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15 Famous Women Who Shaped American History

Women have always shaped history just as much as men, but their contributions are historically overlooked. In America, women have advocated for civil rights and equality, traveled rough terrains and bloody battlefields to help others, written powerful books that changed minds, and contributed to legislation and court decisions that ushered in progress. In this article, we’ll explore the stories of 15 famous women who shaped American history from its early days until the present.

# Name
1 Sacagawea
2 Harriet Tubman
3 Grace Hopper
4 Rosa Parks
5 Eleanor Roosevelt
6 Margaret Sanger
7 Susan B. Anthony
8 Ruth Bader Ginsberg
9 Shirley Chisholm
10 Rachel Carson
11 Laverne Cox
12 Gloria Steinem
13 Toni Morrison
14 Clara Barton
15 Dolores Huerta

#1. Sacagawea (1788-1812/1884) 

Sacagaewa was a Lemhi Shoshone woman from Idaho. As a young teenager, she was married off to a French-Canadian fur trader. When the explorers Lewis and Clark hired Sacagawea’s husband as an interpreter. Sacagawea, who was probably around 16 or 17 years old, went with them. While we can’t say for sure if she wanted to go, she became an essential member of the party. Most of what we know about her role comes from Clark’s journal, which expresses admiration for her and her contributions. She taught the explorers how to find food and make clothing. She also had a baby with her, so her presence made the group less threatening to the Indigenous people they encountered. Without Sacagawea, who was never paid for her help, the most famous expedition in American history might not have been successful.

#2. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in the American South but returned again and again over the next decade to lead her family and friends to freedom. The journey grew increasingly dangerous, but Tubman successfully helped around 70 people along the network known as the Underground Railroad. For her leadership, bravery and success as a conductor, she became known as the “Moses of her people.” During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse and spy. Later, Tubman, who wasn’t given a pension, established a home for orphans and the elderly. She was also involved in women’s suffrage and other causes.

#3. Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper was interested in engineering and math from a young age, so after graduating college, she earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale University. In 1943, she joined the Navy and began working on early computers. While assigned to Harvard, she and her team produced an early version of an electronic computer. Hopper also developed new ways for computers to code. In 1952, she developed the first compiler, which translated mathematical code into a code that computers would read. This makes Hopper a pioneer in the creation of modern programming languages, which advanced what computers were capable of.

#4. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

When seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for white customers, she sparked the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. At the time of her refusal, Alabama had a segregated bus system, so Black people were forced to the back of the bus. Parks had been active in civil rights for years, so when she was arrested for refusing the bus driver’s order to move, the activist community was ready. For her bravery, humility and leadership, Rosa Parks became known as “the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

#5. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt was married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but she was so much more than a First Lady. Throughout her life, she supported many progressive and humanitarian causes such as civil rights, labor reform, and arts and culture. In response to her support of the Civil Rights Movement, the Ku Klux Klan put a bounty on her head. Roosevelt was also an important activist for human rights. When the United Nations was formed, she chaired the Human Rights Committee and oversaw the writing and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, which was adopted in 1948, is the first internationally accepted document that defines human rights.

#6. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Margaret Sanger was an activist for birth control access and the founder of what would become Planned Parenthood. When Sanger was young, contraceptives were illegal. While working as a nurse, Sanger saw the impact of botched abortions, which poor women got because they couldn’t prevent unwanted pregnancies. In response, Sanger spent decades working as an activist for birth control. Her support of eugenics, which is the now-debunked belief that society can “improve” the human race through population control, casts a shadow on her legacy, but she still shaped American history. Sanger eventually became part of the group that led to “the Pill,” or, the world’s first hormonal birth control pill. She was also alive to see the Supreme Court legalize contraceptives.

#7. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

Arguably America’s most famous suffragette, Susan B. Anthony was an activist for women’s rights, abolition and temperance. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony traveled the country arguing for women’s right to vote and an end to slavery. She became famous for her powerful speeches, which led to threats of arrest. However, when Congress gave the right to vote to Black men before women, the outraged Anthony and Stanton split from other suffragists. Accusations of racism have since tarnished Anthony’s legacy. While the suffragette died before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, she helped pave the way for its adoption.

#8. Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933-2020)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was the second woman on the Supreme Court, made a huge impact during her time on the country’s highest court. The journey there wasn’t easy. Despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School, she couldn’t get a job because she was a woman, Jewish and a mother. She continued to advocate for women’s rights and argued several gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. In 1993, she was appointed to the Supreme Court as a judge, where she was vital in decisions like Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

#9. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress, where she represented New York’s 12th district from 1969-1983. During her seven terms, she was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation supporting racial and gender equality, anti-poverty programs, and an end to the Vietnam War. Her motto, “Unbought and Unbossed,” rang true when she ran for the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination. Despite opposition, some of which came from the male-dominated Congressional Black Caucus, Chisholm performed better than expected by capturing 10% of the total delegate votes. Her legacy represents strength, hope and boldness.

#10. Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist famous for writing about environmental pollution. Unlike many scientific works, Carson’s prose was beautiful as well as scientifically accurate. Her books were widely popular and published in dozens of languages. Her most famous work – Silent Springargued that the planet was on the brink of destruction due to widespread pesticide use, especially DDT. Readers were shocked, and the popularity of Silent Spring raised awareness of the dangers of DDT on both nature and human health. Carson’s work is often credited as one of the sparks for the environmental movement, which continues Carson’s legacy in its fight against climate change.

#11. Laverne Cox (1972-)

Actor Laverne Cox is the world’s most famous Black transgender woman. Since her breakthrough role in the TV show “Orange is the New Black,” for which she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy, Cox has worked as an actor and activist. She also appears in Disclosure, a film with an all-trans cast documenting the history of trans representation in Hollywood. She frequently speaks about empowering young people, as well as issues affecting the trans community.

#12. Gloria Steinem (1934-)

Gloria Steinem is a journalist, activist, and one of the most famous figures of feminism’s second wave in the 1960s and ‘70s. She grew up interested in activism and politics, and by 1968, she was writing a regular column for New York magazine. She soon became involved with the feminist movement as a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus with Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Steinem also founded Ms. magazine, which was the first national feminist magazine. She remains active in the feminist movement today.

#13. Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison was an American writer famous for her exploration of the Black American

experience, identity and culture. She was also highly influential in her role at Random House, where she was the first Black woman to fill the role of senior fiction editor. Five years after taking that job, she published her first book The Bluest Eye in 1970. She became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved in 1987. Her style blends genres like fantasy, poetic prose, history, myths and other unique elements that continue to define and expand literature today.

#14. Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Clara Barton was a nurse and the founder of the American Red Cross. Like many women of her era, she started as a teacher, but when the American Civil War broke out, Barton was allowed to walk through the lines of battle passing out supplies and nursing wounded soldiers. She quickly became known for her leadership and commitment to her work. In 1881, she organized what became the American Red Cross and served as president until 1904. She also called on the US to ratify the Geneva Convention, which includes laws that protect civilians and the injured in conflict zones. For her devotion, she was nicknamed “the Angel of the Battlefield.”

#15. Dolores Huerta (1930-)

Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist and labor organizer. With her collaborator Cesar Chavez, she co-founded the United Farm Workers of America union. The union fought for the rights of workers being exploited in fields and orchards. Huerta played a major role in a grape boycott in 1965. Over 800 Filipino workers struck ten grape vineyards at great risk to themselves and their families. It led to a nationwide grape boycott and the first farmworker union contracts. Her slogan “Si se puede,” which is Spanish for “Yes, we can,” eventually inspired President Obama’s campaign motto.