18 Women in History Who Changed the Health and Fitness Game
Paving the way for female doctors today, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. After graduating from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849, Blackwell and colleagues founded the New York Infirmary to help women gain experience as physicians. Over 160 years later, women now make up 32 percent of physicians in America, according to U.S. Census data.
After risking her life bringing supplies to soldiers during the Civil War, Clara Barton realized her calling: to help people in need. She launched the American Red Cross in 1881. Since it was founded, the humanitarian organization has been a lifeline for people when they need it most, providing disaster relief, support for military families, health and safety training, lifesaving blood donations, international relief, and development programs.
In the 2012 London Games, U.S. women earned more medals than U.S. men and made up 44 percent of participants—but in 1900, only 22 women competed. One of those athletic pioneers was Margaret Abbott who became the first American woman to win an Olympic event. Not only did she succeed in a male-dominated competition, but also in what is still a male-dominated sport—women make up less than a quarter of golfers today.
At the turn of the centruy, Margaret Sanger's trials inspired friend and scientist Gregory Pincus to co-invent a pill to control pregnancy. Sanger coined the term birth control, and in 1921 founded the American Birth Control League to provide education on the prevention of pregnancy. The organization eventually changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As an early pioneer of sex education for women, Sanger—a nurse—also nursed back to health women who tried to self-terminate their pregnancies or experienced back-alley abortions because of their illegality at the time.
At 214 pounds, Jean Nidetch struggled with her weight her entire life. After years of frustration with fad diets, pills, and treatments, she finally found slow and steady success with the help of an obesity clinic, reaching her goal weight of 142 pounds. The only problem? A lack of community. So, she gathered six friends and started group weight loss therapy sessions in her Queens living room, eventually founding Weight Watchers in 1963. Fifty years later, Weight Watchers helps millions of men and women around the world shed pounds and lead healthier lives every year, by focusing on science, rather than trends.
Challenging the all-male tradition of the Boston Marathon, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter and run a marathon in 1967, cloaking her gender by not using her full first name. When a race official realized there was a woman running, he chased Switzer down. Switzer's then boyfriend knocked the official off the course. After crossing the finish line, she was determined to make a lasting change for women—and she succeeded: Among other accomplishments, Switzer’s lobbying was an integral part in making the women’s marathon an official event in the Olympic Games.
Billie Jean King
American tennis star Billie Jean King made leaps and bounds for equality for female athletes. In 1973, King took the lead on the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association and threatened to boycott the 1973 U.S. Open if they didn’t address the pay inequality. And it was a success—the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both men and women. Later that year, King beat 1939 Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in a battle of the sexes. And, as the first prominent female athlete to share her homosexuality, she also became a trailblazer for the LGBT community.
Today, it's impossible to imagine going for a run or popping into a fitness class without a sports bra. But it wasn’t until 1977 that Lisa Lindahl created your girls' favorite workout partner. After picking up the habit of jogging, Lindahl began working on prototypes for a more supportive fitness bra. The design of the “jockbra”—later known as the jogbra, and now the sports bra—has been improved and improved over the years. (Find The Best Sports Bras for Every Body Type.)
In 1982, founding what is now considered the leader of the global breast cancer movement, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Nancy Brinker broke the silence about a disease that wasn’t being talked about openly. She also spearheaded a movement. Today, Susan G. Komen, which includes the famous Race for the Cure, is the world’s largest grassroots organization of breast cancer survivors and activists. (Learn the 15 Everyday Things That Can Change Your Breasts.)
Oprah has always been open about the real struggles facing women—including the difficulty in both losing weight and maintaining weight loss. After her first big slim down in 1988, Oprah inspired millions by talking about her journey down the scale. And when she gained the weight back, she didn’t shy away from the topic. The empress of inspiration’s struggle with fluctuating weight emboldened millions of women dealing with weight gain and loss to not be ashamed of their journey.
The idea of consuming fresh, seasonal foods produced sustainably and locally has become commonplace—but thank Alice Waters. As a food activist and one of the biggest supporters of the organic food movement, Waters helped create a community of local farmers and ranchers dedicated to sustainable agriculture. In 1996, she spearheaded the creation of The Edible Schoolyard, a program at a Berkeley, CA middle school now nationally recognized for integrating gardening and cooking into curriculum.
Rocking French-cut leotards and legwarmers while performing now iconic moves, Jane Fonda launched a national fitness craze in the '80s and ‘90s with her workout videos. Already a famous actress, Fonda released her first tape in 1982, which quickly became the highest selling video of all time. The craze continued in 2014 when five of Fonda’s most popular videos were released on DVD.
A fearless leader with bold ideas, Charlotte Ellertson was heavily involved in making the morning after pill and abortion more readily available to women around the world. Ellerston founded Ibis Reproductive Health in 2002, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving women’s reproductive choices and providing increased access to safe abortion, contraceptive access, and sexual health services. (Learn The 4 Biggest Misconceptions About Plan B.)
Diagnosed with a rare and incurable stage four cancer in 2003, Kris Carr wasn’t crippled by the news. Instead she decided to stop holding back and start living healthier, loving harder, and enjoying her life more. Over a decade later—still living with cancer—Carr is now a wellness activist, sharing her experiences about plant-passionate living, health, happiness, spirituality, and compassion with the world through her Crazy Sexy brand, books, and videos. Her journey has reached thousands who want to look and feel better, lose weight, reduce stress, have more energy, and nourish their spirits. (Check out her Vegan Chocolate Walnut Cake— it's delish!)
Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice
Your muscles scream. Sweat drips all over the floor. An instructor yells annoyingly optimistic outlooks on the event. Sounds like fun, right? The attitude of loving fierce fitness classes is thanks, in large, to SoulCycle. Determined to find a fitness routine that didn’t feel like work but still left the gym-goers mentally and physically energized, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice opened their first SoulCycle studio in 2006. They probably didn’t know they were reinventing spin classes (and the acceptability of sky-high prices) at the time, but with 25 studios now open across the U.S., the brand transformed the reason we workout. (See 4 SoulCycle Tips to Take to Spin Class.)
You can mock self-help gurus all you want, but when Oprah names you a “next-generation thought leader” you know your inspirational messages aren't a joke. Gabrielle Bernstein sheds new light on the term “self-help” with her meditations, lectures, and bestselling books. Teaching primarily from Helen Schucman’s 1976 text "A Course in Miracles", Bernstein emphasizes the practical application of the course principles, focusing particularly on self-love, forgiveness, and a holistic approach to spirituality. She's spoken everywhere from Google to The Chopra Center, recognized for her multi-faceted work, helping women unleash a happy, wholly-healed self.
With seven Grand Slam titles, five Wimbledon singles championships, four Olympic gold medals, a clothing line, and an interior design company, Venus Williams is a force to be reckoned with. One of our favorite moments? After years of battling with officials for gender-equal prize money, she became the first woman at Wimbledon to earn the exact same as the male victor in the 2007 championship, arguably making the most progress in this area since Billie Jean King in the '70s. Williams has dedicated much of her time to the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO), promoting gender equality for women around the world.
On a mission to change the way kids think about food and nutrition, Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House in 2009 to strike up conversation about health and wellbeing. That conversation turned into the Let’s Move! initiative in 2010. Through Let’s Move! Obama is dedicated to solving childhood obesity and making it easier for kids to pursue their dreams. Her program brings healthier foods into schools, helps kids become more physically active, and makes sure families have access to healthy food that’s also affordable.