In 1908, the first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States in honor of the garment workers’ strike in New York to protest unsafe working conditions. However, it was not until almost 70 years later that the United Nations recognized International Women’s Day as an international day honoring the contributions of women to our global society. Since 1977, people from all over the world have celebrated the achievements of women in many fields on March 8th.
This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate all of the women who have changed history despite the oppressive institutions, restrictions on higher education, gender barriers and race-driven division. Here are just a few notable women from around the world who broke barriers to make significant cultural, political, scientific and economic contributions.
Notable Women of the 1800s
Born February 3, 1821, Elizabeth Blackwell is celebrated as the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Despite the pushback she received from both men and women, she persevered, ultimately opening her own medical college to train other women to become doctors.
While pollution may seem like a modern concern, inventor Mary Walton worked throughout the 19th century to alleviate the problem. In 1879, she was awarded a patent for a device to mitigate pollution from smokestacks by sending the smoke into a tank of water. Years later, she applied the same idea to locomotive technology, reducing the coal smoke in trains.
In the late 1800s, Mary Eliza Mahoney faced not only sexism but also racism, becoming the first African American licensed as a nurse in the United States. Throughout her life, she fought for the recognition and treatment of other African American nurses. In 1896, she also joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later collectively became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA).
Notable Women of the 1900s
The 1900s were full of extraordinary women who studied subjects from chemistry and mathematics to primatology. Perhaps one of the most well-known female scientists is Polish-born Marie Curie, who found great success in the early 20th century. Along with her husband Pierre, Marie Curie discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium, and in 1903, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In fact, she won two, one each in physics and chemistry, making her the first person to have been awarded twice.
Throughout the mid-1900s, British chemist Rosalind Franklin was also a trailblazer in the field of science. Her research was instrumental to the discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, better known to us as DNA. Although Watson and Crick ultimately discovered the double-helix shape in 1953 and earned Nobel Prizes, she did not let that hold her back, as she continued to provide contributions to the studies of RNA and viruses.
Notable in the field of mathematics was African American mathematician Katherine Johnson, who, in the 1960s, created orbital mechanics as a NASA employee. Her calculations were critical to sending the first Americans into space. Her work at NASA would eventually be showcased in the hit film Hidden Figures.
In 1960, the field of primatology was forever changed, thanks to the efforts of Jane Goodall. Her discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools is considered one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century scholarship. With over 60 years of research, she has transformed the understanding of chimpanzees and redefined the relationship between humans and animals.
Notable Women in the 2000s
While the 21st century is still in its infancy, there have still been many women who have changed the course of history — and continue to do so. In 2018, when she was just 15 years old, Greta Thunberg founded the movement known as Fridays for Future. Now known globally as a Swedish environmental activist, Thunberg has given speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the European Parliament and in front of the legislatures of Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. In essence, she has become the global face of the climate change movement.
In August 2020, Senator Kamala Harris became the first Asian and African American woman to be nominated for Vice President of the United States by a major political party. Harris went on to break another record later in the year, becoming the first woman elected Vice President in November 2020.
Grassroots organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi are noted as launching the Black Lives Matter Movement. The movement grew out of the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case in 2013, and the hashtag #blacklivesmatter has since spread around the globe. It has influenced much of the political discourse in recent years and has frequently been noted as one of the most publicized civil rights movements of the 21st century so far.
On March 15, 2021, Rosalind ‘Roz’ Brewer will take office as the CEO of Walgreens, making her the only African American woman currently leading a Fortune 500 company.
How to Continue to Empower Women
Although women have clearly made their impact on history, there is still so much more to be accomplished, especially in the field of science. In fact, only roughly 30% of all STEM workers are women. That’s why philanthropist, entrepreneur and engineer Robert F. Smith wants to continue to empower women to change the world. He is helping to create the next generation of powerful women through his support and sponsorship of a number of educational and job training programs.
In 2016, Smith personally donated $10 million dollars to Cornell University, his alma mater, to create the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program. Through the program, African American and female students receive financial support to complete their undergraduate engineering degree at Cornell, followed by a one-year technical master’s degree at Cornell Tech. Smith also financially supports Code.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by young women.
Aside from STEM-centered programs, Smith, as well as financial firm Vista Equity Partners, of which Smith is Founder, Chairman and CEO, support Girls Who Invest. The organization is dedicated to increasing the number of women in portfolio management and executive leadership in the asset management industry. What’s more, no matter what field a young woman may want to pursue, internX offers an internship opportunity. Administered by Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is founding director and President, internX helps match women of color, as well as men of color, to internship opportunities in everything from STEM and finance to business and marketing.
Supporting women around the world is important to ensure more amazing celebrations of International Women’s Day. For more information on International Women’s Day and other women who have changed the world, visit the program’s website.