When Wallis Simpson and Edward, Prince of Wales, fell in love, the course of the monarchy was altered irrevocably. The British establishment couldn’t sanction the heir to the throne marrying a divorced American; one official called her a woman of “limitless ambition.”
And so in 1936, Edward abdicated the throne he had just inherited for the woman he loved. TIME named Simpson its first Woman of the Year, for becoming “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world.” This year, as another American struggled to navigate the royal family with her husband, Simpson reminds us that when modernity clashes with tradition, nobody emerges unscathed. —Suyin Haynes
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.