The first time I remember hearing Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I Am Woman,” I was on a camping trip with my Girl Scout troop. The empowering message of “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” became the anthem of our weekend as we pitched tents, canoed, and cooked dinner over the campfire.
At the time, my middle-school self was oblivious to the world that would prompt Reddy to sing such a song. The singer told Billboard that while she looked for songs that reflected the positive sense of self she found through the women’s movement, she couldn’t find any. She said, “I realized that the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself.”
That kind of if-it’s-meant-to-be-it’s-up-to-me attitude that prompted Reddy to write this feminist anthem is the same as those that led many famous women in American history to leave their mark. Throughout U.S. history, there has been no shortage of women who have influenced the nation, even if their efforts weren’t properly recognized until after their death.
From breaking glass ceilings to pioneering the way for others, these 17 women are a part of a number too big to ignore.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
An abolitionist and writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe is perhaps best known for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, depicting the impact of slavery on families and children. Stowe’s words led to a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln.
The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Amelia Earhart received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for her accomplishments before disappearing during a 1937 flight around the world.
After escaping slavery, Tubman turned her efforts into helping others break away. Tubman led hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad—a network of secret safe houses—to freedom in the north.
After serving as a nurse with the Union Army during the Civil War, Clara Barton went on to found the American Red Cross. Today, the American Red Cross provides disaster relief, disaster preparedness education, and emergency assistance throughout the U.S.
Queen Liliuokalani was Hawaii’s first queen and last monarch. A gifted songwriter, Liliuokalani penned more than 160 songs, including “Aloha Oe (Farewell to Thee),” in 1878, which has been widely covered by artists ranging from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole to Johnny Cash.
Billie Jean King
A former number one world professional tennis star, Billie Jean King won 39 grand slam titles before beating Bobby Riggs in the match that inspired the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone. In 1981, King was outed as a lesbian and lost many endorsement deals. Still, she battled for equality and received the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her advocacy on behalf of women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Known for her words, Maya Angelou was a poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Her prolific writing career is perhaps best known by her autobiographies like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which depicts Angelou’s adolescence in which she transforms from a victim of racism into a self-possessed young woman capable of responding to prejudice.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
A politician and diplomat, Hillary Clinton was most recently famous for her second presidential run in 2016, which has since inspired other women to pursue office. Clinton has served as first lady of the United States, New York senator, and as the secretary of state, and has been an advocate for gender equality and healthcare reform.
Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983, when she was a part the crew aboard the Challenger space shuttle. When Ride was asked questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” during a pre-flight press conference, she responded by saying she only saw herself one way—as an astronaut.
Best known for her refusal to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist and played a pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks is known as the mother of the freedom movement and was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda upon her death in 2005.
Maya Lin broke barriers at age 21 when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was selected. At the time, Lin was still pursuing her undergraduate degree from Yale University. Lin has gone on to design other memorials, public and private buildings, and sculptures, but is most passionate about raising awareness of the environment in urban spaces.
Sacagawea is known for her contributions to Lewis and Clark’s expeditions in the American West. A Lemhi Shoshone woman, Sacagawea traveled thousands of miles from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean, establishing cultural contracts with Native Americans along the way. She has become a symbol of women’s worth and independence.
Oprah Winfrey became North America’s first multi-billionaire black woman and has been ranked as the top black philanthropist in American history. Winfrey is widely recognized for her influence on society through media, like her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and namesake magazines.
Elaine Chao became the first Asian American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet when she was appointed as secretary of labor in 2001. Chao aimed to improve overtime regulations for workers and worked for more secure regulations for unions and workers’ retirements before taking on the role of secretary of transportation.
Best known for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech on racial inequalities in 1851, Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born into slavery, Truth escaped with her infant daughter in 1826.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. O’Connor served until 2006 and was often considered the swing vote in her later years on the court. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded O’Connor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. Bader Ginsburg’s use of her voice for dissent has shaped the course of our nation’s history, and resulted in the pop culture nickname “the Notorious RBG.”
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