With so many values and civil liberties at stake today, it's essential to stay informed, energized, and vocal, and most importantly, to never give up on hope. Seeking empowerment and knowledge, we rounded up 15 extraordinary female activists from the past 100 years who are protecting our rights through policy, making groundbreaking revelations about the nuances of social movements, sharing their stories of triumph in the face of adversity, and taking a stance through so many other acts of resistance.
These fierce leaders represent the future we're working toward, so scroll through below to learn more about them and the incredible work they do.
Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
Pauli Murray was one of the women at the front of the Civil Rights Movement, yet we often don't read about her as extensively as many of the other leaders of the era. She was the first woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest and was also one of the first women to vocalize the intragroup distinctions that complicate—and get sidelined by—even the most progressive of movements, foreshadowing what we now call intersectionality thanks to Kimberlé Crenshaw. She called the intersection of racism and sexism "Jane Crow."
Iva Toguri D'Aquino (1916–2006)
Known as Tokyo Rose, D'Aquino was an American citizen who was denied reentry back home after traveling abroad to Japan. To support herself in Japan, she began working for an English-language radio show and risked her life smuggling food to American prisoners of war, some of whom were later coerced to be her producers. She was detained by the U.S. military for an entire year in the wake of Japanese defeat, a casualty of the racist panic that resulted in martial law and concentration camps. She was charged with eight counts of treason and spent six years in prison.
Betty Friedan (1921–2006)
Friedan is the author of The Feminine Mystique (aka, the bible of second-wave feminism) and co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). She was a leading advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed in 1971. Among some of her advocacy work, Friedan fought for the legalization of abortion as well as LGBTQ+ rights and protested the Vietnam War.
Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)
Shortly after serving in the military during World War II, Jorgensen became one of the first people in the U.S. to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She spent her life advocating for transgender rights through public speaking and performing. One of her major influences was fighting for transgender people to change their sex and name on their birth certificates, which had positive legal repercussions before same-sex marriage was legalized.
Odetta Holmes (1930–2008)
Known as the "queen of American folk music" to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and "the voice of the Civil Rights Movement" to everyone, Odetta was a prolific singer, guitarist, and civil rights leader. She's the woman behind the all-powerful song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
Dolores Huerta (1930– )
If President Barack Obama's running slogan "Yes We Can" sounded familiar, that's because it's the English version of Huerta's chant, "Sí Se Puede." Aside from her influence in the 2008 presidential campaign, she is a labor and feminist leader, community organizer, and civil rights and immigration activist who co-founded United Farm Workers alongside César Chávez.
Wilma Mankiller (1945–2010)
Chief Mankiller was a pioneering community organizer and the first woman documented to be elected a Cherokee Nation chief. During her administration, there was a huge increase of Cherokee citizens, from 55,000 to 156,000. Aside from contributing to the improvement of federal-tribal negotiations during her political career, Mankiller was also a grassroots activist and participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.
Bell Hooks (1952– )
Everything about Hooks is revolutionary, even her name. Indeed, she chooses not to capitalize the first letters to emphasize her work over herself and as an act of resistance against the notion of authority. The prolific author, scholar, speaker, and thinker is best known for her books about the need for an intersectional framework in law, mass media, education, and more.
Tarana Burke (1973– )
Burke started the "Me Too" movement in 2006, which took off recently in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. She has worked for nonprofit organizations that promote the health, wellness, and happiness of young women of color and is now working as the senior director of Girls for Gender Equity, which aims to improve policies and extend programs for the development of young women of color.
Jessica Valenti (1987– )
Author of The Purity Myth, Valenti recently wrote on Twitter in response to the Aziz Ansari sexual assault accusation, "A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers 'normal' sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful."
Johanna Hedva (1984– )
Hedva is the woman behind the Sick Woman Theory, which brings more nuances to anti-sexist, anti-racist, and LGBTQ+ advocacy through the framework of ableism. She proposes a new perspective on the built-in ableism of the current mainstream understanding of activism, which emphasizes physical presence and thus excludes those with illnesses and/or disabilities that prevent them from marching and rallying on the ground.
Alicia Garza (1981– ), Patrisse Cullors (1984– ), and Opal Tometi (1984– )
The three women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement are some of the strongest activists of our time, putting the spotlight on police brutality, mass criminalization, and other displays of institutionalized racism. It "was launched in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin to explicitly combat implicit bias and anti-black racism and to protect and affirm the beauty and dignity of all black lives," as Tometi says. Cullers is an artist and freedom fighter from Los Angeles; Garza is an Oakland-based speaker, organizer, and writer; and Tometi lives in New York as a writer, strategist, and community organizer.
Malala Yousafzai (1997– )
Yousafzai is a Pakistani human rights activist who fights for gender equality, equal access to education, and children's rights. Her advocacy work is inspired by her father's humanitarian work and sparked by girls being banned from attending school in Taliban-occupied regions. In 2012, she survived an assassination attempt and gunshot wound.