In the early days of the United States, women were discouraged from getting an education. The reason? Many felt it was unnatural, with the view that an educated woman would somehow become “unsexed” a surprisingly prevalent one. Those who did go on to obtain a higher education were usually educated in traditional domestic skills such as sewing. In Colonial America, girls were taught to read and write, but they could only obtain higher education if there was room left after the boys were in school.
Thankfully, things have changed over the last few centuries regarding educational opportunities for women, and many women have enjoyed the right to become educated. Now, in many developed countries, women are attaining higher degrees of education more frequently than men. Of course that’s not the case worldwide, and there are still some parts of the world that heavily restrict female education.
Women have played a significant role in academia throughout history, advancing every field from arts to science to technology. Despite the proof that women are as capable as men across the board, there are still some antiquated attitudes towards female academics which unfortunately linger. Some studies have shown that employers tend to view women’s academic credentials with less worth; one study, in particular, demonstrated that women need a PhD to earn the equivalent of men with a BA.
In light of these more negative attitudes towards female academics, we’re focusing on 10 intellectual women who’ve changed the world with their work. These are 10 female university graduates who’ve had a marked influence on the academic world as we know it today.
10. Margaret Atwood (1939– ) – Novelist and essayist
Margaret Atwood is probably best known for her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that has garnered tremendous critical success. She’s also an accomplished poet, having written over fifteen books of poetry alone. She’s written over forty books in total, and in addition to poetry, she’s written fiction, children’s literature, and non-fiction. Atwood is highly educated, having received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master’s degree from Harvard’s Radcliffe College. She continued her studies at Harvard University for two years, but never finished her dissertation “The English Metaphysical Romance.” She’s taught English at several respected universities including New York University, the University of British Columbia, and Sir George Williams University, among others.
9. Karen Armstrong (1944– ) – Religious scholar
Karen Armstrong is a former nun who’s written over twenty books on faith and the major religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She’s focused some attention on what the three major religions have in common and how our faith has shaped the world we live in today. As the Washington Post described her, she’s a “a prominent and prolific religious historian” who has given people a lot to think about regarding compassion and fair-mindedness.
8. Naomi Wolf (1962– ) – Author and political consultant
Naomi Wolf describes herself as an author, social critic, and political activist. Her focus is on raising awareness of the inequalities that exist in society and politics, and she encourages people to voice their concerns and enact change. Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth was an international bestseller, challenging the unrealistic standards of beauty that women are subjected to both in fashion and in general. Her book helped launch a new wave of feminism in the 1990s. Wolf attended Yale University where she received an undergraduate degree in English literature, and from 1985-1987, she was a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford. She also served as a consultant on women’s issues and social policy to Al Gore during his presidential campaign.
7. Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) – Marine biologist and conservationist
Rachel Carson had a life-long love of nature that she first expressed as a writer, and later as a student of marine biology. Carson obtained her degree from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1929, and studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. She received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources, edited scientific articles and turned her research into lyric prose. In 1962, she published Silent Spring where she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government. Of course, she was attacked by the chemical industry. However, it also spurred change in national pesticide policy which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, and it inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
6. Susan Greenfield (1950– ) – Neuroscientist
Baronesses Greenfield is a scientist, writer and broadcaster. She’s been awarded thirty Honorary Degrees from universities from around the world and works as a Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. Greenfield heads a multi-disciplinary research group exploring novel brain mechanisms linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She’s also co-founded a biotech company focused on neurodegenerative disorders. Greenfield has won a number of awards including the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Prize, and has been elected to an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians and the Science Museum. She’s also been named Woman of the Year by The Observer.
5. Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) – Environmental and political activist
Wangari Maathai is credited with a lot of firsts in her lifetime, including being the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to take a doctorate, and the first female professor ever in her home country of Kenya. Maathai played a large part in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, and in 1977 she started a grassroots movement aimed at curbing the deforestation that threatened agriculture. She encouraged women to plant trees, which led to the so-called Green Belt Movement which spread to other African countries and ultimately contributed to the planting of over thirty million trees.
4. Marie Curie (1867-1943) – Physicist and chemist
It’s hard to talk about influential academic without mentioning Marie Curie. Curie is famous for her theory on radioactivity, including the discovery of two elements – polonium and radium. She’s also the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields and the only person to win in multiple sciences. In 1861, she went to the Sorbonne and obtained Licenciateships in physics and mathematical sciences. There, she met her husband Pierre Curie, who was a professor of Physics, in 1894. She later succeeded her husband as the head of the physics laboratory at the Sorbonne, and she gained her Doctor of Science degree in 1903. Curie became the first woman appointed as the Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences.
3. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994) – Chemist
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin became interested in chemistry and crystals at about ten years old. While living in Sudan her interest was encouraged by a friend of her parents who’d given her chemicals and helped her analyze ilmenite. Only she and one other girl were allowed to join the boys who were studying chemistry at their school, and by the end of her schooling, Hodgkin decided to study Chemistry and Biochemistry at university. She went on to Oxford and Somerville College and later, to Cambridge. She’s credited with the development of protein crystallography and she advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the three dimensional structures of biomolecules. Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for confirmation of the structure of vitamin B12. 35 years after she won the Nobel Prize, she was able to decipher the structure of insulin, and X-ray crystallography became a widely used tool and has been critical in determining the structures of many other biological molecules.
2. Aung San Suu Kyi (1945– ) – Political activist
Aung San Suu Kyi is known as Burma’s Modern Symbol of Freedom according to the Nobel Peace Prize website. She’s the daughter of legendary liberation leader Aung San who was assassinated by his rivals in 1947. His daughter, however, has gone on to do great things and is a Burmese Peace Prize Laureate. Following studies overseas, she returned home in 1988 to lead the opposition against the military junta which had ruled Burma since 1962. She was one of the founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and was elected as secretary general for the party. In 1990, the NLD won a clear victory but the government’s generals arrested members of the opposition and refused to release Suu Kyi from house arrest. Even today, she’s still under constant surveillance. In 2012, the NLD announced that she had been elected to the lower house of the Burmese parliament, and she announced on the World Economic Forum’s website that Aung San Suu Kyi wants to run for the presidency in Myanmar’s 2015 elections.
1. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (1947- ) – Virologist
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi is a French virologist credited with performing some of the fundamental work in the identification of the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS. In 2008, she and her former mentor, Luc Montagnier, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of HIV. She obtained her undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Paris, and toward the end of her degree, she seriously questioned the possibility of research as a career option. Because of her research, she’s focused a lot of attention on HIV and AIDs, especially in the areas of prevention, clinical care and treatment. In 2009, she wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI to protest his statements that condoms are at best ineffective in the AIDS crisis, and in July 2012, she became the President of the International AIDS Society.
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