Anew year has begun, and so has a new decade. With 2020 ushering in a new period of possibilities and challenges, it is important to look back on the previous ten years and reflect on the women who have defined them. The 2010s have been an incredible time for women to thrive and excel in all areas of life, such as in literature, art, music, sport, politics, and academia. Ambitious, talented women have been breaking down the glass ceiling, overcoming professional and personal obstacles, as well as defying cultural boundaries, all while serving as inspirations for the next generation of women to emerge in this coming decade. While it has been almost impossible to narrow this down to merely ten women, since there are hundreds who deserved a place on this list, I chose these icons for their entrepreneurial spirit, persistence, work ethic and pure talent. So, without further ado, I present to you the ten most influential women of the previous decade:
Ambitious, talented women have been breaking down the glass ceiling, overcoming professional and personal obstacles, as well as defying cultural boundaries
A pop star, R&B and hip-hop musician, co-founder of fashion label Ivy Park, and CEO of record label Parkwood Entertainment. No wonder Beyoncé was voted by Forbes in 2014 as the world’s most powerful celebrity. Outspokenly a feminist, her 2013 single ‘Flawless’ from her self-titled album featured a snippet from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Her catchy and fiercely encouraging song ‘Run The World (Girls)’ serves as an infectious mantra of self-belief for her young, female audience. Most importantly, her 2016 visual album Lemonade broke the internet and went where no other musician had ever gone before. The emotions the album grappled with – anger, jealousy, pain, forgiveness, redemption – were poignantly captured and beautifully illustrated in her series of music videos, a case of art imitating life. More significantly, her performance at the 50th Super Bowl in 2016 was a powerful tribute to the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter and Malcom X – a clear expression of unashamed black pride and black femininity. Ultimately, it is her mix of entrepreneurship, black pride and artistry that makes her so influential and inspiring to women around the world, particularly women of colour.
While some may know her as the wife of Barack Obama, the 44th and first black President of the United States, Michelle is so much more than this in her own right. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, she worked in law firm Sidley Austin LLP and as the associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago before becoming First Lady. During Barack’s political career Michelle was subjected to various racial slurs, such as when Fox News’s Cal Thomas labelled Michelle an ‘Angry Black Woman’. Despite this abuse, Michelle excelled in her projects, particularly her ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign that focused on reducing childhood obesity through healthy eating and lifestyle choices, and her life-changing work with military families. Her ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative that began in 2015 sought to facilitate the education of the over 62 million girls across the world who were not in school. History was made when she successfully pushed through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, becoming one of only a few First Ladies to have legislation passed, this time in aid of more nutritional school meals more widely available to lower-income students.
A powerful ally of female rights, Michelle Obama has left a legacy that extends far beyond her husband’s presidency. Make sure to read her best-selling memoir ‘Becoming’ for more insight into the thoughts and feelings of this inspirational woman.
A powerful ally of female rights, Michelle Obama has left a legacy that extends far beyond her husband’s presidency
With 23 major singles titles under her belt for tennis, Serena was the highest-paid female athlete in 2016 and the only woman to feature in Forbes’ 2017 list of the 100 highest-paid athletes of the world. Whether she ever wins another tennis match in this new decade is irrelevant – she has already gone down in history as one of the best female athletes of all time. She is also unafraid to call out sexism and racial bias wherever she faces it. In 2018 she famously drew attention to the double standards within her sport after her male umpire penalised her for displaying anger on the court over a disputed code violation – a trait her male, white tennis colleagues regularly go unpunished for. By fighting for equality within the game Serena is helping to dismantle the stereotypes and power structures within the sport that disadvantage female, minority players. Off the court, Serena set up a school in Kenya in 2010 as a realisation of her life-long goal to “help kids and help people” in Africa. The aim to include at least 40% female attendance helps to narrow the participation gap within education between male and female students. It is this desire to better the world as well as her unmatchable talent that makes Serena a force to be reckoned with both on and off the tennis court.
Who among us does not know of this woman? A fierce campaigner for girls’ education across the world, her determination to go to school and protest against the Taliban’s ban of this resulted in an assassination attempt on her life in 2012 when she was just 15 years old. Since then, she has set up the Malala Fund with her father, a charity that tirelessly dedicates itself to helping women fight poverty, child marriage and gender discrimination, as well as helping them to receive an education like the one Malala was deprived of. For her courage and charitable work, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2014 and became the youngest-ever person to be a Nobel laureate. Her book, ‘I am Malala’, is fast-paced, insightful and appeals to every girl in the world who yearns for more than she has been given and is still owed.
The author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and its fantastic sequel ‘The Testaments’ that came out in 2019, Margaret Atwood’s fictional world has been applauded both for its eerie predictions of the future and alarming use of the past. Grounded in real laws and customs that have been used around the world, Atwood’s Gilead has shocked readers with its grit and dystopian horror. Adapted into a TV series and aired in 2017, the show has spurred viewers globally to contemplate the distance between Gilead and our current world, in an age where female rights are far from perfect and under threat in today’s political climate. Although ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published in 1985, the issues it grapples with (reproductive rights, terrorism, dictatorship) are still as relevant as ever, and have been reinvigorated by the visual impression left from watching the TV series. It is indisputable that Atwood’s literary genius is a rare find.
Rihanna is a household name. Known firstly for her domination of the music industry, specifically the genres of pop and R&B, she has since evolved her personal brand and disrupted both the makeup and fashion industries. Starting with the creation of Fenty Beauty in 2017, Rihanna was a pioneer in this field for the impressive range of shades within her collection so that women and men of every complexion felt seen and included in cosmetics. The success of her makeup line pushed other brands to diversify their shade ranges to include a wider demographic, something they would not necessarily have done if not spurred by such fierce and ground-breaking competition. Her Savage x Fenty lingerie line was also hailed as being innovative for its inclusion of pregnant, plus size and minority models both on the runway and in its campaign pictures. All the hype aside, Rihanna has stood for nothing but diversity and inclusivity this decade in some of the most exclusionary industries, and for that she thoroughly deserves her place on this list.
Rihanna has since evolved her personal brand and disrupted both the makeup and fashion industries.
This gymnast is one to watch. With an astounding total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals behind her, as well as being the namesake for two gymnastic moves, Simone is the most decorated gymnast in America and the third most decorated gymnast in the world. Her elaborate routines have shaken up her beloved sport and continue to infuse it with infectious dynamism. Not only dubbed as a ‘once in a lifetime’ athlete, she bravely chose to speak out in 2018 about her coach Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. Her testimony combined with many other girls coming forward secured his conviction and prevented others from potential harm. Her courage was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in July of that same year. Olympic Champion Mary Lou Retton has called Simone the “greatest gymnast ever”.
Credited with leading the development of an algorithm to visualise black holes, called the Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (CHIRP), Katie was just 29 years old when the first ever black hole image was created. This image revealed a black hole 500 million trillion kilometres from Earth, around 55 million light years away. Typically this natural phenomenon is invisible to the naked human eye, so by harnessing gigantic amounts of data and creating an algorithm to process it, Katie has paved the way in a new area of science. Despite the misogynistic backlash she faced online, Katie is proudly a role model to other STEM-orientated females and proof that women belong in this industry.
Credited with leading the development of an algorithm to visualise black holes, Katie was just 29 years old when the first ever black hole image was created
Phoebe’s wit and talent for creating beautifully complex characters have no equal. The woman behind ‘Fleabag’, ‘Killing Eve’, and the next ‘James Bond’, she has mastered both subtle comedy and outlandish humour, as well as finessing the art of breaking the fourth wall. Having collected a wide range of awards for her work, it is exciting to see what she will create next. What is particularly brilliant about Phoebe is her ability to create and portray complicated, loveable yet detestable characters, that evade boring one-dimensional stereotypes too often found on our TV screens. The complexity behind these characters is a refreshing reflection of real life and real women, and her performance is often heartfelt and unashamedly raw. May her genius continue to be a pioneer in this new age of television.
Well known for her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix Original series ‘Orange is the New Black’, Laverne has been a trailblazer for the transgender community. Her time on the show earned her a nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award, making her the first openly transgender person to be considered for this achievement. In 2015, Laverne won a Daytime Emmy Award as Executive Producer for her own show, ‘Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word’. This meant that she became the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an Executive Producer, and in 2017, Laverne also became the first transgender person to play a transgender regular character on broadcast TV, as Cameron Wirth in CBS’s ‘Doubt’. Significantly, she was chosen by Megan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, as one of fifteen women to feature on the front cover of the British Vogue September 2019 issue. Already experienced in dismantling barriers and marking new territory for the transgender community, this made her the first openly transgender woman to appear on the cover of any British Vogue ever.