by Jessica Toomer
All month long we're celebrating amazing women, pioneers who led the way for generations to follow. From aviators, queens and secretaries of state to artists, musicians and spies, here are some of the inspiring female revolutionaries who changed history.
Mother Teresa is considered one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century. Born in Macedonia, Mother Teresa was a teacher in India for 17 years before deciding to dedicate her life to helping the world’s sick and poor. She established a hospice; centers for the blind, aged, and disabled; and a leper colony. In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. In 2016, Mother Teresa canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by Pope Francis.
On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala Yousafzai when she was traveling home from school. The attack came after Malala began lobbying for girls to receive the same education boys were entitled to. Malala survived the assasination attempt, fleeing with her family to England where she recovered and began giving talks, addressing the U.N. and fighting for the right of young girls everywhere to receive and education. She's been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize twice for her activism, winning in 2014 and becoming the youngest person to ever receive the award at the age of 17. She continues to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and provide a strong, inspiring example of compassion and courage.
Noor Inayat Khan was born to an Indian father and an American mother. She was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore. When she was young, her family moved to Paris where Khan received an education and began writing children’s books. After France fell to the Nazis during World War II, Khan fled to England where she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and later became a British spy. Khan was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive. While many of her fellow operators were arrested or fled the country, Khan stayed, transmitting vital information about the Nazi’s plans to British forces. In 1943, Khan was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany. Despite being subjected to relentless torture and solitary confinement for nearly a year, Khan never revealed military secrets to the Nazis and was executed in Dachau concentration camp in 1944. She would later be honored with the George Cross, the British military medal of courage.
Florence Nightingale was born to a wealthy family in Florence, Italy. She defied societal expectations by pursuing what she described as her God-given calling of nursing. During the Crimean War, along with a team of nurses, Florence improved the unsanitary conditions at a British base hospital, greatly reducing the death count. Her writings sparked worldwide health care reform, and in 1860 she established St. Thomas' Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.
Harriet Tubman was a brave abolitionist and humanitarian credited for creating the Underground Railroad--a network of safe houses from the south to the north that helped hundreds of enslaved people get to a free state. But did you know that Tubman was also a spy? Tubman was an agent of the Union Army during the Civil War and became the first woman to head up an armed expedition when she led the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people in South Carolina. After the war ended, she dedicated her life to helping formerly enslaved people and creating a home for elderly African Americans.
Sonia Sotomayor grew up in the South Bronx. Her father died when she was young, leaving her mother to raise her children as a single parent. Her mother placed a strong emphasis on education and, in 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University. Sotomayor passed the bar in 1980 going on to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge and on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2009, Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.
Helen Keller was stricken with an illness that left her blind and deaf. With the help of her teacher and friend, Anne Sullivan, Keller overcame her disability, eventually graduating college. Keller used her fame to tackle social and political issues, including women's suffrage and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people. In 1915, she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition and in 1921, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were the groundbreaking mathematicians and human computers at NASA whose calculations helped put astronauts into space and land on the moon. They had their stories make it to the big screen this year with the Academy Award-nominated film Hidden Figures starring Guideposts cover star Taraji P. Henson. Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson not only made it possible for astronauts to make it to space and the moon, they pushed boundaries, shattered glass ceilings and achieved their dreams despite the racism and sexism they encountered.
Celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City to a German immigrant father and a Mexican mother. She contracted polio when she was young which caused her to walk with a limp. In 1925, Kahlo was traveling on a bus when the vehicle collided with a streetcar. As a result of the collision, Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered several serious injuries, including fractures in her spine and pelvis. During her recovery, she began to paint, finishing her first self-portrait the following year. Kahlo was regarded as a feminist icon for her creativity and political activism.
Harriet Quimby was a female journalist, photographer and world traveler. In 1911, Quimby became the first woman to receive a pilot's license. A desire for adventure and a constant desire to push the boundaries of societal norms fueled Quimby's love of aviation and earned her the title of "America's First Lady of the Air." She flew the English Channel, became the first woman to fly at night and encouraged other women to take up aviation, blazing a trail for the likes of Amelia Earhart, Jackie Cochran, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and so many more.
Clara Barton first worked as teacher when she was just 15 years old. She opened her own free, public school in New Jersey before changing careers and working as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. Barton would change her life path again during the Civil War when she worked as an independent nurse where she was nicknamed the “angel of the battlefield" for her work helping save the lives of Union soldiers. While visiting Europe, Barton worked with an organization known as the International Red Cross. Witnessing all of the wonderful work the Red Cross did overseas, she came back to America determined to open the country’s first branch, which she did in 1881.
Sojourner Truth is the definition of courage. The prominent abolitionist was born into slavery and suffered through at least three of her children being sold away from her. After escaping slavery, Truth turned to evangelical religion and became involved in moral reform and abolitionist work. She collected supplies for Black regiments during the Civil War and advocated for formerly enslaved people during the Reconstruction period. She was also an unapologetic women's rights activist.
Maya Angelou was a celebrated poet, memoirist and civil rights activist. She worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, became the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the behest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a professor at Wake Forest University and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. Angelou used her gift to speak up about taboo issues of the time, including her sexual assault when she was a young girl. Her bravery and beautiful poetry continue to offer inspiration and hope.
Madeleine Albright was born in Prague before her family fled Czechoslovakia shortly after the country was invaded by the Nazis at the start of World War II and settled in England. Her family would move again, this time to Colorado where her father worked as a professor at the University of Denver. Albright had a passion for politics, earning a certificate in Russian studies in 1968 and her MA and PhD in public law and government by 1976. In 1996, President Bill Clinton nominated Albright for secretary of state. She became the first women to ever hold the position and, during her tenure, became the first American secretary of state to travel to North Korea.
Just two years ago, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the first ever Black principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre's 75-year history. Because of her determination, talent and drive, young girls of color across the country (and the world) can now see themselves in ballet and pursue their own dreams. Misty shared with Guideposts how she bounced back from setback and rejections in order to make history.
Born in Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968. Just four years later she would become the first Black person and the first woman of any race to run for President of the United States for the Democratic party. Chisholm spent her political career fighting for education and social justice, and she spent her life breaking barriers and paving the way for future women politicians. In November 2015, she was posthumously awarded the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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