The Badass 50 2020: Meet the Women Who Are Changing the World

As someone who has proved she’s not to be messed with, it’s only fitting that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi lead our class of 2020.
Jan 02, 2020 @ 4:31 pm
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Welcome to InStyle's fourth Badass Women issue, which kicked off yesterday with cover star Olivia Wilde. Next up is our bi-annual Badass 50 list celebrating some of the greatest changemakers of our time, from all over the world. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi offers her thoughts on what it takes to be a badass, the Today Show’s first female co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb get candid about the future for female journalists, editor and author Scarlett Curtis opens up about her mental health struggles, plus more inspiring stories from women who show up, speak up, and get things done.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her Ceremonial Office in the U.S. Capitol Building. Photographed by Jeremy Leibman.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her Ceremonial Office in the U.S. Capitol Building. Photographed by Jeremy Leibman.

1. NANCY PELOSI: How do you match the badassery of Speaker Pelosi? It starts with finding your purpose. “My best badass advice is to be you,” she says. “Be confident in what you have to offer. It’s nice if you want to have role models but be yourself. That has an integrity about it, an authenticity about it. That is what is necessary.” The highest-ranking female politician in America’s history is steadfast in her pursuit of justice on Capitol Hill. “Take the slings and arrows and then let the real heroes emerge,” she says. “I certainly hope that makes me a badass.” We can safely say, it does. Read more here

2. DAKOTA JOHNSON: Since making her phone number public in 2018 and inviting survivors to share their stories of harassment and abuse, the actress has turned the voicemails she has received into a podcast called The Left Ear (“the ear closest to your heart”). The second season will premiere this year, while Johnson continues to grow her production company, TeaTime Pictures. “Speaking freely about your trauma, knowing that there is not someone who is going to judge, diagnose, pacify, or criticize you is profoundly healing,” she says. “Being able to listen in this way, to be a safe place for someone else, is everything.”

3. KELLY SAWYER PATRICOF & NORAH WEINSTEIN: “We treat Baby2Baby as a business. It’s not a charity, it’s not a volunteer project; it’s an entrepreneurial business,” says Weinstein. With Sawyer Patricof, the determined moms have built up their organization to serve more than 200,000 children in the L.A. area alone. Their annual agenda includes a star-filled fundraiser that yields millions of dollars in aid and has helped deliver more than 70 million products to kids in need. They’ve also urged politicians to waive the taxes on diapers in nine states. Making essential products more accessible for families is their overarching goal. “The sky’s the limit,” says Sawyer Patricof. “There are so many children who need help.”

4. ALLYSON FELIX: Just 10 months after giving birth by emergency C-section, the sprinter broke Usain Bolt’s record for most gold medals at the World Championships. Her 12th victory was doubly sweet after she stood up to Nike when the brand refused to guarantee maternity protections in her sponsorship contract. Her actions have led major sponsors, including Nike, to revise their policies to better support athlete moms.

5. DIANA NYAD: “What more can I do than get up every day, grab a tiger by the tail, swing it over my head, and go to bed saying, ‘Woo, I just couldn’t have put any more into that day than I did’?” says the legendary swimmer who, in 2013 at age 64, became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective shark cage. In 2017 she joined the chorus of women sharing #MeToo stories as a means for advocating for change. Now Nyad’s energy is as infectious as ever, as she gets ready for her EverWalk initiative this summer, in which she plans to get 1 million people to walk from Miami to D.C. and pledge their commitment to keeping the oceans clean by reducing single-use plastics at home.

JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/Getty Images
JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/Getty Images

6. CICELY TYSON: After 60-plus years in the spotlight, snagging three Emmys, a Tony, and an honorary Oscar, the 95-year-old super-stylish actress proves that retirement just isn’t in the cards. She can be seen in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Cherish the Day.

7. SUSAN GOLDBERG: National Geographic magazine’s first female editor in chief is no stranger to taking the lead as a boss in multiple newsrooms, including Bloomberg News, where she was the outlet’s first woman bureau chief in Washington, D.C. In her latest role she is dedicated to adding more female contributors to the magazine’s masthead, in part to honor the centennial anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in America. “Being a great journalist is a badass act in and of itself,” she says. “And there is nothing more important than making sure we have a diverse staff to tell stories in their truest light.”

CHRISTOPHER STURMAN
CHRISTOPHER STURMAN

8. & 9. SAVANNAH GUTHRIE & HODA KOTB: Guthrie and Kotb made history in 2018 as the first female co-anchors in Today’s 67-year history, and since then, they’ve had each other’s backs every step of the way. “Now it’s about who’s right for the job. No one questions whether a female anchor would be able to do a tough interview or cover the news,” says Guthrie. Adds Kotb, “Obviously, we’re on equal footing with men — we go toe-to-toe all the time!” Read more here

10. DELTA “WING” CREW: For International Girls in Aviation Day the airline flew 120 girls from Salt Lake City to Houston to tour NASA and learn about careers in aviation and aerospace. The annual event was orchestrated entirely by women, from the pilots and ramp agents to the air-traffic controllers. “The girls clapped as we barreled down the runway,” says 737 First Officer Erin Heinlein, who flew co-pilot. “Hearing their joy brought me back to the excitement and wonder I felt on my first flights.”

11. GABRIELA SCHWARTZ: The head of global urban marketing for Capitol Records nurtured the careers of stars like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez, effectively shaping the future of music and pop culture. “I feel badass when I’m surrounded by women with the same purpose,” she says. “Hot yoga and martinis help too.”

12. KRISTINE DAVIS: As one of the masterminds behind NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit (xEMU), the engineer is making history by designing the helmet, sun visor, and waist assembly that will be worn by the first woman to walk on the moon, in 2024. Her advice for the next generation? “Find something you are passionate about and pursue a career in it,” Davis says. “If not you, who? Go change the world.”

13. MELINA MATSOUKAS: The Bronx-born director, whose work includes music videos for Rihanna and Beyoncé (e.g., the Grammy-winning “Formation”) and TV shows like Insecure, débuted her first feature film, Queen & Slim, to much fanfare last year. Written by Lena Waithe, the movie is a love story that also tackles the topic of police brutality and how tragedy can strike at any moment. Matsoukas’s refreshingly real approach makes her a force to be reckoned with.

14. JUDY CHICAGO: Over the course of her 50-plus-year career, the famed feminist artist eschewed preconceived notions of gender by studying pyrotechnics and attending auto-body school to create her work. Though she is often associated with her seminal installation The Dinner Party — and the controversial reviews it received — Chicago is finally getting her due with her first retrospective, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco this spring

15. DEBBIE STERLING: The Stanford graduate’s disruptive toy and media company, GoldieBlox, introduces young girls to the literal tools they need to succeed in science. “STEM is often portrayed as a white male in a lab coat who is a born genius. Call it the Einstein effect,” she says. “If you’re a young girl who is creative and social, you might think, ‘That’s not for me.’ The truth is science, engineering, and technology are incredibly creative. And the stuff you build changes people’s lives.”

16. REBECCA OPPENHEIMER: The curator, professor, and chair of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, who has worked with researchers at NASA and her alma mater, Caltech, designs instruments to better study planets (and perhaps one day life) outside our solar system. Since coming out as trans in 2014, she has also challenged people to push past labels. “Astrophysics is nuts, and the universe we live in is absurd, funny, and beautiful,” she says. “To empathize with any other human, labels are mediocre at best. We are too complex for simple tags.”

17. DOMINIQUE CRENN: “I’m trying to be a good human who kicks some ass,” says the French chef, whose San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn is the first run by a woman in the U.S. to earn three Michelin stars. Known for her commitment to innovation, sustainability, and equality in the kitchen, Crenn announced her battle with breast cancer in May but has hardly skipped a beat. Most recently she pledged to create meatless menus in an effort to be even more eco-conscious. “I want to tell young women, ‘Hey, you are a badass too. If I can do it, you can definitely do it,’” she says.

18. JENNIFER JUSTICE: The entertainment lawyer has worked on major deals for artists like Outkast, Beyoncé, and Jay Z (she represented the hip-hop mogul for 17 years and helped launch his company, Roc Nation). To combat the gender pay gap at male-dominated record labels, she made it her mission to represent more women and negotiate fair compensation. “I was making money for men by day and trying to overthrow the patriarchy by night,” says Justice, who now runs her own female-focused advisory and legal firm, aptly named The Justice Dept.

19. KATIE PORTER: “I’m not in Congress to do what is politically easy. I am here to do what is right,” says the single mom and consumer-finance expert who represents California’s 45th District. Known for her canny questioning of bank CEOs and public officials before the House Financial Services Committee, she says her proudest achievement in office was helping change a bipartisan bill that would have made it hard for Americans to file their taxes for free. “When you have courage to push back against leaders of both parties, we can make real change to help people.”

20. - 22. BRIE MIRANDA BRYANT, DREAM HAMPTON, TAMRA SIMMONS: “Many people were healed from this project. It shed light in a dark place and will, hopefully, help fewer people become victims,” says Simmons, one of the three female executive producers behind the award-winning documentary series Surviving R. Kelly and its sequel, The Reckoning. Their work led to the indictment of the R&B star after more than two decades of alleged sexual abuse and predatory behavior. “This triggered a global conversation that allowed for more open, robust talks around sexual violence,” Bryant says. “The women featured in our documentary didn’t all have the same profile, but they had nearly identical stories about the manipulation that preceded the actual abuse,” Hampton adds. “We’d like people to understand the signs.”

23. SCARLETT CURTIS: The celebrated editor of the best-seller Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies rose to recognition with the success of her book, which showcases essays from prominent female actresses, activists, and other leaders such as Emma Watson, Alicia Garza, and Jameela Jamil. As an InStyle Badass Women honoree, Curtis tells us in her own words how she was able to find bravery in being honest about her mental-health struggles. “Though it’s not glamorous or sexy and it certainly hasn’t been easy, taking back my life is the most badass thing I could ever do,” she says. Curtis’s latest book, It’s Not OK to Feel Blue and Other Lies, is out now.

24. SUE GORDON: After operating under the radar for 30-plus years as a card-carrying member of the CIA, the former deputy director of National Intelligence was foisted into the spotlight last summer when she had no choice but to tender her resignation to President Trump. “The most important thing was not whether Sue Gordon got to keep the position, but whether the president’s going to get good intelligence — and I have a lot of confidence in the community,” she says. “You do what’s right.” Her next act includes mentoring the next generation of leaders, consulting for tech companies, writing at least four (if not more) books, and going on a well-deserved European holiday.

25. ESTHER DUFLO: The Paris-born MIT professor, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for her “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty,” is the youngest person and second woman to receive the honor. In her Nobel Banquet speech she said, “I cannot help but hope that this prize, with its emphasis on the essential question of how to improve the lives of others, and with one woman among the laureates, will encourage many others to come join us.”

Evening Standard/eyevine/Redux
Evening Standard/eyevine/Redux

26. JAWAHIR ROBLE: “I don’t want to encourage just Muslim girls and black girls. I want to encourage all females,” says the Somalian refugee and first black Muslim woman in the U.K. to officiate soccer matches wearing a hijab. The referee is studying to become a coach now and hopes to lead England’s women’s national team to victory one day. “I know a lot of girls are looking up to me. I feel like I’m representing them all.”

27. BILLIE EILISH: For her début album, the Gen Z pop icon secured six Grammy nominations and became the youngest star to earn a nod in each of the “big four” categories (song, record, album, and best new artist) all at once. She is also the first artist born in the 2000s to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The devout vegan is determined to carry on her phenomenal success while sticking to her guns. “I’m really strong-willed, and I know exactly what I want,” she says. “I’m going to f—ing do it.”

28. ZARIFA GHAFARI: As one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, and, at age 26, the youngest, Ghafari is starting the conversation surrounding women’s rights in her town of 35,000, Maidan Shar, and across the Middle East. “My goal is to make people believe women’s power,” she has said on Twitter.

Magdalena Wosinska
Magdalena Wosinska

29. MEENA HARRIS: The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign founder and CEO turned a simple T-shirt collection into a viral empire that supports women’s-rights focused nonprofit partners like Families Belong Together and the Black Futures Lab. Her motto? “Screw the haters and keep it moving,” she says. “Don’t give up. Don’t cut corners. Pursue things with passion and commitment.”

30. FIONA KOLBINGER: The German surgeon-in-training is the first woman to win the Transcontinental, an endurance cycling race covering over 4,000 kilometers across Europe. In what was her first-ever bike race, she finished in 10 days, 2 hours, and 48 minutes, beating her closest competitor (a man) by more than 10 hours. “Do not let others’ prejudice limit your ambitions,” she says. “Be confident about your passions and talents.”

31. MICHELLE PESCE: The DJ, who has been spinning for 20-plus years at events like the Golden Globes and Coachella, co-founded Woman., a collective formed to “shift the needle on inclusivity, safety, freedom, consent, and mental health in nightlife spaces.” This includes establishing physical sanctuary spaces and training security guards in violence prevention. “I work in an environment that often tolerates bad behavior and blurred lines,” she says. “But my passion for what is right is greater than my fear of speaking up.”

32. AMANDA NGUYEN: The sexual-assault survivor and CEO of Rise is literally rewriting the law to increase protections for more than 72 million survivors across the country. In just four years her nonprofit has helped pass 27 laws. And, she says, “We’re not stopping — we’re continuing this badass work into 2020 with more states adopting their own Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.”

33. SUSAN FOWLER: In a blog entry in 2017 the software engineer exposed the toxic environment she endured at Uber. Her viral post has ignited an industry-wide examination of the treatment of women in Silicon Valley. With her memoir, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, expected to hit shelves next month, she wants to encourage readers to take charge of their own futures. “I hope I inspire people to speak up for what’s right, to find greater autonomy in their lives, and to be the heroes of their own stories,” she says.

NBC/Getty Images
NBC/Getty Images

34. KELLY CLARKSON: Since winning the first season of American Idol in 2002, the singer has been pushing boundaries, winning awards, breaking records, and molding her career all on her own terms. “I have had to fight so hard just to be myself,” she says. “I’m comfortable in my skin. I don’t want to dress, sing, or think like someone else.” With her talk show renewed for Season 2 and a Las Vegas residency on the horizon, the unstoppable star shows no sign of slowing down. “Confidence is everything,” she notes. “Say yes to things that challenge you and push you further as an artist.”

35. KOTCHAKORN VORAAKHOM: The founder and CEO of Porous City Network and Landprocess turned 11 acres in Bangkok, Thailand’s “sinking city,” into the first public park there in 30 years, designing it to retain up to 1 million gallons of water. She also looks forward to opening Asia’s largest urban-farming green roof. “A park shouldn’t be just for beautification,” she says. “It should address future climate uncertainties while allowing new landscape-architecture solutions to emerge.”

36. CLAIRE BABINEAUX-FONTENOT: “My goal is a hunger-free America, and I have never been better positioned to make that goal a reality,” says the CEO of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. The finance expert left her corporate career when a breast-cancer diagnosis gave her pause, allowing her to go back to her roots and build on what she was taught growing up in Louisiana with — wait for it — 107 siblings (biological, adopted, and foster). “Among the many lessons I learned growing up in our large family, three stand out: resiliency, the power of diversity, and the fierce potential of female leadership,” she says.

37. VIJAYA GADDE: As Twitter’s global lead of legal, policy, and trust and safety, Gadde has helped spearhead the social-media company’s ban on political ads. “We wanted to address the risk that digital ads bring when it comes to driving political outcomes,” she says. “We believe that political reach should be earned and not bought.” Gadde is also a co-founder of #Angels, an investment collective that backs start-ups and helps ensure that women receive equal compensation at successful companies

38. GREGG RENFREW: In 2011 she launched Beautycounter, a brand committed to keeping 1,500 toxic ingredients out of its products. This December she went to Capitol Hill to serve as an expert witness at a House hearing on cosmetics reform calling for stricter regulations of potentially harmful chemicals in personal-care products. “I’ve gotten up in front of thousands of women who have joined us to change an industry that has been antiquated and stagnant for over 81 years,” she says. “Those are my most badass moments.”

39. LIVIA FIRTH: “The future is about active citizenship, collaboration, new business models, and putting people and the planet above profit,” says Firth. As the co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age and the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, she has been raising the issue of sustainability in fashion for over a decade by highlighting eco-conscious brands on and off the red carpet.

40. DEB BUTLER: The North Carolina House Representative’s chants of “I will not yield” became an online rallying cry after she discovered that Republicans in her state had met in secret to override the governor’s budget veto while their Democratic counterparts were attending a 9/11 remembrance ceremony. “The New York Times has called North Carolina a place of scorched-earth politics, and I think that might be an understatement,” says Butler, who’s not giving up the fight. “I’m in it for the right reasons. I want to fix our institutions and make them stable so they can function better than they do now.”

41. SHARON STONE: The actress has made a career out of realizing her power and owning her sexuality ever since her famous leg-cross scene in Basic Instinct catapulted her to stardom in 1992. A near-fatal stroke in 2001 almost derailed her career, but Stone is not easily deterred. In addition to starring in the new Ryan Murphy series, Ratched, she’s dedicating herself to worthy causes. “It’s important to take this thing called fame and use it for things that have value. For me, that has been working on social change,” she says. “I have enjoyed working to build refugee camps and schools and taking my initiatives to the United Nations.”

42. JOCELYN GUEST & ERIKA NAKAMURA: After a decade behind the butcher block, the married foodies, partially inspired by the birth of their daughter, Nina, created direct-to-consumer sustainable sausage company J&E Smallgoods in 2018. Now their line is sold at grocery stores along the East Coast. “We work with farmers who are trying to make their footprint as small as possible,” says Nakamura. “They’re being clever about grazing and pasturing their animals in a way that helps the soil rather than hurt it.”

43. KATE ORFF: “I’m inspired by women who actively look, listen, and engage in the world and connect the dots,” says the landscape architect and founder of Scape, whose ecological designs adapt to climate change and encourage people to protect nature. Her studio’s Living Breakwaters project to safeguard the coast of Staten Island, for instance, “is not just a physical structure that reduces the risk [of storm surges] in the Raritan Bay,” she says. “It rebuilds structural habitat for shellfish and fin fish and brings educators to the shoreline for citizen science, oyster restoration, and hands-on learning.”

44. KACEY MUSGRAVES: Coming off the release of her fourth album, a world tour, and four subsequent Grammy Awards (including album of the year), the country singer-songwriter continues to change the face of her genre, challenging the traditionally conservative ethos with a sparkling modern take that is all her own.

45. EVA GALPERIN: The cyber-security expert created and heads a privacy and security research group within the Electronic Frontier Foundation that protects vulnerable populations like journalists, activists, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. Her goal is to eliminate “stalkerware,” software domestic abusers often use to track their partners. “I’m working on the most badass thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’m working on destroying an industry.”

46. MIRAMAR AL NAYYAR: “Gender doesn’t matter anymore,” says the Jordan-based Iraqi street artist. “What matters most is having the intention, the vision, and the path to achieve your goals.” Many of her murals are portraits of influential Arabs like Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, whom she painted for the Baladk Street & Urban Art Festival in Amman. “Besides being a grand designer, her face expresses greatness and edginess,” says Al Nayyar. Her next project, a collaboration with local artist Dalal Mitwally, is part of a campaign to end violence against women.

Courtesy Lindsay Shookus & Kristin Merrick
Courtesy Lindsay Shookus & Kristin Merrick

47. & 48. LINDSAY SHOOKUS & KRISTIN MERRICK: Two decades after they met in college, Emmy-winning SNL producer Lindsay Shookus and financial adviser Kristin Merrick are spotlighting female entrepreneurs at their annual “Women Work Fucking Hard” event. “I didn’t have many female mentors in my former career, but now I try to be one myself,” says Merrick. “We want women to kick off their shoes, have some wine, and uplift each other.” At NBC, Shookus aims to lead by example. “I try to pay it forward,” she says. “I was hired as an assistant at SNL in 2002. Now I fight for my staff to get more money and recognition. In September I promoted my entire office.”

49. ERICA ARMAH-BRA BULU TANDOH: Known as DJ Switch, the 12-year-old superstar has already grabbed the spotlight at gigs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers event and snagged the title of Ghana’s best DJ of 2019. The go-getter even has her own foundation, which focuses on gender equality and helps provide learning tools for disadvantaged kids. Her ultimate goal? To become a “Dr. DJ” gynecologist. “I feel powerful when I am able to give back to society and change a person’s life.”

50. ANN DRUYAN: The Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer, producer, and director has been hell-bent on safeguarding scientific facts and protecting the planet for decades. Now, the former creative director of the Voyager Golden Records (phonographs sent into outer space as a representation of life on Earth) is carrying on her and her late husband Carl Sagan’s iconic work interpreting discoveries through National Geographic’s Cosmos TV series. “Being a badass means standing up for science at a time when it doesn’t seem to matter what’s true,” she says. “I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in defense of science and reason.”

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan 17.