CrowdSpark / Alamy Stock Photo

The most iconic women in history

Over 100 years on from the first women gaining voting rights in the UK, it feels more important than ever for us to shine the light on some of the world’s most remarkable women.

It’s really strange to think that without the bravery and determination of every single woman featured in this blog, there’s a slim chance that I, a woman, wouldn’t be sitting here today, in full-time employment with the freedom to publish my own opinion to the public!

The perception, inclusion and acceptance of women in society has been on a phenomenal journey over the years, with women today feeling more empowered than ever before. The media are picking up on inequalities with pay, job opportunities and the treatment of women, and both women and men are uniting on a global stage to deliver powerful messages like “Time’s Up”, and it’s clear to see that equality is still at the forefront of many minds.

So how did we get to where we are today?

From the fearless women who put their necks on the line to fight for what they believed in, to the brilliant academics who preferred to achieve their milestones under the radar, these women undoubtedly deserve some recognition for their part in paving the way for the lives we’re able to live today.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910)

A woman who used her intellect and determination to work her way to becoming the first woman to receive a medical degree in America. Elizabeth is also the first woman to ever appear on the UK medical register, playing a pioneering role in the acceptance of women as doctors.

Can you even imagine stepping into a hospital and not seeing any female nurses or doctors? I certainly can’t.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)

I couldn’t compile a list of inspirational women without including Florence Nightingale. Why, you ask? Because she set the precedent for exactly how a moral human being should act.

During the Crimean War, Florence was instrumental in both defining the nursing profession and changing how the role was perceived. She demonstrated dedication and commitment to caring for the wounded soldiers, driving improvements in the way soldiers were treated. Hats off to you, Florence.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

With so many incredible women in the photography world today, it’s awesome to know that the first steps for women in photography were taken by Anna.

Anna was not only the first woman to ever take a photograph, but was also the first person to use a photograph in place of an illustration in a publication. Through her passion for plants as a botanist, and a blossoming love for the art of photography, Anna kick-started the progression of photography into the science and publishing world.

Iconic women: Anna Atkins
Alamy Stock Photo

Federica Montseny (1905–1994)

Federica made history in 1936 when she became the Minister of Health for a war-ridden Spain. As the first female minister of a Western European country, Federica fuelled some ground-breaking moves that influenced the world. She wrote the first legislation on abortion, took a leading role in defending equal pay for men and women, opened education centres for prostitutes, and organised the expatriation of thousands of children to shelter them from impending war.

Now if that doesn’t show you what’s possible when a woman sets her mind to something, nothing will!

Simone Veil (1927–2017)

A cornerstone figure in both French and European history, Simone Veil played a leading role in legalising both contraception and abortion in France. In 1973, she pushed through the laws to liberalise contraception and just a year later, led the way for the national assembly to legalise abortion in the face of strong opposition.

Veil went on to become the first president of the European parliament in 1979. Her impact and influence can be reflected in the words of former French president François Hollande who said that Veil “embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude”.

Simone Veil, first elected president of the European Parliament and the first female president (1979)
Dino Fracchia / Alamy Stock Photo

Monumental movements

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928)

The most talked about name from the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst was a dedicated, strong-willed and colossal figure in the drive for women’s rights. Her determination to get voting rights for women saw her employ a range of (sometimes questionable) tactics.

Her lifetime’s work came to a bitter-sweet end in 1928 when, just 3 weeks before all women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote, Emmeline passed away.

Emmeline Pankhurst, portrait of the leader of the British suffragette movement, May 1912
IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Marie Curie (1867–1934)

Winner of two Nobel Prizes and notorious scientist specialising in the study of radioactivity, and the woman who made the ground-breaking discoveries of radium and polonium. Marie Curie made outstanding contributions to science. Her work on radiology resulted not only in the creation of the first x-ray machines, but revolutionised the treatment available for cancer patients. During WWI, Marie demonstrated immense bravery when she worked alongside her daughter near the front lines to x-ray wounded soldiers. There are really no words that can describe this incredible woman and the difference she’s made to the world!

Pierre and Marie Curie in laboratory
WorldPhotos / Alamy Stock Photo

Rosa Parks (1913–2005)

A prime example of a woman who’d had just about enough. Rosa Parks secured her place in history when she refused to give up her seat on a bus. This was a move that triggered some of the most significant civil rights legislation that has ever been created.

Now, the refusal alone made a statement. But it’s the dignified and peaceful methods she employed in her campaign for civil rights that really gained her the recognition and respect she has today.

ROSA PARKS (1913-2005). /nAmerican civil rights advocate. Parks sits at the front of a public bus (formerly 'whites only') in Montgomery, Alabama, 21 December 1956, the day buses were integrated in the city. Seated behind her is reporter Nicholas C. Criss
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s still work to be done

We’ve come so far over the years with the help of these influential and inspirational women. But despite the immense progress, there’s still a long way to go before we reach the goals of eliminating the gender pay gap and achieving gender equality in the workplace.

Women in employment

I know some industries and trades lend more naturally to men or women, but as an overall figure we’re looking at a global workforce that’s skewed in a way that sees more men in senior and board-level positions than women.

In 1972, Katherine Graham became the first ever female CEO to be featured on a Fortune list. In the 45 years following this, just 63 more women made it to a Fortune 500 CEO role. I have to admit that yes, technically speaking that demonstrates progress, but at an insanely slow pace.

Between 2011–2015, the number of women on the board of FTSE 100 companies increased by 11%. But the worrying thing is that despite growth in the number of women now featuring as directors and on company boards, all-male boards still exist, even in the FTSE 250!

The gender pay gap

We’re all aware of the inequalities that exist in relation to the gender pay gap. From Jennifer Lawrence speaking out in 2015 about earning less than her male co-stars in ‘American Hussle’, to the more recent statistics released by the BBC revealing its best-paid employees – of which the top 10 are men! With a significantly lower proportion of women in higher management and board-level positions than men, it’s really not a surprise that globally women are earning just 77% of what men earn.

A report from the BBC in 2016 showed that the national gender pay gap in the UK alone stood at 18.1%, which demonstrates the level of work that still needs to be done to overcome pay discrepancies.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

There are positive moves being made across the world to continue creating opportunities for women. One great example comes from Australian studio ‘Double Days’ who’ve set up a public directory of women in design to help conference organisers find female speakers for panel discussions.

Another cool move comes from Creative Equals, who created a seven-point campaign to encourage the recruitment industry to hire more diverse people. Number one on the list is “hire more women”, followed by making sure there’s “at least one in three diverse CVs” in every application group. The campaign is a huge step in the right direction, opening up opportunities for women that might not ordinarily have been offered to them.

See more empowering women in our blog featuring the most incredible women in the creative industries.


Alamy is the world's most inclusive content collection of creative and editorial photos, vectors, 360-degree images and videos from individual photographers, picture agencies and archives. Its global contributor base supplies upwards of 150,000 new images a day to the online platform.

Read more from Alamy