Women have proven time and time again that when they have the opportunity they can certainly rise to the occasion and lead with strength, respect, and empathy.

Having more women in positions of leadership will not only help to guide the world towards a place where gender equality is the norm, but it will also help to illustrate a future of endless possibilities for young girls, so that they too can strive for greatness and aim to become formidable leaders one day.

Many gains in the name of female leadership have been made globally in recent years. In fact, women currently occupy some of the world's most important positions of authority — such as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed, President of the European Union Ursula von der Leyen, and Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris, to name a few. 

While these women, and so many more, must be celebrated for their achievements, it is important to note that we are still far from a place where gender equality is a reality globally.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many gains that had been made towards gender equality over the years have been significantly set back. Millions of girls are still missing out on education, child marriage and gender-based violence are still a harsh reality across the globe, and women and girls are still fighting to have a say on what happens to their own bodies. 

Today, as the world moves towards a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders everywhere must make sure that women and girls are not left behind — and one very key way to ensure this is for more women to occupy positions of leadership. 

As we continue the work to make gender equality a reality, it is important to look back and celebrate the many women who led us to where we are today — women in law, politics, science, the arts, and environmental justice. There are also so many inspirational female leaders who could not fit on this list, and they too deserve to be saluted.

Coco Chanel

"In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” 

Gabrielle Coco ChanelImage: Eleanor Jaekel/Flickr

French fashion designer Coco Chanel designed garments that helped to change the way women were viewed in society. 

She revolutionized the way the female body looked (and felt) in clothing by stripping back the layers and corsets women were known to wear in the 1900s, and highlighting the natural shape of a woman.

She led by modernizing and reinventing women’s fashion at the time, and is remembered as a feminist icon in fashion, who believed women could look just as elegant in a pantsuit as they could in a dress. 

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

“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.”

Ellen Johnson SirleafImage: Flickr: Activ I Oslo.no

Former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state. 

She was elected two years after Liberia’s decade-long civil war came to an end, and promoted democracy, peace, justice, and women’s empowerment. She went on to lead Liberia through reconciliation and recovery after the war, as well as the country’s most recent Ebola outbreak.

Sirleaf is one of just two African women to have won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in reconciliation and rebuilding the country. 

Emmeline Pankhurst

“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”

Emmeline Pankhurst - portrait - body 2.jpgImage: Flickr - Boston Public Library

Political activist Emmeline Pankhurst was a leader in the British suffragette movement in the late 1800s and is credited with helping women gain the right to vote in Britain. 

Pankhurst went on several hunger strikes and was arrested numerous times on her mission to winning the women’s vote, and in 1918 this right was finally given to some women in the UK, those over the age of 30, who were property-owners or university graduates. 

In 1999 Pankhurst was listed in Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century” alongside the likes of Albert Einstein and Anne Frank. 

Grace Lee Boggs

“A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.”

grace lee boggs.jpgImage: Kyle McDonald/Flickr

Born in 1915, Grace Lee Boggs was an Asian-American human rights activist, author, and feminist who called out capitalism and stood up against World War II and the Vietnam War. 

Boggs had a history of establishing multiracial working-class movements, and working to create equal rights for women and people of color. She was involved in the labor, civil rights, Black power, women's rights, and environmental justice movements in her time as an activist in the United States.

She remained an activist throughout her life and worked with grassroots movements to initiate change. 

Lisa Simpson

"Why is it when a woman is confident and powerful, they call her a witch?"

As a fictional character, Lisa Simpson is definitely a wildcard on this list, however Simpson is certainly a young woman of influence as her feminist efforts and adoration of education truly inspired a new generation. 

For many young adults today, Simpson was their introduction to feminism and gender equality and this should not go unnoticed. 

Marie Curie

“You must never be fearful of what you are doing when it is right.”

Marie-Curie.jpgPolish-French physicist and chemist Madame Marie Curie, seated front, works in a laboratory, with her daughter Irene, in Paris France, April 20, 1927.
Image: AP Photo

Polish-born French physicist, Marie Curie was the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize. 

Curie’s contributions to science are evident today as she is most prominently known for her research in radioactivity. She also advocated for the development and use of X-ray technology. 

Curie dedicated her life to scientific research and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. 

Miriam Makeba

“Girls are the future mothers of our society, and it is important that we focus on their well-being.”

Miriam MakebaImage: StudioMONDO/Flickr

Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Afrika, was a South African singer, songwriter, and anti-apartheid activist. 

Makeba used her voice and lyrics to share the story of what was happening in South Africa during the apartheid era with the rest of the world. 

She was exiled from the country as a result of using art as an expression against the government. In 1963, Makeba gave a speech before the United Nations General Assembly speaking out against apartheid.

In her time outside of the country, she continued to record music and her hit song Pata Pata charted worldwide. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Ruth-Bader-Ginsburg-MeToo-Social.jpgAssociate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses for a photo in her chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
Image: Charles Dharapak/AP

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a US Supreme Court Justice before her death in 2020. Fueled by her own experiences of sexism, she used her profession as a lawyer to advocate for gender equality in the United States. 

She volunteered at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was central to the founding of their Women’s Rights Project in 1971. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court, making her the second woman to be appointed. 

Her work in gender justice has inspired generations of women to break barriers as she helped to pass several laws in an effort to achieve gender equality. 

Wangari Maathai

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

Wangari Maathai - Kenya Environmental ActivistKenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai adress people, Friday, Oct 8, 2004 in Ihururu near Nyeri after she won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her work as leader of the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, better the environme
Image: Karel Prinsloo/AP

The very first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, was a political and environmental activist whose initiative of planting trees resulted in her assisting women in her country, Kenya, to plant over 20 million of them. 

She then founded The Green Belt Movement and inspired other people in surrounding African countries to keep up the spirit of planting trees and protecting the environment. 

Maathai was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and valued furthering her education. She also fought to protect the land and the rights of people living in poverty in her country. 


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Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

9 Inspirational Women Leaders From the Last 100 Years You Should Definitely Know

By Khanyi Mlaba