11 Trailblazing Women in History You Need to Know

Badass Women in History

Susan B. Antony, Gloria Steinem, Sacajawea—these are just some of the famous women who have paved the way for others and shaped our world. But history is filled with female trailblazers who have suffered, innovated, and not backed down in the face of adversity.

To celebrate these badass women who have become pioneers in some aspect of their lives, we've compiled our list of female heroes you may not have heard of. From a war reporter to the first female combat pilot, each has contributed something unique and special to history.

Haven't heard of these inspirational ladies? If not, make sure to add them to your list of badass women in history.

Emma Gatewood (1887 – 1973)

grandma gatewood Appalachian trail

Image via Wikipedia

Affectionately known as Grandma Gatewood, she was a pioneer as the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail solo in one season. At the age of 67, after raising 11 children, Gatewood took up hiking and after about 5 years, inspired by an article in National Geographic, she decided to tackle the 2,168-mile trail. She completed the hike three times, the last at age 75, making her the first person to do so. She also walked 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail, averaging 22 miles a day. Held up as an unexpected emblem of extreme hiking, she's the subject of several books and a documentary.


Retta Scott (1916 – 1990)

retta scott female trailblazers

Image via D23

Retta Scott was the first female animator at Disney, getting a screen credit on the 1942 film Bambi. She joined Disney in 1938 as a member of the story department, but her artistic abilities caught the eye of Walt Disney. After Bambi she also worked on scenes for Dumbo and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. She left the company in 1946, but maintained a good working relationship. In fact, she later worked as a freelance illustrator on the Big Golden Book of Cinderella.


Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)

barbara mcclintock scientist

Image via Wikipedia

Barbara McClintock was a scientist who broke barriers, winning the Nobel Prize in 1983. The cytogeneticist was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, proving that genes could transpose, or jump. Her “jumping genes” were just one of her groundbreaking discoveries in genetics. Many theories we now take for granted—chromosomal crossover creating genetic variation in species, genes being responsible for physical traits—are owed to McClintock.


Annie Lumpkin

annie lumpkin civil rights activist

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Just 18 years old when this photograph was taken in 1961, Annie Lumpkin joined four other Freedom Riders on a voyage to battle segregation in the south. This deceiving photo, which could be a young, stylish woman, taking off on vacation, was actually taken on the way from the Little Rock jail. From St. Louis, Lumpkin joined the other Freedom Riders in boarding a bus from toward New Orleans. With an aim to desegregate transportation, these brave civil rights volunteers were met by an angry mob when entering Little Rock, Arkansas. When the riders took their seats in the “white-only” section of the bus terminal, they were promptly arrested.


Martha Gelhorn (1908 – 1998)

Martha Gelhorn is a continued inspiration for female journalists, having worked as a war reporter. She first reported in the Spanish Civil War, as she accompanied Ernest Hemingway to Spain, and continued her career after their marriage. Her writing focused on the effects of war on ordinary citizens and when she encountered barriers due to her gender, she made her own path. For instance, asking for an assignment during WWII after years of war reporting, she was told that she would not be accredited because female reporters were not allowed in war zones. Instead, she set sail around the Caribbean to see how the war was affecting people there. Later, in 1943, when female reporters could finally get accredited—though not to the frontlines—she reported on the activities of female military personnel.


Jeannine Smith Clark (1928 – )

Jeannine Smith Clark has spent almost 50 years of her life involved with the Smithsonian Institute. She began as a volunteer in 1968 and rose through the ranks, serving on the Board of Regents for 11 years. She was the first chair of the Cultural Education Committee, which aims to bring diversity and inclusiveness to the Smithsonian. While attending Howard University, she became an active member of the American Human Rights Council and was highly involved in the civil rights movement. She was later named chair of the DC United Way in recognition of her fundraising efforts for the Museum of African Art.


Jeanne Manford (1920 – 2013)

jeanne manford female hero

Image via Wikipedia

Jeanne Manford was a pioneer as an activist in the LGBT community, founding the organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). As a mother to a gay son, her activism started in 1972 after her son Morty was beaten for distributing flyers inside a political dinner. During the incident, reports stated that her son Morty was “kicked and stomped” while being led away by the police. Enraged, her letter to the New York Post that stated “I have a homosexual son and I love him,” was groundbreaking at the time. Later that same year, she marched in the New York Pride Parade with Morty, holding a sign that stated “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.” Manford continued her activism throughout her life, posthumously receiving a Presidential Citizens Medal for her contributions to the LGBT community.


Helen Thomas (1920 – 2013)

helen thomas barack obama

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A stalwart of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas covered the administration of 10 presidents starting with John F. Kennedy. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club and first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, taking charge of what was typically a boys club. She was known as a tenacious reporter, asking tough questions and going after answers when they weren't being given.


Sabiha Gökçen (1913 – 2001)

first female fighter pilot

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Sabiha Gökçen is listed by the Guinness Book of World records as the world's first female fighter pilot, having enrolled in a Turkish aviation academy in 1936. At 23 years old, she was also Turkey's first female combat pilot and has the honor of an airport in her name in Istanbul. Throughout her career in the Turkish Air Force, she flew more than 22 different types of aircrafts for more than 8,000 hours of flight time.


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917)

Badass Women in History elizabeth garrett anderson

Image via Wikimedia

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson helped pave the way for female physicians in England, leading a life filled with firsts. When she was rejected by English universities who wouldn't admit her to seek an MD, she moved to France and studied medicine at the University of Paris. She later set up practice in London, becoming England's first female physician, but her work didn't end there. She helped instate a Parliamentary act that formally allowed women to become physicians and went on to become Britain's first female mayor and magistrate.


Simone Segouin (1925 – )

simone segouin badass women

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Also known as Nicole Minet, she was just 18 years old when she captured 25 Nazis in her small village south of Paris. As a French Resistance fighter, she took on increasingly risky missions, including blowing up bridges and derailing trains. She was present at the fall of Paris and was promoted to lieutenant. After the war, she became a pediatric nurse.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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