25 Inspiring Women on National Women’s Equality Day

25 Amazing Women for National Women’s Equality Day

It’s hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote, rarely attended college and were even unable to purchase birth control. Now, we’re kicking ass in so many realms: Women outnumber and outperform men in college and grad school, hold more than half of management positions and are making bank in record numbers (in 147 out of 150 of America’s biggest cities, the median full-time salary for single young women is actually eight percent higher than that of single young men). That said, we’ve still got a ways to go. Overall, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar that men take home, hold only 24 CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and make up a mere 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of Congress.

Now is the perfect time to take stock of what we’ve achieved and what remains to be done — because today is Women’s Equality Day, proclaimed by Congress to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment. In honor of the day, we’ve rounded up notable women who have carried the torch since we were granted the right to vote 94 years ago, whether by breaking barriers themselves, or by working to pass legislation, regulations or corporate policies to advance women in the workplace — and the world. Prepare to be both humbled and inspired.

From Jane Addams to Sheryl Sandberg

It’s hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote, rarely attended college and were even unable to purchase birth control. Now, we’re kicking ass in so many realms: Women outnumber and outperform men in college and grad school, hold more than half of management positions and are making bank in record numbers (in 147 out of 150 of America’s biggest cities, the median full-time salary for single young women is actually eight percent higher than that of single young men). That said, we’ve still got a ways to go. Overall, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar that men take home, hold only 24 CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and make up a mere 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of Congress.

Now is the perfect time to take stock of what we’ve achieved and what remains to be done — because today is Women’s Equality Day, proclaimed by Congress to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment. In honor of the day, we’ve rounded up notable women who have carried the torch since we were granted the right to vote 94 years ago, whether by breaking barriers themselves, or by working to pass legislation, regulations or corporate policies to advance women in the workplace — and the world. Prepare to be both humbled and inspired.

Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Jane Addams was a social worker who supported women’s causes. In 1889, she and a friend founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house with the aim of improving the lives of poor immigrants. Hull House provided residents with childcare, classes, a library, a gym, an art gallery and more. Addams was later named chairman of the Women’s Peace Party and president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, where she spoke out against war. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, the first American woman so honored.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Although she was born into a prestigious New York City family, Edith Wharton never hesitated to push the boundaries of her gender. A prolific writer (“The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” “Ethan Frome”), she was the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, in 1921, for “The Age of Innocence.” She was also a designer who conceived the structure, gardens and décor of her renowned home, The Mount, in Lenox, Mass. In 1911, Wharton moved to France and volunteered for the plight of war refugees. There, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for her charitable work. In 1923, she received an honorary doctorate from Yale University.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Margaret Sanger was at the forefront of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. Her activism first gained a foothold in 1911, when she became part of the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village and joined the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party. She fought for labor rights and began writing a sexual education column in a socialist magazine. 

Sanger was also a nurse, and while working with poor women who sometimes had to go to drastic measures to deal with an unintended pregnancy, she became convinced that having access to contraception was a key element to women’s liberation. In 1914, she created a monthly newsletter, “The Woman Rebel,” promoting contraceptive use, for which she was exiled to England. 

Once back in America, she opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in the United States in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1916. She was arrested twice as a result and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but that didn’t slow down Sanger. 

The following year, she launched a monthly magazine, The Birth Control Review. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, aimed at educating the middle class about family planning options and six years later established the National Committee on Federal Reform for Birth Control to lobby to overturn contraceptive restrictions. 

In 1937, she finally achieved victory when the American Medical Association adopted birth control as a normal medical service. She also started the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1946, a global organization promoting sexual and reproductive health and served as its president until the age of 80.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)

Pearl S. Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1938). She published more than 70 books in her lifetime, many of which focused on China, where she grew up as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her 1931 novel “The Good Earth.” A committed civil and women’s rights activist, she co-founded Welcome House in 1949, the first interracial, international adoption agency (at that time, Asian and mixed-race children were considered unadoptable), and later established The Pearl S. Buck Foundation to aid children throughout Asia.

Mary Pickford (1893-1979)

She was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” but silent film star Mary Pickford was also a balls-to-the-wall businesswoman who rose to become one of the all-time most powerful women in the movie industry. She began acting at age seven when she had two small roles in a play in her hometown of Toronto. Her mother and younger siblings also took up acting and in the early 1900s, the whole family toured the U.S., performing in amateur plays and bringing in little to no money. 

Then, in 1907, she signed with an agent and began landing movie roles. Her magnetic charisma soon attracted a slew of devoted fans and by 1914, her starring roles in “Hearts Adrift” and “Tess of the Storm Country” had made her a household name; she was widely considered to be the most famous woman in the world. 

Yet she was more than a pretty face. Unlike many actresses at the time, Pickford was fully in command of her own career. Her contract stated that she had authority over production of her films and she supervised every aspect of the movie business: casting, editing, promotion, you name it. She also received a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week. In 1919, she co-founded the revolutionary production company United Artists, which granted filmmakers total control over their work, and which she later sold for millions of dollars. In 1929, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in her role in “Coquette” and retired from filmmaking four years after that.

Amelia Earhart (1897–1937)

Amelia Earhart loved to climb trees and hunt (rare pastimes for a girl in that day), and discovered her passion for flight at age 10 while watching a stunt pilot at a state fair. She took her first flying lesson 14 years later, in 1921, and shortly thereafter saved enough money to buy her own plane. 

Then, the legendary adventuress soared to greater and greater heights. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, and the first person to fly solo non-stop from Hawaii to California and from the U.S. to Mexico in 1935. Two years later, she attempted her most daring feat yet: to be the first female to fly around the world. In the mid-Pacific, having completed all but 7,000 miles of the 29,000-mile voyage, her plane disappeared. Still, despite her tragic ending, her legacy remains an inspiration for women everywhere to pursue their dreams.

Margaret Mead (1901–1978)

Margaret Mead was an anthropologist and author whose work proved highly influential in the feminist movement. Her research on tribes in Samoa and New Guinea shaped her theory that gender personality differences are a result of nurture rather than nature. She also studied female-dominant societies, and (surprise, surprise!) found no drawbacks to having women in charge. In 1979, Mead was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her groundbreaking anthropological insights.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White has had a boundary-breaking career of firsts. Photography started off as a hobby for the New Jersey native, who college-hopped throughout her 20s, finally graduating from Cornell in 1927. The following year, she started a commercial photography studio and was soon hired as an editor and staff photographer for Fortune magazine, where she worked from 1929-1935 and made a name for herself capturing Soviet industry. 

In 1936, she joined the Life magazine team and her photo of the Fort Dam Peck construction made the cover of its debut issue. When World War II broke out, Bourke-White became the first female war correspondent and the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. She’s also known for her stark photographs of Gandhi and the India-Pakistan conflict. In 1953, a Parkinson’s diagnosis shifted her career into slow motion and the disease eventually took her life in 1971.

Katharine Graham (1917-2001)

Although Katharine Graham came to preside over one of the most influential newspapers in America quite by accident, once she had the job, she never looked back. Her well-off father purchased the Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933 and later handed the reins of publisher to Graham’s husband. When he committed suicide in 1963, Graham took over and became the first female president of a Fortune 500 company. 

She served as publisher until 1979 and chairman of the board from 1973-1991, steering the paper through the Watergate scandal, where she encouraged the Post’s investigative reporting and made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, despite government pressure to keep them under wraps. 

Thanks in part to her leadership, President Nixon resigned and the Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973. Her memoirs, “Personal History,” delved into the challenges she faced as a woman in the male-dominated publishing industry and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999)

Gertrude B. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing the first drugs to combat diseases such as leukemia, herpes, malaria and AIDS (at the time, she was the head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at the pharma company Burroughs-Wellcome — now GlaxoSmithKline). Some of her impressive work included designing medications that were capable of blocking viral infections and medical treatments that reduced the body’s rejection of foreign tissue during organ transplants. In 1991, she received the National Medal of Science and became the first woman inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame.

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)

Even though she’s not as much of a household name as feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, Abzug made incredible strides to help achieve equality for women. In fact, it was at her behest that Congress in 1971 designated August 26th as “Women’s Equality Day.” 

After graduating from Columbia Law School as one of the few female students, Abzug worked as a lawyer for 25 years. (Female lawyers were so rare back then that she took to wearing wide-brimmed hats — which became her signature — to avoid being mistaken for a secretary.) In the 1960’s, she co-founded the activist group Women Strike for Peace, which demonstrated against nuclear weapons and staged one of the largest peace protests of the 20th century, bringing together about 50,000 women who marched in 60 cities across the country. 

She ran for Congress at age 50 and served three terms (she declared at the time of her win, “This woman’s place is in the house — the House of Representatives”). In addition, she was the head of the first National Women’s Conference and the National Advisory Committee on Women. She later established several women’s organizations, including the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which advocates for gender equality.

Alice Coachman (1923-2014)

Alice Coachman jumped at the chance to win an Olympic medal — literally. She was the first black woman to? take home the gold, awarded for the high jump in London in 1948 (she soared upwards of 5’6”). Later, she became a teacher and established the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to support young athletes. She was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.

Shirley Chisholm (1924- 2005)

Brooklyn-born and bred, Shirley Chisholm's early career was in childcare. She was the director of a daycare center, which led to her initial interest in politics surrounding education, and she began volunteering at political groups like the League of Women Voters. That’s when things took off.

In 1968, she was the first black woman elected to Congress, where she represented the state of New York for seven terms. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Caucus, to support women in politics, and went on to seek the nomination for the Democratic party for president in 1972 — the first woman of color to pursue the Oval Office. After retiring from Congress in 1982, she taught politics and sociology at Mount Holyoke College, and in 1990 co-founded the pro-Roe vs. Wade organization African American Women for Reproductive Freedom. Three years later, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Patsy Mink (1927-2002)

Even at a young age, Patsy Mink had a passion for politics — the third-generation Japanese American was elected student body president and valedictorian at Maui Junior High. Following a series of frustrating experiences in higher education (she attended University of Nebraska, where she fought to overturn the school’s racial segregation policies, and when she tried to attend med school after graduation, none of the 20 schools to which she applied accepted women), she settled with her family in Honolulu and was a representative in the Hawaii State Senate. 

In 1965, Mink became the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress, where she served 12 terms. She was the co-author and sponsor of the landmark Title IX amendment (later renamed the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act), which passed in 1972, protecting people against gender discrimination by federally funded institutions. She was also a driving force behind the first Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equity Act.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Maya Angelou was one of the most acclaimed writers and storytellers of the twentieth century, churning out poetry, memoirs, essays, plays and screenplays from the 1960s on. Raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Ark., she experienced the effects of racism from a young age, and that theme is echoed throughout many of her works. Her first and best-known book, the 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” brought her international acclaim and is often taught in schools to this day. 

In addition to her writing, Angelou was also a dancer, singer, actress, composer, director, documentarian and civil rights activist. (Is there anything she can’t do??) In 1965, she helped Malcolm X launch the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Bill Clinton selected her to recite her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at his 1993 inauguration, widening her popularity even more. And that’s not all: Angelou won three Grammys for her spoken word albums, received more than 50 honorary degrees from colleges across the country, served on two presidential committees and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Lincoln Medal and the National Medal of the Arts. She passed away earlier this year.

Toni Morrison (b. 1931)

Toni Morrison’s evocative prose is the kind that sticks to your bones long after her book is closed and put away — and the accolades and opportunities the author has been awarded reflect her narrative power. The Howard University and Cornell grad worked as an English professor for 10 years before entering the publishing industry in 1965 as a textbook editor and later an editor at Random House. 

During this time, she joined a writer’s group and crafted a short story that would later evolve into her first novel: “The Bluest Eye,” about a young black girl who wished for blue eyes. Following its publication in 1970, Morrison’s other masterpieces came pouring out to enthusiastic reception, among them “Song of Solomon” (1977 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) and “Beloved” (which received the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award in 1987). In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. “In novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import,” the organization noted, “she gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933)

As only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court (after Sandra Day O’Connor), Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made tremendous gains to further women’s equal rights. After graduating as co-valedictorian in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959 and editing both the Columbia Law Review and Harvard Law Review (she attended Harvard for one year before transferring to Columbia), her feminist activism began in full-force. 

In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, a quarterly journal of legal scholarship and feminist criticism focused on the field of women’s rights law. During a teaching stint at Columbia from 1972 to 1980, she was the first female professor to achieve tenure and co-authored a casebook on sex discrimination. She helped to launch the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, and became the ACLU’s General Counsel the following year, where she argued several benchmark cases that contributed to eradicating gender discrimination. She landed a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, a post that she held for 13 years until her ascension to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Gloria Steinem (b. 1934)

As one of the most resonant voices of the women’s liberation movement, Gloria Steinem became a feminist icon in the 1960s and 70s. She began her career as a journalist, where she worked for New York magazine, focusing on stories about women’s issues ranging from contraception to abortion. In 1972, she co-founded the liberal feminist magazine Ms. 

At the same time, she was an on-the-ground activist for women’s issues. She testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to promote the Equal Rights Amendment (which guarantees equal opportunities for women) in 1970, led the Women’s Strike for Equality along with Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug in New York City that same year, was the first woman to address the National Press Club in 1972, and created a number of organizations — among them the Women’s Action Alliance, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, Choice USA and the Women’s Media Center. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and last year she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To this day, she is an outspoken champion for women’s equal rights.

Sylvia Earle (b. 1935)

A marine biologist, National Geographic explorer-in-residence and the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sylvia Earle has adventure in her DNA. Other highlights from her incredible life: In 1979, she set a women’s depth record, plunging 381 meters to the bottom of the ocean floor near Hawaii. In 1986, she tied the world record for a solo dive in a submarine, going 1,000 meters deep in a craft that she helped to design. In 1992, she founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, a marine technology company that is designing a vehicle to research the ocean floor. 

She led the Sustainable Seas Program to Study the United States National Marine Sanctuary from 1998 to 2002. Five years ago, she launched Mission Blue, an effort to establish protected marine areas around the world and restore the ocean. Not only was she named Time magazine’s first Hero of the Planet in 1998, but she is also a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and has been knighted in the Netherlands.

Linda Chavez-Thompson (b. 1944)

Linda Chavez-Thompson grew up in West Texas as one of seven children. Her father was a sharecropper, and at the age of 10 she began working in the cotton fields during the summer, a job she held for the next nine years. She dropped out of high school at age 16 to help earn money for her family. 

In 1967, she became a secretary at the local branch of the Laborers’ Union. A tornado struck her town that year, and she organized relief efforts on behalf of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). That experience led her to a position as staff organizer with the North Texas Laborers District Council, where she helped local government workers form a union. 

From there, she went on to work at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, rapidly climbing the ladder and eventually being elected the Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO in 1995, a role that she held until her retirement in 2007. As a second generation Mexican-American, she was the first person of color and the first woman to assume that position. During her tenure, she championed the 1996 movement to increase the minimum wage and has campaigned for immigration reform.

Angela Davis (b. 1944)

Angela Davis is a ferocious and tireless civil rights advocate. A Birmingham native who attended Brandeis University and the University of Frankfurt, she became a philosophy professor at UCLA in 1969, but was fired later that year for her connections to the Communist Party USA (she ended up running twice for Vice President on the communist ticket). She was also a member of the Black Panther Party and worked to reform the prison system, co-founding the organization Critical Resistance, which was aimed at eradicating what she famously dubbed America’s “prison-industrial complex.” She later held teaching positions at San Francisco State University, U.C. Santa Cruz, Syracuse University, and, presently, UCLA once again. To this day, she is an outspoken activist championing women’s rights, gay rights and racial equality.

Carol Moseley Braun (b. 1947)

The first and only black woman Senator (so far), Braun served from 1993 to 1999 (prior to that, she was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives), and then held the position of United States Ambassador to New Zealand until 2001. She was the first woman to serve on the Senate Finance Committee and Judiciary Committee, and her landmark legislation includes the Women’s Pension Equality Act and the Innovative Education Infrastructure Act. She’s presently practicing law and recently launched “Ambassador Organics,” an organic food line.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (b. 1947)

Although Hillary Clinton’s initial entrée into politics was the role of First Lady from 1993 to 2001, her career has since launched into the stratosphere. The only First Lady to have sought public office, she served as a U.S. Senator from 2001 to 2009, sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and then held the position of Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. As First Lady, she led the ultimately unsuccessful Task Force on National Healthcare Reform and advocated for children and families, getting behind efforts like the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

During her time in the Senate, she focused on issues surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq War. She was the most widely traveled Secretary of State in history, visiting 112 countries during her tenure, and she spearheaded America’s response to the Arab Spring. In that post, she also made strides for gay rights and women’s empowerment. After leaving office, she joined her husband’s non-profit organization, the Clinton Foundation, and is widely rumored to be planning another campaign for the nation’s highest office in 2016.

Judith Butler (b. 1956)

A philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler is best known for her books “Gender Trouble” and “Bodies That Matter,” which question traditional concepts of sex roles and gender identity and introduced the influential concept that gender is performative. After graduating from Bennington and Yale, she went on to teach philosophy at prestigious universities around the country. She was also a devoted political activist who served as chair of the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, supported Occupy Wall Street, and is a member of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Sheryl Sandberg (b. 1969)

The tech exec first made a name for herself in her role as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook (a job she’s held since 2008), overseeing everything from sales and marketing to business development to HR, a huge coup for a woman in the male-dominated technology industry. Prior to her Facebook gig, Sheryl Sandberg was the Chief of Staff to the United States Secretary of Treasury (1996-2001), and then worked at Google as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations, where she managed advertising and publishing products and was integral in launching Google.org, the internet behemoth’s charitable branch. 

After meeting Mark Zuckerberg at a Christmas party, he poached her for the prominent Facebook job, and within two years, thanks in large part to her leadership, the company turned a profit for the first time. Sandberg has also become a beacon for professional women. In 2010, she gave a TED talk about the dearth of female leaders. Last year, she released her blockbuster first book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”, which has sold nearly 2 million copies and launched a Lean In movement aimed at encouraging women to pursue their ambitions. She recently established a new campaign, “Ban Bossy,” to discourage use of the word due to its detrimental effect on girls’ confidence.