Meghan Markle

Famous feminists: women in the spotlight reveal their ultimate female icon

Posted by for Long Reads

What do Jojo Moyes, Toni Collette and Katie Piper have in common? They all take inspiration and motivation from an incredible woman in their life. Here, we celebrate 24 remarkable women and their famous feminist icons. 

Who inspires you?

Chances are, there is someone in your life who has helped make you into the person you are today. It might be a friend or family member or it could be a mentor. It might be a woman you’ve never met, but whose words of wisdom have inspired you from afar.

It turns out that celebrities are just like us. They take inspiration and motivation from remarkable women, just like you. Jojo Moyes is in awe of Monica Lewinsky’s resilience. Toni Collette admires her grandmother’s grit and determination. Katie Piper believes that there’s no better advocate for women and girls than Michelle Obama.

Here, we celebrate 24 remarkable women and the feminist icons who inspire them. Maybe this list will help you craft a feminist icon of your own.

Dawn O’Porter on Mary Portas

“Mary has made an indelible mark on British retail,” presenter and author Dawn O’Porter says, “and I truly feel that she’s had a huge impact on the redefined power of female business owners and entrepreneurs – across all different types of industries. It’s icons like Mary that inspire women to be better, happier and more productive in the working environment – she’s literally created an unstoppable feminine force for change in the business and retail worlds!” 

Jojo Moyes on Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky is a feminist icon.

“Everyone knows Monica was a young woman in an epically unbalanced power relationship when she fell in love with the President of the United States,” says author JoJo Moyes. “And by God she paid the price for it. Betrayed by friends, used as a political pawn by authorities, threatened, and vilified by a public who couldn’t quite bear to put the full blame on a charming man, she became the villain of the piece instead of the victim. Because we always find a way to blame the woman somehow…

“For me, she is an icon because she has survived the absolute worst a patriarchal society has thrown at her – shouldering an unimaginable burden – while acknowledging her own role in it (and saying sorry).

“We all make mistakes, especially when young. Not all of us pay a global public price, and come out with her spirit and generosity. I’d be proud if my own daughter turned out like her. Brava Monica.”

Angelica Bell on Oprah Winfrey

“I remember as a child watching her on television and being awestruck at how confident, eloquent and successful she was,” says TV presenter and author Angelica Bell. “The Oprah Winfrey Show was always on and for a young girl who was unsure of what the future would hold, it was reassuring to be able to watch someone who looked like me doing so well.”

Sofie Hagen on Travis Alabanza

“Travis isn’t afraid to confront people,” says comedian Sofie Hagen. “Their art explores the abuse they have to survive on a daily basis. They don’t mind making us white people feel uncomfortable with our whiteness and rightfully so. They talk about violence and gender expression. They explore femininity and masculinity and will say, with a teasing smile, ‘Everyone’s trans’. It’s hard to hear Travis speak without ending up questioning everything you thought was true. About society and about yourself.” 

Jacqueline Wilson on Jane Cholmeley

“Jane Cholmeley started Silver Moon Books in 1984, which was a feminist bookshop on the Charing Cross Road,” says author Jacqueline Wilson. 

“In her own quiet way, Jane achieved a great deal and put a lot of women in touch with each other. In those early days of people being aware of the whole feminist movement, Silver Moon Books was an informal meeting place where no one felt awkward. You could dive in for 10 minutes, you could browse for an hour, or you could go off and have a coffee with anyone you fancied.

“Good bookshops nowadays do generally have sections for women’s issues or divide up different categories of their stock so you can find the books you want to see, but I can’t think of any main feminist bookshop now, and certainly not in London. There were two back in the 70s and 80s, one called Compendium and one called Sister Right, but Silver Moon sort of shone out. I can’t go down the Charing Cross Road now without a little feeling of regret for where the bookshop used to be.” 

Paloma Faith on her midwife

Paloma Faith's feminist icon is her midwife.

“Wendy works at University College Hospital and she’s got four children of her own, all born by caesarean section. She works nights on the premature baby ward so she can be with her children in the day time,” says singer Paloma Faith. 

“Wendy’s attitude towards me was amazing and exactly what I needed when I was in hospital. She was very straight up and to the point, and she kept reminding me who I was all the time. She would say things like, ‘you’re amazing at what you do!’ I would be lying there, a broken person, and she would say, ‘I’ve just been Googling you, let me remind you what you’ve achieved!’

“Obviously Wendy leads by example. I feel like being a mother is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is also the ultimate feminist achievement. Sometimes, socially, we look at motherhood as something that’s subservient, a gender-related cliché. But actually it’s the opposite.” 

Hera Hilmer on Bjork

“Bjork has always been in my life; I was tiny when I heard her music for the first time, and it’s been around me ever since,” says actor Hera Hilmer. “I’ve grown up with her, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve made an active choice to keep listening to her music… It’s just fascinating to see anyone, especially a woman, take five steps at a time when many would only take one. She’s kept her originality and her voice for decades, all while getting her music out there, and she is still constantly reinventing herself. You have to be a very strong character to do that.” 

Celeste Ng on her mother

“My feminist role model has been influencing me since the day I was born – literally: I became a feminist first and foremost simply by watching my mother,” says Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng. 

“My mother taught me that there didn’t have to be limits on what girls could do. In our family, I could have dolls and also a toolset; I could learn to cook and also to solder. (To this day, I’m the handy one in my own house.) I loved dressing up in frilly gowns, but I also had an astronaut suit – and a play sword. I credit my mom for raising me with the attitude that none of these things were ‘for girls’ (or ‘not for girls’), and that a person could be interested in all of them… To me, that’s what feminism is, and I credit my mom for being the first to show me that.”

Katie Piper on Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama
There's a very good reason why Michelle Obama is many women's feminist icon.

“She has her own mind, own goals and own vision that she wants to leave the world better than she found it,” says activist Katie Piper. “She is a powerful advocate for women and girls across the world, highlighting issues on education for ALL girls and young women despite their wealth, religion or birthplace.” 

Susie Dent on Dr Jane Goodall

“I doubt Goodall would ever call herself a feminist, but her unwavering drive to follow her passion in a field populated almost entirely by men surely meets the truest definition of the term,” says Dent. “That passion began as a child during the Second World War, when she longed for escape and to live amongst wild animals (she also wanted to marry Tarzan, but soon realised he’d married the wrong Jane). But the response to her ambition was always the same – she wasn’t a man, and so could never live out a man’s dreams…

“Goodall, often pictured bare-legged and shimmying up trees in order to observe her subjects, persistently and patiently defied the media’s stereotype of ‘beauty and the beast’. She simply turned the volume down and concentrated on what mattered. Not only is she the world’s foremost expert in her field, she has become a fiercely eloquent advocate for the environment – never more so than now, when it sits precariously in the most dangerous of hands. Above all, Jane Goodall continues to teach us that, as humans, we are no more entitled to our glorious planet than the chimps she so lovingly protects.” 

Munroe Bergdorf on Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw

“She came up with the term intersectional feminism more than two decades ago,” says model and activist Munroe Bergdorf. “It’s the term I find most inclusive and the one that I identify with, and one of my dreams is to one day meet Dr Crenshaw… Until I found out about Dr Crenshaw, feminism didn’t really resonate with me, because I couldn’t see how it interacted with race or trans issues. A lot of feminism can be quite exclusive, especially if it prioritises reproductive rights, which excludes not only trans women but cis women who can’t have children. To centre feminism around producing children reduces the identity of women.” 

Antonia Thomas on Nina Simone

“Nina Simone was clever and outspoken. A black woman who communicated unapologetically through song, imbuing other’s words with such a truth that you couldn’t believe she didn’t write them herself and composing her own so searing that they blew open the racial injustice aboard in 1950s America,” says actress Antonia Thomas.

“As an actress, in an industry that can be relentlessly cruel to women in its expectations of image and beauty, I am bolstered by her steadfast refusal to be moulded into a package of accepted feminine artistry. She would get on stage and be wholly herself. She created the work that she wanted to create. No one could tell her what, as a woman, as a black woman, was acceptable for her to do or say or sing.” 

Yrsa Daley-Ward on Alice Walker

Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple is a feminist icon.

“When I was about 14 and came to her work – on reading The Colour Purple for the first time – my eyes were opened, and she was an inspiration to me,” says model Yrsa Daley-Ward. “We didn’t read it at school, I came to it in a bookshop. I picked it up and knew nothing about it. As you do with your favourite author, you then buy everything they’ve written.

“I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read anything by Alice Walker to do so, because it’s transformative. It takes you to the place and you can see it and smell it. It doesn’t age. What she’s writing about then is relevant now.” 

Sinead Keenan on Francis Sheehy Skeffington

“Allow me to introduce you to Francis Sheehy Skeffington (23 December 1878 - 26 April 1916). A man way ahead of his time in terms of his view on women in society and one of the foremost proponents of the enfranchisement of women in Ireland,” says the actor Sinead Keenan. “In 1903 he organised a petition to lobby for women to be admitted to University College in Dublin on the same basis as men, resigning from his job as registrar when the university refused to do so; and in 1912 he co founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League.

“But possibly most impressive to me is that when he married his wife, Hanna Sheehy, he took her name and added it to his, so they were both Sheehy Skeffingtons. That to me was a fairly balls out, big cojones move for a man in early 20th century Ireland. A very public display that he was indeed a man of his word and that word was that men and women are indeed equal and should be treated as thus. Simples.” 

The Slumflower on Munroe Bergdorf

“She’s incredibly important: to me, to the trans community, to all of us,” says author Chidera Eggerue aka The Slumflower.

“She embodies diversity, she prioritises trans rights, and she encourages us to change the conversation about it. She is proud of who she is. She doesn’t exist by anybody else’s standards. She breaks boundaries and stands up for what matters.

“Just seeing her fearlessly and tenaciously speak her truth has really encouraged me to use my own voice as a tool for liberation, solidarity and shifting perceptions.” 

Rosie Day on Caitlin Moran

caitlin moran rosie day feminist icon

“I met her when I was in the middle of a tough time, and her words kept me afloat for months”

“I met Caitlin at her book tour at Southbank Centre, when I was in the middle of a tough time, and I was terrified of meeting the woman whose writing felt like home,” says actor Rosie Day. “She embraced me and whispered something in my ear. It may sound dramatic but it kept me afloat for the next few months. I went home grinning from ear to ear.

“Now that I’m older, I realise she must have done that to millions of girls on her tour. But what a thing to do. To bolster girls and women, to collectively reassure, inspire, and help them. Not because she has to, but because it’s innate to her. I hope I get to thank her one day, but until then I’ll continue to buy flowers and wear Dr. Martens in homage to my feminist icon.”

Gina Miller on Indira Gandhi

“Indira Gandhi is a woman that most of us forget when we talk of significant female icons,” says activist Gina Miller. “In a country like India, she rose to be a prime minister that was both feared and loved. Often mistaken as being related to Mahatma Gandhi, she possessed a unique strength of being both bold as well as decisive. She was one of most influential women of her time and consolidated women’s position in the sub-continent and inspired many women to join public offices at a time when women were still being subjugated.” 

Toni Collette on her grandmother

“My grandmother is my feminist icon, as I recently did an episode of Who Do You Think You Are and I learned so much more about her than I ever had before,” says actor Toni Collette. “I loved her, she was one of my best friends. She died when I was in my early teens and the loss of her honestly affected my whole life.

“So, on the show, I asked about her – and found out that, despite juggling motherhood and work in poverty-stricken times during the war and post-war in Australia, she somehow managed to retain this strong sense of self. She was so strong, and she had this secret affair, this secret relationship, which nobody ever knew about.

“I think everybody needs to make space for themselves, but specifically women and specifically mothers. It is a position which demands that you be quite selfless because inherently you just have to take care of other people for a significant length of time (some might say forever!). But my grandmother refused, and carved out this space for herself, gave herself time to take care of herself, and none of us knew it until years after she was dead. It was kind of shocking and amazing – so much was expected of her and demanded of her, and I truly respect that she did that for herself. It has inspired me to do the same.” 

Sarah-Jane Crawford on Meghan Markle

Meghan Markle
For Sarah-Jane Crawford, Meghan Markle is a feminist icon.

“You only have to look at her influence on and input into the royal wedding; she managed to convince an old English institution to let Bishop Michael Curry, an African-American Pastor make such a strong speech, and let’s not forget she also made a speech herself at the wedding dinner - plus gaining the respect of the Royals is a testament to her strength as a woman,” says presenter Sarah-Jane Crawford

“She’s a role model, showing women in their 30s that you can make mistakes and move on – and she makes her own money – she is incredibly kind and energetic, I love the work she has done with the Grenfell survivors.”

Mary Beard on Jane Ellen Harrison

“Jane was the first professional female academic in this country, but she didn’t just teach. She knew that writing, researching and being an academic (just like the blokes, but better) was what she wanted to do, and that’s important,” says scholar Mary Beard.

“Nowadays, nobody has really heard of her, but she deserves to be better known. She was always terribly funny and she was a suffragist (although she wasn’t sure if she could be bothered to vote – it was more a matter of principle).

“She went through life being this wry observer of men in many ways. And I think she’s got lots of lessons for us; one is pushing and finding a voice, and going out there and saying ‘I can do this’. But the other is in more of a laid-back style, to laugh at the follies and stupid sense of entitlement that some men have, rather than always getting cross about it. Which I think is a really good thing.” 

Susanne Bier on Alice Munro

“I wanted to think of the universe when I looked at the moon.” ― Alice Munro, Lives Of Girls And Women.

“For a simple metaphor, it’s one which has always resonated deeply with me,” says director Susanne Bier. “It’s not just about encouraging women to think bigger, but also deeper. Why can’t we search for greatness and meaning in the simple things in life?

“That’s what I most admire about her writing; its simplicity. Alice knows that for her writing to be most relatable it needn’t indulge in grandiose ideas; the truth is our lives aren’t as exciting as they feel… but Munro always finds excitement in just how real her story’s feel.” 

Caitlin Moran on Mary Shelley

“A woman who found herself on the The Worst Holiday Ever – a villa in Italy with Lord Byron, when the weather never stopped pissing down, and Bryon was drunk all the time – and rather than moaning about it, she simply went off and wrote Frankenstein, instead; a book that invented an entirely new genre – sci-fi,” says author Caitlin Moran.


Laura Bates on Gloria Steinem 

Gloria Steinem is the ne plus ultra of feminist icons.

“Steinem’s focus on uniting women’s voices to create powerful change has always been enormously inspiring to me, and I have tried to follow this principle in my own work,” says activist Laura Bates.

“‘When unique voices are united in a common cause,’ she has said, ‘they make history.’ But perhaps my favourite of her quotes is this one: ‘Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.’” 

Nikita Gill on Maya Angelou

“When I was 17 years old, after a long search through Delhi’s Daryaganj, I found a copy of And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou’s third anthology of poetry,” says poet Nikita Gill. “At the time I was struggling with my identity as a very young woman and what that meant for my personhood. The poetry in this book, particularly the poems ‘Phenomenal Woman’ and ‘And Still I Rise’ made me appreciate who I was as an individual and as a human being before I was anything else…

“Dr Angelou’s work is transformational. She teaches people, especially women, to embrace and empower themselves, and most of all, to take their stories back where they have been snatched away. Her work celebrates the difficult and the different within us all, whilst tackling racism and misogyny all at once. I found myself needing more and more of her work as I grew older. Her books are now my constant companions, a war ritual I clothe myself in when I am going to face something deeply troubling in life. Even the most gargantuan task seems small when it is confronted with the words: ‘You may trod me in the dirt, But still, like dust, I’ll rise.’”

philosophy is the wellbeing beauty brand inspiring you to look, live and feel your best, and is the official partner of Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards 2020.


Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty, Supplied

Share this article

Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

Recommended by Hannah-Rose Yee