Iconic and inspiring women throughout history

No matter who you are, chances are, you have at least one inspiring woman in your life. For many, it’s their mum. For others, their grandmother. It could be your favourite teacher, or your brilliant bestie! The point is, there are plenty of inspiring women out there that we can look to for guidance in tough times – and this is nothing new. Throughout history, there are hundreds and thousands of women who have achieved incredible things despite the discrimination that they’ve faced and the obstacles in their way.

So, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, and the achievements of inspiring women throughout history, we’re shining a light on some of the most amazing women from the last century and beyond to inspire you to chase your goals.

Famous female British icons

The UK may be small, but our tiny island has produced some of the most well-known inspiring women in history! They were tough, smart, and resourceful people who let nothing stand in the way of their ambitions.

Ada Lovelace

Right off the bat, the UK was home to the first-ever computer programmer! The estranged daughter of famed British poet, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was blessed with the mind of a genius mathematician.

Working with Charles Babbage on what many have dubbed the first computer, Ada helped to develop and explain his Analytical engine to the wider scientific community, despite women in science being incredibly rare in the 1800s.

Ada refused to let this minor inconvenience stop her, however, writing the first algorithm for use on a computer, multiple journals, and continued her interest in science until her death in 1852.

Florence Nightingale

And we can’t talk about female British icons without mentioning Florence Nightingale, The Lady with the Lamp.

Again breaching the social conventions of the 1800s, Florence led the first female nursing team to the Crimean War in 1853, pioneered the first permanent military nursing service for the British armed forces, laid the groundwork for the field of modern nursing, and became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858.

Quite the list of achievements for a humble nurse, but she succeeded in greatness despite the dismissiveness of her male peers.

Mary Shelley

While partially overshadowed by her famed husband, Percy Shelley, it’s Mary Shelley that we have to thank for the birth of the Science Fiction genre. Without Mary Shelley, we wouldn’t have the iconic work of Frankenstein.

In spite of having to initially publish her works anonymously or under her husband, this inspiring woman didn’t let the misogyny of the publishing industry at the time stop her writing. Shelley continued to write into old age, eventually winning the fight to have her name attached to her greatest work and earning the respect she rightly deserved.

Inspiring women around the world

Of course, it’s not just female British icons that we have to look up to. Every single country in the world has seen exceptional inspiring women stepping to the forefront of society and proving themselves better than their traditional peers.

Marie Curie

Perhaps the most inspiring woman in scientific history, Polish-born Marie Curie is the reason we have X-rays, understand the dangers of radiation, and have the capacity to effectively treat cancer!

Ignoring the bias women experienced across Europe at the time, Marie travelled to France to study under experts in the field of science. She was one of the few women on her campus, but the mocking and ostracization she experienced didn’t put her off pursuing her love of physics and chemistry.

And her dedication paid off. She won not one, but two Nobel Peace Prizes, being the first person to ever be awarded a second! She was rightly dubbed the most inspirational woman in science in 2009, founded the study of radiology, and helped open the scientific field up to other women.

Nellie Bly

When it comes to the most inspirational women internationally, American journalist Nellie Bly is rightly lauded as one of the most qualified journalists in history.

At a time when female journalists were expected to cover domestic and home stories, Nellie instead opted to write eye-opening pieces on the poor and oppressed, even travelling to Mexico to document the extensive corruption in its government.

But it’s her trip around the world that she’s perhaps most famous for. Phileas Fog may have travelled around the world in 80 days, but Nellie Bly did it solo in 72!

Virginia Hall

Women are no strangers to war. While women were sniping, flying, and driving tanks on the Eastern Front, in occupied France, one American-born woman was busy coordinating the French Resistance.

Virginia Hall, known to the Germans as The Limping Lady due to the limp imposed on her by her prosthetic leg, Cuthbert, was one of the most decorated Special Operations Executive service personnel in the entire Second World War.

Not only did she coordinate resistance cells to sabotage German operations in France, but she also helped downed British airmen escape to Spain via the Pyrenees; a harrowing 50-mile journey she had to make herself in spite of her disability when the Germans blew her cover.

Her quick thinking and healthy suspicion kept her alive when other agents were exposed, and she even told the SEO higher-ups to “lay off” when they tried to send unqualified personnel to supervise her.

Inspirational female leaders

The world is also not short of inspirational female leaders. Throughout history, numerous women have stepped into the power vacuum left by men and arguably done a better job in leading their country to stability and greatness.


If you’ve got even a passing interest in classical history, then chances are, you’ve heard of Boudicca. Warrior-queen of the Iceni tribe, she stirred other British tribes to war against the hated Roman invaders and led them to victory in numerous battles.

While she ultimately failed to drive the Romans from her home island, she very nearly succeeded, with the emperor genuinely considering abandoning Britain rather than risk further defeats.

Her military achievements are certainly laudable, but her charisma and political savvy are where she really shined, able to unify an already divided society that had long since given up the fight against their oppressors.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Being the first-ever female prime minister is an impressive title to hold. But the honour doesn’t go to a western leader. In fact, the very first female prime minister was Sri Lankan-born Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

A politician of impeccable skill, Sirimavo served a total of 3 terms as Sri Lanka’s prime minister, bringing much-needed reform to the former British colony, and changing the way people around the globe perceived female leaders at the time.

Catherine the Great

With a title such as “the great”, it should come as no surprise that Empress Catherine I of Russia achieved some pretty impressive feats during her reign.

Besides revitalising a dying state to a prominent position on Europe’s political stage, Catherine the Great led the country through a period of essential modernisation, promoting the Enlightenment and free-thinking.

Not only that, but when it come to the multiple European wars at the time, Catherine was a domineering presence at the peace talks, ensuring Russia always came away with an advantageous position.

Brave women quotes

Sadly, we don’t have time to talk about the thousands of other inspiring women that have left their mark on the world, but to help you get inspired even more we’ve pulled together a selection of brave women quotes from some other most inspirational women in history we didn’t mention.

Inspirational and uplifting in equal measure, these quotes are the perfect addition to any birthday card, Mother’s Day card, or new job card.

  • “They’ll tell you you’re too loud, that you need to wait your turn and ask the right people for permission. Do it anyway.” – Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
  • “There’s something so special about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes a certain grace, strength, intelligence, fearlessness, and the nerve to never take no for an answer.” – Rihanna
  • “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou
  • Alexandria Ocasio Cortez “Ignore the glass ceiling and do your work. If you’re focusing on the glass ceiling, focusing on what you don’t have, focusing on the limitations, then you will be limited.” – Ava DuVernay
  • “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” – Billie Jean King
  • “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” – Amelia Earhart

Hopefully, this piece has left you feeling energised and ready to achieve your goals in life, like all of the inspiring women throughout history. You can do anything if you put your mind to it and you shouldn’t let anyone dictate your course.

For even more inspirational pieces like this one, why not head over to the thortful blog? Check out our guide to everything you need to know about International Women’s Day, or our blog on what to write in a ‘thinking of you’ card for your best girlfriend who needs a little bit of support at the moment.