9 Women Who Changed the World
Faith was the foundation for each one’s courage and action.
By Danielle Hance
This December, images of a meek and mild Virgin Mary will fill nativity scenes and line Christmas cards. However, what many people don’t know is that the young mother with a creamy complexion and an angelic glow was quite the woman of courage.
Being an unwed mother in biblical times would have put her in danger of death by stoning. And Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is so passionate, powerful, and revolutionary in its message of God’s deliverance of the poor, it has even been banned in multiple countries by regimes that found it threatening.
The stereotype of a Christian woman might be the modest, submissive, stay-at-home mother who teaches Sunday school. While these women are incredibly valuable, it is often the strong visionary women who have a hard time fitting the mold of what seems to be expected of them by the church. However, many women have had bold faith and an inner fortitude God has used to change our world. Here are just a few of them:
1. Gladys Aylward
Short in stature but giant in resolve, Gladys Aylward lived out her call to China with nearly fearless determination. The English woman almost didn’t even make it to China, being forced off of a train of Russian soldiers and having to walk by foot to Siberia to take another train that would eventually lead her to China.
Gladys started running an inn with another missionary. When that missionary died, Gladys couldn’t sustain the inn by herself, but local government officials soon asked her to become a foot inspector (it was the 1930s and China had just passed laws against female foot-binding).
When war broke out against Japan, Gladys served as a Chinese spy and took in more than 100 war orphans. In 1940, when it was no longer safe to be in Northern China, Gladys traveled over mountains with all of the children for 12 days to a refugee camp. Her life is featured in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
2. Corrie Ten Boom
The ten Boom family ran a watch shop that they lived above in Haarlem, Netherlands. They were known to care for their neighbors. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the ten Boom family housed many Jews and underground workers. Corrie was a leader in the underground movement and recruited families to hide many Jews, saving upwards of 800 people. The family also hid Jews in a cleverly disguised room. The ten Booms were so meticulous in their work that even when the family was betrayed and sent to concentration camps, the Jews they were hiding survived.
Corrie was the only one of her family to make it out of the concentration camps alive, but her story did not end there. She sensed a great need for reconciliation and forgiveness after the atrocities of the Holocaust. After the war, she traveled to more than 60 countries, preaching God’s ability to give us the love to forgive our enemies.
Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” for her work leading hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Securing freedom for herself was not enough. After becoming liberated in 1849, she took 19 trips into slave territory to rescue others. Her leadership is believed to have led at least 300 slaves to freedom.
Her work required great courage and faith. She carried a revolver and would hold at gunpoint slaves who thought about turning back; she knew that anyone who left the group could betray the whole mission and put many lives in danger. She never had to pull the trigger, but she took her role—and her faith—seriously. Tubman said she listened carefully to the voice of God to tell her where to go, and it paid off. She never lost one “passenger” on her route from bondage to freedom.
4. Brené Brown
Brené Brown may be best known for her TED Talk on vulnerability, but she is also a woman of faith. Brené once left the church in favor of science, but later realized the two did not need to be mutually exclusive.
Brené has examined vulnerability and faith. She discovered at their intersection that faith does not take away the pain of vulnerability, but that it serves as a midwife—helping us to push through life’s most difficult moments.
Her emotional courage to study and speak about vulnerability has inspired millions to form authentic connections through empathy and love.
5. Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler is one of the “other Schindlers” responsible for rescuing thousands of Jewish children. The Polish-Catholic woman went into the Warsaw ghetto using many different methods, including an ambulance and a stretcher to hide children, traveling through sewer pipes and other underground tunnels, using trolleys and hiding children in luggage, or using a truck with a dog to distract inspectors.
Irena was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death, but escaped when the underground organization she served bribed the guards. After the war, she reunited the children with Jewish relatives, although many of the children’s parents had died in concentration camps. It is estimated Irena and her colleagues saved upwards of 2,500 Jewish children.
6. Angela Merkel
Time magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year and Germany’s chancellor has a faith that runs deep. One of her core beliefs is valuing all of humanity as image-bearers of God. This has been put into action with her commitment to helping refugees. Germany has accepted more refugees than any other Western nation. In 2015 alone, Germany accepted nearly 150,000 asylum applications.
Angela has written and spoken extensively of her faith and made it clear that it is an influence on her life. She grew up in a faith-based center for people suffering from mental and physical disabilities, and compassion for her neighbor has made a large statement to the world.
7. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a celebrated writer and civil rights activist. She worked alongside Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and wrote her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and numerous other books, plays, and poems. Caged Bird wasn’t always celebrated. The disclosure of her sexual abuse caused it to be banned by several schools.
Maya testified that her faith in God, and more importantly, her knowledge of being a child of God, allowed her to be courageous. Her platform rested on her conviction that people are “more alike . . . than unalike” and that she needed to recognize each person as a child of God. She told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “If God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?”
8. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion for the disadvantaged, working for social justice for the oppressed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s widow played a pivotal role in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, chairing the United Nations committee that drafted it. She presided over a group of nearly all men in an era—1946 to 1948—when female leadership was frowned upon.
Eleanor strongly believed that the life of Christ was a model for the principles that a nation needed to uphold to be successful. According to the Institute on Religion and Public Life, she once said, “If Americans would only develop the fundamental beliefs and desires which make us considerate of the weak and truly anxious to see a Christ-like spirit on earth, we will have educated ourselves for Democracy.”
9. Harriet Beecher Stowe
One of her critics described her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a “verbal earthquake,” and even Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying upon their meeting in 1863, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
While Harriet may not have been single-handedly responsible for starting the Civil War, which ended slavery in the United States, the value of human life that permeated the book did bring about consciousness of slavery and its horrors.
She learned firsthand about slavery by networking with the Underground Railroad on the Ohio-Kentucky border, helping some slaves find their freedom, but this wasn’t enough for her. It was during a church service when she envisioned the scene of Tom’s death and began to write her pivotal novel that served as a catalyst for abolition.
Danielle Hance is working on her Master of Arts in Expressive Arts Therapy and hopes to specialize in counseling for victims of spiritual and religious abuse.