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The World's Most Inspiring Women

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Meghan Casserly,

Oprah Winfrey: Forbes' Most Powerful Celebrity, one of the world's richest people and a leading role model, to boot?


Cheered by their successes, like Meg Whitman's recent GOP primary win in California, and inspired by their generosity, like Melinda Gates, who has pledged more than $650 million to public schools through The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we began making our list.

But role models mean different things to different people--some of us look for guidance in business, some in our personal lives, some of us strive to make the world a better place each day, some admire trailblazers--and so we reached out to the ForbesWoman communities on Facebook and Twitter to determine the most moving, motivating--in short, inspiring--women in the world today. And after "mom," who is championed over any other contender, Oprah Winfrey leads the pack for the most inspirational role model.

Our readers call Winfrey a "modern successful woman of the times," and there's no disagreeing. As a businesswoman and owner of Harpo Productions she has earned $315 million between June 2009 and June 2010 and she was named the Most Powerful Celebrity by Forbes last month. She has also launched the careers of many people, including Rachael Ray, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Phil McGraw--now celebrities in their own right. She's currently preparing to launch her own television network, keeping her influence at an all-time high. It's no wonder so many women look to her as a beacon of success.

In Pictures: 30 Utterly Inspiring Role Models

In Pictures: The World's Richest Self-Made Women

In Pictures: Celebrities And Their Charities

In Pictures: Billionaire Celebrities

The Celebrity 100: Actresses

Winfrey's role model status extends beyond her professional career; her philanthropic work is just as inspiring. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, while it received its fair share of controversy when it opened its doors in 2007, continues to educate underprivileged girls in South Africa in a facility for which Winfrey gave $40 million to build.

Another leader whose name hovers near the top of our list is Maria Shriver. First lady of California, journalist, activist and of course the brains behind the annual Shriver Report, which looks at the state of working mothers and children. Indeed the report has been praised by another ForbesWoman role model, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who says, "The Shriver Report makes clear that the hopes of our mothers and grandmothers--that women can be or do anything we want in life--are being realized."

As a single mother, J.K. Rowling took writing stories about a young wizard in a coffee shop and built one of the top-earning literary franchises ever, inspiring movies that have grossed more than $5 billion, spin-off books, theme parks and more.

Meanwhile, mother of two and former supermodel Waris Dirie was born in nomadic Somalia but by her 20s was modeling in Paris for Chanel and landing on the pages of Vogue and Elle magazines. Since 1997 Dirie has been one of the most outspoken advocates against female genital mutilation, a dangerous and violent practice affecting more than 150 million girls and women worldwide, the majority in African nations.

Another mother who continues to inspire us even after her death is Elizabeth Glaser. "She contracted AIDS through a tainted post-pregnancy blood transfusion and unwittingly passed the virus to her daughter through breast milk in 1981, and to her son in utero in 1984," shared ForbesWoman reader Lindy Brown. Unaware of her own infection until her daughter became sick (and eventually died of AIDS-related illness in 1988), Glaser, who passed away in 1994, turned her family's tragedy into a national awareness campaign that eventually became the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Some of the other role models may be more unexpected, but inspire us for their own reasons. Actress and model Lauren Hutton, for example, shows that aging gracefully and naturally is possible, and can even be glamorous. When she posed nude at age 61 for Big magazine, she said she did it for other women: "I want them not to be ashamed of who they are when they're in bed."

In the sports arena, race car driver Danica Patrick shows girls and women that females are just as fast as men, while Williams sisters Venus and Serena set examples of athleticism and power on and off the court.

Their personal histories, outlooks and missions may be different, but each role model sets an example of how to be the best women we possibly can be.

Don't see your personal role model on our list? Share your thoughts and nominations in the Reader Comments section, or on Facebook or Twitter. This is a list that can only improve with your input.


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