Jackie Kennedy, Cleopatra, Marie Curie, Princess Diana... the human race owes so much to incredible mothers that it would be tricky to praise them too highly. But we’re going to give it a shot! Yes, we’ve rounded up the most inspirational and extraordinary maternal figures from all of history. And in our unashamed celebration of these remarkable moms, we’ll discover their massive contributions and sacrifices that changed our world for the better.
40. Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley is best remembered for her signature 1818 work Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. She was unlucky in pregnancy, though. From five births – with the first coming not long after she’d eloped at the age of 16 – only one child survived infancy. He was Percy Florence Shelley and ended up being the last child that Mary gave birth to. The author Suzanne Burdon has written that, “[Shelley’s] letters and journals show her deep love for her children and her overwhelming sorrow when tragedy took them from her.”
39. Jackie Kennedy
Although America does without royalty, it could be said that Jackie Kennedy was the nearest thing the nation has ever had to a queen. Of course, as well as being President John F. Kennedy’s First Lady, she was also a mom. Motherhood was not easy for her, though. One child was stillborn and another died two days after birth. Yet she still had the energy to give her best to the two surviving kids: Caroline and John F. Jr. It’s also been said that her children helped Jackie survive the deep trauma of her husband’s assassination.
38. Emmeline Pankhurst
British women have a lot to thank Emmeline Pankhurst for. After all, she was one of the leaders of the ultimately successful campaign to give females the right to vote. But even though much of her time was spent on pursuing this just cause, she was also a mother. The activist had three girls and two boys, though one of the latter sadly died young. Pankhurst also inspired the three daughters with her belief in women’s rights, as they all were heavily involved in the suffragette cause, too.
37. Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad that spirited the enslaved from the South to the North and later became a central figure in the system’s operation. With her husband Nelson Davis – also a former slave – she adopted a girl in 1874. She was called Gertie and because Davis suffered badly from tuberculosis, Tubman was left to support the family singlehandedly. That’s a major challenge that many a mother can relate to.
36. Marie Curie
We remember Polish-born Marie Curie for her extraordinary contribution to science. Her research into radioactivity was rewarded by two Nobel Prizes in the early 20th century. Yet tragedy struck Madame Curie’s life when an accident killed her husband in Paris in 1906. That left her alone to not only pursue her demanding scientific work but also to bring up two young children: Irène and Ève. Unimpressed by the Parisian education system, she even found time to home-school the girls!
35. Josephine Baker
American-born dancer Josephine Baker became the toast of Paris in the 1920s thanks to her flamboyant performances. She was unable to have children herself, but that did not stop the performer from having a family. Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon adopted no fewer than 12 children from nations around the world including Finland, Korea and the Ivory Coast. The family – christened “The Rainbow Tribe” by Baker – lived in a magnificent 15th century château in the south of France.
Cleopatra ruled as pharaoh in ancient Egypt from 51 to 30 B.C., and Roman leader Julius Caesar was the father of her first child Caesarion. The boy was aged just three when his mother declared him to be her co-ruler. She also had three children with Mark Antony. The pharaoh’s devotion to her first-born was evidenced when she became embroiled in conflict with Caesar’s adopted son: Octavian. Before Cleopatra took her own life rather than surrender, she tried to plan her son’s escape. Despite her best efforts, though, Octavian captured and executed the teenage Caesarion.
33. Grace Coolidge
Grace Coolidge was First Lady from 1923 for the six years of her husband Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. The couple had two sons: John born in 1906 and Calvin Jr. who arrived two years later. Grace apparently taught her children to be frugal – with repaired and hand-made items preferred to new-bought. It’s been said that the matriarch’s time as a teacher of deaf children made her especially conscious of her children’s needs. Though tragedy struck at the White House in 1924 when 16-year-old Calvin Jr. contracted sepsis and died.
32. Julia Grant
Julia Grant was President Ulysses S. Grant’s First Lady during his two terms in office from 1869. The couple had a daughter and three sons, and Mrs. Grant took a keen personal interest in their education. Also, it seems that it was left to her to impose a firm hand when necessary. Julia’s words are quoted on the National First Ladies Library website. She recalled, “The General had no idea of the government of the children. He would have allowed them to do pretty much as they pleased.”
31. Christine de Pizan
Italian-born Christine de Pizan was just 25 years old and living in France when her husband died in 1379. That left her alone to bring up two children – another had died an infant – and to care for her mother. Unlike most women in the Middle Ages, she had a classical education and was determined to use that advantage to bring up her children singlehandedly. Christine earned her living by writing essays and poems which gradually built her a loyal following. Pointedly, she was a strong advocate for girls’ education.
30. Idia, First Queen Mother of Benin
Idia holds the distinction of being the First Queen Mother of Benin, when it was an independent nation in territory that now forms part of modern Nigeria. In 1504 her son Esigie went to war with his half-brother – the offspring of a different mother – to determine who should be the King of Benin. Esigie emerged the victor and gave much of the credit for that success to his mom’s guidance. He then showed his gratitude by giving her the title of Queen Mother.
A Native American Shoshone, Sacagawea accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous 1805 exploratory journey through North America. This trip was no picnic – Sacagawea had given birth to her first child just weeks before they began the expedition! For the best part of 18 months, the young woman carried her infant child on the arduous journey from North Dakota to the Pacific seaboard and back. Also, appearing with her baby meant that First Nation peoples they encountered on the journey looked favorably on them.
28. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth took the gamble of fleeing from her enslavement in the South in 1826. She took her infant child Sophia along but was unable to bring her three older offspring. Truth then went to law after hearing the news that her five-year-old son Peter had been sold to Alabama slavers. The matriarch succeeded in recovering him and became the first African-American woman to defeat a white slave-owner in the courts.
27. Ann Reeves Jarvis
Ann Reeves Jarvis came to prominence as a campaigner for reconciliation between the South and North after the Civil War. She died in 1905, but her daughter Anna was so devoted to Ann that she started a crusade for a special annual day to honor moms. So, we have her to thank for Mother’s Day, which is marked throughout America on the second Sunday in May as it has been since 1914.
26. Maria von Trapp
If you’ve ever watched the classic 1965 movie The Sound of Music, you’ll know who Maria von Trapp was. Played by Julie Andrews in the film, in 1927 she became governess for widower Captain Georg von Trapp’s seven children then wed the father. But this is not just a work of fiction – it’s based on a true story! The real Maria did marry the Captain and brought up his children with all the love a natural mother could have given. The couple added to their brood with three more children and the family took to the stage as professional musicians.
25. Catherine de Medici
There can be few women who have borne three kings, but one of them is the Italian Catherine de Medici. She married a French prince in 1533 who went on to become King Henry II of France. The latter died in 1559 and Catherine’s 15-year-old son Francis took the throne – only to die himself within a year. Next to take the reigns was Catherine’s 10-year-old boy Charles IX. She was his regent, and this made her the effective ruler of France. Charles died in 1574 – bringing a third son of Catherine’s to kingship: Henry III. Yep, it was an eventful motherhood indeed!
24. Erin Brockovich
When you think of Erin Brockovich – the anti-pollution crusader – the name Julia Roberts may well pop into your head. It was she who played Brockovich in the 2000 movie about the campaigner’s life. A single mother with three kids at the time, in real life Brockovich brought dangerous water pollution caused by a power company in California to national notice. This determined woman managed to combine the demanding role of lone mom at the same time as running a complex campaign.
23. Queen Boudica
In about 60 A.D. Queen Boudica’s husband King Prasutagus – leader of the Iceni tribe – died. The Romans occupying England at the time expected to inherit his entire estate, but he left half to his wife. The Romans then assaulted Boudica and her daughters. Infuriated by this outrage, she avenged her children by leading a full-scale armed rebellion against the Romans. The latter emerged victorious, though, and the queen was killed. Even so, this example of a ferocious mother’s love can seldom have been excelled.
22. Abigail Adams
Married to John Adams – the second U.S. president – Abigail Adams was often left on the family farm as her husband fulfilled his duties. This was actually before presidents and their families lived in the White House. So, Abigail was left to manage the farm and to raise the couple’s five children alone for much of the time. Not content with that workload she also campaigned energetically for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. How true it is that a mother’s work is never done!
Hoelun was a woman with a very famous son: Genghis Khan – leader of the Mongol hordes of the 12th century. And she had a rough old time of it! As a young woman, Hoelun was kidnapped and forced to marry one of her captors: Genghis Khan’s father Yesukhei. When the latter died, Hoelun and her children were cast out onto the barren steppe where they just barely survived. Yet she managed to raise one of the most successful warriors history has ever known.
20. Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi became India’s first ever woman premier in 1966 – holding the position through three elections over the subsequent 11 years. Not content with that illustrious political career, she returned to office in 1980 but was assassinated four years later. Along with being a successful politician, Gandhi was also a mother with two sons by her husband Feroze. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Feroze died in 1960. This could hardly have made Indira’s taxing combination of politics and motherhood any easier.
19. Martha Washington
Martha Washington was married to George, who was of course America’s first president. Though this marriage was actually Martha’s second. Aged just 18, she’d wed John Parke Custis and the couple had welcomed four children together – two of whom died in infancy. The latter then passed in 1757 and left Martha a wealth widow. Nevertheless, she married George a couple of years later and the two lived together with her children Patsy and John. The Washingtons had no children of their own, but Martha showed a continuing dedication to motherhood by practically adopting two of her grandchildren.
18. Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine combined aristocratic beauty with a hefty dowry. Unsurprisingly, Louis VII of France snapped her up in 1137. Though that marriage ended in annulment 15 years later and Eleanor quickly wed Henry of Anjou, who became King Henry II of England in 1154. This union produced five sons and three daughters – adding to the two girls fathered by Louis. Eleanor went on to support her sons in rebellion against their own father, and her son Richard the Lionheart eventually succeeded to the English throne.
16. Lakshmi Bai
Lakshmi Bai was married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, which is a land in the north of India. It was 1857 – the time of British colonial rule – the couple had no children and the Maharajah was on his deathbed. With no heir, his lands would automatically revert to the British. So, the couple adopted a three-year-old boy called Damodar Rao. But the British refused to recognize Lakshmi’s new son and took the Jhansi lands anyway. Enraged, she rose against the British at the head of an army with her adopted son in tow. Lakshmi died in battle in 1858 but her son escaped and lived on until 1906.
15. Dr. Dana Suskind
Dr. Dana Suskind is renowned for the project she founded in 2010: the Thirty Million Words Initiative. It’s a program that promotes the developmental benefits of talking to children in their early years. Suskind is herself a lone parent with three children – she lost her husband in a drowning accident in 2012. Yet she has not allowed that painful experience to stand in the way of her work. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 2013, Dr. Suskind said, “... My children have given me the purpose and the strength to go on.”
14. Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II – Britain’s longest reigning monarch – hardly needs any introduction. But it’s worth a reminder that along with being a queen she’s also a mother with four children. The matriarch clearly worked hard to support her offspring, but just as with any mom, there have been ups and downs. Perhaps Prince Charles’ divorce from Princess Diana in an unforgiving glare of publicity might have been the worst moment. Though Elizabeth can also be proud of the strong sense of duty that the children have learnt from her.
13. Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie may be first a foremost a famous movie star, but she’s also noted for her humanitarian activities – and for being a mother. The star has a son and twins: a boy and a girl from her marriage to Brad Pitt. Jolie has also adopted; there’s Maddox from Cambodia, Zahara from Ethiopia and Pax from Vietnam. She summed up her attitude to adoption in an interview with Vogue Global Network. The actress said, “It’s the most amazing journey to share. They are not entering your world, you are entering each other’s worlds.”
12. Mary Kay Ash
Mary Kay Ash founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963 and grew it from an initial capital of $5,000 into a billion-dollar business. She was married thrice but all three of her children came with her first partner J. Ben Rogers. From 1945 until 1963 – the years Ash worked hard to build her career – she was on her own bringing up children.
11. Mary Maxwell Gates
Mary Maxwell married Bill Gates Sr. in 1951. A daughter came along in 1954, a son the following year and another girl nearly a decade later. No doubt she valued all three of her kids equally. But only one would become a household name: Bill Gates Jr. – one of the founders of mighty Microsoft. In fact, it’s said that the company’s success is at least partly thanks to Gates Jr.’s mother. She was a successful Seattle public figure and her name opened the doors of IBM to Bill – resulting in a first lucrative contract. Nothing quite like a helping hand from your mom, is there?
10. Alberta Williams King
Alberta Williams King gave birth to one of the civil liberties movement’s best-known names: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his autobiography, the activist wrote about Alberta’s attitude to the racial segregation prevalent during his childhood. He recalled, “She made it clear that she opposed the system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior… [Alberta would say], ‘You are as good as anyone.’” So, here’s a mother whose influence on her son had a massive impact on life in America.
9. Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was the second of Henry VIII’s six wives, and what he wanted from her more than anything was a son and heir. But her first child was a disappointment to the king: she produced a girl called Elizabeth. Yet that was far from how Henry’s wife felt. According to historian Tracy Borman, the new mother was absolutely thrilled by her daughter. Anne’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage, so Henry lost patience and had her put to death in 1536. Elizabeth was only two then but she would go on to become queen in 1558 – reigning successfully for 45 years. So, you could say that although Anne lost her head, she had the last laugh.
8. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was married to Franklin D., who won his first presidential election in 1932. But it was before then during the decade from 1906 that the couple’s six children were born – one of whom died before his fifth birthday. Eleanor raised the five surviving children in New York while Franklin pursued his political career. Somehow, she also managed to combine her motherly duties with voluntary work for the Red Cross during WWI.
7. Nancy Edison
Nancy Elliot married Samuel Edison in 1828 and the couple went on to have seven children. The last of those was Thomas Edison – the prolific inventor behind everything from the commercially viable light bulb to the phonograph. And the latter emphasized the crucial role that Elliot had played in his life. The National Park Service website quotes his words, “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.” Now, that’s what we’d call a ringing endorsement!
6. Maria Theresa of Austria
Maria Theresa of Austria became the ruler of that nation in 1740. And in the 20 years after succeeding to the throne, she gave birth to 16 children! At the same time as this almost impossibly rigorous schedule of childbirth, she fought to preserve her country which was under constant threat from hostile powers. The matriarch took a detailed interest in the children’s upbringing. But as they grew up, some pleased her, while others were apparently frustrating. If you have 16 children, getting along well with all of them is probably well nigh impossible!
5. Princess Diana
Widely known as the “People’s Princess,” Diana had two sons while she was married to the heir to the British throne: Prince Charles. Prince William was born in 1982 and Prince Harry came into the world two years later. Diana did everything to give her boys as normal a childhood as she could within the royal household. The Princess of Wales even once took them to McDonald’s, where they waited in line with everyone else. Though Diana’s shockingly early death in 1997 cut short her efforts.
4. Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was something unusual in the early 20th century – an African-American woman whose business skills made her a millionaire. The entrepreneur had one child called A’Leila with her husband Moses, who sadly died two years after his daughter was born. She remarried in 1906 to Charles J. Walker and went on to create her highly successful hair products business. Madame Walker died in 1919 but her daughter – clearly inspired by her mother’s energy and entrepreneurship – carried on the successful business.
3. Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert had five girls and four sons together. The historian Tracy Borman is quoted on the History Extra website as believing that Victoria was determined to give her offspring a joyful childhood. That was in contrast to the rather constrained – even “melancholy” – upbringing she herself had apparently experienced. The children were indulged with their own wooden house which even had a toy grocery store and miniature gardens.
2. Lucretia Mott
Born in to a Quaker family, Lucretia Mott was a traveling preacher and dedicated campaigner for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. But the activist found the time to marry in 1811 and she and her husband James had six children – with five living to adulthood. Her household was highly unusual for its time since – as one of her daughters remembered – she welcomed people of all races into her home. This clearly had an impact on Lucretia’s children, since they all became active campaigners.
1. Erma Bombeck
An article in British newspaper The Guardian in 2016 described American writer Erma Bombeck as “inarguably one of the most successful and widely read female humorists of the 20th century.” Her favorite subject was motherhood – particularly as experienced by American moms who lived in the suburbs. Bombeck adopted one child and went on to give birth to two more. One of her daughters called Betsy told People magazine, “She liked people who were strong and held their own – she was a very big presence.”