35 Famous Feminists Who Paved the Way for Us All

Malala Yousafzai at Girl Summit 2014

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

No longer a dirty word, feminism is essential for advancing women’s rights everywhere. These 35 famous feminists have championed the cause and made waves with their advocacy. Some of these icons are well-known for their activism, while others’ appearances on this list may surprise you. 

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Nigerian-American author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah is well-known for her TED Talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists,” which later became a book by the same name. In it, she argues for a feminist ideology based on inclusion and diversity — and, as the title implies, implores us all to be feminists.

2. Maya Angelou

“I’m a woman/Phenomenally,” Angelou wrote in one of her most famous poems. Throughout her life, the writer and speaker was a fierce advocate for gender and race equality. For her efforts, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2011.

3. Susan B. Anthony

Anthony is famous for casting her vote in an election before women were legally allowed to do so and subsequently being arrested, but her work in the women’s suffrage movement actually spanned decades. She was also a champion of the abolitionist movement in addition to gender equality.

4. Patricia Arquette

When Arquette won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Boyhood in 2015, she used her acceptance speech as a time to question Hollywood’s gender pay gap, arguing, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

5. Simone de Beauvoir

Considered one of the mothers of modern-day feminism, de Beauvoir is the author of The Second Sex, which, at its time of publication in 1949, was considered highly controversial. In it, she argues that women have been treated as “the other” throughout history and analyzes the oppression of women. The book was banned by the Vatican and deemed pornography.

6. Madonna Ciccone

According to the Guinness World Records, Madonna is the bestselling female recording artist in history. She’s also a feminist, known for defying gender stereotypes and sparking a dialogue about female sexuality. In 2016, she clapped back against ageism and sexism in the entertainment industry while accepting her Woman of the Year Award from Billboard magazine.

7. Hillary Clinton

Clinton is the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for president of the United States, the first first lady to run and win a seat in the Senate — or any public office — and the first female senator of New York. This famous feminist redefined the role of first lady while her husband was in office, becoming involved in policy, and has been a champion of women and girls, noting “Women’s rights are human rights” at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

8. Angela Davis

"Feminism involves so much more than gender equality….It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post colonialities and ability and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name,” Davis wrote in 2013. Instrumental in the Black Power Movement, Davis is an activist for the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements.

9. Andrea Dworkin

Dworkin was famous for her controversial radical feminist views, which included a criticism of pornography. Her book, Woman Hating, explores the role and depiction of women in history, fairy tales and pornography and argues for a society free from gender norms and roles.

10. Betty Friedan

Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, dispelled the notion that women were content to stay at home and is credited for kicking off second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s. Her work extended far beyond the book — she was also the co-founder of the National Organization of Women and its first president and a founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America) and the National Women's Political Caucus.

11. Roxane Gay

Gay examines issues such as gender, race, sexuality and more in works such as Bad Feminist. A professor of English, she brings a unique perspective to feminism and gender equality, which she shared in her TED Talk, “Confessions of a bad feminist.”

12. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A woman who needs no introduction, Ginsburg is not only the second-ever female Supreme Court justice but also a longtime champion of women’s rights. She is the co-founder of the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal to concentrate on women’s rights in the U.S., and the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

13. bell hooks

The author of works such as Ain’t I a Woman, The Feminist Theory, Feminism Is for Everybody and others, hooks looked at sexism, women’s rights and racial equality. Hooks was also a professor of English.

14. Dorothy Pitman Hughes

Hughes is best known for being one of the most prominent female leaders of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the co-founder with Ms. along with Gloria Steinem. Today, she continues to be an advocate for these causes along with child welfare.

15. Billie Jean King

When King defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” at age 29, her tennis skills were acknowledged as unrivaled. But her importance extends far beyond the court — she’s also the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and Women’s Sports Foundation and an advocate for gender pay equality.

16. Doris Lessing

In 2007, Lessing became the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her novel, The Golden Notebook, made waves when it was published in 1962, shedding light on issues such as women’s liberation and mental illness.

17. Audre Lorde

"It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences,” Lorde said. The poet explored sexuality and her identity as a woman in her writings and beyond.

18. Janet Mock

This journalist is a fierce advocate for transgender women everywhere, using memoirs including  Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More and Surpassing Certainty and her film The Trans List to share their perspectives.

19. Ellen Page

“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists,” Page told The Guardian in 2013. “But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” The actress has been a champion of feminism throughout her impressive career.

20. Emmeline Pankhurst

The founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain used controversial tactics to advocate for women’s voting rights, but there’s no doubt Pankhurst was an instrumental figure in the gender equality movement. 

21. Shonda Rhimes

Rhimes’ is famous for portraying strong, real and flawed women in her hit shows — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, to name a few — and speak to feminist views. “The beauty of being a feminist is that you get to be whatever you want, and that’s the point,” she told Elle in 2015. 

22. Eleanor Roosevelt

Roosevelt paved the way for first ladies like Hillary Clinton. Often appearing in place of her husband, she was instrumental in the human rights and Civil Rights movements as well as a feminist before the term even had a label. During John F. Kennedy’s administration, she chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, but her work with women’s rights began much earlier. For example, she wrote the newspaper column “My Day, which dealt with women’s rights, starting in 1935 and continued for several decades.

23. Sheryl Sandberg

The founder of the “Lean In” movement, which encourages women to take charge of their careers, and author of the book by the same name is a champion of women in the workforce. Sandberg is also the COO of Facebook, a role Mark Zuckerberg created for her. 

24. Margaret Sanger

A sex educator who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States — eventually leading to the establishment of Planned Parenthood — Sanger was an activist who was arrested numerous times for speaking out in favor of contraception. "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body,” Sanger said. “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."

25. Amy Schumer

The comedian is famous for defying and questioning gender norms and stereotypes through her standup routines, films and TV show, Inside Amy Schumer. She is also a critic of Hollywood’s treatment of women.

26. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Stanton co-penned the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that revised the Declaration of Independence and demanded equality for women. It was read and signed at the Seneca Falls Convention, a women’s rights conference that Stanton co-organized in 1848. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement.

27. Gloria Steinem

Steinem’s name is practically a synonym for feminism. The co-founder of Ms. also served as a leader of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s. The writer and activist also co-founded feminist groups including the National Women’s Political Caucus and Women’s Action Alliance. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013. 

28. Sojourner Truth

Born a slave, Truth became an activist in the abolitionist and women’s movements after she was freed at age 30. She championed these causes through powerful rhetoric on public speaking tours.

29. Alice Walker

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple has been a key figure in the Civil Rights and feminist movements. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker coined the term “womanist” to describe feminists who are also women of color.

30. Emma Watson

As a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, Watson established the UN HeForShe campaign, urging men to become involved in feminism. “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong,” she said. 

31. Oprah Winfrey

At the 2018 Golden Globes, the woman who has done it all declared, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up” in her speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. This icon is more than just incredibly accomplished — she’s also an advocate for women everywhere. 

32. Naomi Wolfe

A critic of social norms, Wolfe has taken on issues such as women’s sexuality and beauty standards in her writings. The Beauty Myth, published in 1991, is hailed as a bible of the third-wave feminist movement.

33. Mary Wollstonecraft

Largely considered the first feminist writer, Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In this work of philosophy, she argued that women were only considered inferior because they lacked the education men enjoyed.

34. Virginia Woolf

Woolf examined the inner thoughts and emotions of women, particularly in her famous work, A Room of One’s Own, in which she advocated for education for women.

35. Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt at age 15. The Taliban gunman shot her because of her advocacy for women’s rights and education, which included a blog she wrote under a pseudonym for the BBC. She went one to become the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, winning the Peace Prize at age 17. She’s also the bestselling co-author of I Am Malala.

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