When History Becomes Herstory: The Most Powerful Women of the Last 100 Years

It was during history class when we learned of the most powerful and influential people in history. But more often than not, the subjects were mostly men, and not much emphasis was put on the women who also changed the world. There have been countless powerful female figures who have strongly made an impact on the world we live in. And some will even argue that their feats were even more remarkable due to the obstacles and oppression they had to, or still have to, face.

Women from all walks of life and from different industries have all made a dent in the way we think, feel, act, dress, and are. Women from Beyonce to Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana, have all made an impact in their own way. And the world has only benefited from their presence. Let’s take a look at the most influential women of the last 100 years.

39. Jackie Kennedy: An Icon of Style and Grace

Other than being the First Lady of President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy was an American icon for more than a few reasons. She was a single mother who overcame tragedy, a professional woman, and her determination to live her own life has continued to inspire women.

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Following her late husband’s election to the presidency in 1960, Jackie was known for her restoration of the White House, putting an emphasis on arts and culture. Her style, elegance, and grace were widely noted, and she became an international fashion icon. Jackie’s story is so famous that her story was retold in the movie ‘Jackie,’ starring Natalie Portman. And we can safely say that getting a movie made about you can be seen as a benchmark of your influence.

38. Beyoncé: In Control of Her Career

Beyoncé is someone who needs no introduction. She was named music’s most powerful woman by ‘BBC BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.’ The female superstar came in first in a list of the music industry’s 40 most influential women, in recognition of her feminism, activism and empowering messages.

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Beyoncé also reached the No. 3 spot on Forbes’ highest paid female musicians list, making $60 million in 2018. In her album ‘Formation,’ Beyoncé continues her mantra of being an independent woman, demonstrating how she has taken control of her career and that instead of her husband Jay-Z, now she’s the one to ‘get your song played on the radio station.’

The next woman of power was a powerhouse in the world of fashion…

37. Coco Chanel: Changed Fashion Forever

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, the celebrated fashion designer, was and still is one of the most innovative fashion designers and businesswomen in history. Coco Chanel was influential in defining feminine style during the 20th Century. Her ideas were revolutionary and one-of-a-kind.

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Before Chanel, the notion of taking traditional male clothing and redesigning them for the benefit of women was unheard of and even laughed upon. But Chanel had the last laugh as she was credited in the post-World War I era with freeing women from the constraints of the prevalent corseted silhouette, making a sporty and casual chic style the feminine standard.

36. Amelia Earhart: Flying Solo for Women

Amelia Mary Earhart was an aviation pioneer and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She set many records for flying solo and wrote a number of successful books about her experiences. Her main influence was her support of equal rights for women.

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Earhart felt that her role was to inspire other women and give them the confidence they need to achieve the same accomplishments as men. Sadly, in 1937, at the age of 40, she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on a solo flight in which she was attempting to circle the globe.

35. Lady Gaga: Not Just a Pop Star

We all know her as Lady Gaga, but her real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. The American singer, songwriter, and actress is known for her controversy, unconventionality, provocation and visual experimentation. Gaga is one of the best-selling music artists in history, considering she sold 27 million albums and 146 million singles (as of 2016).

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Among her many achievements, she has Guinness world records, nine Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, two Golden Globes, and an award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Gaga takes philanthropy and social activism seriously, working hard to raise awareness of LGBT rights. She founded a nonprofit organization, the Born This Way Foundation, which centers on empowering youth and preventing bullying.

The next influential woman has made a dent in the movie industry as well as the humanitarian domain…

34. Angelina Jolie: Giving a Third to Charity

Angelina Jolie is known for being a striking Oscar-winning actress, but she’s also a movie director, humanitarian and overall global celebrity. In recent years, Jolie went behind the scenes, entering the production industry as a director, writer, and producer.

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Many know that she has six children, three of whom are adopted. She serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR. It was when filming ‘Lara Croft’ in Cambodia that Jolie became interested in humanitarian activities. She says that she puts a third of her salary into charity.

33. Wilma Rudolph: The Fastest Woman in the World

Wilma Rudolph was told as a child that she would never walk again, but despite that, she relentlessly pursued her dreams of becoming an international track and field star. She later achieved the title of “the fastest woman in the world.” Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games in 1960.

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Wilma then used her celebrity to shed light on social issues. She is remembered for her contributions to youth; founding the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, which trains youth athletes. Her 1977 autobiography ‘Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph,’ was adapted into a television docudrama as well as a short documentary called ‘Unlimited’ (2015).

Next, a female director who is making a dent in the industry…

32. Kathryn Bigelow: Breaking Ground in Cinema

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow directed well-known films like ‘Point Break’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ But it was in 2009 when she made history. Kathryn became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director for her film ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008).

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It’s pretty remarkable that she won over Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and ex-husband James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ Although her body of work may be considered small, it’s impressive nonetheless. Her films have consistently dealt with issues of violence and tension – topics that women are not typically accredited to.

31. Shonda Rhimes: The Showrunner

For those who don’t know who Shonda Lynn Rhimes is, she’s the woman behind ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ its spin-off ‘Private Practice,’ and political thriller series ‘Scandal.’ She’s an American television producer, television and film writer, and an author.

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Being the showrunner (creator, head writer, and executive producer) of such popular dramas means she has thus made a real impact on American pop culture. Rhimes made history as one of the first showrunners to sign an exclusive deal with Netflix: a four-year agreement for at least $100 million. Before this deal with Netflix, she had signed a four-year deal with ABC for “only” $10 million a year.

Next, the woman who comes in at No.30…

30. Taylor Swift: One of the Youngest

Taylor Swift is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, as she sold more than 50 million albums and 150 million single downloads. As a songwriter, she won awards from the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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She has 10 Grammys, one Emmy, 23 Billboard Music Awards, and 12 Country Music Association Awards. Not to mention the fact that she holds six Guinness World Records. She was included in Forbes’ list of the most powerful woman, being the youngest honoree at the age of 28.

29. Ellen DeGeneres: The Most Powerful Gay Celebrity

Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian, television host, actress, writer, and producer, has not only made an impact on the television industry but for the LGBT community. Forbes estimated DeGeneres’ earnings in 2018 at $87.5 million, which made her the 15th highest-paid entertainer in the world.

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In 2015, she was the 50th most powerful woman in the world (listed by Forbes) and came in 2nd on the World Pride Power list. Ellen has been hosting The Ellen DeGeneres Show since 2003.

 

28. Laurene Powell Jobs: A Widow With a Mission

Ms. Powell Jobs inherited $20 billion in stakes in Apple and Disney from her late husband, Steve Jobs. She is putting her fortune to work through the Emerson Collective, a for-profit social impact firm that she founded in 2004.

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She is focusing on education, immigration, and the environment. In 2017, Laurene took the majority stake in Atlantic Magazine invests in nonprofit publications from ‘Mother Jones’ to ‘ProPublica.’

27. Madonna: The Queen of Pop

A fan of Madonna or not, you can’t argue the fact that she’s the most successful female musician of all time, having sold more than 300 million records. The Queen of Pop rose to fame in the 1980s, pushing the boundaries of songwriting and imagery in her songs and music videos. She’s recognized for frequently reinventing her music.

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She is also the highest-grossing solo touring artist of all time, making $1.4 billion from concert ticket sales. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone listed her as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Would you agree that the CEO of YouTube should be on this list? Yeah, she’s next…

26. Susan Wojcicki: Steering the YouTube Ship

Susan Wojcicki has been the CEO of YouTube since February 2014. You’ve heard of YouTube, right? The global video-sharing powerhouse site, by the way, has earned a loyal user base of 1.9 billion monthly users. The site is worth an estimated $90 billion.

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Part of her work as CEO has been to keep disturbing content off the site, but she hasn’t always been successful. In 1999, Wojcicki became Google’s 16th employee. She used to be the senior vice president of Google, YouTube’s parent company.

25. Barbara Walters: Making Herstory on TV

The American broadcast journalist, author, and television personality is known for having hosted a variety of TV programs, including ‘Today,’ ‘The View,’ ‘20/20,’ and the ‘ABC Evening News.’ Walters was a pioneer for women in broadcasting and in 1976, she became the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program, working alongside Harry Reasoner on the ‘ABC Evening News.’

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Walters retired as a co-host of ‘The View’ in 2014 after 16 seasons, but still serves as the executive producer. Back in 1989, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and in 2007, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Walters has won Daytime and Prime Time Emmy Awards, a Women in Film Lucy Award, and a GLAAD Excellence in Media award.

Everyone knows the next famous homemaker. Can you guess who comes in at no.24?

24. Martha Stewart: She Changed the Way We Entertain

The infamous retail executive businesswoman, writer, television personality, and former model (which many don’t know about) was the founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She’s found success in many business ventures, including publishing, broadcasting, merchandising, and e-commerce.

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She wrote bestselling books, is the publisher of Martha Stewart Living magazine, and hosted two TV programs: ‘Martha,’ and ‘Martha Stewart Living.’ Over the past few decades, Stewart’s influence on the way in which people entertain, cook, decorate and design has been unmatched.

23. Indira Gandhi: India’s First Female Leader

Despite her last name, she has no relation to the infamous Mohandas Gandhi. Indira was the Prime Minister of the Republic of India for a total of fifteen years, until her assassination in 1984. She was India’s first female Prime Minister.

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In 1999, she was named the greatest woman of the past thousand years in a poll by BBC News. Indira was a rare example of a woman rising to power in that didn’t consider herself a feminist – rather she was concerned with issues relating to women saw her own success as proof that talented women have the ability to rise to the top.

Next, the CEO of IBM has really set a precedent in the world of technology…

22. Virginia Rometty: The First Headwoman of IBM

Virginia, also known as Ginni Rometty, has been veteran of the iconic tech company IBM for over 36 years. She’s the current chair, president, and CEO of IBM, and is the first woman to head the company. Ginni was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in the World by Bloomberg.

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Fortune also named her as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. Ginni is also active in women’s leadership, working with the Women in Technology Council, Women’s Executive Council, and the Women’s Leadership Council.

21. Anne Frank: Wise Beyond Her Years

Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who lost her life in the Holocaust. You have probably heard of, if not read, ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ which has become one of the most famous records of the Holocaust, giving a human story behind the dreadful statistics.

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After the war, her father Otto Frank (the only living family member) discovered her diary and was taken aback by her maturity and depth of feeling. One of her diary entries read: “It’s difficult in times like these; ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals; they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

Next, none other than the COO of Facebook…

20. Sheryl Sandberg: Facebook’s First Lady

Sheryl Sandberg is an American technology executive, activist, author, and, of course, a billionaire. She is the COO of Facebook since 2008 and founder of Leanin.org. Leanin aims to help professional women achieve their career goals, and it also helps men who want to contribute to a more equitable society. In 2012, Sandberg was named in Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.

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She oversaw operations and steered the ship as Facebook went from a $56 million loss to $22.1 billion in profits in 2018. As of 2015, Sandberg is reported to be worth over US$1 billion.

19. Marilyn Monroe: No Dumb Blonde

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe was a model, actress, singer and overall one of the most famous women of the 20th century. She became an icon of fame and femininity, and widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in American culture.

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Although Monroe had the reputation of being a ‘dumb blonde,’ she actually cultivated and developed her through the media and her acting. Despite her massive celebrity status, she was quoted saying, “I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.”

18. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Youngest Woman in Congress

Alexandria is an American politician, serving as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. She made headlines as well as history, when she beat Republican opponent Anthony Pappas in the November 6, 2018, general election, making her at the age of 29 the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress.

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That’s a remarkable feat. Ocasio-Cortez is also known for her extensive social media presence, especially relative to her fellow members of Congress.

17. Malala Yousafzai: Education First

You may have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for her right to education. Incredibly, she survived being shot in the head (by the Taliban) and eventually became a global advocate for women’s rights, with a focus on the right to education.

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Malala received a number of peace awards and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. One of her quotes that summarizes the legacy she is leading is: “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”

The next powerful woman has basically raised millions of women just by being on television…

16. Oprah Winfrey: Raising Girls From the Television Set

Oprah Winfrey needs no introduction. She’s played a key role in many American’s lives, creating cultural trends and promoting causes, focusing on issues that American women face. She has been an essential role model for black women. Many even hope that she will run for the presidency in the future.

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She received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes. She’s donated $425 million throughout her entire career, with $100 million of that going towards the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Her estimated net worth is $2.7 billion.

15. Jane Goodall: The Real Jane to the Fictional Tarzan

Jane Goodall is a British anthropologist, primatologist, humanitarian, environmentalist, and is best known for her many years observing the behavior of Chimpanzees in their native habitat. She has made a name for herself as the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees.

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Goodall makes efforts to raise awareness about the predicament that both wild and captive chimpanzees are in. Her motivation for her work can be summed up in one of her quotes: “Chimpanzees have given me so much. The long hours spent with them in the forest have enriched my life beyond measure. What I have learned from them has shaped my understanding of human behavior, of our place in nature.”

Next, the wife of Bill Gates has her own powerful role…

14. Melinda Gates: The Most Powerful Philanthropist

Melinda Gates, the wife of Bill Gates, is one of the most powerful women in philanthropy being the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was founded in 2000 and is the world’s largest private charitable foundation with a $40 billion trust endowment.

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In her role, she helps shapes the foundation’s strategy, solving difficult global challenges from education and poverty to sanitation and contraception. She devotes much of her work to women’s and girls’ rights.

13. J. K. Rowling: From Rags to Riches

The British author and genius behind the Harry Potter phenomenon have been credited with creating a revival of reading by children. The first book was written when she was a single mother, struggling to make ends meet.

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In 2017, Forbes estimated her worth at $650 million. She donates a large number of her profits to charities, including those that center of poverty, multiple sclerosis, and institutionalized children in Europe. The Harry Potter brand is estimated to be worth £7 billion, by the way.

Thanks to the next woman’s refusal to get up from her seat, the world has never been the same…

12. Rosa Parks: A Role Model

Rosa Parks was an American civil rights activist. And it all began when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Unbeknownst to her, this act indirectly led to some of the most significant civil rights legislation of the history of the country.

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Parks was modest in her acceptance of her role in the civil rights struggle, but due to her peaceful and dignified protests, she became a well-respected figure in the civil rights movements. Reflecting on the most powerful moment of her life, she said: “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

11. Helen Keller: Deaf, Blind, and Fearless

Hellen Keller was an American social activist, despite the fact that at the age of 19 months, she became both deaf and blind. She managed to overcome the frustration of losing both her sight and hearing and fought tirelessly for deaf and blind people.

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She defied all odds by becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her name helped de-stigmatize blindness and deafness, as she was seen as a powerful example of someone able to conquer difficult circumstances.

Next, the top 10 women who changed the world…

10. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Dedication to Peace

Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from 1933 to 1945. She used her power to advocate for human and civil rights. She was a delegate to the UN General Assembly and played a major role in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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After the war and the death of her husband, many encouraged her to run for office, but she declined as she preferred to concentrate on non-partisan public projects. In her words: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”

9. Theresa May: A Leader in a Difficult Time

Theresa May is currently serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party. She became the second female prime minister of the UK in British history in 2016 after replacing David Cameron as the leader of the Conservative Party.

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May has spent the past couple of years negotiating the infamous exit, getting pushback from both pro and anti-European parties. May is continuing to fight for a unified Britain and in her own words, “a Brexit that delivers on the result of the referendum.”

Next, the current leader of a European powerhouse…

8. Angela Merkel: Germany’s Powerhouse

In 2005, Angela Merkel became the first female Chancellor of Germany. But in 2018, she stepped down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), announcing that she wouldn’t seek another term as chancellor in 2021.

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Regardless of her stepping down, Merkel remains the actual leader of Europe, leading the region’s largest economy. She managed to steer Germany from a major financial crisis back to growth. The big question people are now asking is who and what will come after her time in office will end.

7. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Notorious R.B.G.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She was also the first female tenured professor at Columbia University. Before and after she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she argued for gender equality.

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Ginsburg has spent most of her legal career advocating for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights. She was as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg has gotten some attention in American pop culture for her fiery disagreements and refusing to step down. She has even been dubbed the “Notorious R.B.G.”

Next, a woman who changed the world of science…

6. Marie Curie: Defying the Odds of Her Time

Marie Curie was a Polish scientist who won a Nobel Prize for her accomplishments in both Chemistry and Physics.  She broke ground in the field of Radioactivity. During WWI, Curie developed the practical use of X-Rays and also discovered two new elements: polonium and radium.

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Her scientific work was remarkable due to the discrimination against women in science at the time (the early 1900s). Marie was the first female professor at the University of Paris, further breaking down barriers for women in science.

5. Christine Lagarde: The Money Manager

Christine Lagarde, a French lawyer, and politician, is the Managing Director and Chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund since 2011. She provides financial oversight and guidance for its 189 member countries, including Russia, China, and the U.K.

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On the 10-year anniversary of the infamous 2008 bank collapse, Lagarde called attention to “groupthink” in the male-dominated industry, calling for further gender reform. In 2018, Forbes ranked Lagarde as number three on its list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

The no. 4 most powerful woman, next…

4. Diana, Princess of Wales: An Icon of Beauty and Elegance

Princess Diana was truly an iconic figure of the late 20th Century. She was the epitome of feminine beauty and elegance and was admired for her ground-breaking charity work. She particularly helped in work with AIDS patients and supported the campaign for banning landmines. In 1987, she was one of the first well-known celebrities to be photographed with an AIDS victim, which was important in changing attitudes to the disease.

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After her death, the Ottawa treaty was then signed which banned the use of anti-personnel landmines. When she was alive, she was said to be the most photographed person in the world, having appeared on the cover of People magazine more than anyone else.

3. Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990. She was recognized for her uncompromising political views, becoming known as ‘The Iron Lady.’ In the UK, she instituted free-market reforms, implemented the poll tax and reduced the power of trades unions.

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In international affairs, she managed to create a close relationship with American President Ronald Reagan as well as a working relationship with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev when the Cold War was coming to an end.

And now for the top two…

2. Queen Elizabeth II: Longest-Serving Monarch

Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-serving British monarch in history and has reigned over half a century of continual change, in the Royal Family, Great Britain, and the Commonwealth. The 93-year-old royal was the oldest on Forbes’ list of the most powerful women in the world.

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The Queen has actually done more for charity than any other monarch in history. She favors charities that serve the community and civic issues, education, and training causes. In her words: “In tomorrow’s world we must all work together as hard as ever if we’re truly to be United Nations.”

1. Mother Teresa: The Mother of All Charity Workers

The Albanian nun and charity worker devoted her life to serving the poor. And for this, we grant her the designation of the most powerful woman in the last 100 years. Mother Teresa became a global icon and the face of selfless support for others. Her Missionary of Charities organization was her vehicle to care for thousands of sick and dying people in Calcutta.

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She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. She was quoted saying, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.”

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