Some of our favorite figures from history, literature, entertainment, pop culture, and more were born in the first month of the year. We couldn’t possibly name them all, so here are just a handful of the lives we’ll be celebrating.
1. Joan of Arc // January 6, Circa 1412
Joan d’Arc, who lived just 19 years, packed a lot into her short life. When she was 13, Joan began to have visions of herself leading France to victory over England—and though she was just a peasant girl who couldn’t read or write, she had complete faith in her visions. At 16, Joan rejected an arranged marriage to carry out her mission to depose the English King Henry VI and install the French prince Charles as its rightful king. She gathered followers, cut her hair, put on warrior’s armor, and led several successful assaults against the English in 1429. (Though she was in charge of troops and strategy, she didn’t actively participate in combat.)
Joan became a hero, Charles took the crown, and her forces grew. But she was captured by Anglo-Burgundians in 1430 and charged with 70 crimes, including witchcraft and cross-dressing. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. On July 6, 1456, Joan d’Arc was declared innocent of heresy, and more than 460 years later, she was declared a saint.
2. Zora Neale Hurston // January 7, 1891
Evidence points to Zora Neale Hurston being born in 1891, but she lied about her age to get an education after having to work for years. She stuck to her story of being 10 years younger the rest of her life. Hurston became one of the literary stars of the Harlem Renaissance, even as she refused to imbue her works with political goals. She produced novels, nonfiction, and stage plays, usually with great reception and meager profits, and died broke in 1960.
Hurston, who had once written to activist W.E.B. Du Bois proposing the creation of “a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead,” was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. But in 1973, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, put a marker on Hurston’s grave that read “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist.”
3. David Bowie // January 8, 1947
Born David Robert Jones, the performer known as David Bowie started playing saxophone at age 13. He assumed his stage name in 1966 and released his first album the next year. He continued to be a trend-setting presence in music and fashion until his death in 2016 at the age of 69, two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar.
4. Elvis Presley // January 8, 1935
Before he became a worldwide superstar in the 1950s, Elvis Presley—who was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi—was a shy teenager trying to find his place. At his senior prom in Memphis, he told his date he couldn’t dance. He got over that shyness, and danced his way through two episodes of The Milton Berle Show in 1956 with moves that scandalized some viewers.
5. Simone de Beauvoir // January 9, 1908
As a child, the French writer and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir attended school at a convent and wanted to become a nun. But at 14, she renounced religion and became an atheist; in 1926, she headed to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. In 1929, she became the ninth woman to take the agrégation in philosophy, a competitive exam that landed those who passed coveted teaching jobs. She came in second to her future partner, John-Paul Sartre—who was taking the test for a second time after failing the first—and, at 21, was the youngest person to pass the exam.
Over the course of her lifetime, de Beauvoir published works of fiction, did some travel writing, authored autobiographies, and penned pieces about ethics and politics. And in her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), she tackled the patriarchy and the female’s place in society. "She is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called ‘the sex,’ meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute,” de Beauvoir wrote. "She determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”
6. Alexander Hamilton // January 11, 1755
Alexander Hamilton was a Revolutionary War hero, wrote many of the Federalist Papers, founded the Bank of New York, created the federal banking system, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and founded the U.S. Mint. He was famously shot and killed by Vice President Aaron Burr during a duel in 1804. Today, Hamilton is still on the $10 bill and is the subject of one of the hottest musicals to ever hit Broadway.
7. Martin Luther King Jr. // January 15, 1929
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed “I Have A Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Standing guard was George Raveling, a former basketball player who had been asked to provide extra security at the event. Raveling watched King fold up the speech and, as the Civil Rights leader stepped down from the podium, asked if he could have it. Not realizing how historic the document was, Raveling stashed the pages in a Truman biography for two decades. (It has since been professionally framed and placed in a bank vault.)
8. Muhammad Ali // January 17, 1942
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali took the name we know when he converted to Islam. The Olympic gold medalist and World Heavyweight Champion’s career encompassed a wide range of activities outside of boxing, including exhibition matches with wrestlers and recording albums that taught kids to prevent tooth decay.
9. Virginia Woolf // January 25, 1882
The very quotable British author Virginia Woolf was educated at home with her sisters, and as a child created a newspaper to write about the antics of the eight children in her family. Later, she became involved in the Bloomsbury Group, through which she met her husband, essayist Leonard Woolf.
The circle of friends were great pranksters. In 1910, Woolf and two others dressed in turbans and caftans and identified themselves to officers of the Royal Navy as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. They asked for a tour of the HMS Dreadnought—and they got away with it. When the story made the papers, the two men were sentenced to caning, but Virginia was spared punishment.
10. Bessie Coleman // January 26, 1892
One of 13 children born to two Texas sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman had a long way to go to become an aviator, but she worked hard to fulfill her dream. When no one in the U.S. would teach a Black woman to fly, she learned French and trained at the Somme in 1920. She was not only the first Black American woman and the first Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license, she was also the first person of African American descent or Native American descent to hold an international pilot’s license. With further training, she became a barnstormer and gained stardom, all to fuel her dream of opening an aviation school. Sadly, she died when an engine problem in her plane caused her to fall to her death in 1926.
A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.