9 Couples Who Changed the World

From the Lovings to Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, a look at the twosomes whose stories inspire us still.

As Valentine's Day approaches, thoughts turn to tales of love. At Focus Features, that means sharing the sagas of real-life couples whose unprecedented relationships have become legendary. Here are a few of our favorite dynamic duos, starting with Richard and Mildred Loving, the unintentional marriage equality heroes who are the center of Jeff Nichols' acclaimed feature, Loving.

Richard and Mildred Loving

In 1958, Richard Loving fulfilled a dream of many: He proposed to the person with whom he was deeply in love. His girlfriend, Mildred, pregnant with their first child, felt the same about Richard and said yes. But things were not so simple for the young couple starting their life and family together. The two lived in rural Virginia, where interracial marriage was considered illegal. Their quest to establish a home and raise their children in their beloved state sent them on an incredible journey that ended at the Supreme Court. After multiple arrests, and years of living in exile and in fear, the Lovings finally achieved a historic victory. The landmark 1968 case, Loving vs. Virgina, ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States, and holds firm today.

Jeff Nichols' tender film Loving brings Richard and Mildred's story to life. Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as inspiring pair struggling to confront the unjust law and live in peaceful quiet at the same time.

Loving is available February 7th on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD.

Buy it now at Amazon.

Felicity Jones & Eddie Redmayne as Jane Wilde & Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde

In 1963, at the age of 21, Stephen Hawking, a brilliant doctoral student in physics at Cambridge University, dealt with two life-changing events. He was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable disease from which most doctors told him he would die within a few years. At the same time, Hawking met a literature student named Jane Wilde and started to fall in love with her.

While his medical diagnosis could have easily made him give up all hope, including the hope for love, his relationship with Jane eventually did the opposite. Jane, who pushed them to get married, remembers, "I was drawn to his very wide smile and beautiful grey eyes. He was great fun and we were together going to defy the disease and the doctors." Now 75, Hawking recalls how Jane's love saved him – "Falling in love gave me something to live for." 

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones bring Hawking’s remarkable marriage to film in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, showing their complicated relationship in its full emotional richness. But it is also shows something even more extraordinary than romance; it spotlights a love that helps the other realize their full potential.

Watch The Theory of Everything now on iTunes.

Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1941 Presidential Inaugeration/Wikimedia Commons

Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt

While many have explored the complex relationship between President Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt – see, for example, Focus' own Hyde Park on Hudson– no one disputes the powerful team the two made to advance progressive politics in America.

Although Eleanor and Franklin moved in the same social circumstances, even being part of the same family, the two didn’t seriously meet until 1902, when FDR was 20, and Eleanor 17. Franklin saw Eleanor on a train to Tivoli, NY, and introduced himself. They soon started a friendship that evolved into a courtship. A year later Franklin proposed, and Eleanor accepted, even though Franklin’s mother pushed them to keep the engagement secret for a year. Finally on March 15, the two were married.

A year later, Franklin received a note from Eleanor’s uncle, the former U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, "you and Eleanor are true and brave, and I believe you love each other unselfishly; and golden years open before you." There would indeed be golden years, as well as very difficult ones. In 1921, Franklin contracted polio. And Eleanor soon learned that her husband had been unfaithful. But together, as partners, first in raising a family, then as President and First Lady, they were always there for each other.

Eleanor remained Franklin’s closest political advisor and confidant. And FDR supported his wife’s many social causes. According to Hazel Rowley, who wrote Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, "Both FDR and Eleanor had other intimate companions, other loves…They accepted this about each other. It was part of their generous spirit…. Their bond was strong enough to withstand betrayal, polio, and the White House."

Watch Hyde Park on Hudson on iTunes.

Marie Curie and Pierre Curie/Wikimedia Commons

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie fell in love in the same place they would make their lasting contribution to science – a chemistry laboratory.

 In 1891, Maria Skłodowska, a brilliant 25-year-old Polish student moved from Poland to Paris to continue her studies at the University of Paris. In three years, she was awarded a degree, and sought out laboratory space to continue her experiments. A friend introduced her to the 35-year-old Pierre Curie, an instructor with additional lab space. Within the year, their mutual love for science turned into a mutual love for each other. Pierre proposed, but Marie hesitated, since she still wished to return to Poland. But his love won her over and the two were married in 1895.

While initially Marie and Pierre pursued different scientific paths, in 1898 Pierre became so intrigued by his wife’s work in radioactive metals that he joined her. The two became an extraordinary team, writing, researching, and raising a family. In 1903, the couple were award the Nobel Prize in Physics for their radiation research, thus making Marie the first woman ever to receive a Nobel prize.

Then in 1906, everything changed. Pierre slipped on an icy street, and was killed by a passing carriage. Marie went on -- becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris in 1906; winning a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for Chemistry; inspiring both men and women to pursue scientific careers until her death in 1934. 

In 1906, shortly after her husband died, Marie wrote, "I conceive of nothing any more that could give me personal joy, except perhaps scientific work – and even there, no, because if I succeeded with it, I would not endure you not to know it."

Amelia Earhart and her husband, George Putnamn 1931/Wikimedia Commons

George Putnam and Amelia Earhart

The publisher/writer George Putnam, who’d made a name for himself – and a small fortune – publishing Charles Lindbergh’s memoir We, was hired in 1928 to find a woman to follow in Lindbergh’s path, to become, as she was later dubbed, “Lady Lindy.” Putnam found his candidate in a young aviator out of Boston named Ameila Earhart.

After Earhart made a transatlantic flight with two other pilots, she worked closely with Putnam to write her account of the trip, 20 Hrs. 40 Min. As Putnam helped orchestrate a marketing strategy to make the young pilot a national hero, the two began a more intimate relationship – even though Putnam was still married. When his divorce came through, Putnam asked Earhart to marry him, no less than six times before she said yes.

And when they were married in 1931, Earhart, refusing to be tied either to earth or to a man, made clear her conditions in a famous letter. "Please let us not interfere with the others' work or play," she asked her betrothed. But rather than drag each other down, the two worked to help each other up.

In 1937, when Earhart mysteriously disappeared during her flight around the world, no one worked harder to find her than Putnam did. A few years later Putnam penned a touching biography of Earhart called Soaring Wings.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in 1964/Wikimedia Commons

Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King. Jr.

In 1952, while Coretta Scott was studying violin and voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, a friend pushed her on a date with a young man studying theology at Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so taken with the young woman, he supposedly told her, "The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all."

The next year the two were married, and together, until King’s assassination in 1968, they formed a partnership that changed the world. While Coretta let her husband lead in political activism, she made it clear from the start she was a partner, and not simply a wife. During the long march to civil rights, Coretta worked with King every step of the way. And after King’s murder, Coretta Scott King demonstrated the power of their partnership by continuing to work for human rights up until her own death in 2006.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

On September 8, 1907, the day that Alice B. Toklas landed in Paris, she met Gertrude Stein, the woman who would change her life. Toklas would later write, "It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her. I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then."

At first, Toklas was engaged as Stein's secretary, but within a few years she moved into the house that Gertrude shared with her brother Leo. For the next few decades, their home at 27 rue de Fleurus became the preeminent literary and artistic salon of Paris, with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse, and many more, coming often to pay respect to Stein and converse with each other. In the other room, Toklas hosted a second function for the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of Stein's cultured (mostly male) mob.

Stein recognized the debt she owed her partner when she whimsically named her 1933 memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Even though Toklas would continue to live several decades after Stein’s death in 1946, her life would be defined by their partnership. Her own memoir, What is Remembered, ends at Stein's death.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera/Wikimedia Commons

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are remembered as much for the way they fired each other artistically as they did romantically.

In 1927, Rivera was a 36-year-old successful muralist who'd been hired to create his first nationally sponsored work, Creation. While on the scaffolding painting, he noticed a young woman below. Rivera later remembered in his book My Art, My Life, "Her hair was long; dark and thick eyebrows met above her nose. They seemed like the wings of blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes."

While he was already an international figure when they met, Frida was a young artist trying to find her voice. Rivera quickly became her biggest promoter, supporting her as she created a new Mexican style of bright colors and cultural symbolism. Even though they both engaged in many indiscretions and infidelities, they were connected through shared visions of art and socialist politics.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1955/Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

In 1929, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir meet while both were students at the prestigious École Normale. Beauvoir, a fiercely independent and intellectually superior student, found romance and competition in this brilliant philosophy student. When the class rankings appeared that year, the only one who scored higher that de Beauvoir was Sartre himself.

For the next nearly half a century, the two would become the most celebrated couple of French intellectual life, even if their definition of "couple” changed constantly. While Sartre originally proposed married, the two settled on what they called an "essential love," a connection that held them, even when they went their separate ways.

Over the years, both were powerful luminaries – she as a philosopher and pioneering feminist; he as the founder of the existential movement. But they were always there for each other. De Beauvoir continued to edit all Sartre’s manuscript, and he dedicated his work to her.