But time and time again, ambitious, exceptional women from all cultures proved that they were more than capable of achieving groundbreaking accomplishments, even when unsupported or even vehemently opposed by society’s established leaders.
Here are five extraordinary women — activists, scientists and innovators — whose remarkable deeds merit attention, recognition and acclaim.
Transgender activist and civil rights pioneer Sylvia Rae Rivera was on the front lines of the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, which many credit with sparking the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, Rivera and other Stonewall regulars fought back, triggering a series of protests that extended over several days. By taking a stand against what had been systematic, institutionalized harassment and arrests, Rivera’s actions at Stonewall played an important part in mobilizing and uniting the gay community in New York, according to an NBC News profile.
Rivera further participated in the struggle for gay rights with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), though she later parted ways with the organization when they abandoned agenda items that protected transgender people. She continued to work to promote rights and visibility for gender nonconforming people, especially those in the community who were young or at risk.
“When I was a girl, women were not supposed to be scientists. At least, that’s what I was told,” astronomer Nancy Grace Roman wrote in an autobiographical essay for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
Roman faced down discouragement and disapproval to pursue a graduate degree and a career in astronomy, and was a vocal advocate for women in the sciences throughout her professional life.
Roman’s discovery of irregularities in “normal” stars’ orbits and how the quantities of heavy chemical elements in stars change as they age was one of the first clues to reveal to scientists how the Milky Way galaxy evolved.
In 1959 — the first year of NASA’s operation — the agency tasked Roman with creating a program that coordinated satellites, sounding rockets, balloons and ground research to support space observation for half a century. Until 1979, she also served in the NASA Office of Space Science as the Chief of the Astronomy and Relativity Programs.
She is also known as the “Mother of Hubble” for her efforts in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope — the first powerful optical telescope in space — which launched in 1990 and remains active to this day.
Born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Southern Ontario, Canada, Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture was the first native Canadian woman to train and practice as a nurse. Racial prejudice denied her entry to Canadian nursing programs, and she attended and graduated from a nursing school in New Rochelle, New York, later becoming a public school nurse in New York City.
In 1917, Monture volunteered for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps (USANC). She was sent overseas to work in a military hospital in France, and was one of 14 Native American women who served in the USANC during World War I.
After the war, Monture returned to Canada, where she lived on the Six Nations Reserve and worked as a nurse in a local hospital.
The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004), Wangari Maathai spoke up for democracy and sustainability in her native Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental initiative whose members plant trees in Africa to prevent soil erosion, provide a source for firewood and store rainwater.
Maathai’s organization began as a grassroots campaign in 1977, when she mobilized women to take action by planting trees to counter the deforestation that threatened the livelihood of their rural communities. What began in Kenya soon spread to other countries in Africa, and has led to the planting of more than 51 million trees in Kenya alone, according to the Green Belt Movementwebsite.
Maathai held a graduate degree in biology — the first doctorate awarded to a woman from East and Central Africa. She was also Kenya’s first female professor, served as chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1981 to 1987, and she was elected to Kenya’s parliament in 2002 by an overwhelming majority — 98 percent of the vote.
Known as “The First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung Wu studied nuclear fission, leading to her participation in the Manhattan Project — a then-secret collaboration in the 1940s between scientists and the U.S. military to create nuclear weapons.
While working on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, Wu contributed to the development of a process that separated uranium metal into isotopes through diffusion, increasing the amount of uranium that could serve as fuel for an atomic bomb.
In 1957, Wu and two of her colleagues at Columbia University overturned a law of symmetry in physics, but when their discovery was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics that year, her contributions were overlooked and only her colleagues were recognized.
Despite the snub, Wu continued to garner awards and accolades over the next several decades, becoming the first woman elected to the American Physical Society, the first woman to receive the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.