There’s still a long way to go until full equality between men and women is achieved. So says the latest Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum. This study concludes that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. However, significant progress has been made, particularly in the last two centuries, partly because of the mark left by some important women in history. Here’s a small selection of the women who, in their time and with their courage, broke down barriers and helped to change the world. With their achievements they all contributed to paving the way towards parity.
Cleopatra (69 BC – 30 BC)
The last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt wasn’t a man but a woman. Educated, cultured and polyglot, Cleopatra achieved great success in politics. She signed alliances with the most powerful leaders of the time, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and she ruled shrewdly to ensure the stability and financial solvency of her country by means of various economic initiatives. Although the films featuring her suggest a seductive image, some authors describe her as a scientist, a philosopher and an alchemist.
Hypatia (between 355 and 370-415)
Unknown to most people until Alejandro Amenábar popularised her story in the film titled Agora, Hypatia of Alexandria, she’s regarded as the first female mathematician. She was the daughter of a prominent Greek astronomer and mathematician named Theon and, educated by her father, she also excelled in philosophy and astronomy and devoted her life to learning and teaching these subjects to others. Her contributions to science were ignored in her time, but they influenced Newton, Leibnitz and Descartes. A proponent of Neoplatonism, she was lynched and burnt to death by Christian fanatics for her pagan beliefs.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Another important woman in history due to her work is the Englishwoman Ada Lovelace. Daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the scientist and mathematician Anne Isabella Milbanke, she was a distinguished mathematician, writer and musician, but she’s most renowned for her contribution to the development of computing and she’s regarded as the first computer programmer. The work of this forerunner of modern programming on the analytical engine inspired Alan Turing when he designed the first electronic computer.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to receive one twice (in Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911), and she’s still the only scientist to have won two Nobel Prizes. As a leading researcher, her work paved the way for the advancement of modern physics. Despite the discrimination of the time, she achieved her goal of studying and developing her talent and she subsequently promoted women’s access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees. “I was taught that the road to progress was neither quick nor easy” is one of her most famous quotes.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
In a male-dominated society, the brilliant writer criticised the lack of equality and the obstacles for women when it came to developing the careers and becoming independent. In her works Woolf recounted her outrage at discrimination and the inferior position of the female gender. She was ahead of her time. Although over a century has gone by since her works were published, the ideas of this pioneer of the feminist movement still live on and her legacy continues to influence modern culture today.
Clara Campoamor (1888-1972)
This Spanish lawyer, writer and politician (she was one of the first female deputies in Spain) fought for equality between men and women and, above all, women’s suffrage in the country. Due to her tenacity she achieved a historic milestone; the 1931 Constitution recognised the right of women to vote and they went to the polls for the first time in the 1933 elections.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
French philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir challenged and criticised the dominant patriarchy of her time. Her book titled The Second Sex has become a “bible” of modern Western feminism. In her writings she laid the foundations for legal abortion and birth control in France and she launched a new women’s liberation movement. To the extent that she symbolises what’s known as the second wave of feminism in the 1970s.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Her arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger contributed to the end of racial segregation. This incident made her a symbol of the fight against racism in the United States. She’s recognised as the founder of the civil rights movement due to her fight for equality.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
She studied chemical physics at Cambridge and she was instrumental in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Using a technique called X-ray crystallography, she captured an image of the same image (known as Photograph 51) with which James Watson and Francis Crick identified and understood the structure of DNA. For this work, published in Nature, the two scientists won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962, eclipsing the role of the researcher in this scientific breakthrough that paved the way for life-saving drugs.
Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)
Benazir Bhutto is one of the most important women in history, as she was the first elected female Muslim prime minister of an Islamic country, Pakistan (from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996). As prime minister she led the way towards equality for Muslim women in the country. Her murder in 2007 shocked the world.