In celebration of International Women’s Day we’re sharing 5 inspiring stories of women who have championed girls’ education and made an impact on the world. Whether it was through music, advocacy, or education, these are the kinds of stories that move us to take action in our own communities.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Let’s start with Mary McLeod Bethune. As one of 17 children, Mary started her life as part of a vibrant and energetic family. She was born in 1875, 10 years after the American Civil War ended, and at a time when it was rare for African-Americans, particularly women, to be allowed an education.
At the turn of the 20th century, she opened a boarding school that would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) , issuing its first degree in 1943. Since 1943, Bethune-Cookman University has graduated more than 19,000 students.
Dr. Bethune was a political activist, founding numerous organisations along with being an active leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also a bold voice speaking around the country about registering women to vote after they were able to do so in 1920.
She would eventually go on to be an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and become the highest-ranking Black official in the US government at the time. She was a true champion of girls’ education and women’s rights.
Angelique Kidjo is an internationally acclaimed musician and activist. Born in 1960 in the small West African country of Benin, she comes from a long line of performers. As a child she sang in a band with her siblings. By 1983 she ventured farther afield to Paris where she discovered a diverse mix of musical genres and artists willing to experiment blending ideas together.
It is during this time that she began to explore the sounds of jazz, hip-hop, zouk, and funk to name just a few. She received a Grammy in 2015 for Best Global Music Album and has performed with celebrated artists such as jazz dynamo Branford Marsalis and Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz.
Beyond her love of music, Angelique is a passionate advocate for women’s education and healthcare. Working with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) she has been a Goodwill Ambassador since 2002.
In this role, she has travelled around the globe giving musical performances as well as speaking out on the importance of educating women, eradicating polio, and encouraging increased support for children infected with HIV/AIDS.
Angelique is also the founder of the Batonga Foundation, an organisation that champions opportunities for African girls in secondary school and university.
Next, we have Zainab Salbi. From an early age Zainab has been determined to pave the way for women to thrive and survive both internationally and in her native Iraq.
Her memoir Hidden in Plain Sight: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam tells the story of her coming of age in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. Zainab is now a world-renowned author, having written several books along with interviewing the likes of Oprah Winfrey and hosting a number of television series.
When she was just 23 years old, she created Women for Women International. This organisation was designed to serve female survivors of wars by providing them with support as well as teaching them skills that would empower them to be financially independent.
During her nearly 20 years as CEO (1993-2011) the organisation was able to help more than 400,000 women while also distributing more than $100 million in direct aid and microcredit loans.
Zainab Salbi has even been a speaker at the prestigious Simmons Leadership Conference for women, which is hosted by our partner university in Boston, Simmons University.
Growing up in the early 2000s in Los Angeles, California, Amanda Gorman started writing when she was just a few years old. During her teens she was a youth delegate for the United Nations. This was inspired by her admiration of the young Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai who is herself a women’s advocate from Pakistan.
By 2016 Amanda had founded a non-profit organisation called One Pen One Page to support young people to become writers and leaders in their communities. While attending Harvard University, Amanda was selected as the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.
That opportunity paved the way for her to reach a wider audience both in the US and abroad. She shared her message of hope reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris in January 2021. She is the youngest poet ever to read at this event.
Jacinda Ardern is a name you may recognise due to her successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Jacinda was born in 1983 to a middle-class family. At an early age, she became interested in politics by helping her aunt Marie campaign for a ministerial position in the Labour Party.
She began to work within the party and quickly rose through the ranks. When she was sworn in as the 40th prime minister of the country at the age of 37, she became the youngest woman in the world to head a government. She later became the second woman to give birth while running a nation.
As the country’s prime minister, she was presented with the challenging task of leading her country through a pandemic. In March 2020, Jacinda quickly implemented a nationwide lockdown requiring citizens to remain home unless they were essential workers.
She also closed the country’s borders early and introduced a 14-day isolation period for people entering the country. Jacinda’s quick response to the pandemic means New Zealand is one of the first countries with an almost 0% infection rate.
In addition to her successful response to the pandemic, Ardern makes education and healthcare a top priority. She has introduced policies such as making the first year of post-secondary education free, and providing free menstrual hygiene products in schools.
Shape the world with an international education
All of the women presented here have shown a commitment to making the education of women a key part of their work. They are women who have championed girls’ education and exemplify daring and fortitude in a world that is not always ready to embrace change-makers.
You too could follow in their footsteps and shape the world in your own way. Browse our study options and see how you can study abroad and shape the future.