- For centuries, women have been fighting for more representation and equality in society.
- The fight hasn’t been easy and even today, women are still not equally represented in plenty of areas.
- To celebrate Women’s History Month, it is important to reflect on the boundaries that have been broken and the hard work women have dedicated towards fighting for equality.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to go to space, fighting for women’s rights to participate in STEM. And on January 4, 2007, Nancy Pelosi was elected the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, proving women should also hold high leadership roles in politics.
Here are 16 influential women from the 18th century through today who have championed the cause of equality, raising their voices for others in the fight against sexism, racism, and marginalization.
1. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) fearlessly fought for gender and racial equality.
Sojourner Truth was an African-American abolitionist who dedicated her life to fighting and defending gender equality. Though she was born into slavery, Truth escaped to freedom with her young daughter at the age of 29.
In 1828, she became the first black woman to win a custody court battle against a white man, and was able to recover her son from slavery. At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention of 1851, Truth delivered a speech titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” that stirred hearts and became widely told during the Civil War era.
Truth was fearless in her fight for racial equality. She recruited black troops for the Union Army and attempted to secure land grants for former slaves after abolition. In the 1860s, she often rode streetcars in Washington D.C. to promote desegregation and publicly protest racism. Her efforts were acknowledged by President Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to the White House in 1864.
2. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a powerful social activist.
Susan B. Anthony was a social activist and icon in the early women’s rights movement. Raised by a family of Quakers, Anthony grew up handing out anti-slavery petitions as a child and teenager.
Though she was a lifelong supporter of gender and racial equality, Anthony and close friend Elizabeth Stanton diverged from the American Woman Suffrage Association when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870. Controversially, they posited that no more men should be allowed to vote until women and men – of all races – could also vote.
In 1872, Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote. The trial would, years later, lead to her presentation to Congress introducing the 19th Amendment. Though it was not ratified until 1920, it was widely known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
3. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a founding member of the NAACP.
Ida B. Wells was an African-American journalist and educator who was also an early civil rights leader. She was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
Similarly to Sojourner Truth, Wells was born into slavery. Later freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, she lost the majority of her family to yellow fever when she was only 16 years old.
She spent most of her life working as a teacher and investigative reporter, documenting lynching and racial violence in the US during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She even travelled internationally, exposing others to what was going on in the US, even if she was often shunned or ignored.
4. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) used her art to express taboo subjects surrounding women.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, Mexico in 1907. To show her strong support for the Mexican Revolution, Frida later claimed her birth date to be three years later, so people would “associate her” with the revolution.
The artist used her work to portray taboo topics such as abortion, miscarriage, birth, and breastfeeding, among other things. In doing so, she opened up a conversation about these topics.
Kahlo once said “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” giving an honest depiction of what life what like, especially for women.
Further, Kahlo was an openly bisexual woman and made no excuses or apologies for her sexual preferences.
In and out of the communist party, Kahlo and her husband Deigo Rivera were politically active. The couple raised money for the Republicans fighting against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War, and just days before her death Frida attended a protest against CIA intervention in Guatemala.
5. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) paved the way for modern feminism.
Born in Paris in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir was an outspoken French philosopher and writer.
Perhaps her most influential work, “The Second Sex” was written in 1949 and helped begin a conversation around modern feminism. In the book, she articulated a thoughtful attack on the idea that women belonged in passive roles, and criticised the patriarchy. The book was prohibited by The Vatican but that didn’t stop Beauvoir from continuing the fight for equality.
In 1970, Beauvoir helped launch the French Women’s Liberation Movement by signing the Manifesto of the 343, which argued for abortion rights. She participated in demonstrations throughout the 1970s and continued to write and lecture on the situation of women.
Her then-controversial philosophies helped launch an ever-evolving conversation about what feminism is.
6. Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) fought a lifelong fight against racism.
Yuri Kochiyama was born and raised in San Pedro, CA. After Pearl Harbour, her father was arrested by the FBI and her family was sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas.
During this period of her life, Yuri saw parallels between the prejudice against Asian Americans and the tribulations of black Americans, and later participated in anti-war, black liberation, and Asian-American movements, teaming up with Malcolm X and Black Power organisations.
Kochiyama and her husband often invited Freedom Riders – young men and women fighting for civil rights in the South – over to their house for dinner. Living in New York City, Kochiyama and her husband opened their house up for activities to come and speak to anyone who could cram into their tiny apartment.
Kochiyama was a staunch defender of US political prisoners, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her lifelong fight against racism.
7. Dolores Huerta (b. 1930) is a civil rights activist who fights for the rights of many, especially farmers and agricultural workers.
Dolores Huerta is a Mexican-American labour leader and activist, and is the founder of the United Farm Workers of America. Huerta played a crucial role in the organisation of the Delano grape strike of 1965.
She fought, and still fights, for workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, and women’s rights. Huerta has been awarded many accolades throughout her career in activism, and in 2012 received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. Perhaps most notably in the present-day Latinx community, she’s known as the originator of the “Sí, se puede” chant, which means “Yes, it is possible.”
8. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) has used her Supreme Court seat to change the course of history.
Beginning her career as a young lawyer, Ginsburg fought laws that discriminated on the basis of gender. Ginsburg approached the fight for equality with patience and tact.
In February 2018, Ginsburg expressed her support of the #MeToo movement.
“The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing. My hope is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars,” she told The Atlantic.
Ginsburg has continued to be outspoken and a voice for all women, and all throughout the Obama administration, she was was known as a “feminist folk hero.”
9. Gloria Steinem (b. 1934) is a prominent feminist movement leader.
A social activist and journalist, Gloria Steinem was a prominent leader in the feminist movement during the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to play a vital role in the feminist fight today. A self-described radical feminist, Steinem helped launched “Ms.” magazine in the 1970s – the first feminist focused publication at the time.
Steinem has not been without her controversies: She faced widespread criticism from the LGBTQ community in the late 1970s for her disapproval of famed tennis player Renee Richards’ sex reassignment surgery. Steinem later clarified that her remarks came at a time when little was known about the transgender experience, and said in 2013 that transgender lives “should be celebrated, not questioned.”
In recent years, she’s become a vocal advocate of an intersectional feminist approach, arguing that the feminist movement must be inclusive of all races, classes, and sexual identities.
“Disproportionately, African American women invented feminism, and if you call it a white movement, you’ve eradicated … hundreds and hundreds of people who I learned from, who were my teachers,” Steinem told Girls Leadership in 2017.
10. Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a revolutionary poet and feminist.
A native New Yorker and daughter of immigrants, Audre Lorde once described herself as a “poet, warrior, feminist, mother, pioneer, lover, survivor.”
Growing up legally blind and with a speech impediment, Lorde had to persevere to reach the success that she did.
After receiving her Masters in Library Science at Columbia University in 1961, Lorde released her first foray into protest poetry titled “Cables to Rage.” It was also the book where she came out as a lesbian.
“Cables to Rage” along with her other books of poetry explored everything from racism, women’s rights, lesbian relationships, and homophobia. Her work established her as a force in the feminist community.
Lorde called out the feminism movement for catering exclusively for white women and argued that for feminism to be powerful, it needed to acknowledge the value of all women, not just one type. This argument was depicted in her book “Sister Outsider” and it is credited for shaping a more inclusive feminist movement.
In describing the many titles that make her who she is, she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in the journal Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity… or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.”
11. Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) was a prominent transgender activist.
Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, sex worker, drag performer, and a central figure in the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots. She is often credited with “throwing the first brick” during the raid, but the accuracy of that claim is still disputed.
Johnson lived in a time when same-sex dancing in public was prohibited, the State Liquor Authority banned bars from serving gay people alcoholic beverages, and cross-dressing was considered “sexual deviancy.”
Despite the odds stacked against Johnson, she, along with her friend Sylvia Rivera, became a prominent figure in the fight for the inclusion of transgender people in the LGBT movement. She joined Rivera in founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, to advocate for young transgender people, actively participated in the gay pride parades of the 1970s, and advocated for AIDS patients.
Her passion for justice was undeniable as she once stated, “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America … there’s no reason for celebration.“
12. Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) was a revolutionary figure in New York City.
Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 to a Venezuelan mother in the Bronx, New York. Like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia’s life as an advocate started from her involvement in the 1969 Stonewall uprising.
As the gay rights movement gained momentum, Sylvia recognised there were still people being marginalised, specifically transgender people. She fought tirelessly against the exclusion of trans people from the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York and was an advocate for people of colour and low-income queers and trans people.
Alongside Johnson, she founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries or STAR which aided the queer homeless youth community.
In an interview with Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia said, “I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist. I was proud to make the road and help change laws and whatnot. I was very proud of doing that and proud of what I’m still doing, no matter what it takes.”
13. Sally Ride (1951-2012) was the first American woman in space.
In 1978, Sally Ride was selected to the first class of 35 astronauts – including six women – who would fly on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.
According to fellow astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar, “Although Sally was one of six women in the 1978 class, she preferred to be considered one of 35 new astronauts – and to be judged by merit, not gender. It was important to all the women that the bar be as high as it was for the men.”
She carried this belief throughout her entire career and life. She wrote five science books for children and initiated and directed education projects for students hoping to pursue science.
In 2001, she started Sally Ride Science which helps to combat misconceptions about women in STEM and “inspire young people in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) and to promote STEM literacy.”
Dr. Ride has received numerous honours and awards. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame and has received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She has also twice been awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal.
14. Roxane Gay (b. 1974) is a prominent voice in modern feminism.
Roxane Gay is a Haitian-American writer, professor, and editor. In 2014 she published the New York Times best-seller “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays about gender, sexuality, race, and politics. “It just shows what it’s like to move through the world as a woman,” Gay told Time in 2014. “It’s not even about feminism per se, it’s about humanity and empathy.”
As well as being a prominent voice in contemporary feminism, Gay and her co-author Yona Harvey became the first black women to be lead writers for Marvel when they were signed to write “World of Wakanda,” a comic book spin-off of “Black Panther.”
In 2017, Gay released her memoir “Hunger,” an exploration of her upbringing and her relationship with everything from weight, to body image, to food.
Much of Gay’s work is meant to deconstruct harmful and marginalising themes in mainstream feminism. Gay is also a huge proponent of challenging rape culture and empowering women who have endured painful experiences.
15. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b. 1977) inspired millions with her TED talk.
The author of groundbreaking novels “Americanah” and “That Thing Around Your Neck,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also developed the popular TED Talk “We should all be feminists,” based on her book of the same name.
In 2016, she collaborated with Beyoncé on her track “Flawless.”
In accordance with her belief that “in writing about that life, you assume a political role,” she has inspired a political movement and has been a prominent voice in the fight for more intersectional feminism.
Adichie’s writing is also known for her hyper-attention to detail. In “Americanah,” she focuses on the role that food and beauty products play in her character’s lives.
16. Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) continues to make progress for female education and advocacy.
Just 22 years old, Malala Yousafzai has already made huge leaps for female education and advocacy. Encouraged by her father, Malala wrote for BBC Urdu and detailed her experiences living under Taliban occupation when she was 11. Yousafzai and her family lived in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, where local Taliban groups prevented girls from going to school, often in violent ways.
At age 15, Yousafzai was targeted in an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman. Although Yousafzai was shot in the head, she survived the incident. Yousafzai and her story were met with global support and acclaim.
In the years following the shooting, Yousafzai has risen in prominence as a feminist and social activist. She founded a non-profit education organisation called the Malala Fund and wrote the memoir “I am Malala.“
In 2012, at the age of 17, Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history. Yousafzai is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Oxford University, and continues to speak out on female education and gender equality.
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