30 Powerful Women Who Changed the Game in Their Industries

By Rosunnara R.Last Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:25:38 PM ET
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Throughout history, women have unapologetically broken the rules to transform their line of work.

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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.      

Ronda Rousey

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.

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Rousey is the first female fighter to sign with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the first female fighter to be admitted into the UFC Hall of Fame. In her MMA career, she’s won two by knockout and eight by submission. Rousey also has another major achievement: she blazed a trail for other women in the brutal sport.

Serena Williams

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.

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However, Williams has definitely faced some challenges on the court. She was booed at and called racial slurs after winning a match at the 2001 Indian Wells final. Audiences have cruelly compared her to animals and mocked her appearance. Despite the hate Williams has received, she still became one of the best tennis players of all time and continues to inspire more diversity in tennis.

Ashley Graham

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.

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As a body-positive icon, Graham was the first plus-size model to be featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2015. Her work as a model and body-positive activist has challenged the way the fashion industry perceives beauty. Today, more women of all shapes and sizes are slaying the runway. Many plus-size models are also on magazine covers and commercials. 

J.K. Rowling

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.

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With seven Harry Potter books, nine movies and five more movies based on the Fantastic Beasts book, Harry Potter’s world is such a huge part of pop culture now. Webster’s dictionary even added the word "Muggle" as an entry. Scientists are also trying to invent invisibility cloaks. Rowling’s imagination has made her the world's first billionaire author.

Missy Elliott

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.

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As she gained international fame, Missy Elliott also helped other artists rise, including Jazmine Sullivan, Fantasia and Aaliyah. She took a break from dropping her own music in 2007, making her fans wonder when she’ll return. However, in 2015, she made a powerful comeback with the song, WTF (Where They From). In 2019, she became the first female rapper to be included in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Barbara Walters

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @BarbaraJWalters/Twitter

Walter broke the rules of interviewing by making her interviews more emotional and personal. Using her conversational method, she’s met with many famous people, including Monica Lewinsky, which had a record-breaking 74 million viewers during ABC’s airing in 1999.

Now, her style of broadcasting news has become an industry standard. Politicians appear on morning talk shows as much as entertainers now.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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.

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The younger generation admires her because she genuinely cares about their issues and interests. Using social media, AOC knows how to fire up the youth. Unlike other House members, AOC supporters believe she actually listens to their concerns and responds to them. She’s not afraid to publicly reveal the corruption in the government, even in her own House. Committed to changing the system, AOC continues to reshape the discussions in American politics.

Madonna

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.

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Although she’s been insulted for her lyrics and imagery, Madonna just wanted women to be able to express their sexuality openly. Not only did she support expressions of female sexuality, but Madonna also embraced diversity in collaborations by hiring black and Latino actors in her music videos and LGBTQ dancers to perform at concerts.

Ellen Degeneres

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.

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Although the religious right disapproved of the move and sponsors stopped advertising on the show, the episode was successfully groundbreaking. More than 42 million viewers watched Degeneres come out of the closet. DeGeneres’s career also grew after.

Most importantly, she helped the LGBTQ community gain more visibility in the entertainment landscape. Many TV shows now include LGTBQ characters, reflecting more of the real world.

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Marie Kondo

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."

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Kondo made a cultural impact in the U.S. and U.K. In fact, audiences call it the "Marie Kondo effect." After thousands of inspired viewers decluttered their homes, they realized they had many possessions that didn’t spark joy, so they threw the items out or donated them. As a result, thrift stores nationwide saw an increase in donations.

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Mindy Kaling

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.

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Kaling is aware that she doesn’t look like the typical female actor. By challenging Hollywood’s beauty standards, she wants to normalize women of different sizes, colors and backgrounds in leading roles in the entertainment industry. Kaling also pushes for more women writers and producers.

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Ariana Grande

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @ArianaGrande/Twitter

A few months later, Grande spontaneously dropped the single, Thank U, Next from her fifth studio album of the same name. Many artists make announcements or promote their new songs months in advance. However, Grande released the song out of the blue, and it was a massive success. Grande elaborates, "I just want to f------ talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do."

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Shonda Rhimes

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.

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Rhimes creates diverse stories that are often cast aside. With a racially diverse cast as the norm in Rhimes’s projects, Rhimes is changing attitudes and conversations about making shows that actually represent everyone in the real world without using stereotypes. The TV creator is just getting started because she landed a deal with Netflix to produce even more shows.

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Laverne Cox

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.

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Many fans tell Cox, "I didn’t think it was possible for me to be an actor, and then I saw you on TV." As a producer, Cox increased awareness on transgender issues by creating the show, The T Word. Her show made viewers think differently about who transgender people actually are. It also got trans kids excited to become openly trans and have a real acting career.

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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.

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In 2007, an abortion case got her eager to read the dissents out loud, a bench move that was uncommon at the time, but now takes place more often. The bold move gained Ginsburg attention because she spoke on behalf of people who don’t have power. Despite experiencing discrimination in her career, Ginsburg is determined to reshape the country, even if that means disagreeing with the rest of her colleagues.

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Ibtihaj Muhammad

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.

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Now, she’s firing up and inspiring Muslim-American teens to compete in the Olympics. "A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sport. And it’s not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community but within the Muslim community. I want to break cultural norms," says Muhammad.

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Chloe Kim

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.

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With back-to-back 1080s and three-revolution spins, Kim lands moves that are challenging to other female riders. Not only is she inspirational, but Kim is also relatable, posting tweets about her hunger in between matches. She’s paving the way for more women in the male-dominated sport.

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Mia Hamm

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.

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Hamm previously held the record for the most international goals scored by any soccer player. Although she has become a soccer icon, Hamm motivates and celebrates other players too. Fun fact: She starred in a memorable Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan, featuring the song Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.

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Oprah Winfrey

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.

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The show featured many famous celebrities, from superstar Tom Cruise to former President Barack Obama. Oprah’s show stood out because it focused on positivity, self-improvement and compassion, while other talk shows primarily featured gossip. Using her platform to tell personal stories, Oprah found ways to relate to people of different ages, colors and social and economic backgrounds. This led to future programming with the same style, like Dr. Phil and Ellen DeGeneres.

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Beyoncé

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.

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In addition, she released Lemonade on Friday night when artists traditionally drop new music on Tuesdays. As a result, more artists started to share their work on Fridays. Her music also blended African-American history, culture and art, showing others that these themes can make successful bangers, too.

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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.

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As Walker experimented with formulas, she developed a hair growth tonic called "Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower." Shortly after, she founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The hair care and cosmetics industry for African-American women was changed forever. She also paved the way for African-American women to launch their own beauty empires.

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Rihanna

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.

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The next time someone tells you not to start a makeup collection because there are already too many brands in the world, look to Rihanna for some inspiration. She released an inclusive makeup line called Fenty, providing products for people of color. It appealed to a diverse audience because the collection included 40 different shades of foundation. During Fenty’s debut, the darker shades immediately sold out.

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In response, other makeup brands started to expand their collections and roll out campaigns to attract women of color. Fenty was featured as one of Time’s "25 Best Inventions of 2017."

Issa Rae

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.

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Since 2003, Rae became the first black woman to create and star in her own show. Insecure brought many important topics to the front and center, such as the gender pay gap, job uncertainties, crisis in one’s thirties and problems in long-term relationships. The show also featured a powerful friendship between black women. These topics helped Rae find a way for everyone to relate to the show when executives thought that she couldn’t.

Sandra Oh

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.

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Winning awards in Hollywood is a big deal for the Asian American community. Asian actors are a minority in the entertainment industry and usually cast as the stereotypical kung fu master or nerd.

However, Oh has been breaking barriers. She starred in Grey’s Anatomy as a surgeon with strong relationships with her colleagues, friends and lovers. Oh is now leading her own show, Killing Eve.

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Katherine Johnson

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.

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She was involved in the U.S.’s first human spaceflight program and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Her calculations were so good that astronaut John Glenn trusted her more than electronic computers. In fact, he wouldn’t fly until Johnson confirmed that all the numbers were right.

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Margaret Bourke-White

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @ICPhotog/Twitter

Hold on; there’s a lot more. She was also the first female photojournalist for Life magazine and first female war correspondent. As a correspondent, White was allowed to photograph combat zones during World War II. She also took a picture of Gandhi right before his assassination. In the 1930s, many women did housework, but White broke that tradition and encouraged other women to do the same.

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Valentina Tereshkova

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.

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In three days, Tereshkova orbited Earth 48 times in 1963. During her mission, she snapped photographs, took flight notes and administered experiments in her capsule. This was her first and last trip into space. To this day, she’s the only woman to go on a solo space mission, but she’s set an example for other women to reach for the stars.

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Misty Copeland

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @mistyonpointe/Twitter

However, the hate didn’t stop her. She became the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, proving girls of color and girls of all body types belong in the ballet world too. Many people of color filled up the Lincoln Center just to watch ballet because of Copeland. She also danced in an Under Armour campaign, reminding the world that ballet is also a sport.

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Ester Ledecká

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Ledecká wowed both skiers and snowboarders at the end of the competition. She also showed her doubters that you can excel in two sports if you’re determined. Ledecká advises people who want to follow in her footsteps to have courage because their dreams will be met with resistance.

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Amelia Earhart

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Earhart paved the way for other women to join aviation, like Anny Divya, the world’s youngest female pilot to manage a Boeing 777. She also inspired women by writing best-selling books about flying and forming a group of female pilots. Unfortunately, her adventure was cut short after she disappeared, while trying to fly around the world in 1937.

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Naomi Osaka

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Carine06/Flickr

During the trophy ceremony, the crowd booed and Osaka accepted her win in tears. Williams comforted Osaka and ordered the audience to stop booing. Despite this bittersweet victory, Osaka is known as a force to be reckoned with and the first Asian player to hold her own in tennis’s top ranks. Although she’s shy and candid, Osaka has a killer serve that can reach 125 miles per hour.

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