Looking to brush up on your knowledge of revolutionary women? It can be daunting to attack the entirety of feminist history (how many waves have there even been at this point?), so let's be brief. Here’s a glancing overview of eight important women who have influenced the feminist movement in one way or another. The following famous dames have been culled from the herd because all of them have made real contributions to the fight for gender equality.
French protofeminist De Gouges was primarily a playwright. However, she also dabbled in politics and was one of the main voices criticizing the French Revolution for failing to consider women’s interests. When revolutionaries Emmanuel Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette put out the document Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, de Gouges published her own declaration in response: the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1971).
In this document, she engaged with the popularized concept of natural or inalienable rights, arguing that if a set of simple rights were essentially human, then they should be given to women in equal measure; in other words, she controversially claimed that women and men deserved the exact same treatment. De Gouges' complaints were absolutely radical, and though her ideas did not catch on — she was put on trial for treason and eventually executed — she still managed to pave the path for other feminists to demand absolute equality in the eyes of the law.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer and activist. Partially motivated by Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration, Wollstonecraft was prompted to write A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is widely regarded as one of the foundational documents of feminist theory. In this document, Wollstonecraft argues that women deserve access to better education — she claims that public perception of women as inferior to men is solely due to a lack of adequate education for women, which incentivizes women to act ornamental. With the appropriate resources devoted towards women’s education, women would be able to stand on an even footing with men and contribute to society as a whole, acting as “companions” rather than “toys” for their husbands.
In addition to these blatant critiques of her patriarchal society, Wollstonecraft also authored two novels, Mary: A Fiction and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, which advocated more quietly for women’s rights, taking stands against marriage, against sensibility (in the sense of a heightened emotional sensitivity to stimuli) and for interclass collaboration towards the common goal of gender equality.
This extraordinary abolitionist and women’s rights activist was born into slavery in 1797 in New York. Since the state did not abolish slavery until 1827, Truth chose to escape in 1826 with her young daughter, leaving her son behind. Once freed, she converted to be Methodist and renamed herself “Sojourner Truth” in order to part with a name that had been given to her in slavery and to become closer to the person God intended her to be.
Truth is remembered for her 1851 speech, delivered extemporaneously and later titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” This title plays off an old British abolitionist slogan that asked “Am I not a man and a brother?,” which enslaved women later changed and adopted, requesting compassion: “Am I not a woman and a sister?” Truth's speech acknowledged her struggles both as a former slave and as a woman, reportedly opening with the powerful statement, “I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Her pain at the injustice of unfair treatment resonated with her audience so much that it catapulted her to fame. For simply being a formerly enslaved woman and speaking out about how that felt, Truth was a revolutionary.
This daring Chinese feminist was born in 1875 and forced soon thereafter into an unhappy arranged marriage. Her feet were bound and her prospects were grim, so she made the unheard-of decision to leave her husband and children behind and sail off to Japan to attend school. Qiu developed radical, supposedly inappropriate behavior while in Japan. She wore men’s clothing, practiced martial arts and published her own feminist manifesto in a journal that printed in vernacular Chinese as a statement of protest. Her manifesto was called A Respectful Proclamation to China’s 200 Million Women Comrades, and it criticized practices like arranged marriage, lack of women’s education and the Chinese tradition of binding women’s feet as oppressive. It also called for a more Western form of government, which Qiu thought would ameliorate the plight of Chinese women.
Unfortunately, Chinese society was not ready to accept such a woman; Qiu was beheaded in 1907 at the age of 31 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Her legacy lives on in her reputation as “China’s Joan of Arc."
This American activist’s name is well known in any feminist household. Anthony’s contributions to the women’s suffrage movement are difficult to enumerate, simply because she did so much for the cause; along with her close friend and co-conspirator Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she founded associations, spoke at assemblies, wrote feverishly and rallied women everywhere to fight for the right to vote. She believed so wholeheartedly in her cause that she attempted to vote illegally and argued her case in court, eventually receiving a $100 fine that she refused to pay.
Her relationship with Stanton was very fierce: the two did most things together, only growing apart when their political beliefs began to diverge at the turn of the century. Before the rift, the two powerful women proposed an amendment to the Constitution in 1878 that eventually went on to be ratified in 1920, 14 years after Anthony’s death. This ever-so-important 19th amendment, or the Susan B. Anthony amendment (as people called it at the time), officially allowed women voters to head to the polls for the first time without the risk of arrest. Anthony simply wasn’t willing to accept no for an answer, and for that reason, she was revolutionary in every sense of the word.
In response to the book, many white, middle-class women felt empowered to protest for better treatment; therefore, Friedan was in large part responsible for the support that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 garnered. Friedan continued contributing to the second wave’s efforts in many ways: in 1966, she founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), and she also organized the first Women’s Strike for Equality on the 50-year anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment. For her work, which ended up sparking a national conversation and forcing feminists to confront the reality that their long labor was far from over, she was certainly revolutionary.
Crenshaw is a lawyer by trade and an activist and scholar of race theory on the side. She thoroughly revolutionized civil rights advocacy when she introduced her theory of intersectionality in 1989. Intersectionality asks you to consider your position in society in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability and age, among other factors, and how those identities intersect to create systems of privileges and oppressions.
Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality in part to explain why the feminist movement was not capable of fighting for all women at the same time. In doing so, she complicated the movement. After Crenshaw made it clear that feminism could not possibly choose a fight that would benefit ALL women at once — after all, launching the Free The Nipple movement is an unrealistic way to help child brides forced into marriage — feminists everywhere were forced to reconsider how their own privileges were affecting their activism. Therefore, this revolutionary theory has at once fractured and brought together the feminist movement, as some feminists choose to defect and others work to repair broken bonds.
This staunch feminist and scholar turned the whole conversation of gender equality on its head with her 1990 publication of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. In it, Butler defines gender as a social construct, meaning that gender is not a biological, irrefutable fact but rather that society is responsible for creating a strict binary of only two genders — "male" and "female" — and continually forces us to categorize ourselves in one of those two boxes or, in other words, to perform our gender. One can observe proof of this in the fact that biological sex does not always translate exactly to one of the two genders, both in the case of transgender people and intersex people.
She further argues that the strict social construct of gender was invented to subordinate women and is used continually to justify the continued subordination of women. Butler’s Gender Trouble posits that men throughout history have been demeaning “femininity” and citing women’s inherent inferiority just to reinforce a social hierarchy. This risky publication earns Butler the title of revolutionary since it is often credited with founding queer theory in its entirety.