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Sung and unsung, more women have contributed significantly to American history than can be contained within a single table. The following is a representative survey of some of the most important women in American history. The definition of a "famous woman" will vary between individuals, but there is no doubt that these women contributed importantly to the advancement of our society as well as the advancement of women in America.
1500s . 1600s . 1700s . 1800s . 1900s

Name

Cause or Field

Lifespan

Summary

Lady Deborah Moody

Religious freedom, leadership

1586-1659

Brought settlers seeking religious freedom to Gravesend at New Amsterdam (later New York). She was a respected and important community leader.

Anne Marbury Hutchinson

Religious freedom of expression

1591-1643

Banished from Boston by Puritans in 1637, due to her views on grace. In New York, natives killed her and all but one of her children.

Pocahontas

Native and English amity

1595-1617

She saved the life of Capt. John Smith at the hands of her father, Chief Powhatan. Later married the famous John Rolfe. Met royalty in England.

1600s

Margaret Brent

Human rights; women's suffrage

1600-1669

Thought to be North America's first feminist, Brent became one of the largest landowners in Maryland. Aided in settling land dispute; raised armed volunteer group.

Mary Barrett Dyer

Religious activism

Early 1600s- 1660

Quaker beliefs led to Dyer's hanging; later recognized as martyr for quickening the reversal of anti-Quaker laws in Massachusetts and other colonies.

Anne Bradstreet

Poetry

1612-1672

One of America's first poets; Bradstreet's poetry was noted for its important historic content until mid-1800s publication of Contemplations, a book of religious poems.

Mary Bliss Parsons

Illeged witchcraft

1628-1712

Wife of prominent Salem, Massachusetts, citizen, Parsons was acquitted of witchcraft charges in the most documented and unusual witch hunt trial in colonial history.

Mary Rowlandson

Colonial literature

1637-1710

After her capture during King Philip's War, Rowlandson wrote famous firsthand accounting of 17th-century Indian life and its Colonial/Indian conflicts.

1700s

Mary Musgrove

Trading, interpreting

1700-1765

A Georgia woman of mixed race, she and her husband started a fur trade with the Creeks. As an important interpreter, she helped to avoid a war.

Abigail Adams

Politics and writing

1744-1818

She wrote lucidly about her life and time in letters, and exerted political influence over her famous president husband John, and son, John Quincy.

Phillis Wheatley

Verse

1753-1784

The first significant black poet in America, the former slave exemplified the superiority of the human spirit over the circumstances of birth.

Molly Pitcher

Patriotism in battle

1754-1832

At the Battle of Monmouth, she brought water to Continental soldiers, attended the wounded and also replaced her fallen husband at a gun.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Education, philanthropy

1774-1821

First U.S. saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Parochial education in America began with her founding of a famous Catholic school in Maryland.

Elizabeth Clovis Lange

Education, religious

1784-1882

Founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first black Roman Catholic order in the U.S. She promoted education for deprived people.

Sacajawea

Exploration

1787?-1812 or 1884

This resolute and resourceful Shoshone woman was a guide and interpreter for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 and 1806.

Sarah Josepha Hale

Advancement of women, journalism

1788-1879

Editor of magazines, notably Godeyu0092s Ladyu0092s Book, which promoted the betterment of women. She supported important economic reform.

Lucretia Mott

Abolition, womenu0092s rights

1793-1880

She and her husband, James, made their home a station on the Underground Railroad. Helped to organize the Womenu0092s Rights Convention.

Sojourner Truth

Human rights, preaching

1797-1893

As a preacher, Truth campaigned nationwide for the abolition of slavery and important womenu0092s rights. Also raised money for black Union soldiers.

1800s

Dorothea Dix

Social reform and war nursing

1802-1887

An advocate of asylum, poorhouse and prison reform, she also helped alleviate Civil War misery as Superintendent of Female Nurses.

Phoebe Palmer

writing, evangelism

1807-1874

One of the founders of the Holiness Movement, Methodist evangelist Palmer advocated Christian perfection or the cleansing of original sin prior to death.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Antislavery,

fiction

1811-1896

Famous for her controversial novel, Uncle Tomu0092s Cabin, an antislavery story based on her experiences. Also spoke against slavery.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Abolition and women's rights

1815-1902

Stanton (and important friend Susan B. Anthony) fought for womenu0092s suffrage when the 14th and 15th amendments excluded gender equality.

Biddy Mason

Business, real estate and philanthropy

1818-1891

Winning freedom from slavery, she worked as a nurse/midwife, and became a canny, wealthy entrepreneur. She lavished money on charities.

Lucy Stone

Women's suffrage and abolition

1818-1893

A pioneer in the movement for women's rights, she lectured against slavery and advocated equality for women. Famous for becoming the first woman in Massachussets to earn a college degree.

Julia Ward Howe

Author, suffragist, abolitionist

1819-1910

A poet, lecturer, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She also helped form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Susan B. Anthony

Abolition and womenu0092s rights

1820-1906

A tireless campaigner for gender equality, Anthony (and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton) inspired a nationwide suffrage movement.

Harriet Tubman

Abolition

1820-1913

A u0093conductoru0094 on the Underground Railroad, she led more than 300 slaves to freedom. Also served Union forces in coastal South Carolina.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Education, medicine

1821-1910

The first woman physician in the U.S. (MD, Geneva College, 1849). She opened a slum infirmary and trained women in medicine.

Mary Baker Eddy

Religion, writing

1821-1910

Founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist. Wrote Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, her famous adjunct to the Bible.

Clara Barton

Aid to soldiers and free education

1821-1912

Organized and delivered important aid to Union and Confederate soldiers. Started the American Red Cross. Started a free school in New Jersey.

Mary Walton

Pollution control, invention

1829-1906

This Manhattan inventor devised a method to reduce factory smoke emissions and reduced the track noise from elevated trains.

Louisa May Alcott

Writing, women's suffrage

1832-1888

An American literary icon of the 19th century, Alcott was also involved in women's suffrage.

Hetty Green

Finance

1835-1916

She inherited her fatheru0092s fortune and invested it so cannily that she was reputed to be the richest woman in the world at the time.

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones

American Labor Movement

1837-1930

u0093Motheru0094 Jones was present as a labor organizer and speaker at many significant labor struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Frances Elizabeth Willard

Temperance and womenu0092s suffrage

1839-1898

A tireless campaigner, she was a founder and president of important organizations that fought for prohibition. Also work for womenu0092s suffrage.

Ellen Swallow Richards

Chemistry and engineering

1842-1911

First woman to enroll in a technical institute (MIT), in 1870. Founded the science of home economics and promoted science for women.

Carry A. Nation

Temperance

1846-1911

Notorious for violent disruption of alcohol sales. She was jailed often, but her courage and eloquence impressed many people.

Annie Smith Peck

Womenu0092s suffrage, mountaineering

1850-1935

She scaled the 21,812-foot Peruvian mountain Huascaran, the loftiest Western Hemisphere peak climbed by an American man or woman.

Annie Oakley

Sharp-shooting and entertainment

1860-1926

Gifted with uncanny marksmanship and star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, she established herself as a famous western folk legend.

Jane Addams

Social Reform

1860-1935

Noted for Hull House, an influential haven for disadvantaged people. Active in a variety of causes, she shared the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

Grandma Moses

Folk Art

1860-1961

Discovered by the New York art world in 1939, Mosesu0092 style is noted for evocative themes and pleasing figure arrangement.

Florence Bascom

Geology

1862-1945

First woman and female geologist to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. A pioneer in microscope viewings of minerals and rocks.

Winifred Edgerton Merrill

Mathematics, education

1862-1951

First U.S. woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics (Columbia, 1886; highest honors). Founded the famous Oaksmere School for Girls in 1906.

Nellie Bly

Social justice, investigative journalism

1864-1922

As an often-undercover journalist, Bly sided with poor and marginalized people. Also noted for a famous 72-day race around the world in 1889.

Anne Sullivan

Teacher

1866-1936

Overcame childhood obstacles to become Helen Keller's teacher and lifelong companion.

Emily Greene Balch

Social Activism

1867-1961

1947 Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and was an important woman advocate for peace during WWI and WWII.

Molly Dewson

Women's suffrage, politics

1874-1962

An author, and head of the Democratic National Committee's Women's Division, Dewson also fought for a minimum wage law.

Margaret Sanger

Social reform and family planning

1879-1966

Dismayed by infant mortality, Sanger became a vocal advocate of contraception and established an important medically supervised family planning clinic.

Helen Keller

Social reform, writing

and lecturing

1880-1968

Deafened and blinded by a childhood disease, she overcame her disabilities, then worked for the blind and numerous progressive causes.

Jeannette Rankin

Politics

1880-1973

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman ever elected to Congress. She was one of few congressional members to vote no on WWI and WWII.

Frances Perkins

Politics

1882-1965

Perkins was the first woman Cabinet member in the U.S. She served as FDR's Secretary of Labor, and played a key role in New Deal legislation.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Activism, traveling and speaking

1884-1962

Enormously effective wife of FDR, she was a Democratic Party activist, worked for racial equality and was U.S. Representative to the U.N.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Painter

1887-1986

Widely regarded as one of the great modernist painters of the 20th century, O'Keeffe was a major figure in American art for more than 70 years.

Aimee Semple McPherson

Broadcast evangelism

1890-1944

Southern California evangelist famous for her Temple and u0093illustrated sermons.u0094 Founded International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Zora Neale Hurston

Writing

1891?-1960

Folklorist, anthropologist and novelist. Most prolific black woman writer of the 1930s.

Pearl S. Buck

Adoption advocacy, writing

1892-1973

Author of books reflecting her life in China. Won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. Buck worked for the adoption of unwanted children.

Amelia Earhart

Aviation

1897-1937

Famous for flying across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. She attempted to fly around the world, then disappeared July 2, 1937.

Dorothy Day

Catholic-based Social Service, writing

1897-1980

Founded Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin in 1933, an important outreach to disadvantaged and marginalized people.

Marian Anderson

Racial amity, singing

1897-1993

She used her rare voice to advance race relations. First black Metropolitan Opera star. Alternate U.N. delegate. Honored many times.

Margaret Chase Smith

Politics

1897-1995

Maineu0092s first congresswoman and re-elected four times, she was U.S. senator from 1949-73. Remembered for independence and character.

Louise Nevelson

Sculpture

1899-1988

Best known for her abstract-expressionist boxes grouped together to form a new creation. She used found objects and everyday items. One of her works stands three stories high.

1900s

Margaret Mead

Anthropology and psychology

1901-1978

She became famous for her gender role studies of the cultures of the Pacific Islands, Russia and the U.S. Authored several classic books.

Ella Baker

Human and civil rights

1903-1986

Helped form Southern Christian Leadership Conference of which Martin Luther King Jr. was president, important for organizing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Clare Boothe Luce

Writing, politics and diplomacy

1903-1987

She was managing editor of Vanity Fair and author of several successful plays, including The Women. Ambassador to Italy, 1953-56.

Esther Ross

Native American rights

1904-1988

Ross devoted 50 years to winning federal recognition of the Stillaguamish Tribe in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.

Margaret Bourke-White

Photography and photojournalism

1904 or 1906-1971

Important international photographic chronicler of people and events in war and peace. One famed picture: "Gandhi at His Spinning Wheel."

Ayn Rand

Fiction, philosophy

1905-1982

Russian-born, Rand wrote important fiction, notably The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. She espoused a philosophy of rational self-interest.

Grace Hopper

Computer science

1906-1992

A Ph.D. from Yale (1934), Rear Adm. Hopper was one of the earliest computer programmers and a leader in software development concepts.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Science

1906-1972

Goeppert-Mayer won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics, professor of Physics at UCSD, La Jolla, California, National Academy of Sciences member.

Rachel Carson

The environment, marine biology

1907-1964

Author of lucidly written books on ecological themes. Most famous for Silent Spring, a critical examination of chemical pesticides.

Virginia Apgar

Obstetrics

1909-1974

Dr. Apgar developed the Apgar Score, whose five items help physicians and nurses to determine if a newborn requires emergency care. The score is now standard worldwide.

Katharine Hepburn

Stage and screen

1909-2003

Four-time Academy Award winner for best actress, Hepburn combined her statuesque looks with a bold, plucky acting style.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Multiple athletics

1911-1956

This superathlete won three track and field Olympic medals and 31 LPGA titles. Famed for self-confidence and competitive spirit.

Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson

Politics, environment

1912-

First lady during Lyndon B. Johnson's administration; instrumental in promoting the Highway Beautification Act, founded Lady Bird Wildflower Center.

Patricia Ryan Nixon

Politics

1912-1993

First lady during Richard M. Nixon's administration; after her father's death at 18, Pat worked part time to obtain her degree, graduating cum laude from USC.

Barbara Tuchman

History

1912-1989

Tuchman was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (The Guns of August, and Stillwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-45).

Rosa Parks

Civil rights

1913-

Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, sparked the modern civil rights movement.

Daisy Gatson Bates

Civil rights and journalism

1914(?)-

After segregation was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, she led the fight to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas, schools from 1954-1957.

Martha Raye

Entertainment

1916-1994

An actor, comedienne and singer, Raye entertained and even nursed troops for 50 years. Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.

Florence Chadwick

Swimming

1917-1995

The premier distance swimmer of the1950s, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways (1950, u009251, u009255).

Katharine Graham

Newspaper and magazine publishing

1917-2001

She was the influential president and publisher of the Washington Post from 1963-93. The paper is famed for its Watergate investigation.

Ella Fitzgerald

Jazz singing

1918-1996

Master of scat singing, she toured with such greats as Duke Ellington and the Oscar Peterson Trio. She performed internationally.

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford

Social activism

1918-

First lady during Gerald R. Ford's presidency, co-founder of the country's leading treatment center for alcoholism and drug dependency.

Bella Abzug

Political activism, writing

1920-1997

Attorney and Congresswoman, Abzug worked for a variety of progressive causes, especially womenu0092s issues. She was a noted author.

Marie Maynard Daly

Biochemistry

1921-

First African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry (Columbia University, 1948). Holder of various professorships. Focus: nucleic acids.

Betty Goldstein Friedan

Feminism

1921-2006

Author of the revolutionary book: Feminine Mystique, co-founder of National Organization for Women (NOW).

Nancy Davis Reagan

Social activism

1921-

First lady during Ronald Reagan's presidency and championed the "Just Say No" to drugs program for school-aged children.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

Physics, Medicine

1921-

Co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology, assisted in developing a technique to measure minute quantities of insulin in the blood.

Judy Garland

Entertainment

1922-1969

Made famous as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," Garland was one of the greatest stars of Hollywood's Golden Era of musical film.

Helen Gurley Brown

Feminism and writing

1922-

Author of Sex and the Single Girl, a book about the positive benefits of single life; revived foundering Cosmopolitan magazine

Alice Coachman

Track and field

1923-

At the 1948 Olympics in London, Coachman was the first black woman and only American woman to win a gold medal in that year's Games.

Shirley Chisholm

Social activism, politics

1924-2005

A Democrat, she was the first black woman elected to Congress (1968). Also the first black woman to run for president in a major party (1972).

Phyllis Schlafly

Political activism,

writing

1924-

Republican activist against the feminist movement. Testified against the Equal Rights Amendment. Author of several books.

Barbara Pierce Bush

Politics

1925-

First lady during George H.W. Bush's presidency, warmly received by public and press as "everybody's grandmother;" mother of six children; articulately frank.

Marilyn Monroe

Acting

1926-1962

Completing 30 motion pictures, Monroe became an American icon and worldwide sensation before her mysterious death.

Rosalynn Smith Carter

Activism

1927-

First lady during Jimmy Carter's presidency, vice chair of The Carter Center, which promotes peace and human rights worldwide.

Maya Angelou

Writing, civil rights

1928-

A poet, historian, author, civil rights activist, producer and director, she composed and read verse at the Clinton inauguration in 1993.

Sarah Caldwell

Opera direction and conducting

1928-

She founded the Opera Company of Boston in 1957. In 1976, she became the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Shirley Temple Black

Diplomacy, acting

1928-

Becoming a diplomat later in life, Shirley Temple was perhaps the most famous child star in history.

Audrey Hepburn

Aid to needy children; actor

1929-1993

Special ambassador to UNICEF, she worked to help poor children. 1953 Academy Award winner for Best Actress in u0093Roman Holiday.u0094

[3915

Politics, society

1929-1994

First lady during John F. Kennedy's presidency. By "inspir[ing] an attention to culture never before evident at a national level," she brought grace and sophistication to the White House.

Coretta Scott King

civil rights, music

1929-2006

Known as the First Lady of civil rights, Coretta carried on the dreams of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr.

Carolyn Shoemaker

Discovery, astronomy

1929-

Holder of the record for the most comet discoveries (32) as well as more than 800 asteroids. Took up astronomy at the age of 51.

Sandra Day O'Connor

Law, justice

1930-

She became the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. She felt the court's role was to interpret the law, not legislate it.

Barbara Harris

Religion, social outreach, civil rights

1930-

She became the first woman bishop of the Episcopal Church (also a first for Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy).

Mary Dawson

Paleontology, mammals

1931-

Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1970. Arnold Guyot Prize honoree for Arctic research.

Alice Rivlin

Federal budget

1931-

The founding director of the Congressional Budget Office (1975), she has held several other governmental and professorial positions.

Barbara Walters

Television journalism

1931-

The first woman to anchor TV nightly news, on ABC. Correspondent, then co-anchor of 20/20. She has interviewed numerous famous people.

Toni Morrison

Literature

1931-

Won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, she is a master of dialog and richly depicts Black America.

Sylvia Plath

Literature

1932-1963

Plath wrote poems of stark self-realization and confession, was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Literature

1933-

First Jewish woman and currently only female justice on the Supreme Court. Strong advocate for women's rights and civil rights in general.

Gloria Steinem

Feminism, journalism

1934-

Articulates womenu0092s issues with lectures and on TV. Helped found several womenu0092s organizations. Founder of Ms. Magazine.

Marian Wright Edelman

Childrenu0092s and civil rights

1939-

Founder and president of Childrenu0092s Defense Fund. Originally a 1960s civil rights activist. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Wilma Rudolph

Track and Field

1940-1994

Winner of three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Space does not allow a complete list of all the important and famous women in American history, but from the days when women could not be one of the "founding fathers" and annual awards would exclude women when calculating the "Man of the Year," important women have made huge strides, the significance of which cannot be overestimated.

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