30 Powerful Women Who Changed the Game in Their Industries
Throughout history, women have unapologetically broken the rules to transform their line of work.
Legends like Amelia Earhart, Barbara Walters and Beyoncé have overcome obstacles, caused controversy, shattered records and killed the game with no remorse. Let’s celebrate the women who have set the stage for others in music, film, photography, aviation and sports.
Here are 30 powerful women who changed the game in their industries and their inspirational stories.
Some mixed martial arts (MMA) fans say that Ronda Rousey changed the game, while others argue that she invented it. In what remains a sport dominated by men, Rousey has become one of the most talented MMA fighters of all time.
Since 2003, an American male hasn’t won a Grand Slam championship. Although American men continue to lose, one American woman has become an unstoppable force in tennis. Serena Williams, also known as Queen of the Court, is the former world No. 1 in the sport. She holds the most Grand Slam titles combined, including 23 Grand Slam singles and 14 Grand Slam doubles titles with her sister, Venus.
Plus-size model Ashley Graham set the fashion industry on fire. Although many retailers believe cellulite and curves are not attractive, Graham is shutting down the body-shamers and making retailers change their minds. She says yes to curves and she’s not afraid to show that having cellulite or back fat is sexy.
Without J.K. Rowling, we wouldn’t have the wizarding world of Harry Potter. When she published the story about the boy who lived and his insane adventures, she changed children’s books forever. Children’s literature often involves short-length books, but Rowling transformed the business model. Authors can now successfully write long works for children too.
When Missy Elliott performed at the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show with Katy Perry, she stole the show and left audiences wanting more. Missy Elliott performed throwback bangers like Get Ur Freak On, Work It and Lose Control, which skyrocketed her hip-hop career in the early 2000s. Before 2015, Missy Elliott was already an established rapper and singer with creative music videos, fun songs and extraordinary dance moves.
Barbara Walters is the first TV evening news anchorwoman, who revolutionized the way the nation perceived the news. She experienced gender discrimination in the industry, but Walters persisted. For 52 years, she interviewed the world’s top celebrities and leaders.
Although she’s the youngest woman to serve in the United States Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has already influenced American politics in a big way. She gets important conversations started and keeps them going. For instance, her angle on taxing the rich ignited a national debate, with the Daily News and the Washington Post jumping into the discussion.
Since the 1980s, Madonna has been known as the "Queen of Pop." She’s famous for breaking boundaries with controversial songs, narrative music videos and sexually provocative onstage performances. Her songs, Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer, received positive reviews for centering female sexuality, yet caused an uproar among family organizations.
In 1994, Ellen Degeneres publicly came out on an episode of her show, Ellen. However, the decision was not easy to make. At the time, homophobia and discrimination were still widespread in the U.S. Degeneres risked her career, while the network, ABC, risked losing its customers.
Have you ever heard someone say, "I just Marie Kondo’d my home?" Kondo is a Japanese organizing master, who blew up after starring in Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. The show follows Kondo as she helps families organize their homes and keep items that only "spark joy."
Mindy Kaling was the first and only female writer of color on The Office. Shortly after, she created and starred in her own series, The Mindy Project. Many fans called her show groundbreaking because the strong female characters had depth and value instead of being overshadowed by male characters.
Traditionally, pop stars release new music every couple of years. However, Ariana Grande dropped two back-to-back albums within a much shorter amount of time. In 2018, she released her fourth studio album, Sweetener, with hit songs, like No Tears Left to Cry and God is a Woman.
Only 21 percent of network TV creators are women. However, Shonda Rhimes is inspiring women to change that by helping other women rise and succeed. From Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal to How to Get Away With Murder, Rhimes has produced ratings-smashing shows that dominate ABC’s Thursday nights.
Laverne Cox is the first transgender person to earn an Emmy nomination for her performance on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. As a star on Orange Is the New Black, Cox helped break boundaries for the inclusion of trans actors in TV and film. Because of Cox, more trans viewers were able to see a reflection of themselves.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Known as the "Notorious R.B.G.," Ruth Bader Ginsburg has used her strong voice to advocate for gender equality, workers’ rights and the separation of church and state. From working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg has inspired women worldwide to step into power.
Champion fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics with a hijab. She’s also the first Muslim-American woman to score an Olympic medal. Before becoming a champion, Muhammad faced some challenges due to her identity. After breaking a bone at training camp, her teammates laughed at her and never visited her in the hospital. She also received criticism from her coaches while she was healing.
Chloe Kim is the youngest woman to earn an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding. At age 17, she won the women's snowboard halfpipe. She’s also the first woman to score two gold medals in snowboarding at the Winter Youth Olympic Games. The teen sensation is on her way to dominate snowboarding.
Mia Hamm is a huge role model for girls in soccer. In 1999, Hamm helped the American soccer team win the Women’s World Cup, which influenced the sport to take off and explode. The victorious event also encouraged more women to become athletes.
Oprah Winfrey is a media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer and philanthropist. What is this woman not capable of? Dubbed the "Queen of All Media," Oprah is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. The Oprah Winfrey Show revolutionized TV, becoming the highest-rated talk show in TV history.
In 2016, Beyoncé began a trend that influenced how artists release new music. She dropped a new album out of nowhere. That legendary album is called Lemonade and it became the No. 1 album in the world. Lemonade was also the fastest selling album on iTunes after its release. She kept the entire record a secret and made sure there were no leaks.
Madam C.J. Walker
Sarah Breedlove was the first black woman millionaire in America. But most people know her as Madam C.J. Walker. Walker went from struggling laundress to reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the country. It all started with her curiosity about hair care.
Rihanna broke boundaries in a couple of industries. In music, she was one of the first artists to bring island vibes to the mainstream and work with house DJs. She also had a carefree attitude towards her music and audiences loved it. Not only did she leave a mark in the music world, but Rihanna has also impacted the beauty industry.
Issa Rae created the HBO hit series, Insecure. It all started when she released her web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The web series gained HBO’s attention. As a result, HBO signed on Rae to produce Insecure, which opened the door for authors who also want to make shows that reflect art and culture made for (and by) the African-American community.
Sandra Oh has many "firsts" throughout her career. She is the first Asian woman to win more than one Golden Globe. She’s also the first Asian woman to earn an Emmy nomination for lead actress in a drama. In addition, she’s the first Asian person to host the Golden Globes.
Although Katherine Johnson worked under segregated conditions, she helped the U.S. achieve their first successful space missions. Johnson is a mathematician, who specialized in orbital mechanics at NASA. Using complex manual calculations, she estimated the launch windows, trajectories and emergency back-up routes for space flights.
Margaret Bourke-White lived a photographer’s dream. White was a pioneer in the field of photo-journalism. Her work gave Americans a glimpse into the rest of the world, including the Nazi concentration camps. She broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first photographer for Fortune and the first Western journalist allowed in the Soviet Union.
Valentina Tereshkova spent 18 months training intensely for a space mission with four other women. Tests included responses to solitude, heavy gravity conditions and zero-gravity settings. In the end, only Tereshkova was selected to fly into space, but she helped pave the way for equality in human spaceflight.
Dancers and instructors often told Misty Copeland she didn’t have the body of a ballerina. They called her too short, curvy, big and muscular. Ballet is troubled with racial stereotypes, including the belief that black women’s bodies weren’t made for the industry.
Coaches and other experts told Ester Ledecká that it was impossible to succeed in two sports. However, in 2018, Ledecká proved them all wrong by winning Olympic gold medals in alpine skiing and snowboarding.
Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean all by herself in 1932. The journey took 15 hours, involving a dripping fuel tank and some flames coming out of the engine. Yet Earhart overcame those problems to fly from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland to Derry, Ireland.
In 2018, Naomi Osaka defeated her childhood idol, Serena Williams, in a controversial Grand Slam final. Drama between Williams and the umpire unfolded during the game. After the final, Osaka became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam. However, the moment wasn’t exactly cheery.