Respect Diversity + Inclusion

These 10 inspirational women should be household names — here’s why they are not

Story at a glance

  • The month of March is recognized annually in the U.S. as Women’s History Month, but March 8 is globally recognized as International Women’s Day.
  • The day was first celebrated in 1911, the year after an International Conference of Working Women unanimously voted for a day of female recognition.
  • Today, there is still an overwhelming number of inspiring women that lack the recognition they deserve for their accomplishments and contributions.

Each year on March 8, the “social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” are recognized globally with the celebration of International Women’s Day. 

It was more than 100 years ago in 1910 that an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, where the idea of a women’s day was brought forth by a German woman named Clara Zetkin. The purpose of International Women’s Day was to designate a time when women around the world would get the chance to air their concerns and press for their demands. That day, Zetkin’s proposal was approved unanimously, and International Women’s Day was born.

Today, female-identifying people continue to press for their concerns over the struggle for equality in its many forms, and as history is continually being written, so, too, does the push to recognize more women for their contributions and accomplishments.

Nina Ansary, a historian and author, has dedicated her career to championing women around the world and throughout history that many people today unfortunately aren’t even aware of. She wrote the book “Anonymous Is a Woman,” for that specific reason — a profile of 50 women throughout history born before 1900 who she believes didn’t get the recognition they justly deserved.

“Women occupy just five percent of recorded history, and this is the reason they’re not recognized for their contributions,” says Ansary. “Therefore, they can’t serve as role models, because you can’t be what you can’t see. So, that’s why I feel that women’s anonymity continues, even in the 21st century, where we like to think we’ve made so much progress.”

Luckily, much progress has been made over the last century, as inspiring female politicians have stepped up to the plate to lead countries like Iceland and New Zealand, and young activists have made their voices heard through poems, peaceful protest and more. 

There are, though, as Ansary mentioned, many important female voices and stories that have yet to become common knowledge. 

“Oftentimes, I get asked by young women in particular what can be done to strengthen our resolve above and beyond what is already being done,” says Ansary. “Increasing the visibility of women will also increase the number of female role models. Over time, exposure to role models has been shown to directly impact young girls in terms of leadership, aspiration and education.”

In the spirit of providing recognition to underrepresented female role models around the world, here are 10 that you should know about today.

1. Stacey Cunningham — United States

Cunningham made history in 2018 when she became the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in its 226-year history. Since then, she’s played a critical role in updating the NYSE’s trading operations and has spoken up in interviews about climbing the rungs of a male-dominated industry, telling TIME, “It means more to me to be the president of this place than it means to me to be the first woman.” 

2. Ursula von der Leyen — Belgium

In July 2019, Ursula von der Leyen was confirmed as the first female President of the European Commission, making her the de facto head of the European Union. In her role, Von der Leyen is responsible for legislation that affects 700 million Europeans. 

3. Mary Barra — United States

The superlatives continue with Mary Barra, who in 2014 became not only the first female CEO of General Motors, but the first woman to serve as CEO of any major U.S. automaker. Since then, she’s been leading GM’s charge towards innovation with bets on all-electric cars and autonomous vehicles. Barra is also an avid supporter of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that helps girls learn about computer science.

4. Rania Nashar — Saudi Arabia

Nashar became the first female CEO of a listed Saudi commercial bank when she took the title at Samba Financial Group — Saudi Arabia’s third largest bank. Nashar has been listed twice on Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women list, and stepped up during a pivotal time in the country, as Saudi Arabia has begun to implement reforms to promote gender equality as part of their Vision 2030.

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5. Deb Haaland — United States

A registered member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Deb Haaland became one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress in 2019 along with Sharice Davids. Now, Haaland is slated to make history yet again when she is confirmed as President Biden’s Interior Secretary, making her the most powerful Native American politician in the nation.

6. Nadia Murad — Iraq

After Nadia Murad was captured by ISIS in 2014 and sold into sex slavery, she became one of the world’s leading human rights activists dedicated to ending genocide and sexual violence against women. She became the first Iraqi to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 and now heads Nadia’s Initiative, which “actively works to persuade governments and international organizations to support the sustainable re-development of the Yazidi homeland.”

7. Ava DuVernay — United States

American filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses her talents not only to entertain but to educate, with powerful films that address race and history like “Selma” and “13th,” a film about the 13th Amendment. DuVernay has an entire cabinet of superlatives — she was the first African American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and to direct a film with a budget of more than $100 million.

8. Jacinda Ardern — New Zealand

New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years and the youngest female PM in the country’s history, Ardern was re-elected for a second term in October. During the historic reelection, New Zealanders gave her more votes than at any other election in the past five decades. Ardern has been praised for her unique ability to connect with voters and lauded for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.

9. Tarana Burke — United States

Tarana Burke inspired a worldwide movement by founding the #MeToo movement in 2006 and has since spent decades supporting survivors of sexual assault. Inspired by her movement, the 2017 digital #MeToo mobilization helped pave the way for an unprecedented amount of women to come forward about their experiences with sexual violence and abuse, both at home and in the office. 

10. Nina Ansary — United States

Though she lives in the United States now, award-winning author, historian and activist Nina Ansary was first born in Tehran. She now uses her literary voice to shatter stereotypes about women in the Middle East and give a platform to female historical figures who are often left out of the history books. This month, she’s partnered with nonprofit organization Girl Up, which was founded by the UN in 2010 as an initiative to help support UN agencies that focus on adolescent girls.