5 Women Who Changed History

(And That You May Not Have Heard Of)

by Shanna Yehlen

Female trailblazers like Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman are well-known because of their life-changing achievements.

But what about the women we don’t hear about who challenged the status quo?

Here are 5 women who changed history – and that you may not have heard of.

Babe Didrikson

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias stood out as a gifted athlete throughout her life.

She became accomplished in sports like basketball, track and field, softball, tennis and even bowling. At the 1932 Olympics, Babe won three medals, winning one in every event she participated.

In fact, she set records in every event in which she competed. However, even with all this success, it was her golf proficiency that helped paved the way for future women.

She was the first woman to compete in a PGA Tour event, and even though she didn’t bring home the prize, she went on to win major awards in the sport.

Lloyd Gullickson, Glenna Collett-Vare, Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson in a charity golf match at Pasadena Golf Club
Lloyd Gullickson, Glenna Collett-Vare, Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson in a charity golf match, 1934

But she saw an issue for female golfers: There weren’t many tournaments for females to participate in throughout the year.

Babe and twelve other female golfers formed the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or LPGA, so future women could have a viable way to continue competing in a professional capacity.

Dorothy Fuldheim

Credited as the first female TV news anchor, Dorothy Fuldheim started her journalism career broadcasting the news over the radio. She went over to written journalism at The Cleveland Press where she traveled the world for stories.

She interviewed controversial figures like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler prior to World War II.

In 1947, at the age of 54, she became the first female news anchor as a member of the news team. She worked at her local Cleveland station for nearly 37 years, interviewing everyone from presidents to British royalty.

Dorothy Fuldheim proved that through experience, gumption and showing your audience who you are, a woman could be just as well-received as a man when delivering the news.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 into a life of poverty and discrimination. But she didn’t let the mediocre educational and career opportunities available to her stop her.

After hearing tales from soldiers returning home from World War I, she was inspired to learn to fly. American aviation schools shut doors in her face not only because she was African American, but because she was a woman.

Bessie Coleman, the first African American pilot (1921)
Bessie Coleman, the first African American pilot (1921)

On advice she could learn to fly in France, Bessie took French classes, used all her savings as well as money provided to her by a couple of African American entrepreneurs and left for France.

The only person of color in her class, Bessie pushed ahead and in seven months received her international pilot’s license. Returning to the U.S. in 1921, she received a warm welcome from the press.

As the first African American pilot Bessie made a career performing at air shows. And she used her popularity to help others. She refused to fly at air shows that didn’t permit African Americans attending, and she encouraged others in her community to learn to fly.

Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall grew up in a privileged life that allowed her to study various languages at Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges. She even went on to continue her studies in Europe.

After completing her education, she served as a Service clerk at the American Embassy in Poland. However, her Foreign Service career paused when she accidentally shot herself in the leg, requiring an amputation from the knee down and a prosthetic.

Right after the start of World War II, Virginia became an ambulance driver in France. She then went on to join the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to occupied France to help the French Underground.

She eventually joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) continuing her work with Resistance fighters. At one point, she became known to the Gestapo as “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, 1945
Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, 1945

After the war, Virginia worked for the CIA until she retired in 1966.

Stephanie Kwolek

Born in Pennsylvania, Stephanie Kwolek always had an interest in Chemistry. Keeping true to her goals, she graduated in 1946 with a Chemistry degree from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College.

From there, she started working at the DuPont company, but with an eye toward an eventual career in medicine.

Though she abandoned her medical school plans when she found a passion for polymer research at DuPont. It was her work there where she made an accidental discovery of synthetic fibers of unusual strength: Kevlar.

This invention was applied and used in over 200 applications from car tires to boots for firefighters to bullet-proof vests. Her work has literally saved countless lives and pushed for major progress of different technologies.

Who Are the Fearless Females That Led to You?

While all of these women are extraordinary, there are so many phenomenal women who have changed the world in ways that may never make it into popular conversation.

What about the women in your family who came before you and accomplished amazing things you never suspected?

Sign up for Ancestry now to learn more about how the women in your family tree changed the course of your family—and maybe even the world.