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20 iconic women who made movie history

20 iconic women who made movie history
  • Women are making history both on and off-screen.

  • From first-time wins to fighting for equal pay, women are helping lead changes in representation.

  • In 2024, Lily Gladstone became the first Indigenous woman to win best actress at the Golden Globes.

Women in film have created some of the most recognizable characters, costumes, and songs in history. But so many of them have had to push back against sexism, racism, and ageism in the industry.

Even after historic Academy Awards wins, actresses like Hattie McDaniel, Rita Moreno, and Miyoshi Umeki were left with stereotypical roles like maids and submissive housewives, demonstrating how even those at the top of their game could be relegated to caricatures.

And decades later, actresses like Octavia Spencer have had to speak on the same topic, as well as the issue of pay equality, not only in relation to male co-stars but to white actresses, too.

Despite the issues that persist in the industry, there's undeniably been great progress. Just look at stars like Michelle Yeoh and Lily Gladstone and the success of female-led and female-made movies like "Barbie," which smashed box-office records when it was released in 2023 and brought in more than $1.4 billion in global ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo data.

This Women's History Month, here's a look at 20 iconic women who've made movie history and continue inspiring younger generations to do the same.

Hattie McDaniel was the first Black person to win an Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel holds her Academy Award in 1940.
Hattie McDaniel holds her Academy Award in 1940.Bettmann/Contributor

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind" —but she couldn't even attend the Atlanta premiere.

The role drew both criticism and praise from the Black community, Vanity Fair reported, as some feared it perpetuated harmful, racist stereotypes.

McDaniel disagreed and, in her acceptance speech, said, "I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry … My heart is too full to tell you how I feel."

The "Mammy" is one of several stereotypical depictions of Black women seen in films, alongside tropes like the "Jezebel" and the "Angry Black Woman," and is often characterized as an overweight, asexual woman who maintains a strong commitment to care for the white family she serves, the BBC reported.

McDaniel was pigeonholed into accepting representation as it was allowed, an issue that's only recently begun to be addressed as the industry recognizes that representation for the sake of representation alone is simply not good enough.

She died in 1952 at the age of 59.

Italian actress Sophia Loren was the first performer to win an Oscar for a foreign-language film.

Sophia Loren holding her World Film Favorite special award at the 1977 Golden Globes.
Sophia Loren holding her World Film Favorite special award at the 1977 Golden Globes.Silver Screen Collection/Contributor/Getty Images

Named "one of the world's most iconic movie stars" by the Oscars, Loren made history in 1961 when she became the first actor to win an Oscar for a foreign-language film.

Throughout her career, Loren has won an extensive list of international awards, including two Oscars, five Golden Globes, seven David di Donatello awards for best actress, and a BAFTA.

Her most recent David award came in 2021 at the age of 86 for her role as Madame Rosa in "The Life Ahead," Variety reported.

"It's hard to believe the first time I received a David was more than 60 years ago," she said during her acceptance speech, Variety reported. Loren added, "But this evening, it seems like the first time again, though the emotion is even greater."

Some of her famous films include "Two Women," "Marriage Italian Style," "Nine," "Grumpier Old Men," and "A Special Day."

Viola Davis is the only Black actor to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting.

Viola Davis poses with her Oscar in 2017.
Viola Davis poses with her Oscar in 2017.Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Davis is a prolific actor known for her roles in "The Help," "Fences," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and "How to Get Away with Murder."

She is the only Black actor to win the Triple Crown of Acting: a competitive Oscar, Emmy, and Tony award in acting categories.

She won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2017 for her role in "Fences," an Emmy for lead actress in a drama in 2015 for her role as Annalise Keating in "How to Get Away with Murder," and two Tonys for best featured actress in a play and best lead actress in 2001 and 2010 for "King Hedley II" and "Fences," respectively.

In her Oscars acceptance speech, Davis gave a testament to "the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost."

"I became an artist, and thank God I did because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life," she said.

Davis is also one of just 19 people to achieve EGOT status, winning a Grammy in 2023 for best book audio, narration, and storytelling recording for her memoir "Finding Me."

Rita Moreno was the first Latina to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in "West Side Story."

Rita Moreno as Anita in the 1961 production of "West Side Story."
Rita Moreno as Anita in the 1961 production of "West Side Story."Silver Screen Collection/Contributor/Getty Images

Moreno's career has spanned eight decades and includes many memorable achievements.

In 1962, her role as Anita in "West Side Story" made her the first Latina to win an Academy Award, but her success failed to yield any exciting new movie roles.

In 2008, she told the Miami Herald, "Before 'West Side Story,' I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After 'West Side Story,' it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories."

Instead of film, Moreno turned to theater and television, where she would go on to win the Triple Crown of Acting and achieve EGOT status — the first and only Latina to do so — for her roles in "The Ritz" and "The Electric Company" and her appearance on "The Muppet Show."

Moreno has also been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Peabody Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Artistic Achievement award.

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win best director at the Oscars for "The Hurt Locker."

Kathryn Bigelow accepted the Oscar for best director in 2010.
Kathryn Bigelow accepted the Oscar for best director in 2010.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

The Oscars have a long record of failing to recognize women directors, but in 2010 — 81 years after the Oscars began and 33 years after the first female director was nominated — Bigelow won the award for "The Hurt Locker."

The Iraq war drama, which also won best picture, starred Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty and told the story of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team and war's impact on people.

Bigelow's other works include "Point Break," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Detroit," and "The Loveless."

She is also the first woman to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best director twice, winning first for "The Hurt Locker" in 2009 and again for "Zero Dark Thirty" in 2012.

Costume designer Edith Head has won more Oscars than any other woman in history.

Edith Head poses with some of her eight Academy Awards in 1975.
Edith Head poses with some of her eight Academy Awards in 1975.Mark Sullivan/Getty Images

Costume designer Edith Head is best known for creating the beautiful clothes seen on movie stars like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor, reported Oscars.org.

She won eight Oscars from 35 nominations, placing her among the most awarded people in Academy Awards history.

Famous films she designed for include "Roman Holiday," "Sabrina," "A Place in the Sun," and "All About Eve."

Head died in Los Angeles in 1981, at 83 years old.

Zoe Saldaña is the first actor to star in multiple billion-dollar franchises, with roles in both the "Avatar" and "Avengers" series.

Zoe Saldaña at the "Avatar: The Way of Water" world premiere in 2022.
Zoe Saldaña at the "Avatar: The Way of Water" world premiere in 2022.Joe Maher/Stringer/Getty Images

It's rare for an actor to star in one of the highest-grossing films of the year — let alone of all time.

And, if you're Zoe Saldaña, make that four.

Saldaña has starred in "Avatar," "Avatar: The Way of Water," "Avengers: Infinity War," and "Avengers: Endgame" as Neytiri and Gamora, respectively.

Each of these films grossed over $2 billion at the global box office for a collective total of over $9 billion.

With "Yentl," Barbra Streisand became the first woman to win the Golden Globe for best director.

Barbra Streisand poses with her Golden Globe awards for best director (musical or comedy) and best actress (musical or comedy) in 1984.
Barbra Streisand poses with her Golden Globe awards for best director (musical or comedy) and best actress (musical or comedy) in 1984.Bettmann/Contributor

Barbra Streisand is a multi-talented star best known for her roles in "Funny Girl," "Hello Dolly!," "A Star is Born," and "Yentl." She also is one of the most successful singers of all time.

In 1984, she became the first woman to win the Golden Globe for best director for her work on the musical "Yentl," in which she also starred and won the Golden Globe for best actress (musical or comedy).

"This award is very meaningful to me. I'm very proud because it also represents, I hope, new opportunities for so many talented women to try to make their dreams become realities, as I did," she said in her acceptance speech.

In 2021, when Emerald Fennell, Regina King, and Chloé Zhao were all nominated for best director, Streisand told the Hollywood Reporter, "I never thought I'd see the day when three out of five nominated directors would be women. It brings a huge smile to my face."

Streisand, too, is one of the few people to achieve EGOT status, although not all of her awards were in competitive categories: She has won four Emmys, 10 Grammys, two Oscars, and a special Tony award for Star of the Decade in 1970, reported ABC News.

In 2023, Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win best actress at the Oscars.

Michelle Yeoh poses with her Oscar in 2023.
Michelle Yeoh poses with her Oscar in 2023.Mike Coppola/Staff/Getty Images

Best known for her roles in "Tomorrow Never Dies," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Memoirs Of A Geisha," and "Everything Everywhere All At Once," Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman, and just the second woman of color, to win best actress at the Academy Awards in 2023 for her role as Evelyn Quan Wang.

In her acceptance speech, Yeoh said, "For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dreams dream big and dreams do come true, and ladies, don't let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up!"

In addition to her Oscar, Yeoh also won an Independent Spirit Award, a Golden Globe, and three SAG awards for her work in "Everything Everywhere All At Once."

She is set to star in upcoming "Avatar" sequels, as well as "Wicked" alongside Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande.

Halle Berry is the first Black woman to win best actress at the Academy Awards.

Halle Berry poses with her Oscar for best actress in 2002.
Halle Berry poses with her Oscar for best actress in 2002.David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Halle Berry is the first woman of color and the only Black woman to win the Oscar for best actress. She won in 2002 for her role as Leticia Musgrove in "Monster's Ball."

Through tears, Berry accepted the award and said, "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox, and it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

However, no Black actress has won the best actress award since. In 2017, reflecting on how no Black actresses had been nominated in the category that year, she told Teen Vogue of her win, "That moment really meant nothing. It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing."

Berry is also known for her roles in the "X-Men" series, "Catwoman," and "Die Another Day."

Meryl Streep is the most nominated actor of all time.

Meryl Streep attending the 81st Golden Globe Awards in 2024.
Meryl Streep attending the 81st Golden Globe Awards in 2024.John Salangsang/Golden Globes 2024/Golden Globes 2024 via Getty Images

Miranda Priestly. Donna Sheridan. Joanna Kramer. Florence Foster Jenkins. Margaret Thatcher.

Meryl Streep deeply embodies each and every character she's played throughout her career, becoming the most Oscar-nominated and most Golden Globe-nominated actor of all time, with 21 and 30 nominations, respectively. Streep also has 15 BAFTA nominations.

She's won eight Golden Globes for acting, the most recent being in 2012 for best performance by an actress in a motion picture - drama, for "Iron Lady.

Streep has also won three Academy Awards, two BAFTAs, three Emmys, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Miyoshi Umeki was the first Asian actor to win an Oscar.

Miyoshi Umeki poses with her Oscar in 1958.
Miyoshi Umeki poses with her Oscar in 1958.Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Umeki won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 1958 for her role as Katsumi in the film "Sayonara," starring Marlon Brando.

She would later destroy her Oscar after the death of her husband, Randall Hood, in 1976, Entertainment Weekly reported in 2018, scratching out her name and throwing away the trophy.

Her son, Michael Hood, told the publication that she said, "I know who I am, and I know what I did."

"It was a point of hers, to teach me a lesson that the material things are not who she was," said Hood.

Umeki died in 2007 at the age of 78.

Ariana DeBose is the first queer, Afro-Latina actress to win an Academy Award.

Ariana DeBose holds her Oscar for best supporting actress in 2022.
Ariana DeBose holds her Oscar for best supporting actress in 2022.Mike Coppola/Staff/Getty Images

Sixty years after Rita Moreno became the first Latina to win an Academy Award, DeBose became the first queer, Afro-Latina to win an Oscar — for the same role: Anita in "West Side Story."

In her speech, she thanked the "divine inspiration that is Rita Moreno."

"I'm so grateful your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me, and I love you so much," she said.

"So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us," DeBose concluded.

Katharine Hepburn holds the record for most Oscars by an actress.

Katharine Hepburn in 1968.
Katharine Hepburn in 1968.Bettmann/Contributor

Katharine Hepburn holds the record for actress with the most Academy Awards, winning four throughout her career, all for best actress.

She received 12 nominations in the category and won for her roles in "Morning Glory," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "The Lion in Winter," and "On Golden Pond," spanning from 1934 to 1982, according to the Academy Awards Database.

Her win for "The Lion in Winter" marks one of just six ties in Oscars history, as Hepburn shared the award with "Funny Girl" actress Barbra Streisand, reported Collider.

Hepburn died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Chloé Zhao is the only woman of color to win best director at the Oscars.

Chloé Zhao holds her awards for best picture and best director at the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021.
Chloé Zhao holds her awards for best picture and best director at the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021.Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images

In 2020, Chinese-born director Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director at the Oscars for her film "Nomadland," which also won best picture.

In her acceptance speech, Zhao said, "This is for anyone who have the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that."

For "Nomadland," Zhao also won directing awards at the Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards, and the Directors Guild of America Awards.

Recently, she directed the 2021 Marvel film "The Eternals," and is working on a film adaptation of "Hamnet" starring Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley.

Audrey Hepburn remains one of the most iconic women in film history.

Audrey Hepburn poses for a publicity still for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961.
Audrey Hepburn poses for a publicity still for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961.Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Audrey Hepburn is an iconic figure in film and fashion history, with starring roles in classics like "Roman Holiday," "Sabrina," "My Fair Lady," and "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

She achieved EGOT status in 1994, having won the Academy Award for best actress in 1953 for "Roman Holiday," the Tony for best actress in a play in 1954 for "Ondine," the Emmy for outstanding individual achievement — informational programming in 1993 for "Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn: Flower Gardens," and the Grammy for best spoken world album for children in 1994 for "Audrey Hepburn's Enchanted Tales."

In addition to her career as an actress, Hepburn was well known for her humanitarian work, serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador from 1988 until her death in 1993 at age 63.

"Barbie" made Greta Gerwig the first solo female director to gross over $1 billion at the box office.

Greta Gerwig attends the 96th Academy Awards in 2024.
Greta Gerwig attends the 96th Academy Awards in 2024.Sarah Morris/Staff/WireImage

Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" was the highest-grossing film of 2023, with over $1.4 billion earned worldwide.

With this accomplishment, Gerwig became the first solo female director to have a movie earn $1 billion and one of just five female directors to gross more than $800 million.

Although she was snubbed by the 2024 Oscars for best director, all of her directorial projects — "Lady Bird," "Little Women," and "Barbie" — have been nominated for best picture.

Octavia Spencer is the first Black woman to receive consecutive Oscar nominations.

Octavia Spencer poses with her Academy Award in 2012.
Octavia Spencer poses with her Academy Award in 2012.Jason Merritt/Staff/Getty Images

Octavia Spencer was nominated for best supporting actress in 2017 and 2018 for her work in "Hidden Figures" and "The Shape of Water."

She previously won the award in 2012 for her role as Minny Jackson in "The Help," which was also her first Oscar nomination.

Spencer has been outspoken about the issue of pay equality in the industry, especially as a woman of color.

In a 2023 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Spencer said, "Women and women of color have always lagged. When they start casting movies, they put all the money on the white male or Black male leads. They come to you when they've given out all the dollars and they only have cents. I don't need you to tell me how much you love me and how much you want to work with me."

"Love is not going to take care of my godkids. So, I've always been a proponent of making sure that there's equal pay. It's still not equal, but it's certainly getting better," she added.

Marilyn Monroe's name and image are synonymous with Hollywood glamour.

Marilyn Monroe at the premiere of the film "There's No Business like Show Business."
Marilyn Monroe at the premiere of the film "There's No Business like Show Business."Murray Garrett/Getty Images

With her platinum-blonde hair, beauty mark, and elegant fashion, Marilyn Monroe is easily one of the most recognizable women in film history.

Born as Norma Jeane Mortenson, Monroe would go on to star in films like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Some Like It Hot," and "The Seven Year Itch."

Embodying the role of the "blonde bombshell," her image and life story have been the subject of intense scrutiny, with documentaries, biopics, and even AI chatbots seeking to capture her essence, raising issues and concerns around consent and the public's unwillingness to let the memory of some celebrity figures rest.

Lily Gladstone is the first Indigenous actress to win a Golden Globe.

Lily Gladstone poses with her Golden Globe award in 2024.
Lily Gladstone poses with her Golden Globe award in 2024.ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Lily Gladstone played Mollie Burkhart in Martin Scorsese's historical crime drama "Killers of the Flower Moon," becoming the first Indigenous woman to win best actress at the Golden Globes.

Gladstone spoke Blackfeet during her acceptance speech and said, "I'm so grateful that I can speak even a little bit of my language, which I'm not fluent in, up here because in this business, Native actors used to speak their lines in English, and then the sound mixers would run them backwards to accomplish Native languages on camera. This is an historic win."

She added, "This is for every little rez kid, every little urban kid, every little Native kid out there who has a dream who is seeing themselves represented and our stories told by ourselves, in our own words, with tremendous allies and tremendous trust from within and from each other."

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