Although historically women have not often held prominent leadership roles outside the home, some emerged as memorable world changers. Modern times, however, have ushered in an era when many leadership roles are no longer restricted by gender, allowing women to use their strengths and gifts to influence the direction of faith in the lives of those who follow. Take a look at a list of women who have relied on their faith to make an impact.
Read more: Historical women of faith
Indian-born Mother Theresa, named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, was a Catholic nun known for her ministry to the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. She started "The Missionaries of Charity" — an order focused on providing help, love and care to the world's most destitute people and to bring relief to those who need it during times of disaster and hardship.
Mother Theresa won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, among others, although she continually redirected focus to her faith and didn't care for personal recognition.
Irina Sendler is a Polish Catholic social worker who worked during World War II to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghettos and to place them with Catholic families, convents and orphanages — sometimes hiding them in suitcases or boxes.
A play titled "Life in a Jar" was written about her life. The name was derived from Sendler's habit of writing lists of the children's names and burying them in a jar in her garden to help her keep track of their original and new identities. Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Price in 2007.
Sally J. Priesand was ordained in the Jewish faith in 1972, becoming the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. Although the role of a female rabbi broke from tradition, that was not Priesand's intent.
"I never thought much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi," Priesand said.
Priesand is a rabbi who follows a very traditional style of synagogue life, a personal goal she's held since she was 16.
Kathryn Kuhlman started her ministry at 16 years old and by 35 she had traveled throughout the U.S. as a preacher and had built the 2,000-seat Denver Revival Tabernacle. She also had a popular and influential radio ministry. Known for her "miracle services," where people received healings, Kuhlman was popularly considered to be a faith healer although she personally shunned that title, claiming the only true gift she had was that of faith.
Julie B. Beck was called to serve as the Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2007, which put her in leadership over 6 million women in 170 countries with different needs and from very different walks of life.
The position set her apart as one of 15 other women who have served in the role of Relief Society general president.
Beck, who was released from her calling as general president in April, said her purpose in that position was to guide women of all ages more deeply into their faith.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, a trained scientist with a doctorate in oceanography from Oregon State University, was chosen as the first woman primate of the Anglican Communion of the Episcopalian faith in 2006.
Working to unite like-minded believers as a whole church, Jefferts Schori said, "We're looking toward a church that is more varied and less rigidly controlled, more networked and less directed. This new church is going to be more organic, more profoundly a body with uniquely gifted parts, each one honored and blessed for the service of God's mission."
Tenzin Palmo converted to Buddhism while she was a teenager and decided to travel to India on a personal, spiritual journey of her faith. Eventually, she was became one of the first Westerners to be trained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. After a 12 year seclusion practicing her faith and living in retreat in a cave, Palmo started a Buddhist nunnery and was given the title of "Jetsunma," a rare title meaning "Venerable Master" for her spiritual works.
Sister Helen Prejean became a Catholic nun at the age of 18, eventually dedicating her life to helping the poor in her native New Orleans. She started a prison ministry and befriended death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier while examining the Louisiana execution process.
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated book she wrote based on that relationship and experience was made into an Oscar-nominated film, "Dead Man Walking," as well as an opera.
German-born Edith Stein made a name for herself as an intellectual and a philosopher as a Catholic nun. She was baptized into the Catholic Church at the age of 31 after an extensive search for truth and eventually became a cloistered nun, given the spiritual name Sister Teresia Benedicta ac Cruce.
Stein secretly crossed into Holland during World War II, feeling her Jewish ethnicity would put others a risk. She was captured there and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in a gas chamber.
Novelist Flannery O'Connor was a cult, literary hit with the public for her essays like “The King of the Birds,” novels “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away” and her most famous work, a collection of stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
She was faithful to the Catholic church and became famous for her somewhat dark, witty humor. Flannery died, unmarried, of lupus, at the age of 39 and won a posthumous 1972 National Book Award for her book of short stories, "Complete Stories."
Read more: Historical women of faith