20 Fearless Women From History You Need to Know

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

Source: Flickr user Juan Cabanillas

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Before the start of World War Two and the horrors that would come with it for Jews across German-occupied Europe, Annelies Marie Frank was born on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt Germany. Anne and her family (father Otto, mother Edith and older sister Margot) moved to Amsterdam a year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933.

It was only a few years later German forces took control of the city, in May, 1940. In 1942 the family was forced into hiding, and Anne began keeping a journal chronicling both the horrors and the hopes that became everyday life for the Frank family.

The Diary of Anne Frank, detailing her life during the Holocaust, has been read by millions since its publication in 1947 and translation into English in 1953. The Franks lived in a hidden room behind the second floor office belonging to the family business, which Anne refers to as the Secret Annex. It is here they were discovered by the Gestapo on August 4, 1944. Anne was arrested and taken to Auschwitz (and for the Frank sisters, later Bergen-Belsen). Anne and Margot Frank passed away from typhus within days of each other in March, 1945.

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

rosa parks 15 fearless women
Source: Wikimedia

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in an era of rampant racism, from December 1, 1955, forward Rosa Parks’ name has been synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. Parks was not the first to refuse to bow to the laws and unwritten social codes that made up the foundation for racial segregation in America, 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

rigoberta menchu
Source: Flickr user Agencia de Noticias Andes

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Her father was captured, tortured and killed for his role in organizing the Guerrilla Army of the Poor against abusive Guatemalan landlords in 1980. Rigoberta, herself an advocate for the rights of Guatemala’s Mayan Indians, was exiled the following year. This followed the separate kidnappings and murders of her younger brother and mother by soldiers.

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.

Menchú 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

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Source: Wikimedia

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

The first elected female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently stepped down from her role leading Liberia after 12 tumultuous years in power. Sirleaf brought about major reforms for Liberia on the human rights front, demanding tougher laws on rape and recently signed an executive order intended to help women, children and men who are victims of domestic abuse. She also fought (unsuccessfully) for the abolition of female genital mutilation against girls under the age of 18.

Leading up to her presidency, she was twice arrested as a political prisoner for opposing abusive dictators in the 1980s. After openly criticizing the military government during a 1985 campaign bid she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was eventually released and moved to the Ivory Coast in exile following Charles 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

Aung san suu kyi
Source: Wikimedia

“Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in the world. Kindness, can change the lives of people.”
Aung San Suu Kyi grew up learning lessons about life and politics from parents who both practiced what they preached. Her father, General Aung San, was the leader of the nationalist Burma Independence Army and helped negotiate Burma’s independence from Great Britain in 1947. Her mother, Ma Khin Kyi, was a diplomat and an ambassador to India.

After studying and working abroad (including a stint with the United Nations), Suu Kyi rose to political power in Myanmar’s 1988 uprisings and helped the recently formed National League for Democracy (NLD, a pro-peace, anti-violence party still in power) 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 prize (U.S.) to establish a health and education trust for Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi currently serves as Myanmar’s state counsellor, a role created specifically for her after the NLD’s historic majority win during Myanmar’s first freely held parliamentary elections in 2015.

6. Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai
Source: Wikimedia

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most. A girl with a book.”

Nearly killed in 2012 in Afghanistan after openly criticizing the Taliban over its views on the educational rights of young girls and women, then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was flown to Birmingham, England, to recover from a gunshot wound to the head. There she started a non-profit fund that dedicated $7 million to education projects in remote areas.

Yousafzai’s campaigning for social causes began years earlier when she was eleven years old and her activist father took her to a press club in Peshawar where she delivered a speech entitled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” Shortly after, the BBC offered her an opportunity to write blog posts about living life under Taliban rule using the name Gul Makai.

She became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her role in championing education for all, and today Yousafzai continues to be involved in activism and charity work. She is also furthering her studies at Oxford University in Great Britain.

7. Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto
Source: Baaghi TV

“A people inspired by democracy, human rights and economic opportunity will turn their back decisively against extremism.”

Benazir Bhutto’s family was placed under house arrest after the Pakistani government — led by her father as the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — was overthrown in 1977. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged just two years later. Benazir Bhutto would go on to become the first democratically-elected female leader of a Muslim state on December 1, 1988. Bhutto’s reign was short-lived at the time and the PPP was defeated in the 1990 election as allegations of corruption against Bhutto circulated.

This unsuccessful campaign in 1990 was later determined to be rigged by Pakistan’s intelligence service and she became Pakistan’s prime minister again following the 1993 election. After eight years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto returned to India’s political ring in 2007, once again campaigning to become the country’s leader. Benazir was assassinated later that year in a suicide bombing attack that also killed 28 other people.

8. Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi
Source: Wikimedia

“What is important is that one utilizes one’s intellect and not to be 100 percent sure about one’s convictions. One should always leave room for doubt.”

Earning her way through law school to become the first-ever female Iranian judge in 1969, Shirin Ebadi, along with several other female judges, was forced to step down to secretarial positions following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. At the time, the rule of Islam was interpreted as not allowing women to sit as judges. After years of attempts under a regime notorious for suppressing the rights of women, Ebadi was finally granted a licence to practice law in 1992.

She received the 2003 Nobel Peace prize for her advocacy of democracy and human rights in Iran along with the several books and articles she wrote during the time leading up to her being becoming a lawyer. In 2008, Ebadi’s Tehran law office was raided and shut down by Iranian security forces, who also froze her bank accounts and seized her Nobel prize.

She has lived in the United Kingdom since 2009 to avoid the persecution of Iran’s regime critics like herself. After years of representing and advocating for Iranian dissidents, Ebadi has been calling for the West to help bring a more open and stable political system to Iran. In an April, 2018 interview with Bloomberg.com, she is quoted as saying, “Reform is useless in Iran. The Iranian people are very dissatisfied with their current government. They have reached the point and realized this system is not reformable.”

9. Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai
Source: Wikimedia

“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.”

After a storied scholarly and teaching career, Wangari Maathai obtained a doctorate in biology from the University of Nairobi in 1971, the first woman from the regions of East and Central Africa to do so. Starting in 1977 she began promoting sustainable energy in Kenya (which famously became known as the Green Belt Movement) decades before environmentalism became a mainstream topic in most other countries.

Her efforts resulted in a grass-roots environmental movement that empowers regional women’s groups across Africa through environmental activism — an initiative responsible for the planting in excess of 51 million trees to date.

In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, with the Nobel Committee saying of her efforts: “She thinks globally and acts locally.” A frequent speaker in front of the United Nations on the topics of human rights and environmental conservationism, in 2005 Time magazine listed her as one the 100 most influential people in the world.

Wangari Maathai passed away from cancer in 2011, with world leaders praising her tireless efforts to unify the planet through peaceful and productive means.

10. Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
Source: Wikimedia

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

Born into a life of poverty in Missouri in 1906, Josephine Baker became a sensational performer in Paris, France, where she was recognized as a global icon for the dance and performing arts communities. After being forced to leave school to help support her family, Baker became a housekeeper and babysitter for wealthier white families who would often remind her to “be sure not to kiss the baby.”

She earned French citizenship after a disheartening and racist-fueled rejection from audiences in America. Josephine even smuggled messages for the French Resistance under the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War Two, earning her some of the highest military honors 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 traveled to the U.S. frequently to support the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.

11. Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart
Source: NASA

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”

Despite her disappearance while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937—at just 39 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 (the only other person to have done it at the time was Charles Lindbergh), but she involved herself heavily in female social advancement when it was unpopular to do so.

Earhart served as a counselor 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, but there may be news that clarifies the events surrounding Earhart’s crash. A peer-reviewed study in Forensic Anthropology published in March of 2018 claims that bones found on the isolated Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940 are 99% those of Amelia Earhart.

12. Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova
Source: Flickr user James Joel

“Once you’ve been in space, you appreciate how small and fragile the Earth is.”

Valentina started her working career as a textile worker with a passionate interest in skydiving as a hobby. Then she made the jump to becoming the first woman in outer space after volunteering and being accepted to the Soviet space program, in large part because of the 126 parachute jumps she had to her credit. Tereshkova orbited Earth 48 times in her Vostok 6 capsule.

Tereshkova accomplished that feat in 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. The now 80-year-old orbital pioneer has even offered to take a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity ever arises.

13. St. Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa calcutta
Source: Sharpschool

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”

Most of us have heard of Mother Teresa and know that she often focused her attention on the poor of India, yet few of us could name her exact achievements. Like many public faces of the Catholic Church, Mother Teresa faced her share of criticism (especially concerning her views on abortion and birth control), but it would take a separate article to detail her many contributions to various charitable causes and the international awards she received as a result — over 170 in total.

Two of her 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 within 600 foundations spread over 123 countries. Shortly after speaking at the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly in October of 1985, she opened the first of several “Gift of Love” houses, this one in New York’s Greenwich Village, for those suffering patients suffering from AIDS. Several more would follow in America and then 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

Ruby Bridges
Source: PBS

“Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”

Breaking school segregation was tough. But doing it when you’re six years old? That’s just what Ruby Bridges did in Louisiana, starting on November 14, 1960.

Other students walked to school in groups of two and three, but Ruby attended William Frantz Elementary all on her own—plus the four Federal Marshals that escorted her and her mother for Ruby’s first year there. Her first day of class was spent in the principal’s office as white parents stormed the school and removed their children.

She endured assassination threats and being mistreated by every teacher at William Frantz Elementary School — save for one, Boston-born Barbara Henry. Henry was the only person willing to teach her, as she did for the entire year in an otherwise empty classroom. The drama didn’t end at the final bell of the school day over that year, as Ruby’s father lost his job and her mother and grocery stores refused to sell their wares to her mother. Her grandparents were evicted from the farm they had called home for 25 years.

Those first, heavily guarded steps led to Ruby no longer having to attend class on her own by the following year. Ruby has written two books about her experiences and went on to found The Ruby Bridges Foundation, which focuses on creating positive change through education.

15. Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi
“I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”

Indira Gandhi (born Indira Nehru) began her working career as her father’s assistant when Jawaharlal Nehru was serving as India’s first prime minister. In 1959, she was elected President of the Indian National Congress Party and took on the role as advisor to her father until his death in 1964. She joined the government as a cabinet minister shortly after, then succeeded her father’s successor 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 in retribution for a bloody confrontation between the Indian army and Sikh separatists at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. 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.

16. Junko Tabei

Source: Wiki Commons

“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others. it rises from your heart.”

Junko Tabei was born in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, in 1939. While Japan at that time was deeply entrenched in World War II, Tabei found solace in the mountains. She eventually became a part of several mountaineering groups. She scaled all of the highest mountains in Japan, and led the first women’s only climb of Annapurna III. In 1975, she became the first woman to climb Mount Everest, and in 1992 she became the first woman to climb the highest peak on every continent.

17. Edith Cavell

Source: Wiki Commons

“I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”

Edith Cavell was a British nurse, who was boring in Swardeston, Norfolk in 1865. She trained as a nurse, and eventually accepted a position in Brussels, Belgium. She is thought to have established modern nursing education in Belgium. When World War II broke out, Brussels was occupied by Germany. During the Battle of Mons, Cavell treated two British soldiers, and eventually helped them escape to the Netherlands. She then joined a network of people helping Allied soldiers escape. Over eleven months, she helped around 200 Allied soldiers. She was eventually arrested, tried, and executed for her actions.

18. Huda Sha’arawi

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

Huda Sha’arawi was born in Upper Egypt in 1879. At the time, women were confined either to their homes or to the harem system. She viewed that system as backwards, and started organizing lectures to educate women. She helped organized the largest women’s anti-British protest after World War I. She also notably stopped wearing her veil after her husband’s death, by publicly taking it off while getting off a train.

19. Lee Miller

Source: Wiki Commons

“I would rather take a photograph than be one.”

Miller, who was born in New York State in 1907, originally worked as a fashion model in the 1920s. She transitioned to taking the pictures after an image of her was used to advertise Kotex without her consent,
and established her own photography studio. When World War II broke out, she began working in photojournalism. She documented the Blitz, the liberation of Paris, the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau.

20. Nancy Wake

Source: Wiki Commons

“I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

Nancy Wake was a secret agent during World War II. She was originally from New Zealand, but was living with her husband in Marseilles when the war broke out. She was a courier for the resistance in Occupied France, and by 1943 was the Gestapo’s most wanted person. She then joined the Special Operations Executive, and led a group fighting the Nazis until the liberation of France.