Feminism is having a glorious revival, with younger generations of women fighting for their rights and amplifying the voices of those who have been silenced for far too long. Thankfully feminism has been around since before the 20th century in one shape or another, taking the fight to the patriarchy to secure equal voting rights, fair parenting laws and more reasonable sanctions on sexual abuse. Here are 15 famous feminists everyone should know about, including several inspiring celebrity feminists who helped us get to where we are today.
Famous first-wave feminists
When we speak about first-wave feminism, we’re talking about the campaign for equal contract and property rights for women, essentially challenging the law that decreed married women were owned by their husbands. This law meant that legally, husbands could not technically rape their wives, as their wives belonged to them and it wasn’t ‘possible’ in the eyes of the law to violate your own property. Unfortunately, there are similar laws that still exist in some parts of the world.
1. Mary Wollstonecraft
A feminist philosopher and English writer, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) used her voice to fight for gender equality. Mary’s piece from 1792, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, challenged Rousseau’s theories about how women were inferior and earned her a distinguished presence in the world of feminist literature. Fun fact: She happens to be the mother of the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
2. Sojourner Truth
Born a slave and given the name Isabella Baumfree by her captors, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) courageously fought gender inequality and racial discrimination. Though she was born into slavery Sojourner was freed in 1827; in 1843 she chose her own name, reclaiming her identity following what she said was God’s decree. She was the first African-American woman to win a lawsuit in the United States when she won the fight to have her son returned to her from his life of imprisonment as a slave. Sojourner spent her life campaigning for the rights of slaves, women and African Americans.
3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was a catalyst for the women’s right movement in 1848, as she planned the first women’s rights convention that took place in Seneca Falls in the State of New York. Her revolutionary work ‘The Declaration of Sentiments’ took inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and appealed for equal treatment of women.
4. Susan Brownell Anthony
One of America’s first leaders of the anti-slavery movement and the suffragist movement, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) led the charge for American women with crusades and lectures around the states. Along with fifteen other kick-ass females Susan voted in the 1872 presidential election, an act they were later arrested and convicted for. Fun fact: Susan was the first real woman to have her face on a U.S. coin.
5. Emmeline Pankhurst
An iconic English suffragette you’ve probably heard of before, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) used some pretty crazy tactics to raise awareness for the cause at the time, equal voting rights for women. These tactics included: chaining herself to rails, hunger strikes, and often acts of violence. Unfortunately, she died no more than 3 weeks prior to the passing of a law which granted British women over the age of 21 the vote.
Famous second-wave feminists (1960s-1980s)
Whilst first-wave feminism focused on property rights and women’s suffrage, the second wave took on issues within the workplace, family, reproductive rights and sexuality.
6. Simone de Beauvoir
French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a prominent feminist figure in her time, not least of all because she consistently called out the patriarchy system for all its flaws and well, bullshit. Her iconic 1949 work ‘The Second Sex’ provided the building blocks for second-wave feminism and whilst it naturally attracted a great deal of hate, the clarity of her work transcended the drama that ensued.
7. Betty Friedan
Ahead of her time, author and activist Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was without a doubt one of the most iconic figures for the American feminist movement. Her best-selling book of 1963 ‘The Feminine Mystique’ breathed new life into the cause. She organised the Women’s Strike for Equality on the 50th anniversary of the equal rights amendment which gave voting rights to women. In 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organisation for Women and many other organisations which fought for women’s rights ensuring her legacy would live on after she passed.
8. Gloria Steinem
Writer and activist like many of the women in this article, Gloria Steinem (born 1934) has spent her life campaigning for women’s rights and founded Ms. Magazine; a liberal publication dedicated to promoting the cause and raising awareness of feminist issues.
9. Germaine Greer
An Australian writer and all-round intellectual Jedi, Germaine Greer (born 1939) is considered to have been an instrumental voice in the second-wave of feminism. She’s best known for her work ‘The Female Eunuch’ which stated that the power of the patriarchy had led to the repression and alienation of women from their own bodies. She fought for sexual liberation of women as she believed it was the key to unlocking wider liberation of women. Today Greer believes that feminism still has some way to go, stating that women are now ‘settling for less than total equality’.
10. Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins)
Hooks (born 1952) is an incredibly accomplished black feminist scholar, cultural critic and theorist. Her popular book ‘Feminism is for Everybody’ changed the landscape of feminism, breaking down the cause into a more accessible and relatable medium. Her book is essentially a blueprint for a simplified version of feminism that can be understood and applied by everyone. We love this quote from her: “Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction.”
Famous third-wave feminists (since the 1990s)
A more recent wave of feminism broke down long-standing constructs including notions of gender, body, sexuality and heteronormativity. The reality that many younger feminists are proudly embracing a lipstick, high heeled, pink aesthetic is causing some confusion for our earlier feminist crusaders, as these are all signifiers of femininity which were previously shunned and associated with male oppression. For any of you reading this now, who are wondering whether you can be a feminist and like ‘traditionally’ feminine things, the answer is YES. You can wear whatever you want, dress however you like and still be a feminist. Anyone who says otherwise can take a seat.
11. Naomi Wolf
An advocate for women, Naomi Wolf (born 1962) had a monumental impact on the third wave of feminism with her 1991 bestseller, ‘The Beauty Myth’, which boldly declared that beauty is a social construct dictated by men and frustratingly perpetrated by men and women alike. We have to say we couldn’t agree more with this concept, and we aren’t the only ones – this book was so revolutionary that it was included on the list of the New York Times’ 70 most influential books of the 20th century. We highly recommend reading her latest book ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ which explores the idea that the vagina is the source of all our conscious moods that we know to be liberation, confidence and self-realisation. Definitely worth a read.
12. Oprah Winfrey
Where to begin with one of the most celebrated women on the planet, Oprah Winfrey (born 1954) used the unequal pay she received at the beginning of the career to drive her. As we’re sure you already know (unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 25 years), Oprah now has her own wildly successful show and in true Oprah style her inspirational side hustle; The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls gives women the support and strength to thrive.
Our second celebrity feminist in this wave is our Queen of Pop. Madonna (born 1958) is an icon for the way she has reinvented the world of women and sexuality throughout her career, crushing gender stereotypes as she went from strength to strength. Madonna has always championed women to own their sexuality and take control of their lives. In recent years she’s been particularly outspoken about ageism and the fact she’s not going to change the way she dresses just because she’s almost 60.
Our current wave of feminism began around 2012 and is defined by its unwavering demand for the empowerment of women and its heavy dependence on the internet.
14. Emma Watson
One of our favourite famous feminists, the whole world used to know her because of her decade playing Hermione Granger. Today Emma Watson (born 1990) is renowned for her work with the United Nations. Our beloved British actress won our hearts with the emotive speech she made at the UN which positioned feminism as a fight not just for women, but for men too. She took the momentum from her captivating speech to spearhead the #HeForShe movement.
15. Malala Yousafzai
At only 11 years old, Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997) captured the attention of the world. The young Pakistani teen spoke out against the Taliban with her BBC blog which described horrific conditions under the Taliban rule. She survived their brutal, violent retaliation and continues to fight for the education of girls in her country.
Welcome to the era of strong women, may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.