As March is Women’s History Month, and 8th March International Women’s Day, what better time than now to celebrate the achievements of the outstanding women who have contributed so much to our culture, often in the face of adversity? Here’s just a few of the many women who have used their unique skills to make the world a better place:

Manal Al-Sharif

Getting in a car and driving is an activity most women take for granted, but not the women of Saudi Arabia, who are still banned from getting behind the wheel. Women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif has been repeatedly arrested as she demands Saudi women be allowed to drive; Al-Sharif has used social media sites to gain support and posted videos of herself driving on YouTube. Her protests have gained worldwide attention for Saudi women’s plight, and prompted 4,500 Saudis to sign a petition addressed to the King in support of her actions.

Maya Angelou

Poet, writer and activist Maya Angelou remains an icon for women and African-Americans. Intelligent and multi-talented, Angelou never let racial discrimination hold her back – she has worked as an actress, teacher, journalist and novelist to name but a few. She has been awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Lincoln Medal, and even found the time to win 3 Grammys! Angelou was heavily involved in Martin Luther King’s campaigns for racial equality in the late 60s and has since written over 30 bestselling books including poetry, fiction and her memoirs. Bill Clinton personally requested that Dr Angelou compose a poem to celebrate his inauguration in 1993.

Kathryn Bigelow

There are few industries as male-dominated as film, but Kathryn Bigelow became a pioneer for change in 2010 when she was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (The Hurt Locker). Bigelow had already paved the way for women working in action movies when she directed the adrenalin-fest Point Break. The Hurt Locker showed viewers the horror and the reality of life in a bomb disposal squad, and also won Best Picture at the Oscars and the BAFTAs.

Laura Dekker

16 year-old Dutch teen Laura Dekker made headlines recently when she became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Dutch authorities attempted to prevent Dekker’s voyage due to her young age, but Dekker challenged their restrictions and was eventually granted permission to sail. Her voyage was mostly ignored by the Dutch press until it became apparent she was going to complete her circumnavigation of the globe, at which point Dekker became a global news star.

Angelina Jolie

Notable for her intelligence as much as her striking looks, Angelina Jolie has made a point of always choosing challenging film roles and regularly channels her political awareness into her work. She is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador who works to raise awareness of the suffering of refugees in war-torn countries. Jolie has founded projects in Cambodia promoting community development and environmental conservation, as well as a daycare centre for children affected by HIV. She has also established programmes to protect children’s rights in Haiti and legally assist immigrant children in the US.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta is a noted labor leader and civil rights activist who has campaigned tirelessly for workers’, immigrants’ and women’s rights. She co-founded the National Farmworker’s Association to protect low-income immigrants to the US who work in agriculture and are often exploited and underpaid. She was awarded the first Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by Bill Clinton in 1998.

Adele

Mighty-voiced British singer Adele first achieved success with her debut album ‘19’. However, it was with the follow-up, ‘21’, that Adele went from UK success to global superstar, winning 6 Grammys in the US and becoming the first artist to sell over 3 million albums in a year in the UK. Adele is also the first female artist to have three singles in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. Adele has made further Billboard history with ‘21’, since it is the longest running number one album by a female. She is also a proudly plus-sized woman and has frequently spoken out in praise of the fuller figure.

Panmela Castro

Panmela Castro, also known as ‘Anarkia’, is a Brazilian street artist who uses graffiti and street art to promote social change. She is the founder of Comcausa, a project for combating violence against women. Castro uses her art to educate women about their rights, painting murals in the slums of Rio De Janeiro which give victims of domestic violence advice on where to seek help, and giving art workshops to young women. She was awarded the 2010 Vital Voices Award for Human Rights.

Julia Child

Amazingly, it took until 1993 until a woman was inducted into the CIA hall of fame, and that woman was Julia Child – the world-famous American chef. Child was a food novice when she began cooking after a move to Paris, but she soon discovered her passion for French cuisine. Child wrote the bestselling cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ as well as eighteen other books, and her Emmy-award-winning television show The French Chef’ was the most widely-watched food show ever shown. Although Julia Child passed in 2004, she is still fondly remembered as the woman who introduced the joys of French food to the American public.

Angela Merkel

The world of European politics still feels as if it is dominated by men, but one woman is out there disproving the theory – Angela Merkel. The first female Chancellor of Germany, Merkel has continually shown steel in the face of the Eurozone’s economic crisis, and was named #4 most powerful person in the world by Forbes (2011). Due to her cool head, financial intelligence and dignified manner, Merkel considered by many to be the unofficial leader of EU. A recent poll shows more French people trust Merkel’s leadership than that of their own premier, Nicolas Sarkozy!