The Greatest Renaissance Women in American History

Voting Rules
People on this list must be 1) American women who 2) have proven expertise in more than one field. Can be from any time in American history.

While many technical and scientific professions were closed off to women until recently, renaissance women still managed to make their mark on American history. These polymaths excelled in a wide range of fields, from business to medicine to politics. Famous renaissance women have led incredible lives while breaking the traditional barriers that kept them out of their fields.

Did you know that Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States while also being a prominent social and moral reformer? Or that actress Hedy Lamarr also helped invent innovative radio communications technology that's used in modern Wi-Fi? Or that TV chef and author Julia Child was also an intelligence officer in World War II whose activities weren't declassified until 2008?

These American women changed history and excelled in multiple fields, while usually also balancing the rigors of family life and raising children. Upvote the most remarkable renaissance woman or women you see below and add any talented females throughout American history who have made a difference and excelled in a variety fields, arts, and industries.

  • Grace Hopper
    Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images
    1
    363 VOTES
    Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (née Murray December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992) was an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. One of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, she was a pioneer of computer programming who invented one of the first linkers. She popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, an early high-level programming language still in use today. Prior to joining the Navy, Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University and was a professor of mathematics at Vassar College. Hopper attempted to enlist in the Navy during World War II but was rejected because she was 34 years old. She instead joined the Navy Reserves. Hopper began her computing career in 1944 when she worked on the Harvard Mark I team led by Howard H. Aiken. In 1949, she joined the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation and was part of the team that developed the UNIVAC I computer. At Eckert–Mauchly she began developing the compiler. She believed that a programming language based on English was possible. Her compiler converted English terms into machine code understood by computers. By 1952, Hopper had finished her program linker (originally called a compiler), which was written for the A-0 System. During her wartime service, she co-authored three papers based on her work on the Harvard Mark 1. In 1954, Eckert–Mauchly chose Hopper to lead their department for automatic programming, and she led the release of some of the first compiled languages like FLOW-MATIC. In 1959, she participated in the CODASYL consortium, which consulted Hopper to guide them in creating a machine-independent programming language. This led to the COBOL language, which was inspired by her idea of a language being based on English words. In 1966, she retired from the Naval Reserve, but in 1967 the Navy recalled her to active duty. She retired from the Navy in 1986 and found work as a consultant for the Digital Equipment Corporation, sharing her computing experiences. The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper was named for her, as was the Cray XE6 "Hopper" supercomputer at NERSC. During her lifetime, Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities across the world. A college at Yale University was renamed in her honor. In 1991, she received the National Medal of Technology. On November 22, 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
    • Age: Dec. at 85 (1906-1992)
    • Birthplace: New York City, New York
    • Profession: Programmer, Mathematician, Computer scientist, Scientist
    363 votes
  • 2
    344 VOTES
    Hedy Lamarr (), born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler; November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000) was an Austrian-born American film actress and inventor.After a brief early film career in Czechoslovakia, including the controversial Ecstasy (1933), she fled from her husband, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, and secretly moved to Paris. Traveling to London, she met Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood. She became a film star with her performance in Algiers (1938). Her MGM films include Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and White Cargo (1942). Her greatest success was as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949). She also acted on television before the release of her final film, The Female Animal (1958). She was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.At the beginning of World War II, she and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, intended to use frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Although the US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, various spread-spectrum techniques are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi. This work led to their induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
    • Age: Dec. at 85 (1914-2000)
    • Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
    • Profession: Pin-up girl, Inventor, Scientist, Actor, Engineer
    344 votes
  • Sally Ride
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    3
    253 VOTES
    Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was an American astronaut and physicist. Born in Los Angeles, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983. Ride was the third woman in space overall, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). Ride remains the youngest American astronaut to have traveled to space, having done so at the age of 32. After flying twice on the Orbiter Challenger, she left NASA in 1987. Ride worked for two years at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego as a professor of physics, primarily researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering. She served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, the only person to participate in both. Ride died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012.
    • Age: Dec. at 61 (1951-2012)
    • Birthplace: Los Angeles, USA, California
    • Profession: Physicist, Astronaut
    253 votes
  • Maria Goeppert Mayer (June 28, 1906 – February 20, 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She was the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, the first being Marie Curie. A graduate of the University of Göttingen, Goeppert Mayer wrote her doctoral thesis on the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms. At the time, the chances of experimentally verifying her thesis seemed remote, but the development of the laser permitted this. Today, the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section is named the Goeppert Mayer (GM) unit. Maria Goeppert married Joseph Edward Mayer and moved to the United States, where he was an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. Strict rules against nepotism prevented Johns Hopkins University from taking her on as a faculty member, but she was given a job as an assistant and published a landmark paper on double beta decay in 1935. In 1937, she moved to Columbia University, where she took an unpaid position. During World War II, she worked for the Manhattan Project at Columbia on isotope separation, and with Edward Teller at the Los Alamos Laboratory on the development of the Teller's "Super" bomb. After the war, Goeppert Mayer became a voluntary associate professor of Physics at the University of Chicago (where Teller and her husband worked) and a senior physicist at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory. She developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, which she shared with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. In 1960, she was appointed full professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.
    • Age: Dec. at 65 (1906-1972)
    • Birthplace: Katowice, Poland
    • Profession: Physicist
    217 votes
  • 5
    209 VOTES

    Judith Resnik

    Judith Arlene Resnik (; April 5, 1949 – January 28, 1986) was an American electrical engineer, software engineer, biomedical engineer, pilot and NASA astronaut who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed during the launch of mission STS-51-L. Resnik was the second American woman in space and the fourth woman in space worldwide, logging 145 hours in orbit. She was also the first Jewish American in space and the first Jewish woman of any nationality in space. The IEEE Judith Resnik Award for space engineering is named in her honor. Initially planning to be a concert pianist, Resnik turned down a place at the Juilliard School of Music, choosing instead to study at Carnegie Mellon University after being 1 of only 16 women in the history of the United States to have attained a perfect score on the SAT exam at the time. She went on to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon before attaining a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. Recognised while still a child for her "intellectual brilliance", Resnik went on to work for RCA as an engineer on NASA missile and radar projects, was a senior systems engineer for Xerox Corporation and published research on special purpose integrated circuitry before she was recruited by NASA to the astronaut program as a mission specialist at age 28. While training on the astronaut program, she developed software and operating procedures for NASA missions. She was also a pilot and made research contributions to biomedical engineering as a research fellow of biomedical engineering at the National Institutes of Health.
    • Age: Dec. at 36 (1949-1986)
    • Birthplace: Akron, Ohio
    • Profession: Astronaut, Scientist, Engineer
    209 votes
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (; October 11, 1884 – November 7, 1962) was an American political figure, diplomat and activist. She served as the First Lady of the United States from March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in office, making her the longest serving First Lady of the United States. Roosevelt served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952.President Harry S. Truman later called her the "First Lady of the World" in tribute to her human rights achievements.Roosevelt was a member of the prominent American Roosevelt and Livingston families and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She had an unhappy childhood, having suffered the deaths of both parents and one of her brothers at a young age. At 15, she attended Allenwood Academy in London and was deeply influenced by its headmistress Marie Souvestre. Returning to the U.S., she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. The Roosevelts' marriage was complicated from the beginning by Franklin's controlling mother, Sara, and after Eleanor discovered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, she resolved to seek fulfillment in leading a public life of her own. She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics after he was stricken with a paralytic illness in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs, and began giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin's election as Governor of New York in 1928, and throughout the remainder of Franklin's public career in government, Roosevelt regularly made public appearances on his behalf, and as First Lady, while her husband served as President, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role of First Lady. Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady at the time for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights for African-Americans. She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. On a few occasions, she publicly disagreed with her husband's policies. She launched an experimental community at Arthurdale, West Virginia, for the families of unemployed miners, later widely regarded as a failure. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Following her husband's death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life. She pressed the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later, she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, Roosevelt was regarded as "one of the most esteemed women in the world"; The New York Times called her "the object of almost universal respect" in an obituary.In 1999, she was ranked ninth in the top ten of Gallup's List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century.
    • Age: Dec. at 78 (1884-1962)
    • Birthplace: New York City, USA, New York
    • Profession: Politician, Diplomat, Author, Writer
    314 votes