You may know her better as Evita, thanks to the popular Broadway musical of the same name. But no matter what you call her, Maria Eva Duarte Perón had a major influence on the lives of millions of 20th-century Argentinians. Born in 1919 in the small town of Los Toldos, Eva moved to Buenos Aires as a young woman to become an actress. While not supremely talented, she had a reasonable amount of success. But her life dramatically changed when she married Juan Perón in 1945 [sources: Mi Buenos Aires Querido, Biography].
Perón was a colonel and government official, and the year after they married, he became president of Argentina. Eva was a skilled speaker, and immediately decided to use her position as first lady to advance numerous causes such as women's suffrage and assistance for the poor. She had a special connection with the poor, whom she called "mis descamisados (my shirtless ones)." She also started her own foundation to help them, often personally handing out cash.
Eva was tapped to head the ministries of health and labor. Back then -- in the very patriarchal society of Argentina -- that was unheard of. Eva instantly became both loved and loathed by millions -- loved by those she wanted to help, and loathed by those who thought a woman shouldn't be an activist or who disapproved of her husband's autocratic rule [source: Biography].
In 1951, with her husband again running for president, some were urging a Perón-Perón ticket, with Eva as vice president. The army opposed this, and Eva declined to run. She died of cancer in 1952 at age 33, having achieved an enormous number of things in a very short time. Thousands appealed to the Vatican to canonize her[sources: Evita Peron, Mi Buenos Aires Querido].