IWD: Inspiring Women Change-Makers

To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, Jenny Campbell has compiled a list of just a few of the empowering, pioneering and downright awe-inspiring women throughout history. We’d like to know – which women have inspired you?  

The Planet Protectors

The women fighting for our environment and our future

Sylvia Earle
Marine Biologist and Explorer
Earle is an explorer in every sense of the word. She has been at the forefront of marine conservation and protection for decades, has been a National Geographic explorer-in-residence since 1998, and was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is founder of marine conservation group Misson Blue, and is a member of the Ocean Elders, a group which is dedicated to protecting ocean wildlife. She has led 50 expeditions and spent more than 7,000 hours underwater. In 1979, she walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any other woman before or since – earning Earle the nickname ‘Her Deepness’. 

Greta Thunberg 
Environmental Campaigner
Greta Thunberg puts us to shame. At only 16 years old, she is already a prominent climate change activist, and is has caused a stir in Swedish politics. In 2018, she started the first school strike for climate outside the Swedish parliament building, and in December of that year she addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference with an impassioned speech against global warming that very quickly went viral. She has inspired young people around the globe to take part in student strikes against climate change, and as of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 270 cities. Thunberg credits other teen activists such as Emma Gonzalez (also on our list) as her activist inspiration.

Berta Cáceres
Environmental activist
Cáceres dedicated her life to campaigning for environmental rights in her native Honduras, and was awarded the Goldman environmental prize. She focused on issues such as illegal logging and plantations, but was also an indigenous leader, and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. In 2016, at a time when working as an environmental activist in Honduras was becoming increasingly dangerous, she stood up against the contruction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which was being built on indigenous sacred land. She was assassinated along with two other activists; highlighting the bravery and dedication it takes to make a stand protecting the planet.

Wangari Maathai
Founder of the Green Belt Movement
A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt movement. Starting from her idea of community-based tree planting, she began the movement and developed it into a grassroots organization, which of which focused on environmental conservation, poverty reduction and women’s rights through bio-diversity and forest development.  She was awarded the Nobel Prize in for her approach to sustainable development, democracy and peace. 

Vandana Shiva
Author and Environmental Campaigner
Vanana Shiva is one of the world’s leading environmental and feminist campaigners. She has campaigned for land redistribution in her native India and organic-only food production, and is also the founder of Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers rights. Globally she is most known for her protest against Asia’s The Green Revolution, which she believes has led to pollution, a loss of indigenous seed diversity and traditional agricultural skills and knowledge. As an author, perhaps her philosophy is best summed up in her own words: “I do not want to live in a world where five giant companies control our health and our food.”

Jane Goodall
Conservationist, primatologist and anthropologist
No one has done more to educate the world about chimpanzees that Dr Jane Goodall. Over 55 years, she studied the social and family structures of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, advancing the world’s knowledge of their species and the animal kingdom on the whole. She has also worked on extensive conservation projects, founding Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots & Shoots programme, and she still tirelessly camapaigns on animal welfare issues. In April 2002, she was named a UN Messenger of Peace. Dr. Goodall is also honorary member of the World Future Council.

The Pioneers

Those who have forged a path, led the way, and proved that there are no limits to what we can do

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Ruth Bader Ginsburg – otherwise known as the ‘Notorious RBG’ – has been one of the leading voices for women’s rights during the last century. She has spent a large part of her legal career fighting for gender equality, winning landmark cases against discriminatory rulings and laws in US courts. She was appointed to the supreme court in 1993, and has never missed a day on the bench – even when battling cancer. A living legend. 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 
Ex-president of Liberia
A pioneer in many areas, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, making her not only the first female head of state in Africa, but also the world’s first elected black female president. She came to power at a time when Liberia was still struggling to recover from nearly two decades of brutal and divisive civil war, and focused her leadership on democratic reconciliation, social and economic development, and for the rights of women and marginalised groups. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karmanof Yemen, for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Huda Sha’arawi 
Feminist and Philanthropist 
Huda Sha’arawi was one of Egypt’s first feminist leaders. She was born into a society controlled by the harem system, which kept women separated from men, and spent her life challenging the societal status quo. Her most famous act of dissent was to publicly remove her veil at a train station, a mark of defiance against harem, encouraging many other Arabic women to follow her lead. She was the founding president of the Arab Feminist Union, which campaigned for female suffarage, equal opportunities and reforms to discriminatory laws. In 1908 she founded Mabarrat Muhammad ‘Ali, the first Egyptian philanthropic society run by women, and in 1910, she opened a school for girls dedicated to teaching academic subjects. 

Grace Hopper
Computer Programmer and Naval Admiral
Aka Admiral Grace Hopper, Amazing Grace, or the Mother of Cobol. Hopper was a pioneer of computer programming, a mathematician, systems designer and Naval veteran. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and her vision of creating a programming language based on English words led to the build of COBOL (common business-oriented language), one of the first programming languages for data processing. With 40 honorary degrees, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Yale college named after her, Grace is an icon in coding and technology circles. 

Jasmin Paris
If you need a bit of morning motivation, look no further than British ultrarunner, fell running champion, and full-time vet Jasmin Paris. In 2018, she won the brutal 268-mile Montane Spine Race, which spans a course starting at Edale in the Peak District, to the finish line at the Scottish borders. After a staggering 83 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds, she had not only smashed the course record by 12 hours, but had also finished15 hours in front of the second-place male competitor. 20 hours after Jasmin had crossed the line, only two other competitors had managed to complete the race. If that’s not impressive enough, she had to express milk along the way as she was still breastfeeding her 14-month old baby. Jasmin Paris, we salute you – we’re tired just thinking about it!

The Game Changers

Challenging the staus quo, one badass woman at a time

Malala Yousafzai
Education campaigner
Malala Yousafzai is the world’s youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, and her story is one that is undeniably inspiring. As a teenager in northwest Pakistan, Malala became a target of the local Taliban after speaking out against the ban on girls attending school, and was shot in the side of her head by a masked gunman on her school bus. After waking up 10 days later in hospital in the UK, she established the Malala Fund, a charity dedicated to giving every girl an opportunity to achieve a future she chooses. She has since become one of the world’s most prominent campaigners for girl’s rights to an education and equality.

Join our Eco-Age Reads book club and read February’s book of the month – Malala’s autobiography: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Got Shot by The Taliban

Tarana Burke
Founder of Me Too 
Tarana Burke, one of Time’s ‘Silence Breakers’, is the founder #MeToo – perhaps one of the most well-known social movements in modern history. Burke originally started the campaign to raise awareness of sexual abuse and the pervasiveness of sexual assault, after which it developed into broader use after being popularised on social media during the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Burke has spent her entire career working in civil activism, campaigning for the rights of marginalized communities, and for non-profits such as Girls for Gender Equity, where she is currently Senior Director. 

Sinéad Burke 
Educator, writer and advocate
A former teacher turned activist, Sinead rose to prominence with her Ted Talk ‘Why design should include everyone’, and has spent the last couple of years campaigning for a more inclusive and diverse fashion industry. She has become a powerful voice for disabled consumers, and co-founded the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC) which challenges industry attitudes towards disability. She has spoken at everything from the World Economic Forum in Davos to the 2018 Green Carpet Fashion Awards – watch her inspirational speech here!

The Feminist Five
Activist Group
China’s Feminist Five – Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man –are a Chinese activist group who protest against sexual harassment and oppression of marginalised women. They rose to the attention of the world media due to their arrest in 2015, when they handed out stickers protesting sexual harrassment at some of China’s public transportation hubs to mark International Women’s Day. They were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a claim which is allegedly often used to arrest activists, writers and lawyers. The Feminist Five, their supporters, and other activists such as the Feminist Youth Action Group, are using new media and public art as forms of protest, in a country grappling with the crackdown on activism and political dissent by President Xi Jinping.

Emma Gonzalez
Gun control activist 
During her high school senior year, Emma Gonzalez survived the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 of her classmates were killed and 17 more injured. In a display of remarkable resilience and courage, she captured the attention of the world with an impassioned speech on gun control, began campaigning and in the process founded March for Our Lives, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization pushing for stricter gun laws and young voter registration. Even before she was thrust into the spotlight in the most unimaginable of circumstances, Emma used her voice for good as the president of the school’s GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance].

Maya Angelou
Poet, writer and civil activist
Perhaps best known for her writing and poetry, Maya’s celebrated and oft-cited work spans nearly 50 years, including autobiographies, poetry books, songs, plays and movies. As a outspoken defender of black women and communities, Angelou was also a prominent member of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and spent time working with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She received nearly 50 honorary degrees, and in In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning’, at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first female poet to speak at the inauguration of a president.

Arundhati Roy
Although best known for her novel The God of Small Things, which became the biggest-selling book by an Indian author, Roy is also an outspoken political activist for both political and environmental causes. She has long-been a critic of India’s nuclear testing, even when it endangered her own personal safety, and was awarded a special recognition as a Woman of Peace at the Global Human Rights Awards in San Francisco in 2003. She has also won the Man Booker Prize, and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004 for her social campaigns and for promoting tolerance and non-violence.

Read our 5 ways to mark International Women’s Day.

For more inspiration, watch our favourite galvanising speeches.