Historical note: a disturbing element of history is its unfairness to women. The majority of our most famous inventors and discoverers are men in large part because women were denied the education and opportunity required to make similar achievements or to get credit for them.
It’s hard to identify a singular cause but there’s evidence the shift to monotheism changed what had been a more balanced view of gender power, when there was still respect for male and female roles, into masculine centric cultures (see The Alphabet vs. The Goddess). Even by the time of the Western Enlightenment, women were still given few opportunities to study, work in pioneering fields or to receive acclaim for their work. This is a subject well beyond the scope of this post.
Even the ancient Greeks, who were progressive on many fronts, had few female philosophers and scholars, although there were some. Among the better known is Hypatia, but few works from the time survived and it’s hard to know how much influence she had.
Top women innovators of all time:
Much of my work is studying the true history of scientific, technological and artistic ideas (see The Myths of Innovation). From that research these are the women who had the most impressive careers and achievements. My criteria defined innovation as significant positive change, which led me to focus on women who made profound contributions to their fields (I list notable mentions and more about my process below). I’m an American, so there is unavoidable U.S. bias, although I attempted to explore as many different histories as possible.
- Marie Curie – First person in history to win two Nobel Prizes (only other person to do it was Linus Pauling). She also defined the theory of radioactivity, a discovery she died for. Her life story of fleeing Poland for France, helping her family, and charitable works is awe inspiring. She discovered two elements and developed the first treatments using radioactive isotopes.
- Georgia Okeefe Her creative work over a prolific lifetime is staggering. Most well known for her works in the Southwest, her career spanned different genres and context, comparable to Picasso’s in many ways. She was the first woman to have a solo show at The MOMA in NYC (1946).
- Jane Austen – Helped define the style and structure of the modern novel and is one of the most popular writers in history.
- Ada Lovelace – The first computer programmer in history. She is possibly an example of historic gender bias, as some of the work Babbage is credited with possibly should be attributed to her, although the history from the time leaves many questions about who did what, as the work they were doing was of interest to few at the time.
- Susan B. Anthony – A relentless advocate for equal rights for women, she wrote, lectured and organized groups in the pursuit of voting and other rights. She was arrested, in an act of civil disobedience, for voting in the 1872 U.S. presidential election. She died 14 years before the 19th U.S. Amendment was passed, granting voting rights to women.
- Empress Wu Zetian. The only female monarch in Chinese history, her amazing story of obtaining power and ruling, directly or indirectly, for decades. Her reign was one of the greatest periods of expansion for China.
- Florence Nightingale – More than a nurse (although she was a progressive there too), she pioneered the use of statistics and visualizations (Nightingale Rose Diagram, diagram below) and was a prolific writer and teacher. Medicine has been a productive field for women, with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (contributed to discovery of HIV), Gertrude B. Elion (pioneer in cancer medication, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1988) and Clara Barton (founded the Red Cross) and Elizabeth Blackwell – First woman to receive a medical degree (1849) and become a doctor in the U.S.
- Grace Hopper invented not only the programming language COBOL, one of the first high level programming languages, but the very idea of a compiler, the critical engine that most programming languages depend on to function (1952). And if that weren’t enough she was an Admiral in the U.S. Navy.
- Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966, second elected woman head of state in modern history, the first was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (1960). Indira had an enormous impact on the future of India, defining many policies and systems of government still in use today.
As my historical note suggested, I’m not surprised these women lived in the last few centuries. I acknowledge that best of / top lists of anything are at best subjective. If you emphasize politics, arts or engineering in a different balance than I did, you will end up with other equally notable people. My goal was to balance the impact and challenge of these people’s works independent of how famous they became, regardless of domain.
In the category of modern marvels:
- Kevlar, used in bulletproof vests was invented by Stephanie Kwolek (1965). The car windshield wiper by Mary Anderson (1903). Patsy Sherman co-invented Scotchgard in 1956 (despite her high school aptitude test telling her she should be a housewife).
- Many homemaking and clothing inventions were by women, likely because these were the first domains they were allowed access to. The wire bra was invented by Caresse Crosby (1914), Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher in 1886 and Bette Graham invented Liquid Paper in 1956. Chemistry, the rising science in the 1950s, created new opportunities that were open to women for the first time.
Women from diverse cultures faced, and still face, additional discrimination and it’s hard to comprehend the suppressive effects this has had, and the cumulative disadvantage this creates. A very brief list from many great stories includes, Ethel Waters (First African American to star on own TV show in U.S. 1939), Ann Ann Tsukamoto (stem cell isolation, 1991), Katherine Johnson (NASA, programmer, 1953), Rebecca Lee Crumpler (first African American woman doctor in U.S.), Shirley Jackson (First African American woman to obtain PhD at MIT, 1973).
I did study Cleopatra, Mother Teresa, Amelia Earhart and many other famous historical women. The challenge is being famous and making contributions are different things. The history on Cleopatra isn’t great and Hollywood factors more in our perceptions than the thin historical record we have. Mother Teresa didn’t invent or pioneer much of anything as far as I could tell, and while her charity is impressive it didn’t warrant a place on this list. Earhart’s short life is inspiring of course, but I’d consider her more a pioneer (first to do something) than an innovator (progressing something in a way that has lasting impact).
Hedy Lamarr wins a prize for the most Hollywood sounding story that happens to be true, as not only was she a famous actress, but she patented a covert communications system used by the U.S. military and is used in how Bluetooth and Wi-Fi work.
Queen Elizabeth I had an astonishing autonomy, one of the first female heads of state, but her reign didn’t achieve much of lasting impact. Of course, she may have inspired many women of later generations, but it’s hard to measure that on a list like this. Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton also surface in political history, but their works and visibility, while notable, were hard to stretch into innovations. Alison Bechdel came to mind for her Bechdel test which will blow your mind if you’ve never heard of it.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth (along with her husband Frank, until his death) was a pioneer in using time and motion studies to understand how people can work (and live) more effectively. Known as “a genius in the art of living.” She invented the kitchen triangle pattern, the foot pedal waste bin, shelving for refrigerators, and dozens of other inventions. She was a prolific speaker and writer about invention, engineering and other subjects.
Rosalyn Franklyn – a sad example of gender bias, she made major contributions to the discovery of DNA, widely credited exclusively to Crick and Watson. It wasn’t until much later, and after her death at 38, that the significance of her role in the process was accepted.
Other lists you might like:
- 15 women Nobel Prize winners since Marie Curie
- 10 Historic female scientists you should know
- 50 inventions by women
If you have a favorite female innovator I should study, leave a comment.
[edit note: minor updates and corrections, added Gilbreth and Franklyn to notable mentions – 12/9/2020]
[edit note: minor updates and corrections, added note about U.S. bias, diversity challenges in Notable mentions, added Empress Wu Zetian to primary list – 2/14/2021]