March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating by honoring some of the most inspiring, revolutionary and unconventional women of all time. There are plenty of well-known and celebrated women on this list, but there are plenty of others that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. Read on for some of the most ground-breaking, revolutionary and fascinating women in history.
1. Ella Baker.
There are several big names that come to mind when you think about the civil rights era, but one woman — who was still very influential in her own right — is often left off of that list. Her name was Ella Baker, and she was an instrumental force behind civil rights, starting in 1938 when she began work at the NAACP as a secretary, all the way through to her death in 1986 at the age of 83. Along the way, Baker fought against Jim Crow laws, ran voter registration drives, and organized Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She tended to stay behind the scenes, and didn’t embrace the idea that one strong leader should be in charge of a social movement.
Her tireless dedication to social justice and human rights has led her to be considered one of the most influential women — if not people – in the 20th century fight for civil rights.
2. Delia Derbyshire.
Popular music today is dominated by electronic music and engineering. But, in 1962, most of the world hadn’t heard any electronic music at all. Then Delia Derbyshire came along. In 1962, Derbyshire recorded a score by Ron Grainer that would go on to be the original theme music for the BBC’s Doctor Who. As The BBC’s Andrew Harrison puts it, “[the Dr. Who theme song is] possibly the most important electronic music ever made… It is not too much to say that it triggered the modern era in popular music just as much as The Beatles did.”
And it’s that theme music that would essentially introduce the world to this game-changing music. She also composed and recorded other music, including with White Noise, one of the world’s earliest electronic bands.
3. Margaret Sanger.
Margaret Sanger is best known as the founder of Planned Parenthood. In 1916, she founded a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, a first-of-its-kind — and illegal — institution. Sanger tirelessly advocated for women’s access to birth control, and, along the way she was arrested several times. It wasn’t until a year before her death in 1966 that birth control would be legalized in the United States.
Sanger’s quest for reproductive rights caused a great deal of controversy. Of course, even today, birth control is a much-debated topic. In her time, too, she aligned herself with eugenicists and espoused beliefs about race, ability and class that are generally considered taboo today. Her legacy, then, is not without its stains, but her groundbreaking reproductive rights advocacy still stands.
4. Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr was once one of the biggest stars of the silver screen. Often billed as the most beautiful woman on the planet, Lamarr hailed from Austria, emigrating to the United States to launch a career in Hollywood. Her biggest contribution to culture, though, is much more pervasive than her films. In fact, you’re probably using it right now! During World War II, Lamarr and her friend and neighbor George Anthiel invented technology that would help scramble the radio messages used to control torpedoes; that would later be used to develop wi-fi, cellular technology and bluetooth.
5. Madam C.J. Walker.
Madam C.J. Walker became the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, no small feat for an African-American woman whose parents were slaves. Walker made her fortune by founding the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which sold cosmetics and hair products aimed at black women. She is credited with inventing the hair straightening process still used by millions of black women today.
6. Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace was a computer programmer well before computers had programs. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a British countess, Ada Lovelace’s translation of Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea’s work on an early computer known as the analytical engine is widely recognized as the first computer program. Though her work was completed in 1843, it took a century for the machine to actually be built. In her time, however, Ada Lovelace accurately predicted that computers could be used for much more than just the mathematics that had originally been built for.
7. Katharine Hepburn.
Unlike other women of Classic Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn didn’t embrace the actress-as-sex-symbol trope. Instead, she sought out challenging roles that broke ground for women in film and didn’t succumb to studio pressures. Her famously androgynous style is also credited with bringing women’s pants into the mainstream.
8. Nellie Bly.
To say that Nellie Bly broke ground for women — and men — in journalism would be a massive understatement. She pioneered investigative reporting, going undercover in an insane asylum, a woman’s jail, a factory, and a tenement, and posing as both a prospective baby-buyer and a potential lobbying client, just to name a few. She also attempted to travel around the world in fewer than 80 days — cutting that down to 72, and, during World War I, became the first female war correspondent in history. After years of celebrity, Bly became more and more involved in her husband’s manufacturing business and eventually took over after his death — becoming the most prominent female industrialist of the time.