe Baucq. It was dangerous work, and in August 1915 an informer betrayed them. By that time Edith had helped about 200 soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium. She and Baucq were arrested and shot by the Germans. Her execution caused outrage, and she became a heroine for the Allies.
Marie Curie in about 1920

Marie Curie

Marie Curie (1867–1934) was a pioneering scientist in an age when it was unusual for a woman to be a scientist at all. She is remembered today for her work with her husband Pierre Curie on radioactivity, especially the discovery of two radioactive elements, radium and polonium, and the use of radioactivity in the treatment of cancer. Marie also played an important part in developing the use of X-rays, especially during World War I. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the only woman to have to have won in two different fields, physics and chemistry.
A portrait of Grace Darling, painted by Thomas Musgrave Joy in 1839

Grace Darling

Grace Darling (1815–42) was famous for her role in the rescue of nine people from a shipwreck. Born in Bamburgh, Northumberland, she grew up on Longstone Island, off the northeast coast, where her father Thomas worked as a lighthouse keeper. On 7th September 1838, Grace spotted that the Forfarshire, a paddle-steamer, had run aground during a storm. She and her father realised the weather was too rough to send a lifeboat, so they took a small rowing boat out nearly a mile across the high seas. They rescued four men and one woman. Her father, along with three of the rescued men, then returned and recovered four more men. The weather was so bad that all the survivors had to remain at the lighthouse for three days before it was safe to return to the mainland.
As word of Grace’s role spread, she became a national heroine. People raised money for her—£700, including a £50 gift from Queen Victoria. She and her father both received the Silver Medal for Bravery from the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (later named the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). Grace was celebrated in William Wordsworth’s 1843 poem Grace Darling. She died of tuberculosis in October 1842, aged just 26.


Emily runs out in front of the King's horse

Emily Davison

Emily Davison (1872–1913) was an English suffragette who was fatally injured at the Epsom Derby in 1913 when she stepped out on to the racetrack and collided with King George V’s horse. In Britain at the start of the 20th century, women could not vote in parliamentary elections or stand as MPs. Campaigners for women’s suffrage—the right to vote—had set up groups in most major towns. In 1903 a new militant organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was set up in Manchester led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. Members of this new group were called suffragettes and would use any means necessary, including violence, to get the vote. Some women, for example, chained themselves to railings, broke shop windows and attacked paintings in the National Gallery in London. Many, including Emily Davison, went to prison. It is not known whether Emily intended to give her own life for her cause; it has been recently suggested that she was trying to attach a scarf to the horse's bridle.

Diana, Princess of Wales

Diana, Princess of Wales (1961–97) was the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, and the mother of Prince William and Prince Harry. Born Diana Spencer in Norfolk, she went to school in England and Switzerland. She married Prince Charles in 1981, becoming Princess of Wales, and began undertaking royal duties. She became internationally famous—and subjected to close attention by the press and TV all over the world.
Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995
Diana became known for her personal approach to charity work and her support of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She used her fame to raise awareness of causes about which she cared deeply. She made regular visits to London’s homelessness centres and hospitals, spending hours at a time talking to the people she met there. In 1989, she opened the Landmark AIDS Centre in South London. At a time when many people were worried that HIV/AIDS could spread by touch, Diana openly hugged and consoled patients. This changed the way people with the disease were treated. Diana’s charity work helped to change the way many people thought about the British royal family. Her marriage to Prince Charles ended in divorce in 1996. Following her death in a car accident in Paris in 1997, she was greatly mourned.


Amelia Earheart

Amelia Earhart, 1937Amelia Earheart (1897–1937) was an American aviator who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. She attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world. Having she successfully completed more than three-quarters of the journey, Earhart’s plane disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. Neither the wreckage nor her body were ever found. Amelia Earhart was much celebrated during her lifetime, and helped to open up the new profession of aviation to other women.

Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle Eberhardt in 1895Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904) was a Swiss explorer and writer. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, she was fluent in six languages by the time she was 16. As a teenager, she published short stories using the male name Nicolas Podolinsky. Having moved to Algeria with her mother when she was 20, she decided to wear men's clothing, convert to Islam and became fluent in Arabic. She later moved back to Paris to try and become a writer. A widow hired her to investigate the death of her husband, the Marquis de Mores, in North Africa, so Isabelle returned there once more.
Isabelle explored the Sahara Desert while dressed as a man, using the name Si Mahmoud Saadi, and became a skilled horsewoman. Both Algerian and French authorities tried to hire her as a spy during her time in North Africa. In 1901 a man tried to assassinate her. Isabelle suspected the French were behind the attempt. She survived and kept his weapon, a sabre (a type of sword), as a trophy. She later fell in love with an Algerian soldier, whom she married. After her death in a flash flood, aged only 27, many of the stories she had written during her life were published.
Millicent Fawcett in 1892

Millicent Fawcett

Millicent Fawcett (1847–1929) was a leading campaigner for equal rights for women in Britain. A political leader and writer, she led the biggest suffrage organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), from 1897 to 1919 and played a key role in gaining women the vote. Known as the Suffragists, members of the NUWSS sought peaceful means to achieve their aim, while the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), or Suffragettes, vowed to use any means necessary, including violence, to get the vote. Millicent Fawcett was also devoted to the struggle to improve women's opportunities for education.


Anne Frank in 1942

Anne Frank

Anne Frank (1929–45) was a young German Jewish girl whose account of being forced to go into hiding with her family during World War II has since become a classic of war literature. To avoid being sent to work in Nazi work camps, the Frank family, along with other family friends, went into hiding in an empty space at the back of Anne's father's company building in Amsterdam, 1942. There, 13-year-old Anne, who had already began recording her life before she went into hiding, wrote about what it was like to live in such cramped and frightening circumstances. The Gestapo, the Nazi Secret State Police, eventually discovered the Franks' hiding place in August 1944. Taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Anne and her sister died from typhus just before the end of the war, in March 1945.

Rosalind Franklin in 1955

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920–58) was an English chemist. She made a crucial contribution to the understanding of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA confirmed that the molecule had a shape of a double helix. X-ray diffraction is a scientific method for discovering the structure of a crystal. A crystal's atoms cause a beam of X-rays to diffract (spread out) in many different directions. By measuring the angles and intensity of the diffracted beams, scientists can produce 3D images showing the positions of the atoms making up the crystal.
The structure of DNA
Rosalind Franklin's work was shown in 1952—without her approval or knowledge—to biologist James Watson (born 1928) who at the time was working with Francis Crick (1916–2004) on identifying the structure of DNA. The evidence was crucial to Crick and Watson's success in discovering DNA's molecular structure (the animated model, pictured right, shows the this).
Crick, Watson and Rosalind's colleague Maurice Wilkins jointly received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions to the discovery. But Rosalind had died in 1958 and therefore could not be nominated as the prize is only awarded to living people.

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) was an English Quaker who dedicated much of her adult life to helping those in need. A compassionate and brave campaigner, she became well known for her fight to improve the conditions of women prisoners in the early 19th century. She was first alerted to the situation when she visited Newgate Prison in London in 1811. She was appalled by what she found, particularly the plight of the women and children. She immediately began to provide practical help in the form of clothing and other essentials for the prisoners. Her pioneering work inspired other women to play a fuller role in society, and her ideas for reforms in prisons, asylums and elsewhere continued to be influential long after her death.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall speaking in 2014. She is pictured with the toy chimpanzee, called Jubilee, given to her by her parents when she was...Read More >>Jane Goodall speaking in 2014. She is pictured with the toy chimpanzee, called Jubilee, given to her by her parents when she was a child. Her fondness for it began a lifelong love of animals.Dame Jane Goodall (born 1934) is an English primatologist (an expert on primates). She is best known for her 45-year study of the lives of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Jane began her studies in 1960. She soon became aware that the apes had distinct personalities and formed relationships with each other. Her research also showed that chimpanzees were not only highly intelligent, they were also were tool-makers; at the time it was believed only humans could make and use tools. She observed a chimp carefully inserting twigs into a termite mound, then removing them—covered with termites, which it ate. Jane also witnessed chimps, once thought to be vegetarian, participating in hunts for monkeys
Audrey Hepburn in the 1960s 

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn (1929–93) was a Belgian-born British actor, dancer and humanitarian (someone who works to help people in need). Born to a British father and an Austrian mother in Brussels, she spent the first years of her life travelling, as a result of which she learned to speak five languages. During World War II, Audrey helped raise money for the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. After the war, she studied ballet in Amsterdam, then moved to London to study with the Ballet Rambert. She performed as a chorus girl in London's West End before starting to act in films. For her performance as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, she became the first actress to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for a single role. She went on to achieve global fame as a film star. She appeared in two of her best-known films in the 60s: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and My Fair Lady (1964).
Over her lifetime, Audrey's fashion sense and beauty made her an icon, appearing on the front pages of many magazines. She made her last screen appearance in 1989, a cameo (minor role) in Always. in 1989 she was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a United Nations programme that carries humanitarian work for families in developing countries. Audrey was presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush for her work with UNICEF in 1992.
Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910–94) was a British chemist, best known for her groundbreaking work in X-ray crystallographyThis is a technique used to determine the structures of molecules. Fascinated by chemistry from an early age, Dorothy studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford University, before earning her doctorate at Cambridge University. She was awarded a research fellowship from Somerville College in 1933. (In the 1940s, one of her students was Margaret Roberts, the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.) In 1934, aged only 24, Dorothy was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. In her later years, she spent much time in a wheelchair, but this did not stop her from continuing her research work.

A model of the molecular structurel of penicillin, made by Dorothy Hodgkin in about 1945World War II created a huge demand for penicillin antibiotics. Dorothy determined the structure of penicillin in 1945. Her work in discovering the molecular structure of vitamin B12 began in 1948. It took eight years of research to complete the task in 1956 and it resulted Dorothy being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. She remains the only British woman to win the Nobel Prize in either Chemistry, Physics or Medicine. She used some of the prize money to establish a nursery at Somerville, to help women stay in science. Also in 1964, Dorothy became only the second woman after Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit.

In 1969, at the conclusion of a project that took 35 years, Dorothy was among those who determined the complex structure of insulin. She later travelled the world, giving talks about insulin and its importance for diabetes.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (1906–92) was a United States Navy rear admiral, computer scientist and pioneer of computer programming. Born in New York, she was a curious and intelligent child, who was admitted early to Vassar College aged 17. In 1934, she received a PhD in mathematics from Yale University. By 1941, she had become an associate professor at Vassar. During World War II, she joined the United States Navy Reserve and remained in the Navy—apart from brief periods of retirement—for the rest of her life. 
Grace Hopper in the 1950s
In 1949, Grace joined the team developing the UNIVAC computer, the first large-scale electronic computer. Grace believed that computer programming could be done using English words rather than numbers. In the 1950s she developed a compiler, software that converted English terms into machine code that would be understood by computers. This led to the development of COBOL (which stands for for COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a computer language for data processors. It is still in use in computers today.
Grace received 40 honorary degrees during her lifetime, and was posthumously (after her death) awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Amy Johnson in Jason

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson (1903–41) was an English aviator, who became a celebrity in her own lifetime after becoming the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, in 1930. Born in Hull, Yorkshire, Amy graduated from the University of Sheffield before going to work in London. She started flying as a hobby, getting her pilot’s licence in 1928. In the same year she became the first British woman to qualify as a ground engineer. Her father and Lord Wakefield, a wealthy businessman, helped her to buy a Gipsy Moth aircraft, which she named "Jason". It was in this plane that Amy made her record-breaking flight. Taking off from Croydon in the UK on 5th May she flew to Darwin in Australia, reaching it on 24th May—a distance of 17,700 kilometres (11,000 miles).

Amy Johnson in 1930

Amy went on to set many other records, some with her husband Jim Mollison, whom she married in 1932 (they divorced in 1938). When war broke out in 1939, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a group of experienced pilots who could not serve in the RAF. On a routine flight on 5th January 1941, Amy Johnson crashed into the River Thames and drowned. Her body was never recovered.
Katherine Johnson in 1966

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was an African American mathematician who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She performed the accurate calculations and analysed the data needed for space flights, which today would be done by computers. Katherine also played a crucial role in many important moments at the start of space exploration. These included mission Freedom 7 in 1961, the first American manned space flight, and Apollo 11 in 1969, the first time man walked on the Moon. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in recognition for her role as a pioneering African American woman in science. She died at the age of 101 in February 2020.
Helen Keller in around 1947

Helen Keller

A childhood illness left American Helen Keller (1880–1968) blind and deaf. With the help of a remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen overcame her disabilities to lead an extraordinary life as a political and social activist, and a strong advocate for blind people all over the world. Having received a college degree in 1904, Helen began to use her celebrity to try to improve the lives of others, particularly those with disabilities. She also spoke out as a suffragist in favour of the right to vote for women, as a pacifist, and as a supporter of birth control—all highly controversial issues at that time. Lecture tours took her all over the world, and centres were established in her name in many places to help the blind. Her remarkable life became the subject of many books, films and plays.
Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Austrian-born actress Hedwig "Hedy" Lamarr (1913–2000) was the co-inventor of a communications system that she and American composer George Antheil (1900–1959) devised in 1941, during World War II. The invention enabled radio messages to be transmitted without the enemy being able to intercept them—and used the principle on which the technologies of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are based today. Hedy Lamarr was a popular movie star in her day, the Golden Age of Holywood of the 1940s. Her best-known films included Ziegfield Girl, Tortilla Flat and Samson and Delilah.

Ada Lovelace is often described today as the world's first computer programmer. Impressed by her analytical skills, Babbage...Read More >>Ada Lovelace is often described today as the world's first computer programmer. Impressed by her analytical skills, Babbage called her "The Enchantress of Numbers".

Ada Lovelace

English mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815–52) first met Charles Babbage (1791–1871) in 1833. In her Notes of 1843, accompanying an article explaining how Babbage's Analytical Engine, a device designed to perform calculations using punched cards (but never actually built) would work, Ada wrote about her belief that such a machine had the potential to perform much more elaborate functions than simply making mathematical calculations—just as modern computers do today. She demonstrated this by completing a programme for the Analytical Engine: a method for calculating a certain mathematical sequence. Effectively, she had written the world's first algorithm, a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Ada Lovelace is today considered the world's first computer programmer.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an English nurse who worked to improve the quality of medical care for British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–56). Amongst other innovations, she greatly improved sanitary conditions in the Scutari hospital where she worked, reducing the spread of disease which caused so many unnecessary deaths. Her work in the Crimea and later writings on nursing led to major changes in the way that hospitals were run. Her influences can still be found in hospital wards today. Florence grew up in a society in which nursing was not a respectable job for a woman, but through her efforts and determination she paved the way for women from all backgrounds to follow her example. In 1907 Florence Nightingale became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. A year later she was given the Freedom of the City of London, an award which recognized her outstanding achievements.
Emmeline Pankhurst in about 1913

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, which fought for women’s right to vote in Britain. Born in Moss Side, Manchester, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League, which campaigned for women to have the right to vote in elections, known as suffrage. She then went on to found the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Emmeline’s daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia became involved with the movement too. Members of the WSPU were known as suffragettes. The colours of the WSPU were white, purple and green (white stood for purity, purple for loyalty and green for hope). Its motto was "Deeds, not words". Members often turned to violent tactics, such as smashing shop windows and assaulting police officers. This lead some people to criticize Emmeline and the WSPU’s tactics. In 1908, Emmeline organized a march in London attended by 30,000 women.
During World War I, the WSPU suspended its campaign and encouraged women to help the war effort instead. The Votes for Women campaign won a partial victory in 1918, when tax-paying women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote. In 1928, just weeks after Emmeline’s death, all women over 21 were given the vote.

Rosa Parks (1912–2005), with Martin Luther King in the background

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was an African American civil rights activist. It was in Montgomery, Alabama, on 1st December 1955, that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. At that time and place, the seats on buses were segregated between white and black people. Rosa was sitting in the "coloured section" of the bus and the "white section" was full. She was arrested for violating the city’s segregation laws. In response, the African American community decided to boycott (refuse to travel on) the city’s buses. An organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with Martin Luther King as its leader. In 1956 the US Supreme Court ruled that the buses must be desegregated. Meanwhile, however, Rosa had been fired from her job as a seamstress in a department store. She later moved to Detroit. From 1965 to 1988, she worked as secretary to US Representative John Conyers, also an African American. She received national recognition for her action, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Captain John Smith, an English settler, got into a fight with a group of Powhatan Indians. He was captured and brought before...Read More >>Captain John Smith, an English settler, got into a fight with a group of Powhatan Indians. He was captured and brought before Chief Wahunsenaca. According to Smith’s later written accounts, Pocahontas saved his life, by placing herself in front of him just as he was about to have his head clubbed. Whether or not this episode actually took place has long been debated. Some people believe that Smith made it up, others that he misunderstood what was happening. As she was only a child, Pocahontas might not even have been present.


Pocahontas (c.1596–1617) was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, chief of the Native American Powhatan tribe. Her father nicknamed his beloved daughter, whose birth name was Matoaka, Pocahontas, which means "laughing and joyous one". English settlers arrived in Powhatan territory (now part of Virginia) and founded the settlement of Jamestown there in 1607. The Powhatan initially welcomed the English, but relations worsened as the English began to demand more food than the Indians could spare. According to legend, Pocahontas saved the life of English adventurer Captain John Smith from execution by the Powhatans by placing herself in front of him just as he was about to have his head clubbed. 

The wedding of Pocahontas

In 1613 the English decided to capture Pocahontas and use her as a bargaining tool with the Powhatan. They demanded a ransom of English prisoners and weapons for her return, which was paid by her father. But Pocahontas was never released. Instead, she married an English settler, John Rolfe, the following year. 

In 1616 Pocahontas sailed with her husband and young son to England, where she was presented as a "princess", daughter of the "most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia", and was entertained by King James I. After boarding the ship for the voyage home Pocahontas was taken ill and died in 1617.
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the US president from 1933 to 1945—but she was also a leader in her own right. She was involved in many humanitarian causes throughout her life. The niece of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Eleanor was born into a wealthy New York family. While still in her teens, she served as a volunteer teacher for poor immigrant children in New York City. She married Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin, in 1905. They had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. As well as raising her family, Eleanor volunteered for the American Red Cross and in Navy hospitals during World War I (1914-1918). In the 1920s, she became active in organizations such as the Women’s Union Trade League and the League of Women Voters. 

While first lady, Eleanor championed civil rights for African Americans, and campaigned on behalf of women and poor people. She encouraged her husband to appoint more women to government positions. After President Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor became a delegate to the United Nations where she oversaw the drafting and passage of the Universal Human Declaration of Rights. From 1961 until her death the following year, Eleanor headed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger in a photo taken between 1910 and 1920Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was the founder of the campaign for the right for women to have access to birth control. She was born in Corning, New York, the sixth of 11 children. Trained as a nurse, Margaret worked in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side in 1911. Here she came across many women who had become ill because of unwanted pregnancies. Margaret became convinced that birth control should be available on the grounds that it would improve women’s health. In 1914, she set up a monthly newsletter called The Woman Rebel, which contained articles about birth control. Birth control was illegal in the US at the time, so Margaret moved to Britain to avoid prosecution. In 1916, she returned to set up a family planning clinic in Brooklyn. She was arrested and convicted for distributing illegal contraceptives. The publicity surrounding Margaret's case fostered public support for birth control. Margaret won a victory in 1936 when a court overturned the US federal law prohibiting doctors from obtaining contraceptives. The following year the American Medical Association adopted contraception as a normal service.

Previously founder (1921) and president (until 1928) of the American Birth Control League (which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942), Margaret helped found what is now the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952, serving as president 1952–59. The Federation supports the right of individuals across the world to make their own choices in family planning.

Mary Seacole—the only known photo of her, taken around 1873.

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1805–81) was born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British army; her mother was a free Jamaican. Mary developed an interest in medicine from watching her mother, a "doctress" skilled in traditional medicine, at work. In 1836 she married a merchant named Edwin Horatio Seacole. In 1850 Mary treated patients during a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people in Jamaica. By this time she had become a shrewd businesswoman, setting up a hotel in Panama for travellers making their way to the goldfields of California

Sketches of Mary's British Hotel

In 1854, Mary visited Britain to deal with her own investments in the gold-mining business. While she was in London, she read reports of the plight of soldiers injured while fighting in the Crimean War. Although her attempts to join the nurses were unsuccessful, Mary travelled to the Crimea and worked as a "sutler"—selling food and other supplies to the British troops. With her business partner, she ran the British Hotel near Balaclava on the Crimean Peninsula. She met Florence Nightingale, and became a familiar figure at the hospitals on the front, where her medical knowledge allowed her to work with the sick and comfort the dying. 

After the war, she published an autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), which became a bestseller. She died in London in 1881. 

Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes in her laboratory, 1904Marie Stopes (1880–1958) was an English academic and pioneer in the field of birth control. She grew up in a wealthy and educated family, and took a degree at London University, before continuing her studies in palaeontology. She was the first female lecturer at the University of Manchester. She married in 1911, but the marriage broke down and came to an end in 1914. Drawing on her experiences she wrote a book, Married Love, which was published in 1918 and quickly became a bestseller. A second book about birth control, Wise Parenthood, quickly followed. In the same year she married Humphrey Verdon Roe, who supported her views. In 1921, Stopes and her husband founded the first family planning clinic in the UK, in north London. Over the following years, other clinics were established in towns and cities across the UK. In her later years, Stopes turned to writing poetry and plays.

Mother Teresa in 1986

Mother Teresa

Blessed Mother Teresa (1910–97) was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity. Together with the other sisters of the Order she dedicated her life to caring for the poor and needy, particularly in India. In the 1950s and 60s, she opened a number of centres across India. These were places where people suffering from leprosy or with terminal illnesses who had nowhere else to go could come to die in dignity and peace. There also homes to care for the blind, elderly and disabled. She was widely recognized for her work, which extended worldwide by the time of her death in 1997.
Valentina Tereshkova, pictured in 1969. She is wearing her uniform as a major of the Soviet Air Forces.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova (born 1937) was the first woman to travel in space. She became an amateur skydiver at the age of 22, whilst working in a textiles factory. In 1961, Sergei Korolev, head rocket engineer for the Soviet space programme, proposed that his country should be the first to send a woman to space. Of the 400 women who applied for the opportunity, five were accepted to join the female cosmonaut (the Soviet equivalent of astronaut) corps. One of them was Valentina, selected because of her parachuting experience (at the time, cosmonauts had to parachute out of the spacecraft on their return to Earth).
Following an intense training programme, Valentine and one other woman were selected. It was originally planned for them both to fly, but, on 16th June 1963, it was Valentina alone who made the historic trip. She orbited Earth 48 times, spending almost three days in space. Today, she is still the only woman ever to have accomplished a solo mission. After her flight, Valentina studied as a cosmonaut engineer, and gained a doctorate in engineering in 1977. Today, Valentina Tereshkova represents the United Russia Party in the Russian parliament. A crater on the Moon has been named after her.
Greta Thunberg in April 2019

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg (born 2003) is a Swedish student and climate activist, who campaigns for action to prevent a global catastrophe caused by global warming. Aged 15, she began the School Strike for Climate movement in August 2018 with her solo Skolstrejk för klimatet ("School strike for the climate") protest outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Her fame spread quickly following her appearance at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP24) in December 2018. In a very short time, Greta has become a role model and inspiration behind the climate movement worldwide. In March 2019, three members of the Norwegian parliament nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Harriet Tubman, around 1895

Harriet Tubman

American anti-slavery and women rights' campaigner Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) escaped slavery to become one of the leading abolitionists in the time before the American Civil War (1861–65). She was put to work as a house servant at around the age of five or six years old, and experienced physical violence, including whippings, from that time. Having escaped and fled to Philadelphia, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad and served as a scout, a nurse and a spy in the Union forces during the Civil War. In later life she spoke out for women’s suffrage, giving speeches in favour of women’s right to vote. Her bravery and generosity of spirit has continued to inspire generations of Americans.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) was an English champion of women’s rights. She is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues for educational equality for women. She was a governess before working as a translator and reviewer in London. She went to France in 1792 to experience the French Revolution, and had an affair with an American adventurer called Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter. When the relationship broke down she attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. On her return to London she married the journalist William Godwin, in 1797. She had a second daughter, named Mary (who was later to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and write the novel, Frankenstein), but died soon after giving birth. During the 20th century, Mary Wollstonecraft came to be regarded as one of the earliest pioneers of feminism.


Malala Yousafzai

Malala in 2014Malala Yousafzai (born 1997) is a Pakistani campaigner who from an early age spoke out publicly against the activities of the Taliban as they tried to suppress girls’ education in her homeland. Malala’s efforts to protect girls’ education—appearing on television and writing blogs—led the Taliban to issue death threats against her and her family. On 9th October 2012, a masked gunman attacked the 15-year-old Malala, shooting her in the head. She survived the assassination attempt, and has since received numerous prizes, including the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, and accolades for her work promoting the rights of girls and women all over the world.


 Consultant: Philip Parker

Q-files now has new sections specially written for younger readers. They are: Living world, Earth, Science, Human body, Prehistoric life, Space, History, Geography and Technology.

Find the answer