25 of History's Greatest Moms
With their words, actions, and unconditional love, mothers have a profound influence on their children. Our mothers give us life, nurture us, and support us as we grow from babies to adults. They teach us, take care of us, and give us advice (wanted or unwanted!), and often provide this sort of motherly presence for many others in their lives as well. To celebrate Mother’s Day, here are 25 of history’s greatest moms.
1. MARIE CURIE
Although scientist Marie Curie (1867—1934) is best known for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she also raised her two young daughters alone after her husband died in an accident in 1906. One of their daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, went on to co-win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband for their own work with radioactivity. Joliot-Curie said her mother instilled hard work and flexibility in her children: “That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life—this our mother has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following.”
2. SOJOURNER TRUTH
In 1826, Sojourner Truth (circa 1797—1883) and her baby daughter escaped slavery in Ulster County, New York. Soon after her escape, she heard that her 5-year-old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a man in Alabama. Truth raised money for a lawyer, filed a complaint in court, and successfully got Peter out of slavery—a landmark case in which a black woman successfully sued a white man in court. Truth went on to become a Christian preacher in New York City and toured the northeast, speaking about the Bible, abolition, and women’s suffrage.
3. ABIGAIL ADAMS
As the wife of President John Adams, Abigail Adams (1744 —1818) was the second First Lady of the United States. Because her husband was often away from home for work, she often single-handedly ran their farm, wrote letters supporting equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery, and educated their five kids who survived into childhood—including future president John Quincy Adams. Quincy Adams wrote: "My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence."
4. IRENA SENDLER
Irena Sendler (1910—2008) was a Polish employee at the Warsaw Social Welfare Department who smuggled almost 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, saving their lives. Using the code name Jolanta, she gave these children false identification documents, established temporary (non-Jewish) identities for them, and placed them in convents, orphanages, and Christian homes. Although the Nazis arrested her, tortured her, and sentenced her to execution (she survived because the Gestapo was bribed), she didn’t give them any information about the whereabouts of the children or the inner workings of her smuggling operation. A mother of three kids herself, Sendler received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle award in 2003.
5. KATHY HEADLEE
Kathy Headlee, a mother of seven (the youngest of whom she adopted from Romania), started Mothers Without Borders to help orphaned children around the world. Beginning in 1992, she led a group of volunteers to distribute relief supplies to orphanages and train caregivers in Romania. Since then, Mothers Without Borders has sent volunteers to help children in Bolivia, Bosnia, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Nepal.
6. J.K. ROWLING
J.K. Rowling wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother (while briefly receiving state benefits to get by), and she now serves as the president of Gingerbread, an organization that works with single parents and their children find resources and programs to help them succeed. “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life,” Rowling said of that time and the work she put in. For Mother’s Day 2016 in the UK (which occurs in March), she tweeted: “Today's Mother's Day in the UK. If your mum isn't here to treat, do something nice for yourself, because she's part of you. Take a hug, too.”
Famous as the mother of Genghis Khan, she survived getting kidnapped, widowhood, and being an outcast, to becoming the mother and advisor to one of the largest empires the world has ever known (as well as being one of the few people who could yell at Genghis and get away with it). Around the time of her first marriage, she was kidnapped by Yesukhei, the chief of a minor clan (legend has it she took off her shirt, threw it to her husband, and shouted “Fly for your life, and while you live remember my fragrance”), and was forced to marry her captor. Several years (and children) later, Yesukhei was killed and Hoelun and her young children were kicked out of the clan, forced to barely survive on whatever they could forage on the Mongolian steppes. Eventually, one of her children with Yesukhei, Genghis Khan, would become a great conqueror—but his mother could still put him in his place. According to Frank McLynn in Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, Genghis was planning to execute his brother for treason when Hoelun found out, traveled to Genghis’s headquarters, and begged Genghis to be merciful. When that didn’t work, “Hoelun grew angry, got to her feet and roundly rebuked the khan for thinking to execute his brother … Genghis raised her up and said he would grant the boon because of his love and deference for his mother.”
8. CANDY LIGHTNER
In 1980, a hit-and-run drunk driver killed one of Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old twin daughters, Cari. The driver had had three prior convictions for drunk driving, and had been arrested two days prior for a different hit-and-run. Within a few months, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to try to end drunk driving, pass tougher legislation, and help the victims of drunk drivers. Through its work to raise awareness and get legislation passed, MADD has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.
9. WARIS DIRIE
In 1970 when she was 5 years old, Waris Dirie was a victim of female genital mutilation in her home of Somalia. Then, when was 13, her parents arranged for her to marry a man in his sixties; she ran away from home and eventually arrived in London. Although she became a successful model (and even appeared in a 1987 James Bond film), she retired from modeling in 1997 to devote her time to combating female genital mutilation, partially through her work as a UN Special Ambassador. She founded an organization called Desert Flower that combats female genital mutilation around the world. As the mother of four children, she told Harper’s Bazaar that female genital mutilation isn’t just a women’s issue: “Every education begins with Mama. We have to rethink what we teach our sons. That's the most important thing."
10. INDIRA GANDHI
As India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917—1984) worked to institute democracy and create jobs to combat food shortages—she was responsible for India's green revolution, which made the country self-sufficient and no longer reliant on imported grains. “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances,” she famously stated. She also entrusted a sense of duty in her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, who both grew up to become politicians; Rajiv became Prime Minister of India after his mother was assassinated in 1984.
11. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER
After working as a law professor and academic dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter (born 1958) was the first woman to serve as director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. In 2012, she wrote a massively popular article for The Atlantic, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She discussed her decision to leave her high-stress government job so she could be closer to home and take better care of her two teenage sons. Her article sparked a national discussion about how mothers balance work and home life, and how society and the workplace need to change to better facilitate mothers who work.
12. ELIZABETH CADY STANTON
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815—1902) was a leader in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, all while raising her seven children. She worked with Susan B. Anthony to establish the National Woman Suffrage Association, successfully helping to get women the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. In addition to writing articles and giving speeches on the topic of universal suffrage, Stanton supported education for girls, and her own daughters went to college at Vassar and Columbia.
13. DANA SUSKIND
Dr. Dana Suskind, a widowed mother of three, is a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative to encourage parents to talk frequently to their babies. Based on her research, she focuses on educating parents on the importance that speaking and interacting in the first three years of a child’s life has on that child's brain growth and development.
14. NANCY EDISON
The youngest of Nancy Edison’s seven kids was Thomas Alva Edison. Although some stories about his mother’s virtues were most likely exaggerated, we do know that rather than give up on his education, Nancy Edison decided to homeschool her son after his teacher deemed him "addled" (i.e. mentally ill or incompetent). Edison, who may just have been dyslexic in a time before that learning disorder was studied or understood, said of her: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
15. JULIE ANDREWS
Although you may know Dame Julie Andrews (born 1935) for her film roles as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp (two surrogate-mothers of sorts for generations of children), she’s also an author. Andrews writes The Very Fairy Princess children’s book series with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Hamilton told Today that her mom was firm, protective, and despite her busy schedule, “very hands-on, always there making eggs at 5 o’ clock in the morning before we went to school.” Practically perfect in every way.
16. LOU XIAOYING
Lou Xioaying was a poor, uneducated woman who supported herself by scavenging through the trash in Jinhua, China, but starting in 1972, she adopted or rescued 30 babies she found in the trash. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (and later China’s one-child policy), and extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, meant that some parents dumped their unwanted babies in the garbage. “These children need love and care. They are all precious human lives," Xioaying, who had one biological daughter at the time she began rescuing infants, told the press in 2012. "I do not understand how people can leave such a vulnerable baby on the streets.”
17. PRINCESS DIANA
Diana, Princess of Wales (1961—1997) used her status as a royal figure to work with charities that supported children’s hospitals and to raise awareness and combat landmines, which were a significant problem in the '90s. Years after her death in 1997—her sons were 15 and 12 years old when she died—her legacy remains one of humanitarianism. Her oldest, Prince William, notably became a royal patron of a Child Bereavement charity. Speaking about Mother’s Day, he said: “I too have felt and still feel the emptiness on such a day as Mother's Day.”
18. ERMA BOMBECK
Humor writer Erma Bombeck (1927—1996) wrote books and syndicated newspaper columns about life as a suburban housewife in the Midwest. Taking inspiration from her experiences with her adopted daughter and two biological sons, she told stories and made quips about housework that helped a generation of stay-at-home and newly working mothers find humor in the messiness of their lives. And as one might assume from her sharp-witted jokes, she brought her children up to be independent and passionate. “She liked people who were strong and held their own—she was a very big presence,” her daughter Betsy told People. "If you couldn't hold your own, she could roll over you."
19. THERESA KACHINDAMOTO
As a Malawi chieftain, Theresa Kachindamoto presides over nearly 900,000 Malawians. Because poor parents struggle to feed their children, Malawi has a high child marriage rate—one in two girls is married before age 18. Kachindamoto, who has put laws in place to break up approximately 850 child marriages, organizes meetings to speak to Malawians about the dangers of child marriages (including HIV) and the benefits of education for girls and boys. And although she's received backlash for telling families how to raise girls when she herself has five boys, she also works to end cultural sexual initiation rituals, in which a young girl’s parents pay an older man to “teach” her how to have sex, and she's trying to raise the legal age of marriage in the Dedza district of Malawi to 21.
20. ANGELINA JOLIE
Because of her humanitarian work supporting refugees and education, Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has become as well-known for her charity work as she has for her film roles. Jolie first got involved with humanitarian work for refugees and people displaced because of conflict when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000. She adopted a son from the country, and eventually adopted children from Ethiopia and Vietnam as well (in addition to her three biological children with husband Brad Pitt). And though she has traveled to more than 30 countries in her role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Brad Pitt told The Wall Street Journal that when she has a day off, “the first thing she does is get up and take the kids out. This is the most important ‘to do’ of the day. No matter how tired she might be, she plans outings for each and all.”
21. MARY KAY ASH
Mary Kay Ash (1918—2001) was 45 years old when she founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963, and it has since become a billion-dollar cosmetics company. As a single mom, she was working in sales at a home products company to support her three children, but she was repeatedly passed over for promotions, despite her being one of the top sales directors. Ash took those skills with her when she launched her namesake company, and she worked to give hundreds of thousands of women the opportunity to work as sales consultants on their own time, effectively becoming their own bosses.
22. MARY MAXWELL GATES
The mother of Bill Gates, Mary Maxwell Gates (1929—1994) served on the board of directors for corporations and nonprofit organizations in Seattle. She helped convince leaders at I.B.M. to hire Microsoft to create an operating system, and following that contract, Microsoft went on to achieve massive success. But more importantly, Gates encouraged her son to focus on philanthropy, and the effects of his success are now contributing to worldwide causes because of it. As of 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given billions of dollars to fight malaria, HIV, polio, and poor sanitation, and to improve opportunities for education.
23. ALBERTA KING
The mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., Alberta Williams King (1904—1974) played the organ and founded the choir at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and she was also involved with women’s groups, the NAACP, and the YWCA. She set about to raise her three children with a healthy sense of self-respect and taught them that the segregation they saw every day was simply "a social condition rather than a natural order," as MLK Jr. wrote in his autobiography. "She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. … At this time Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of." In 1974, six years after her son was assassinated in Memphis, Alberta King was shot and killed at her organ at her church.
24. JULIA WARD HOWE
In 1870, writer Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910, who is best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") merged her interests in suffrage and pacifism by writing an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World.” Also called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” the appeal urged women to come together to support peace. Howe viewed women, who were the ones losing husbands and sons to war, as responsible for stopping war. Although she had six children, Howe made time to write essays and organize rallies for an annual Mother’s Day for Peace, planting the seeds of what would eventually become Mother’s Day.
25. ANN JARVIS
Ann Jarvis (1832—1905) inspired the movement that eventually made Mother’s Day into a national holiday. After most of her babies died of diseases—only four of her possibly 13 children survived to adulthood—she wanted to help other mothers. She organized Mother's Day Work Clubs in what is now West Virginia to help provide medical care, raise money for medicines, and improve sanitary conditions for poor mothers.
After her death, Jarvis’s daughter Anna Jarvis built off of the work of her mother by writing letters and giving speeches in support of Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914. Ironically, Jarvis never became a mother herself, and she became horrified by how flower, chocolate, and greeting card companies exploited Mother’s Day for their own financial gain. Jarvis advocated boycotts of Mother’s Day and tried to sue companies that were commercializing the holiday. But the sentiment of appreciating mothers and all the work they do remained, even if the commercial aspect never disappeared.
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.