World’s Most Influential Women

By , May 2, 2012

Sufragette Statues in Ottawa by Mark Stephenson
Sufragette Statues in Ottawa by Mark Stephenson

Seeing one of the recently most discussed movies, The Iron Lady, with the Oscar-winning Meryl Streep, made me think about how hard it used to be (and still is) for a woman to succeed in a world led by men. Nonetheless, there are many prominent ladies who worked hard and influenced their countries or even the whole world. This article will be devoted to well known women of the 20th century, all of whom deserve our respect and admiration!

Let us just look at female leaders today. A female president or a prime minister is not as unusual as it used to be. In the period between 1945 and 1995, the percentage of women Members of Parliaments in the world has increased four-fold. Furthermore, according to the research conducted by a renowned U.S. Institution, Pew Research Center, the majority (69 per cent of Americans) share the opinion that men and women make equally good leaders. Something like that would be unimaginable a few decades ago, when only men used to get prestige in society.

In spite of inequalities between men and women, there were a couple of ladies in the last century who succeeded and caught the attention of the whole world. Maybe it is also thanks to them that women started to be taken more seriously. Here is a short selection:

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher by Wikimedia Commons
Margaret Thatcher by Wikimedia Commons

Who is better to begin this list with than the Iron Lady herself? The first and only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on October 13th, 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire. She studied chemistry at the renowned University of Oxford and became a research chemist after her studies. In 1951, she married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman, and the pair had two children, twins Carole and Mark, a few years later.

Thatcher’s first attempt to become an MP was unsuccessful, but she did not give up and became a Conservative MP for Finchley in north London several years later in 1959. At first she worked as a junior minister for pensions in Harold Macmillan’s government, and in 1974, when Edward Heath became Prime Minister, she was appointed Secretary for Education. When the support for the Conservative Party seemed to have been declining, Thatcher decided to challenge Heath’s leadership and, quite surprisingly, became the new leader of the Conservatives.

One of her famous quotes on men and women in politics is as follows: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” She stayed true to these words and sure did get something done. When her party won the 1979 election, she became Prime Minister and stayed in the office for three consecutive terms, until 1990. She is mainly remembered as a strong, independent lady who sought the privatization of state-owned industries and the reform of trade unions, opposed deep European integration, and won the Falkland war. She is also well known for a good relationship with Ronald Reagan, and it was partly thanks to these two that communism in Europe ended.

Thatcher’s career as Prime Minister did not end terribly well; she lacked the support of her own government and resigned in 1990. When she left the House of Commons in 1992, she was appointed a peeress in the House of Lords with the title of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. Due to health problems, she was forced to leave from the public spotlight in 2002. Nowadays, she is only rarely seen outside, but there is no doubt in my mind that she will always be remembered as one of the most remarkable Prime Ministers in the history of the United Kingdom.

To learn more about this unbelievable lady, you can read some of the books written about her, such as The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister by John Campbell and David Freeman, There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters by Claire Berlinski, Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words and Pictures by Iain Dale, or even read the story from her point of view Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher In Her Own Words by Margaret Thatcher and Iain Dale.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa by Wikimedia Commons
Mother Teresa by Wikimedia Commons

The world-famous missionary Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on August 26th, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia. Ever since she was a little girl, she had been helping those who needed it most. At the age of twelve, Agnes felt the call of God and was determined to spread his word and love. She spent a huge part of her life in India when she was at first a teacher and later became the Mother Teresa that we remember, living and working for the least fortunate. In 1950, she received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, The Missionaries of Charity, the aim of which was to take care of the sick, the poor, and all those who are left alone. Luckily for those in need, the Missionaries have spread all over the world.

Mother Teresa devoted her life to helping others, which was not left unnoticed. She received a number of awards, including the Nobel Peace prize in 1979, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, and the Nehru Prize for her promotion of international peace and understanding in 1972. As wonderful and admirable as Mother Teresa was, the progressive part of society may not like that she was openly against abortion, contraception, and divorce. Intriguingly, despite the life that she led, her “letters indicate that she did not feel God’s presence in her soul during the last 50 years of her life.”

Mother Teresa died in 1997, and unusually shortly after her death (within two years), the process to declare her a saint was begun. She was beatified on October 19th, 2003, “reaching the ranks of the blessed in the shortest time in the history of the church.” She truly was an admirable woman. If you want to find out more about who she was and how she lived, I suggest you read Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait by Fr. Leo Maasburg or Mother Teresa’s very own No Greater Love or Where There Is Love, There Is God: A Path to Closer Union with God and Greater Love for Others.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank by Wikimedia Commons
Anne Frank Statue by Wikimedia Commons

The story of Anne Frank is unbelievable; it is so wonderful and so very sad at the same time. Anne Frank was born on June 12th, 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany, to the Jewish faith. Of course, nowadays Judaism is widely accepted, but sadly, at the time of Anne’s life, Jews from all over Europe were persecuted. By the end of World War II, approximately six million Jews were killed just because of their religion.

Anne Frank and her family were forced to spend 25 months during World War II in an annex of rooms above her father’s office in Amsterdam to avoid detection by the Nazis. However, they were eventually arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps. In 1945, Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. This very mature and brave young lady is best known for her diary, which became one of the most popular books in the whole world, and I am positive you have heard of it before.

The diary, which she received as a 13th birthday gift from her parents, was first published in 1947. Today, Anne Frank’s Diary has been translated into 67 languages. Do not think twice: let yourself be inspired by the amazing story and read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl or one of her biographies, from Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife written by Francine Prose to Who Was Anne Frank? by Ann Abramson.

Simone de Beauvoir

Beauvoir Sartre Che Guevara by Wikimedia Commons
Beauvoir, Sartre & Che Guevara
by Wikimedia Commons

One of the most influential existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 in Paris, France as the eldest daughter of a respected bourgeois family. De Beauvoir was educated in high-quality private institutions, and at the age of 21, she started to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. Around that time, she met someone who influenced her work enormously and who she was associated with for the rest of her life, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unbelievable couple, committed to each other on the one hand yet absolutely free on the other. Despite their devotion to one another, for some time de Beauvoir and Sartre formed a love triangle with de Beauvoir’s student, Olga Kosakievicz.

De Beauvoir’s lifestyle was intriguing; due to relative financial independence, she was able to spend a lot of time in the cafes of Paris writing. She based many of her works on real life experiences. A number of them were celebrated by de Beauvoir’s fans but condemned by her critics; she and her writings usually caused controversy and strong reactions. Her female fans might appreciate that she “used existential ethical arguments to call for a liberation of women.” Her life ended in Paris in 1986, and her body was buried in the same grave as Sartre. There is a wide variety of publications about de Beauvoir’s life that you might enjoy reading. The best is to choose a mix of fiction and facts. Have you ever read Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, or the incredibly famous Second Sex?

Marie Curie

Marie Curie by Wikimedia Commons
Marie Curie by Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie Sklodowska is proof that if you want something, through hard work you can get it eventually. She was born in Poland in 1867 and, as advanced study was not possible for women in Poland in the 19th century, her dream was to study at the Sorbonne. Her family could not afford it, however, and she had to wait until the age of 24 to start fulfilling her dream.

In 1894, she met her future husband, Pierre, and the two formed one of the most successful scientific duos in history. Their collaboration was unbelievably prolific. For instance, in 1898, the pair announced their discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium (which was actually named by Marie in honour of Poland).

Their work was very much appreciated: Curie was the first female receiver of the Nobel Prize and the first person to receive it for two categories. She, alongside her husband and scientist Mr. Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into radioactivity in 1903. Her second Nobel Prize was in Chemistry for isolating pure radium in 1911.

A few years later, she also helped develop the first x-ray machines. When her husband died, she did not stop working and actually took over his teaching post. She was actually the first female professor at the Sorbonne. Sadly, her long years of work with radioactive elements affected her health negatively and caused her death in 1934. Her life was not long, but it was truly inspirational. If you want to know her story in more detail, consider reading Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith or Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel by Wikimedia Commons
Coco Chanel by Wikimedia Commons

Everybody who is at least a little bit interested in fashion and really everyone who does not ignore the world around them certainly knows the name Coco Chanel. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 in Saumur, France, and her revolutionary ideas helped to change 20th century fashion. Coco, a name that she adopted during a brief career as a cafe and concert singer, opened her first shop in Paris in 1912, and that is where her extremely successful career began.

Comfort and relaxation were her main slogans when creating fashionable pieces for ladies. Her clothing style was in a huge contrast with the corset fashions popular at that period. In 1922, Chanel No. 5 was born. Coco introduced her signature cardigan jacket in 1925, and a year later, her signature “little black dress” was introduced. When Coco Chanel died in 1971, her company remained strong and even after decades, its products do not seem to be going out of fashion. The fact that TIME magazine listed Chanel as one of the top 100 influential people of the century speaks for itself: she will never go out of fashion. Obviously, there is a umber of books devoted to this lady, including Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie and Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II by Wikimedia Commons
Queen Elizabeth II by Wikimedia Commons

Her Majesty celebrates her 60th jubilee on the throne this year, which makes her the second longest reigning monarch after Queen Victoria. After so many years, it’s very hard for many of us to imagine any other head of state. Elizabeth was born in 1926 in London. At that time, she was actually not supposed to become Queen. The abdication of her uncle David made her father George VI, and she was suddenly the heiress to the throne.

As a young girl, Princess Elizabeth bravely joined the war effort, training as a driver in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. At the age of 21, she married her distant cousin, the then Prince of Greece and now the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. The pair has four children, three sons a one daughter. When Elizabeth and Philip were in Kenya in 1952, they heard the sad news of King George VI passing. The couple returned to England immediately; Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II and was crowned at Westminster Abbey in June 1953.

In spite of various scandals that have been surrounding the Royal family, Her Majesty seems to be doing very well even in public opinion polls, and she deserves it. She has dedicated her life to public service, and for sixty years, she has been a marvellous leader of Canada, respected and admired everywhere she goes. She is a very strong woman who is trying to modernize the monarchy and as she is so sensitive to the public, and she has been doing that exceptionally well. If you would like to learn more about our monarch, you will certainly enjoy reading Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr, or the soon-to-be-released Sixty Glorious Years: Our Queen Elizabeth II – Diamond Jubilee 1952-2012 by Victoria Murphy.

Agnes Campbell Macphail

Agnes Macphail by Library and Archives Canada
Agnes Macphail by Library and Archives Canada

Angel Campbell Macphail was born in Preston Township, Grey County, Ontario in 1890. While she might not be world-famous (even though she deserves to be), she is a true groundbreaker in Canada. Are you wondering what she has done? She was the very first woman elected to Canadian parliament when women first had the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1921. Nowadays, a woman elected to parliament is not such a big deal, but back then, it was a breakthrough.

Besides being the first federal female MP, Macphail was the first woman appointed as a member of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, which was another amazing achievement. In fact, there is a lot more to admire about this woman. When her career as a federal MP ended in in 1940, Macphail started to concentrate on provincial politics, and she did so very successfully: in 1943 she was one of two women elected to the Ontario Legislative Assembly.

Throughout her life, she was a strong advocate for better conditions of women in prison. Macphail even founded the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada helping women in need, thanks to which her message lives on even though she passed away more than 50 years ago, in 1954 in Toronto. Her story is also remembered thanks to publications such as Agnes Macphail: Reformer by Doris Pennington and Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality by Terry Crowley.

Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy Statue by Wikimedia Commons
Emily Murphy Statue by Wikimedia Commons

Emily Murphy was born in 1868 in Cookstown, Ontario, and like Agnes Macphail, she achieved a few amazing firsts. It is important to say she came from a very prominent family that supported her education very much, and her uncle was a politician. Both these factors influenced Murphy’s (political) activities greatly.

Murphy was the first woman appointed to the Edmonton Hospital Board in 1910. Furthermore, she became the very first woman police magistrate in Alberta and in the British Empire in 1916. Murphy had always believed women were just as good as men and continuously fought for their rights.

Throughout her whole life, she was active in a number of activities in the interests of women and children. She became the president of the new Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1919. Murphy was furthermore a member of the Equal Franchise League and worked with Nellie McClung on the fight for the women’s vote.

Importantly for all women out there, Murphy achieved a change in the status of women in Canada. She and four other Canadian women, the Famous Five, contributed significantly to transforming an old Canadian law that claimed that women ought not to be counted as persons. In 1929, an Act was passed confirming women are indeed persons. Four years after this act was passed, Murphy died. If interested, you can learn a lot more about her life in books; check out Emily Murphy: Revised by Donna James and Emily Murphy: Rebel written by Christine Mander.

Karen Kain

Political activists are not the only ladies who deserve attention. I am pretty sure everyone in Canada, and the whole ballet world, agrees with me when I say Karen Kain is one of the most remarkable Canadian women of all time. She was born in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, and her biggest dream had always been to become a ballerina. As we all know, her dream came true, and it was in a big way!

When she was 11, she was accepted into the National Ballet School in Toronto, and she joined the National Ballet Canada seven years later. Very soon after joining the National Ballet, Karen became Principal Dancer and debuted in the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Her career was very much influenced by the great Soviet-trained dancer Rudolf Nureyev who was enchanted by her style and helped her and her partner become the most popular ballet duo in Canada. Karen was able to dance classical and contemporary works equally breathtakingly, and thanks to her amazing talent, she toured much of the world.

In 1988, Karen Kain was awarded the Order of Canada. In 1996, she became the first Canadian to receive the Cartier Lifetime Achievement. She has also received the Governor General’s Performing Art Award in 2002 and many more. Furthermore, she has received honorary degrees from a number of renowned universities, including Trent, York, and the University of Toronto. Even though she retired as a dancer after 28 years, she remained faithful to the National Ballet of Canada and became its artistic director in 2005.

Read more about Karen’s unbelievable life story in Karen Kain: Lady of Dance written by David Street or in Karen Kain: Movement Never Lies, a book published in collaboration with Kain herself.

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