8 Women Who Changed the World with Their Brains, Not Their Bra Sizes

Written by Elaine Atwell

smart women

From Rubenesque to rail-thin, the definition of “sexy” throughout the ages has been linked to a woman’s body … healthy or not (Victorian corsets actually deformed women’s skeletons, for example).

Thankfully, we live in an age in which being a vibrant, healthy woman is much more than just looking fit or fitting a mold. It’s about the whole person — body, soul, and mind. Amen — it’s about time intelligent women got their long-overdue moment as society’s “It girls” and were celebrated for their activism and entrepreneurship just as much as their looks.

The phrase “smart is the new sexy” has been popularized in recent years — and cheers to that. But really, smart has always been sexy. These eight brilliant ladies of the past and present helped change the world with their brains, not their bra sizes. From geniuses whose work changed history to A-list stars whose talent extends beyond their celebrity status, these women made it oh-so-cool (and sexy) to let your nerd flag fly.

1. Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

The daughter of OG feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley really was an “It girl” of her day (Kim K., eat your heart out). She was married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and hung around with poet/pal Lord Byron — two of history’s most famous bad boys. Their antics made them notorious throughout Europe.

But while they were writing poetry and practicing free love, Mary Shelley single-handedly invented the horror genre with “Frankenstein,” one of the most influential novels of all time. So, next time you have to stay home and work when everyone else is getting crazy, think of Mary Shelley. Remind yourself that you’re not being a bummer — you’re being brilliant.

2. Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr’s breathtaking beauty made her a Hollywood star. But she was so bored by the passive roles offered to her that she became a self-taught inventor just to keep herself entertained.

One-time boyfriend Howard Hughes called Lamarr a “genius” for her work on aerodynamics. During WWII, she took it upon herself to invent a frequency-hopping technology that later formed the groundwork for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Lamarr’s scientific breakthroughs are only beginning to be appreciated as much as her onscreen presence. It’s about time one of the world’s most beautiful women is also remembered as one of the smartest.

3. Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Anyone doubting that smart and sexy go hand in hand need look no further than “Hidden Figures,” in which Taraji P. Henson plays physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Few people contributed more to NASA’s space race than Johnson. This achievement was made even more impressive by the fact that she had to fight her way through multiple levels of prejudice as a black woman.

These days, society worships at the altar of tech geniuses, but the next time you hear one of them talk about a “moon shot,” remember the woman who helped get us there the first time.

4. Emma Watson

Emma Watson

It’s been 20 years since Hermione Granger first corrected our pronunciation of “wingardium leviosa,” forever changing the world for female nerds, and none more so than the girl who played her: Emma Watson.

Together, Emma and Hermione (since they’ll always be inseparable) might be the single best example of what a profound effect positive female representation can have on girls’ development. Hermione opened up a door for proudly brainy girls everywhere. And though Watson has moved on to other roles (including nerd icon Belle of “Beauty and the Beast”), her bookishness remains a huge part of her appeal.

After attending Oxford University and Brown University, with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the latter, she’s still spreading her love of literature and girl power. Watson was most recently seen planting copies of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” all over Paris.

5. Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

Can you imagine how famous the Brontë sisters would be if they were alive today? (Move over, Olsen twins!) Their faces would brood from every magazine cover in the world, with the headlines “Girl Geniuses Remake Literary Landscape.” Sadly, the Brontës labored in obscurity in their lifetimes, with Charlotte adopting the male pseudonym Currer Bell to get her work published.

Despite these limitations, Charlotte created Jane Eyre, an enduring character who’s defined by her intelligence, goodness, and independence. Jane Erye inspired generations of writers to dream up female protagonists who could do more than just marry the right man. (I mean, she does eventually marry the right man, but she makes him work for it.)

6. Chrissy Teigen

Chrissy Teigen

If you just know her as a “swimsuit model” or “John Legend’s wife,” you’re missing the best part of Chrissy Teigen: her incredible wit, often on display in her hilarious Twitter posts. Teigen is modern-day proof that sexy and smart aren’t mutually exclusive. It’d be easy to be jealous of her if we weren’t too busy laughing. #girlcrush

7. Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher

The late, great Carrie Fisher will always be inseparable from her most famous role: Princess Leia, a tough, intelligent, intergalactic leader who wasn’t afraid to call Han Solo a “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder” to his face.

But in a galaxy closer to home, Fisher was a voracious reader and gifted writer who penned numerous books and screenplays. She was also unflinchingly open about living with severe bipolar disorder and addiction. Fisher reminded us all to treat our struggles with humor rather than shame. And throughout all her highs and hardships, she kept her wits and wisdom about her.

8. Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron (see above). According to legend, her mother pushed her away from poetry and toward mathematics in the hopes it might keep her from taking after her fun-loving father. Thankfully, the gambit paid off.

Lovelace became a countess, socialite, and is regarded as the creator of the first “computer program,” back when computing machines were no more than theoretical. Lovelace combined mathematical brilliance with boundless creativity. She was the first person in history to fathom the potential of a computing device.

Or, as one of her contemporaries allegedly described her: “a large, coarse-skinned young woman.”

So … what about Tina Fey, Michelle Obama, and …?

It would be impossible to list every awesome woman who’s paved the way for other smart, beautiful, and inherently sexy women. But this was a start. Let’s remember these women and the countless others who remind us that smart has never not been “in.” So, go on ladies — be your cultured, brainy selves and own it!

Tell us: Who else should’ve made this list?


Elaine Atwell

Elaine Atwell is an author, critic, and founder of TheDart.co. Her work has been featured on Vice, The Toast, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. Follow her at @ElaineAtwell on Twitter.

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