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Breaking Barriers: Influential Women Leaders From History

influential women
Many people know of inspirational women such as activist Susan B. Anthony, who tirelessly fought her entire life to eliminate slavery and give voting rights to women, or Indira Gandhi, the first female Prime Minister of India in 1966 and then again in 1980. Both provide clear examples of resiliency and an innovative spirit.

But it also helps to learn more about lesser-known women leaders and agents of change, or more details about famous women leaders who don’t always get full acclaim for their accomplishments.

Women leaders who defied expectations
These women are well known by those who study history, but (with the exception of Cleopatra) remain lesser known to the general public. Women at all levels of their career can draw inspiration, as well as gain insight into the challenges of the past, from the accomplishments and lives of these women.

Sojourner Truth
As a Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) became a leader in the anti-slavery movement at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so. Born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, she later changed her name to Sojourner Truth after running away from her owner. Her powerful speeches, including the famous "Ain't I a Woman?" address at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, showcased her fearless self-advocacy and called for equality and justice. 

In her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, she repeated that question throughout, including a heartbreaking section in which she talked about having 13 children and how she saw “most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?” Truth continued to use her powerful voice to help change minds and speak out for the rights of Black Americans and women during and after the Civil War.

Grace Hopper and Rosalind Franklin
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) and Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) have nothing in common other than they are both women who deserve to become better known for their accomplishments in technology and innovation.

Hopper was an American computer scientist and naval officer who played a vital role in the development of early computer programming languages. She developed the first compiler, which translated high-level programming languages into machine-readable code, making computer programming more accessible and efficient.

Franklin, a British biophysicist, made significant contributions to understanding the structure of DNA. Her X-ray crystallography work played a crucial role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, laying the foundation for advancements in genetics and molecular biology.

Golda Meir and Benazir Bhutto
Again, two women connected by their gender and the nature of their accomplishments. Both became the first women to become head of state in their respective countries. Both also earned well-deserved reputations for having the ability to engage their people, one of the key elements of good leaders.

As the fourth prime minister of Israel, Meir (1898-1978) had an approachable demeanor and direct communication style that helped her connect with citizens from different backgrounds and foster a sense of collective responsibility. Meir's leadership during challenging times, such as the Yom Kippur War, demonstrated her ability to rally and engage the nation in times of crisis.

Bhutto (1953-2007), the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, possessed a strong ability to engage and connect with the nation’s people. She was known for her charismatic leadership and effective communication skills. Bhutto actively engaged with citizens across Pakistan, particularly focusing on rural areas and marginalized communities, giving voice to their concerns and building strong bonds with the people she led.

In addition to Meir, Bhutto, and Gandhi, other women who became the first to lead their countries include Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Angela Merkel in Germany. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected leader of Liberia in 2006, also became the first woman elected as the head of state in all of Africa.

Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) played a significant role in the Qing Dynasty in China. Despite her reputation as a conservative figure, she showed cultural awareness by supporting and preserving traditional Chinese arts, including porcelain production, calligraphy and theater. Cixi's efforts helped maintain and revive traditional cultural practices during a period of rapid modernization.

While it’s important to consider their accomplishments in the context of the time they lived, Cixi is one of many historical women leaders known for the promotion of cultural awareness, as well as an expansion of the arts and education.

Queen Victoria of England is one who typically receives the praise she deserves for her accomplishments, but others worth looking into for women interested in the history of female leaders include Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796); Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BC); and Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917), the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii who fought to protect indigenous rights and culture.

Cleopatra (70 BC to 30 BC) might seem an odd addition to this list because of her fame, but she offers an unfortunate example of how some historical women leaders are famous mostly in the context of their relationships with men. In Cleopatra’s case, she became (perhaps strategically) the lover of Julius Caesar and the wife of Mark Antony. In doing so, according to, she came to represent “the prototype of the romantic femme fatale.” The Queen of Egypt was far more than that.

Cleopatra was a dynamic leader of remarkable skill, successfully defending her empire for two decades against more powerful enemies. She boosted her diplomatic efforts by speaking multiple languages fluently and by learning mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. As the chief religious leader, she built temples for Egyptian and Greek gods, as well as a Jewish synagogue and a temple for cult worshippers - a diversity almost unheard of among leaders at the time. She displayed resilience in protecting the people of her kingdom against Rome, using exceptional political intelligence, strategic thinking and diplomatic skills.

Strengthen your leadership skills through Emory Continuing Education
Women who aspire to leadership positions can learn from some of these influential leaders throughout history as well as model the skills, traits and qualities that made these leaders memorable. Mastering skills such as resiliency, self-advocacy, innovation, cultural awareness, engagement, and more and applying them in the workplace can help women expand their knowledge, increase their value to employers, and prepare to make the right decisions in key moments.

The online Women in Leadership: Driving Transformation Through Innovation and Resilience certificate program through Emory Continuing Education teaches women to hone the skills to help pursue higher levels of leadership, maximize their unique strengths, and build influence within their organizations.