15 of the Most Powerful Women of the 20th Century
In the 21st century, we can all freely embrace #girlpower and loudly applaud the achievements of women at any age — even though we still have a long way to go when it comes to fighting against discrimination, the gender pay gap and trying to figure out female-friendly parental leave and childcare policies.
Still, it's crazy to remember that in the 20th century, things didn't work in quite the same way: female emancipation in the early years of the 20th century led to new political and legal rights — including the right for women over 30 to vote, passed in the U.K. in 1918 — but women still struggled within societal constraints and female "power" remained a tenuous concept for most.
Despite numerous obstacles in their way, there were some incredible, powerful women who left a lasting legacy, changing the lives of those around them and shaping history for generations of men and women to come.
We salute the most inspiring, remarkable, strong (and yes, controversial) women... Here are 15 of the most powerful women of the 20th century to leave you feeling motivated and encourage you to never give up.
Photo Credit: Coco Chanel Lipnitzi/Getty Images
Anne Frank | "People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion." The young German diarist chronicled her life in hiding during World War II in "The Diary of a Young Girl." Although she was confined to a secret annex in a house in Amsterdam, Anne's candid voice captured the daily dramas of the teenage years — from family tensions to first kisses — in the face of unbelievable terror and tragedy. Inspiring and ever-hopeful, Anne’s courageous words and unrelenting spirit have been translated into 67 languages, with over 30 million copies sold. Photo Credit: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Mother Teresa | "The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread." With her message of love for all, the Albanian Roman Catholic religious sister made it her life’s mission to help those society had rejected: “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone,” through her Missionaries of Charity order in India and around the world. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel peace Prize for her work. Although she has been hailed by many as a saint, her fervently pro-life views have made her a controversial figure. Photo Credit: Terry Fincher/Getty Images
Emmeline Pankhurst | "We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers." Not everyone was on board with Pankhurst's militant tactics, like window breaking and bombing, but we can all agree with her vision and ultimate goal of electoral enfranchisement for women. The mother of Britain's suffragette movement, Pankhurst's Women’s Social and Political Union advocated "deeds, not words," which helped women (over the age of 30) win the right to vote in 1918. In 1928, the vote was extended to all women over 21 — a few weeks after Pankhurst's death. Photo Credit: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher | "If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman." Her political, social and economic legacies continue to resonate to this day (to the great displeasure of many), but Margaret Thatcher is undoubtedly one of the most powerful women of the last century. From grocer's daughter to first female Prime Minister, she led the country for over 11 years and is the only British Prime Minister to serve three consecutive terms. Photo Credit: Jean Guichard/Getty Images
Coco Chanel | "The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud." The designer who revolutionized women's style and subscribed to the philosophy that fashion was a reflection of history and culture and not just about a dress, Chanel is the woman responsible for all of those wardrobe staples we take for granted: the little black dress, the classic cardigan jacket, the multi-strand of costume pearls and so much more. The designer started her career as a milliner and then began using jersey fabrics — used to make men's underwear at the time — to create loose-fitting women’s clothing and an entirely new experience of what getting dressed would mean for a woman. Photo Credit: Lipnitzki/Getty Images
Indira Gandhi | "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." The only female Prime Minister of India, from 1966-1977, and again from 1980-1984, her regime wasn't without its controversies (see the Emergency, for one). However, the woman who was once derided as a "dumb doll" and later became the "Iron Lady of India" is also credited with laying the groundwork for democracy in the country. Photo Credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Virginia Woolf | "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." One of the 20th century’s greatest novelists, Virginia Woolf wrote "To The Lighthouse," "The Waves," "Mrs. Dalloway," and "A Room Of One's Own," which continue to inspire and influence future generations. She is also considered the founder of modern feminist literary criticism. Photo Credit: Heritage Images/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II | "I have to be seen to be believed." The British monarch has been on England’s throne for over 60 years, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history — she turned 90 on April 21, 2016. We're pretty sure she's also the only monarch who would parachute — via a stunt double — into the Olympic 2012 opening ceremony with James Bond. Now that's power. Photo Credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Aung San Suu Kyi | "You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right." The Burmese stateswoman and leader of the National League for Democracy spent 15 years under house arrest for trying to bring democracy to Myanmar, which was under military rule. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and is currently the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win
Marie Curie | "I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy." When it comes to awesome women in STEM fields, one need look no further than Marie Curie, the 20th century physicist, who discovered radium and polonium. Curie is the only female recipient of two Nobel prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry. Photo Credit: Universal Images Group
Marie Stopes | "You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your soul's own doing." British paleobotanist Marie Stopes was a fervent campaigner for women’s rights and founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. She is known for her 1918 book, "Married Love," which openly discusses contraceptive methods. The foundation in her name, Marie Stopes International, helps women with family planning, safe abortions and maternal healthcare around the globe. Her outspoken eugenicist views have made her a divisive figure. Photo Credit: Baron/Getty Images
Agatha Christie | "I've always wondered why the worst men attract the best women?" The most-translated, best-selling female author in the world — she's sold more books than anyone except Shakespeare and the Bible — Agatha Christie is often dismissed as a hack, although we’re pleased to see that her work has been revisited of late and thanks to female heroines like her sleuth Miss Marple, she is being reconsidered as a feminist icon and not just the "Queen of Crime." Sometimes, powerful women write beach reads — and that doesn’t make them any less awesome. Photo Credit: Walter Bird/Getty Images
Dorothy Hodgkin | "I was captured for life by chemistry and crystals." Another STEM lady for the current generation to emulate, Hodgkin was a Nobel Prize winning scientist (awarded the Nobel for her work on the structure of vitamin B-12). What's more, she's responsible for deciphering the structure of insulin thanks to her work with X-ray crystallography. Photo Credit: Harold Clements/Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn | "If you obey all the rules, you miss all fun." Always outspoken, Katharine Hepburn broke all the rules of her time by prioritizing her career over marriage and homemaking and becoming an unconventional style icon known for her androgynous look: men's shirts, trousers and loafers. With four Oscars to her name, her appeal extended the world over. Photo Credit: Clarence Sinclair Bull/Getty Images
Rosa Parks | "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in." Courage personified, with one action — refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala. one day — Rosa Parks helped to change the world and the course of civil rights in America and has become a symbol of hope and freedom that reached far beyond the United States of America. Photo Credit: Photo 12/UIG/Getty Images