Wonder Women: What Made These Iconic Actresses So Inspiring?

Princess Di, Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Nina Simone
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Who do you think of when you think Wonder Woman? Could be Lynda Carter’s ’70s TV superhero, a role which transformed the 1972 Miss World USA into Amazonian princess turned navy officer Diana Prince who battled crime in a bustier, hot pants and the perfect accessory — a gold belt that vanquished bullets. But maybe it’s a real-life wonder woman who used her celebrity and its trappings to do good in the world, forging a bold new path for females, supporting those less fortunate, or changing our perception of lifestyles unlike our own and cultures and diseases we didn’t understand. Here we spotlight 10 inspiring ladies whose lives and legacies have positively, genuinely impacted the world. Though pop culture made them famous, life, luck — both good and hard — and an inherent need to do right by themselves and others made them wondrous.

As Pretty Does …

Diana, Princess of Wales

LUANDA, ANGOLA - JANUARY 14: Diana, Princess Of Wales, With Children Injured By Mines At Neves Bendinha Orthopaedic Workshop In Luanda, Angola.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Shy, sporty and empathetic from childhood, Diana wasn’t just “the people’s princess” — she was every person’s princess, including the AIDS and leprosy patients whose hands she shook, the land-mine victims in whose steps she fearlessly walked and the homeless Londoners she championed and chatted up like chums. For young Diana Spencer, becoming a royal didn’t mean donning a crown and settling into a life of high-profile privilege. Instead, the soft-spoken beauty filled her days with charitable causes around the globe — not because it was expected of her, but because it fulfilled her. Supporting more than 100 charities before her tragic death (and after, via the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund), Diana passed on her fervor for doing good to sons Harry and William. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is demonstrating to a generation of little girls that acting like a princess could be so much more than gowns, crowns and waiting for a prince.

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor during Dream Halloween Children Affected by AIDS at Barker Hanger in Santa Monica, California, United States.


Hollywood royalty from the moment she hit the screen in National Velvet, Taylor was the violet-eyed beauty who wowed filmgoers then scandalized the public when, already thrice married, she lured her best friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband away. But when she passed away in 2011, Taylor was equally remembered as a tireless AIDS activist, a cause to which she was devoted for more than 30 years, raising millions of dollars and bolstering international awareness of the dangers of denying the epidemic. Infuriated but inspired by the inaction in the political and medical realms as the disease exploded, Taylor lent her name, her time and her knack for persuasion to AIDS research and its earliest victims, first raising funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles and then helping to launch amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. AIDS hit home for Taylor, as well. The disease claimed her close friend and Giant costar Rock Hudson in 1985, and Taylor learned her beloved daughter-in-law, the heiress Aileen Getty, contracted the disease a year earlier. Getty survived, following Taylor into fundraising for AIDS research and treatment.

Audrey Hepburn

British actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn (1929 - 1993) carrying an Ethiopian girl on her back while on her first field mission for UNICEF in Ethiopia, 16th-17th March 1988.

Derek Hudson/Getty Images

Another brainy beauty who nursed mixed feelings about her fame, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s actress and enduring style icon left show business in her 30s to devote herself first to her young family and then to the children’s charity UNICEF. But unlike the privileged Taylor, Hepburn’s philanthropy was born of her own childhood experiences, when her Holland-based family relied on UNICEF and other charities to survive during the Nazi invasions of World War II. Though her pixie-like beauty and charm are legendary, Hepburn displayed an uncommon might, traveling the globe to provide comfort and aid to starving children and raising awareness for the UNICEF mission. But the trappings of her fame continue her legacy, even after her 1993 death from cancer. In 2006, the iconic floor-length black silk dress she wore in Tiffany’s scored $807,000 for City of Joy Aid, which supports impoverished children in India.

Sally Struthers

A cherubic-faced, helium-voiced ’70s sex symbol, Struthers landed the role of a lifetime as Gloria Stivic, the perky, patient, progressive daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker on the ’70s sitcom All in the Family. But Struthers was no shrinking violet. In 1976, she was approached for what would become a 17-year stint as the spokesperson for Christian Children’s Fund (later renamed ChildFund). Struthers walked the walk as well, making pilgrimages to Uganda, Kenya, Thailand and other impoverished nations, and sponsoring her own CFF children. Though she would migrate to Save the Children in 1994, her motivation was always the kids.

The Convention Breakers

Shirley Temple Black

(Original Caption) Shirley Temple Black's political ambitions are as alive today as before her defeat last year in her campaign for election to Congress. The former child movie star made that clear at a news conference held here 4/22 in connection with the annual Republican Women's Conference. Mrs. Black, who was defeated in the GOP primary last year, confessed she wanted badly to try again this year and only her conviction that party unity comes first persuaded her not to do so.


When you’re a world-famous movie star by age five, a married mom at 20, and written off by the industry that loved you best as a ringleted, oh-so-marketable dancing cherub soon after, it’s hard to imagine what the next chapter might be. For Shirley Temple Black, the answer came via another global stage. Shunning show business after she married her second husband Charles Alden Black in 1950, Black ran for Congress in 1967. The bid failed, but she channeled her efforts into fundraising for the Republican party. By 1969, she was part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, and in 1974 she was appointed ambassador to Ghana, enraging seasoned diplomats. “I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here,” Black told reporters after arriving in Ghana. “My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies.” Two years later, deeply respected by her peers, she became chief of protocol of the United States, a position that she would hold until 1977. She served her final ambassadorship in Czechoslovakia from 1989-92. Beyond her civil service, Black served as an early public face for breast cancer patients, discussing her own mastectomy and encouraging women not to “sit home and be afraid” to undergo mammograms.

Nina Simone

SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED), Nina Simone performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, 2021,

Searchlight Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Eunice Waymon dreamed of being the first black classical pianist and playing Bach at Carnegie Hall. But when she performed at the venue years later, she did so as Nina Simone, the genre-defying High Priestess of Soul who belted out the explosive “Mississippi Goddam” to white audiences. “I stopped singing love songs and started singing protest songs because protest songs were needed,” Simone explained. Unlike the uplifting anthems of the era, her music captured the racial anger that most popular artists were afraid to express. Simone received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 — 14 years after her death.

Oprah Winfrey

THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW, Oprah Winfrey, (1992), 1986-2011.

Ron Slenzak/Harpo Productions / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Her 2017 Golden Globes speech left little doubt that Oprah Winfrey could rule the world. In the meantime, though, Winfrey’s been busy saving it. The Tennessee-raised tough cookie parlayed a troubled, impoverished youth into an iron-clad empathy and drive to succeed, earning her own talk show in 1986 and quickly becoming America’s female Phil Donahue. Displaying Donahue’s devotion to the human condition, but outpacing him in warmth and Everyman curiosity, Winfrey soon overtook Donahue’s ratings and began building an empire. And as her bank account grew, so did her need to do good. Retiring her talk show in 2011, Winfrey devoted herself to worthwhile projects and causes aiding the African-American community and beyond. By 2012, Winfrey had given $400 million to educational causes alone, including her most high-profile project, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, a leadership school for impoverished but promising girls — girls just like the adolescent Winfrey — that she founded after a chat with Nelson Mandela.

Loretta Lynn


Monty Brinton/CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

One of the bravest and earliest voices in entertainment’s feminist movement came from another penniless little girl, a coal miner’s daughter who married at 15 and was the mother of four by her 20th birthday. In 1953, Loretta Webb Lynn’s husband Oliver (better known as Doolittle) gave his bride a $17 guitar — and plenty to sing about. Loretta recorded her first single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in February 1960, warbling the lyrics, “I’m ashamed and I’m sorry for everything you see, but losing him has made a fool of me.” There ended the pity party. Crafting song after song from her own fitful marriage, Lynn became an outspoken champion of the wronged woman with “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Fist City.” Songs about female sexuality, suppression and liberation — “Wings Upon Your Horns,” “The Pill,” “One’s on the Way” and “Rated ‘X’” — were shunned by some radio stations but became hits anyway. Lynn addressed the Vietnam War with “Dear Uncle Sam,” a song she penned to give voice to widows of the unpopular war. In 2004, Lynn teamed up with alt-rocker Jack White on the critically acclaimed, deeply personal Van Lear Rose, which introduced her to both a new generation and new genre of music fans, while still thrilling her longtime devotees. But through it all, Lynn declared herself an observer, a chronicler of the human condition rather an outright activist, claiming, “I don’t like to talk about things where you’re going to get one side or the other unhappy. … My music has no politics.”

Katharine Hepburn

American film actress Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) on her arrival in London to play the lead in GB Shaw's 'The Millionairess'.

Keystone/Getty Images

Born to a prominent doctor and a fervent feminist and suffragette, Hepburn was raised to be an unapologetic free thinker. Launching her acting career at Bryn Mawr College, the patrician beauty fearlessly managed her Hollywood career, buying out her RKO Radio Pictures contract after a series of failed films and signing on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she was partnered with Spencer Tracy to great on- and offscreen success. Refusing to play the ingénue worked in her favor, earning her 12 Oscar nominations. When she wasn’t working, Hepburn stayed steadfast to her independent nature, preferring casual menswear-inspired attire and maintaining a discreet, 26-year offscreen relationship with the unhappily married Tracy. And though she refused to conform to Hollywood norms rewarding youth, beauty and a very public persona, Hepburn never lost the public’s support, giving Oscar-winning performances in her 60s and 70s. Following the passing of Tracy and his wife, Hepburn softened her aversion to publicity, giving public interviews and championing feminist causes. The icon died at age 96 in 2003, but her motto has inspired generations of women: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Sally Field

It’s awfully hard not to like Sally Field. The girl-next-door actress dated sex symbol Burt Reynolds, earned an Oscar for her ferocious performance as union organizer Norma Rae, and landed Playboy’s cover without taking off a stitch of her clothes inside. And the diminutive actress is equally fierce offstage. Scoring the 2007 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for her role in Brothers & Sisters, Field offered a fiery acceptance speech that opined, “If the mothers ruled the world, there would be no goddamn wars in the first place.” Though the press made sure her words reached the public, the statement was censored by FOX. Outside of the spotlight, Field champions women’s rights around the world, serving on the board of Vital Voices, a nonprofit supporting female leaders around the world, since 2002. Mother to openly gay son Sam, Field is also a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Big Names, Big Donations

They’re two of Hollywood’s biggest names, but their hearts are just as big as their profiles, though their philanthropic efforts often fly under the radar.

Meryl Streep

NEW YORK - MAY 03: Actor Meryl Streep attends the "Speak Truth To Power: Voices Beyond The Dark" benefit reading at The Public Theater on May 3, 2010 in New York City.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Meryl Streep made a career — and earned the most Oscar nominations of any performer — playing gutsy women, real and imagined. Behind the scenes, Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, have quietly championed the arts, establishing Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts, supporting museums, schools and festivals on the east coast. The pair also supports educational causes and institutions in Indiana and New York. And Streep herself has lent her voice to women’s issues and left-leaning political causes. “I let the actions of my life stand for what I am as a human being,” she’s said. “Contend with that, not the words.”

Barbra Streisand

MALIBU, CA - JUNE 02: Barbra Streisand attends the CHANEL Dinner Celebrating Our Majestic Oceans, A Benefit For NRDC on June 2, 2018 in Malibu, California.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

Another Oscar winner with a penchant for playing ballsy dames and supporting them, too, Barbra Streisand uses her eponymous foundation to channel funding and support to a variety of women-centric causes in the arenas of health, education and reproductive rights. Streisand is also an avid environmentalist. But her contribution to a generation of aspiring actresses and unconventional beauties was far more personal. “I arrived in Hollywood without having my nose fixed, my teeth capped or my name changed,” Streisand said. “That is very gratifying to me.”


Just for Fun

Lisa Simpson

THE SIMPSONS, Lisa Simpson (voice: Yeardley Smith), Lisa the Boy Scout', (Season 33, ep. 3321, aired Oct. 9, 2022).

Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

She’s almost 40 years old, but Lisa Simpson remains a second-grade student at Springfield Elementary School, the smart middle child of the suburban Simpsons clan. She’s a vegetarian, environmentalist, feminist, pony-lover and Buddhist, and she plays a mean saxophone. Lisa has been called one of the most animal-friendly TV characters of all time, but she most of all holds to one core belief: family. Voiced by Yeardley Smith, Lisa is a sunny optimist in a snarky world. A generation of young girls has been inspired by Lisa to play the sax.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface of the amazing female philanthropists in the industry. Who is your favorite?

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Wonder Women

March 2018

Celebrate these fabulous famous females who have changed helped the world!

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