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California's Most Famous Women in History

California's Most Famous Women in History

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating famous women in the history of California by shining a light on their stories.


6 min read

March 01, 2021

Women have managed to significantly change the course of history despite all the challenges they have faced along the way. In their battle for equality, representation, and respect, these famous figures in California’s history broke scientific grounds, overcame stereotypes, and shattered gender barriers.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating famous women in the history of California by shining a light on their stories and highlighting their accomplishments—every contribution made by these iconic figures has been for the betterment of humankind.

Female historical figures you need to know about

Julia Morgan was the principal architect for Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark in San Simeon.

Julia Morgan

Designing more than 700 buildings in California, Julia Morgan is an architect and engineer with a long and prolific career. As the first woman architect to be licensed in California, Morgan paved the way for aspiring female architects everywhere.

This famous female from San Francisco graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Civil Engineering. Morgan became the first female student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  She’s best known for Hearst Castle in San Simeon—a must-see on the Central Coast. Throughout her career, she also designed many institutions serving women and girls.

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Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Bridget "Biddy" Mason stands as a remarkable figure in American history, a testament to resilience and heroism. Born into the confines of slavery, Mason faced immense challenges from an early age, lacking formal education and enduring numerous obstacles. Yet, she emerged as a beacon of hope and achievement, mastering the craft of midwifery.

Through her diligent work and savings, she broke significant barriers, becoming one of the pioneering African American women to own a home in Los Angeles. Her success was not just personal; Mason generously contributed to various charitable causes and played a crucial role in establishing the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mason's legacy endures, celebrated as one of the pivotal Black figures in California's history, whose contributions have left an indelible mark on the state and its communities.

Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz stands out as a pioneering figure, being the first woman to practice law on the West Coast. Her determination to break into the legal profession was so strong that she authored the amendment permitting women to embark on legal careers in California. As the inaugural female to be admitted to the California Bar, Foltz's legacy as an influential female leader in history is undeniably significant, and her contributions continue to inspire gratitude and admiration.

Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta was the first Latina inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

Dolores Huerta 

Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential figures in California’s activist history. The farmworker and miner faced her fair share of discrimination before becoming a state legislator and a leader of the Chicano Movement. In 1955, she co-founded the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization. From there, Dolores led a long journey in activism where she fought for economic improvements for the Latin@ community. 

This famous figure in history has received many accolades for her services to the community, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Famous Californian Women in sports

Billie Jean King is a pioneer for equality and social justice with 39 Grand Slam titles to her name.

Billie Jean King

Besides being a phenomenal tennis player, Billie Jean King is also an advocate for gender equality and social justice. Having won 39 Grand Slam titles, King is a living legend and perhaps the most celebrated female tennis player of all time. An instrumental moment in her legendary career was when she defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” when she was only 29. 90 million people watched her win worldwide. 

Marge Calhoun

The first woman world champion in surfing—Marge Calhoun is a pioneer in female surfing. This famous figure in California’s history was born in Hollywood and spent most of her upbringing by the beach. Calhoun earned the esteemed title after competing in the Makaha Invitational Tournament in Hawaii. In 2003, she was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame.

Together, the Williams sisters are an unbeatable force. Get inspired and pick up a tennis racket, it's time to play!

Venus and Serena Williams

These famous female leaders in history don’t need an introduction; no one can deny the impact the Williams sisters have had in tennis. Two of California’s most famous black athletes, both sisters have been on top of their game for decades now. They have multiple Grand Slam Singles titles under their belt. The Williams sisters are credited with taking tennis to a whole new level, serving as inspiration for girls all over the world.

The "White Mamba" is regarded as one of the greatest female basketball players of all time.

Diana Taurasi

Another famous female athlete from California that anyone can recognize is Diana Taurasi. Often regarded as the greatest female basketball player of all time, Taurasi has earned the nickname “White Mamba”—first coined by Kobe Bryant himself. With four Olympic gold medals and countless other accomplishments to her name, Taurasi is one of the most famous people from California.

Historical female Californians in science

Marian Diamond

One of the founders of modern neuroscience, Marian Diamond was a pioneering scientist and educator.  She and her team were the first to introduce the concept of neuroplasticity. They published evidence that the brain can change with experience and improve with enrichment. This famous figure in California’s history has published work exploring the link between positive thinking and immunity, as well as women’s role in science.

Sally Ride is the youngest American astronaut to have traveled to space. She's living the dream.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was the first American woman and out LGBTQ+ person in history to go to space. The Los Angeles-born astronaut and physicist broke many barriers throughout her lifetime—she was passionate about improving science education for women everywhere. 

The female historical figure has other accomplishments in her name. She served as the Director of the California Space Science Institute and earned a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Famous female authors from California

Joan Didion

This author kick-started her illustrious career in the 1960s, securing her first major accolade through an essay competition hosted by Vogue magazine. From there, Didion ventured into exploring a myriad of bold subjects, quickly gaining recognition and acclaim across the nation.

Her debut collection of essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," delves into her observations and reflections on the 1960s counterculture. Notably, she stands out as a historical icon for being among the first to challenge the mainstream narrative, suggesting that the Central Park Five were unjustly convicted.

With a career marked by passion and perseverance, Didion continued to make waves well into her later years, releasing "Let Me Tell You What I Mean" in early 2021, at the age of 86, further cementing her legacy as a formidable force in literature.

Amy Tan 

Amy Tan defied all prejudices and excelled in the field of literature. This famous figure in California history has had a pretty tumultuous life, remnants of which can be seen in her novels. Her first book,  The Joy Luck Club, was inspired by her visit to China with her mother in 1987. There, she met two of her half-sisters for the first time.

Her mother’s history also inspired Tan’s second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. Amy has received several awards for her phenomenal novels and has lectured in universities all over the world from Beijing to Doha.

Female Californians who revolutionized the entertainment industry

Film director Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to receive the Oscar for Best Director in the history of the Academy Awards.

Kathryn Bigelow

Hailing from San Carlos, California, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director for her movie The Hurt Locker. She also won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Director—all for the same movie. 

Kathryn is also the director of Zero Dark Thirty, Strange Days, and Point Break. It’s safe to say that Bigelow revolutionized the entertainment industry—she gave hope to aspiring women directors all over the world to make a mark in films.

Dorothy Arzner

Another famous female from San Francisco—Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director making feature-length films in Hollywood during the 1930s. Arzner’s career spanned from the era of silent movies in the 1920s until the classic period of American film noir in the 1940s. She made a total of 20 motion pictures throughout her career.

Arzner’s movies launched the careers of other famous women in history—Lucille Ball, Rosalind Russell, and the legendary Katharine Hepburn to name a few. Other impressive feats throughout her lifetime include being the first woman to direct a sound film and the first female to join the Directors Guild of America.

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