Throughout history, women have fought to have their voices heard. Despite still facing numerous obstacles, in today’s world, many powerful women are CEOs, industry leaders, and political representatives. Learn about some of the top women CEOs, business leaders, and political leaders who are changing the United States—and the world—and paving the way for generations to come.
A Brief History of Women’s Leadership in the United States
While there is no one specific moment that led to the creation of women’s leadership in the US, there are some pivotal events and people who had a strong hand in shaping how women lead today.
The U.S. has never had a female president, but many other countries around the world had female leaders starting many centuries ago. From Hatshepsut, Egypt’s pharaoh (1508 BCE– 1458 BCE) to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) to Golda Meir (1898–1978), Israel’s only woman prime minister, to Germany’s current Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, women have shaped the world for thousands of years.
The Seneca Falls Convention
Abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with many other influential women of the period, convened what would be the first women’s rights convention at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. As leaders of the women’s movement, the attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which mirrored the Declaration of Independence but used gender-neutral language and explicitly expressed that women should be considered equal to men. The convention also propelled the women’s suffrage movement, in which these key figures, along with Susan B. Anthony and other women and men fought for—and after many years won—the right to vote.
As the first lady from 1933–1945, Eleanor Roosevelt created a new role for a president’s wife. While previous first ladies had remained largely in the background, Roosevelt often appeared on Franklin Roosevelt’s behalf and championed causes that were important to her, especially civil rights and human rights. In shaping a new role for the first lady, she held press conferences, published her opinions in magazines and newspapers, and hosted a weekly radio show. She was also active in the Democratic party and spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Because of her efforts, she was often criticized for her “outspokenness.”
After her husband’s death, she remained active in the human rights sphere. It was largely due to her efforts that the United States joined the United Nations, and she was the first US delegate to the UN. She also chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women during John F. Kennedy’s administration.
The changing face of industries
From politics to medicine to journalism, women broke the glass ceilings of their industries and paved the way for future female leaders.
After a dying friend told her a female doctor could have spared her of her worst suffering, Elizabeth Blackwell decided to pursue a medical degree. In 1849, she became the first woman to earn an M.D. Blackwell opened her own dispensary after she was unable to find work elsewhere, and later, after expanding the practice, she and her sister, along with Marie Zakrzewska, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which trained women doctors and provided medical care for the poor.
Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1916 after championing women’s right to vote in Washington State and Montana. Rankin served two separate terms (1917–1919 and 1939–1943) and was instrumental in passing the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
After the death of her husband, Philip Graham, in 1962, Katherine Graham assumed his role as the head of The Washington Post. She made her way from de facto publisher to publisher to president to CEO and finally, in 1973, became chairwoman of the board. After presiding over the business during the publication of the Pentagon papers and the expose of the Watergate scandal, she became the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Women’s Leadership Styles
Attitudes and perceptions about women leaders certainly play a role in how they manage their organizations and employees. According to the late Bernard Bass, a leadership scholar, women are more likely to embrace the transformational style of leadership than their male counterparts. Transformational leadership focuses on involving employees in decisions and helping them grow into leaders themselves.
Bass also predicted that the majority of leaders will be women by the year 2034.
Top Female CEOs
- Indra Nooyi
Born and raised in India, Nooyi worked in several management capacities before joining PepsiCo in 1994. She became CFO of the food and beverage giant in 2001 and was named president and CEO in 2006, becoming the fifth person to lead the company.
Nooyi has overseen a huge increase in profit during her tenure at PepsiCo and has lead initiatives including focusing on healthier alternatives to junk food. She is also looking to develop a line of snacks marketed specifically to women.
- Meg Whitman
The former president and CEO at both Hewlett Packard Enterprise and eBay originally got her start as a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble. Whitman joined eBay in 1998 when the company had 30 employees and grossed $4 million. Under her leadership, the company was grossing $8 billion and had 15,000 employees by the end of 2008. Whitman also runs a charitable foundation with her husband, Harsh, called the Griffith R. Harsh IV and Margaret C. Whitman Charitable Foundation
- Mary Barra
Barra has been CEO of General Motors since 2014. She graduated from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and began working at the automobile company at the age of 18 to help pay for her college tuition. She became the first woman to helm an automobile manufacturer when she assumed her current role in 2014. She is famous for urging GM to put the customer first and shepherding the company into the automated driverless car space.
- Ginni Rometty
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty is the first woman to head IBM as chair, president, and CEO. After working at the General Motors Institute, Rometty joined IBM as systems analyst and systems engineer in 1981. She held several leadership positions before becoming CEO in 2012. Under her leadership, the IBM entered the cloud computing space and developed the Jeopardy! computer player Watson for commercial use.
- Safra Catz
Born in Israel, Catz emigrated to the United States at the age of six. She joined Oracle Corporation in 1999 after holding several banking and leadership positions. In 2011, she became co-president and CFO of the tech giant, and in 2014, she was named CEO, a position she now holds in addition to remaining as CFO. In 2017, Catz was the highest paid female CEO of a U.S. company.
- Abigail Johnson
Abigail Johnson is president and CEO of Fidelity Investments, which was founded by her grandfather, Edward C. Johnson II. She joined the investment firm in 1988 and, after holding several executive positions, was named CEO in 2014. In 2016, she was named chairman.
- Ursula Burns
Burns was raised by a single mother after her parents emigrated from Panama, where she was born. Her career began at Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and she held roles at the company throughout the decade before becoming executive assistant to Wayland Hicks in 1990. Working her way up, she became president in 2007 and CEO in 2009. Succeeding Anne Mulcahy, she became the first woman to succeed another woman as leader of a Fortune 500 company—as well as the first black woman CEO to ever head a Fortune 500 company. Today, she serves as chairwoman of VEON and senior advisor to Teneo.
- Susan Wojcicki
Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually began Google in Wojcicki’s garage. In 1999, she became the company’s first marketing manager. Later, she became senior vice president of Advertising & Commerce and proposed and oversaw the acquisition of YouTube. She became YouTube’s CEO in 2014 and has overseen a number of initiatives. Under her leadership, the percentage of women at the company has risen from 24 percent to nearly 30.
- Marissa Mayer
Mayer joined Google to write code and oversee a team of engineers as the 20th employee in 1999. She moved her way up, and in 2011, she headed the Local, Maps, and Location Services. She was appointed president of CEO of Yahoo! in 2012. Despite criticism of her management, Mayer took steps to improve the company’s culture, such as lengthening maternity leave for employees and giving cash bonuses to parents. Mayer resigned from Yahoo! in 2017.
- Sheryl Sandberg
Although Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t officially looking for a COO for Facebook, in 2007, when he met Sandberg at a party, he knew she was the perfect fit. Zuckerberg hired her away from Google, when Sandberg was vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations, in 2008, to serve as Facebook’s number 2 executive. Today, Sandberg is also well known for writing Lean In, the bestselling book urging women to take control of their careers and fight against barriers preventing them from assuming leadership roles. She later founded LeanIn.org, which aims to empower women to achieve their goals.
- Anne Sweeney
After an illustrious career as a television executive, Sweeney joined The Walt Disney Company as president of Disney Channel and executive vice president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. She was later appointed president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. Under her leadership, the company launched Toon Disney and SOAPnet. In 2014, she left Disney to become a television director.
The senior vice president of retail strategy and online stores is the highest-paid employee at Apple. She got her start in fashion, serving as CEO of Burberry until Tim Cook offered her current position at Apple in 2014. She’s credited with overhauling and redesigning Apple stores to give them the feel of a “town square.”
- Melinda Gates
Gates met her husband while working as a product manager at Microsoft. The couple launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on healthcare, reducing poverty, and expanding access to education and information technology, in 2000, and today, it is considered the largest private foundation in the U.S., with $38 billion in assets. She has been recognized individually and alongside her husband, including being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.
Top Female Political Leaders
- Hillary Clinton
An advocate for healthcare reform and gender equality, Clinton redefined the role of the first lady while her husband was president from 1993–2001. Previously, she had co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and was appointed the chair of the Legal Services Corporation and partner at Rose Law Firm, the first woman to hold either position. In 2000, she sought her own political career, winning a seat in the New York Senate, the first woman to do so. She made her first presidential bid in the Democratic primary in 2008, losing to Barack Obama. Obama nominated her to become Secretary of State, and she served from 2009–2013 before she ran for president again in 2016. In the second primary, she became the first female presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party. After losing the election, she launched Onward Together.
- Nancy Pelosi
Pelosi became involved in politics early on. In 1987, she won a special election to succeed Sala Burton as congresswoman in San Francisco, who had designated Pelosi as her successor before her passing. In 2001, she became the first woman to be elected as House Minority Whip. In 2006, the Democratic party took control of the House and unanimously selected Pelosi to serve as Speaker of the House. She was the first woman to serve in the position. Today, she continues to represent California's 12th congressional district and is Minority Leader of the House.
- Condoleezza Rice
As the 66th U.S. Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s administration, Rice was the first female African American to hold the position. She was also the first woman to serve as National Security Advisor, a position she held prior to her appointment of Secretary of State. Rice had previously worked in the state department under Carter. She was also provost at Stanford. Today, she is on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business and director of Stanford’s Global Center for Business and the Economy.
- Janet Napolitano
As a partner at Lewis and Roca LLP, Napolitano was the attorney for Anita Hill, who testified that in U.S. Senate hearings Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. She was appointed as U.S. Attorney for Arizona by Bill Clinton in 1993, and ran for and won the position of Arizona Attorney General in 1998. From 2003–2009, she served as Arizona’s governor and was appointed U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security by Obama, serving from 2009–2013. After resigning in 2013, she became president of the University of California system.
- Barbara Boxer
Boxer’s long career in politics began when she served as an aide to U.S. Representative John L. Burton. She also became the first female president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and in 1982, after running with the slogan, “Barbara Boxer gives a damn,” she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent California District 6. She served as a congresswoman for 10 years before winning a Senate seat. She and Dianne Feinstein were the first women to serve as senators of the same state simultaneously. When she retired in 2017, she was the 11th most senior member of the U.S. Senate.
- Gabrielle Giffords
Giffords served in the U.S. House of Representative, representing Arizona's 8th congressional district from 2007 until her resignation in 2012. In 2011, she survived an assassination attempt while she was meeting with constituents at a Safeway supermarket. She sustained a brain injury and left Congress to focus on her recovery.
- Dianne Feinstein
The longest current-serving U.S. senator, Feinstein has represented California since 1992. She was previously mayor of San Francisco. Feinstein began working in city government in the 1960 and served as the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Along with Barbara Boxer, she was one of California’s first female senators and the only woman to have presided over a U.S. presidential inauguration—Barack Obama’s in 2009—as chair of the Joint Congressional Committee.
Top Female Entrepreneurs
- Sara Blakely
As a door-to-door saleswoman at Danka, Blakely had to wear pantyhose. She appreciated the support of the control top, but disliked the feel and look of the feet and experimented by cutting the bottoms off. She began developing her idea for Spanx at the age of 27, and after several companies rejected her idea, a male mill operator in North Carolina lent his support, noting that his daughters had encouraged the idea. A meeting with Neiman Marcus led to the group carrying the product in seven stores. Other department stores followed suit, and Spanx’s had a breakthrough when Oprah Winfrey named the product one of her “favorite things” in 2000.
- Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington (née Stasinopoúlou) was born in Greece. She began her career in music in Britain, before turning her attention to writing. She moved to New York in 1980, where she gained prominence as a vocal Conservative, particularly when her then-husband Michael Huffington sought a Senate seat in 1994. Her view changed over the years, and she ran against California Governor Gray Davis as an independent in 2003 but later withdrew. Along with her co-founders, she launched the liberal news and opinion blog and website The Huffington Post in 2005. AOL acquired The Huffington Post in 2011 and made Huffington president and editor-in-chief. She stepped down in 2016 to focus on Thrive Global, her new health and wellness startup.
- Martha Stewart
While working as a stockbroker, Stewart and her husband, Andrew, purchased a farmhouse, and she became involved in the restoration and decorating process. She made ventures into the catering world, opening her own store after being forced out as manager of the Market Basket. After catering a book release party for a Harry N. Abrams, where her Andrew was the publisher, Alan Mirken, publisher of Crown, contracted her to write a book, beginning a long publishing relationship. In 1990, she established the magazine Martha Stewart Living, and in 1997, she and business partner Sharon Patrick created Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, with Stewart serving as chairman, president, and CEO.
- Wendy Kopp
Noting that many of her peers wanted to make a real difference and teaching was the way to do it, Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her undergraduate thesis at Princeton in 1989. She founded the organization after graduating, recruiting 500 recent graduates to join in 1990. In 2007, she sought to expand the framework by establishing Teach For All, which apply TFA’s model in countries around the world. Kopp stepped down as CEO in 2013 and remains a board member.
- Sheila Lirio Marcelo
As a college student and Filipina immigrant, Marcelo lacked a support network after giving birth to her son. Her father suffered a heart attack while he was helping her care for her second child, and Marcelo needed to care for him as well as her sons. Realizing there was a need to for families to find care for their loved ones, she founded Care.com, which helps families find care for children, seniors, special needs individuals, and pets, tutoring, housekeeping, and other needs. The site has more than 17.8 million members.
- Tory Burch
Burch worked for several designers, including Zoran, Vera Wang, and Polo Ralph Lauren in design, marketing, and public relations capacities before establishing her label, TRB by Tory Burch. In 2004, a retail store in Manhattan carried the label—which would later be known as Tory Burch—and nearly sold out the inventory within the first day. Oprah Winfrey promoted her line on air in 2005. Today, the company has 200 stores and is carried in more than 3,000 stores around the world.
- Dianne Von Fürstenberg
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Von Fürstenberg (nee Halfin) was born in Belgium and married German Prince Egon von Fürstenberg. The couple divorced in 1983. She worked as an assistant to a fashion photographer’s agent in Paris and became an apprentice to Angelo Ferretti in Italy, where she designed her first silk jersey wrap dress. After moving to New York, she met Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who admired her designs. Her business essentially launched during New York Fashion Week, where she was listed on the Fashion Calendar. Today, her brand is headquartered in Manhattan and available in more than 70 countries. She is also president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
- Oprah Winfrey
Born in poverty to a teenage single mother, Winfrey faced numerous obstacles growing up. She got her first job in radio in high school and, after co-anchoring the local evening news at 19, she moved to a daytime talk show. She was responsible for substantially boosting the ratings, and she launched her own production company. Though it ended in 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show remains the highest-rated television show of its kind in history. She is also the first multibillionaire black person in North America. Winfrey has dominated other forms of media through her magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, films, books, and radio shows.
- Lynda Weinman
Weinman, who taught herself computer skills, established the website Lynda.com in 1995 originally as a free resource for her digital media and motion graphics students at Art Center College of Design. She then used the space to promote her web design books, before turning it into an online hub for physical class and conference registration. The site evolved into its current role as a virtual library hosting software and technology courses in a wide range of subjects. Weinman sold the site to LinkedIn in 2015.
- Angie Hicks
After Hicks interned at venture capital firm CID Equity Partners, Bill Oesterle recruited her to start Columbus Neighbors, which would collect and publish reviews of home and lawn services in Columbus, Ohio. Going door-to-door, Hicks recruited 1,000 members in just one year. Renamed Angie’s List, the company moved headquarters to Indianapolis and acquired Unified Neighbors. With more than 700 service categories, Angie’s List offered more than 10 million verified reviews of local services. IAC acquired the company in 2017 and merged it with IAC HomeAdvisor to become ANGI Homeservices Inc. Hicks services as chief customer officer.
What Does It Take to Lead?
As leaders, these women inspire, shape, and drive us in our own pursuits. To learn more about what it takes to be a top female leader, read:
- 5 Reasons Strategic Leaders Need to Ask Good Questions
- 8 Ways to Build a More Successful Women's Resource Group at Your Company
- 6 Inspiring Women Who Are Changing the Definition of Executive Leadership
About the Career Expert:
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.