50 feminist icons

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Anna Pollitt
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Emily Wilding Davison was a suffragist who abided by the movement's mantra "Deeds Not Words" and endured nine stints in jail and 49 hunger strikes in her fight for women to have the vote. She died for her cause as she attempted to attach a women's suffrage banner to the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of her death, take a look at 50 women whose names are synonymous with feminism, be it through their words, actions or popular perception.

Words: Anna Pollitt. Images: Rex Features, Getty Images

  • 50 feminist icons

    Emmeline Pankhurst

    "Trust in God - she will provide."

    The leader of the British suffragette movement fought tirelessly for the right for women to vote. Dedicated to "deeds, not words" she organised demonstrations, smashed windows and went on hunger strike for her cause. She died shortly after seeing women and men granted equal voting rights.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Mary Wollstonecraft

    "I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves."

    A revolutionary thinker and writer, the 18th century wasn't ready for a radical like Wollstonecraft. She gave up her governess job to become a writer, persuaded her sister to leave her abusive husband, tried to move in with a married man she was in love with - and his wife, had a child out of wedlock and when she did marry, lived in adjoining house to her husband.

    Her influential A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest texts of feminist philosophy.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Virginia Woolf

    "As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world."

    A witty feminist foremother, Woolf's stream of consciousness narratives focus on placing a shining light on women's untapped potential. She has been accused of being a privileged class snob but the key messages of her texts 'women must have a room of their own...' have endured.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Doris Lessing

    “She may have been part of the feminist movement, but she did not give a damn whether her views were feminist or not.” John Mullan, UCL English professor writing on Lessing in The Guardian

    Lessing cares not for the label, but the Nobel Prize-winning author's 1962 The Golden Notebook is nonetheless heralded as a seminal feminist text.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Louisa May Alcott

    "Was the first woman to register my name as a voter. Drove about and drummed up women to my suffrage meeting. So hard to move people out of the old ruts."

    Little Women may be Alcott's most famous legacy, but the 19th century writer was also a proponent of equal rights - railing against slavery and lending practical support to the women's suffrage movement. She was the first women to register to vote in her Massachusetts town's school election - a big deal in the 1870s.

  • 50 feminist icons

    bell hooks

    “Feminism is for everybody.”

    This influential feminist activist and academic is a prolific writer who focuses on the interconnecting politics of race, class, gender in the US. Her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, criticising racism in the second wave feminist movement, is considered a groundbreaking monograph.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Dorothy Parker

    "The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue."

    A relentless wit whose light shone brightest in the '20s and '30s, Parker's talents as a poet and satirist saw her reach heights previously only afforded to men. Her humorous works often carried an underlying preoccupation with sexual equality and she has posthumously become an icon of the feminist movement.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Gloria Steinem

    "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

    Co-founder of Ms. Magazine Steinem has been at the forefront of the feminist movement in the US since the early '60s as a key women's rights figure and pro-choice activist..

  • 50 feminist icons

    Betty Friedan

    “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.”

    The late US author caused a sensation with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which challenged the myth women wanted to be homemakers and is credited with kick-starting second-wave feminism. In 1966 she co-founded the National Organization for Women.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Nawal El Saadawi

    “They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman. I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

    Egyptian writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist Saadawi was a childhood victim of female genital cutting and has campaigned against the practice for the past 60 years.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Margaret Fuller

    "It is a vulgar error that love, a love, to woman is her whole existence; she is born for Truth and Love in their universal energy."

    Hailed as America's first feminist, this 19th century journalist set up groups for women denied access to higher education and in 1843 wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century - described as the country's first feminist text.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Germaine Greer

    Women fail to understand how much men hate them. The Female Eunuch

    Mainstream media's go-to mouthpiece on women's liberation and female sexuality in the latter part of the 20th century, Australian academic Greer authored the hit feminist text The Female Eunuch in 1970 and continues to act as commentator, agitator and occasional TV star.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Naomi Wolf

    “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.”

    Wolf's bestselling 1991 book The Beauty Myth, which catapulted its author to worldwide fame as the representative of third-wave feminism.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Frida Kahlo

    "I was born a bitch. I was born a painter."

    Surrealist artist Kahlo's fearless representations of the female form and her own suffering, coupled with her personal strength and independence in the early 20th century, are widely celebrated by the feminist art movement.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Alice Walker

    “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

    Walker is the Pulitzer Prize-winning US author of The Color Purple and a high-profile activist. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and with radical feminism in the '60s and '70s when she worked at Ms Magazine.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Rebecca West

    "I myself have never able to find out precisely what a feminist is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."

    British suffragette-turned-writer West was a legend from the '20s to the '40s for her outspoken feminist and socialist speeches and writing. She was featured on the cover sof Time, which called her "indisputably the world's No. 1 woman writer."

  • 50 feminist icons

    Aung San Suu Kyi

    “In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued."

    The Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate has dedicated her life and sacrificed her freedom to liberate her country people.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Margaret Atwood

    “Does feminist mean large unpleasant person who'll shout at you or someone who believes women are human beings. To me it's the latter, so I sign up.”

    The Canadian author's dystopian '80s novel The Handmaid's Tale considers the fate of a world in which the progress of women is reversed and is widely considered a classic feminist text.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Linda Bellos

    "I get paid a lot of money giving advice that I gave for free when they didn't want to know."

    A fiery figure of radical feminism in Britain in the '70s and '80s, Bellos shook up an angry fist at sexual, social and economic injustices until the establishment sat up and listened. Her influence saw her elected a Labour councillor for Lambeth. She now runs a diversity consultancy.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Andrea Dworkin

    “Any violation of a woman's body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.”

    A radical US feminist who rose to prominence in the '70s and '80s, the late Dworkin became famous for her fierce opposition of pornography.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Emma Goldman

    "The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought."

    A lifelong anarchist activist, Goldman fought for workers rights, women's rights to birth control and for sexual freedom in the late 19th and early 20th century.

    In 1892 she and her lover plotted to assassinate a prominent US steel magnate. The attempt failed but Goldman's outspoken views led to many arrests in the following years until she was deported to her native Lithuania (then Russia).

  • 50 feminist icons

    Simone de Beauvoir

    "One is not born a woman, but becomes one."

    French radical De Beauvoir's 1949 magnus opus The Second Sex examined women's historical subordination and the female gender as the "other" and is seen as a seminal text of modern feminism.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Angela Carter

    “It is far easier for a woman to lead a blameless life than it is for a man; all she has to do is to avoid sexual intercourse like the plague.”

    This avant-garde British writer's dark, magical works made the issues surrounding sexual equality cool. Her witty fairytale-inspired novels appropriated misogynistic themes and portrayed strong yet flawed heroines.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Pauli Murray

    US activist and writer Murray co-founded the still-functioning National Organization for Women and was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate from Yale. In 1976 she made history when she challenged discrimination in the Episcopal Church and became the first black woman to be ordained a priest.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Katharine Hepburn

    “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I've just done what I damn well wanted to, and I've made enough money to support myself, and ain't afraid of being alone.”

    Oscar-winning Hepburn was the daughter of progressive parents - her mother was a feminist campaigner and her father was a urologist who educated the public on sexually transmitted infections - and both taught Hepburn to question societal norms.

    The Hollywood legend began wearing trousers when it was considered scandalous for women.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Pussy Riot

    "This is the language we've chosen, the language of punk."

    Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot became a global cause celebre last year after their performance of a "punk prayer" at a Moscow cathedral saw three members given harsh two-year jail sentences.

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    Julie Burchill

    "A good part - and definitely the most fun part - of being a feminist is about frightening men."

    Love or loathe her, self-styled "rabid feminist" Burchill has been a regular fixture in the British media since the '70s, writing for everyone from the NME and The Guardian to The Daily Mail.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Susan B. Anthony

    "I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand."

    The celebrated US suffragist and abolitionist is one the most important figures in America's women's rights movement. She co-founded the American Equal Rights Association in 1866, and the National Woman Suffrage Association and made around a 100 speeches a year across the country, often in the face of threatening physical opposition.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Caitlin Moran

    "I want a Zero Tolerance policy on All The Patriarchal Bullshit.”

    Hailed as a modern day icon for feminism, The Times journalist Moran's 2011 book How to be a Woman shot up the bestseller charts and won the Galaxy Book Awards Book of the Year. You can read her hilarious guide to modern feminism here.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Erin Pizzey

    She may have been famously disowned by the feminist movement but in the '70s Pizzey was famous for establishing the UK's first domestic violence refuges for women.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Christine de Pizan

    This 15th century French court court writer made a living from her pen at a time when writing was an unthinkable job for women.

    In 1405 she wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, featuring a fictional city populated by notable women from history, attempts to redress the misogynistic attitudes of the time.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Margaret Sanger

    "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."

    The woman who coined the term "birth control", Sanger was a US sex educator who opened America's first birth control clinic in 1916. She was arrested at least eight times for speaking out about contraception.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Marilyn French

    "Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they are inferior."

    The late US academic French authored controversial feminist classic “The Women’s Room”, which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Josephine Butler

    Butler was a 19th century British feminist and campaigner who successfully rallied against the Contagious Diseases Acts and helped prostitutes cast aside by society.

    Her work against child prostitution saw her form part of a group that helped raise the age of consent in the UK from 13 to 16.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Taslima Nasrin

    "Nature says women are human beings, men have made religions to deny it. Nature says women are human beings, men cry out no."

    Bengali author Nasrin's outspoken views on cultural and religious oppression of women in the early '90s led to her being physically attacked by fundamentalist groups. She has lived in exile since 1994, when a fatwa was issued against her and she was forced to leave her job as a physician. She continues to be an advocate for women's rights and free speech

  • 50 feminist icons

    Barbara Castle

    "In politics, why throw away your womanly assets on being an honorary man? You should have the strength that women have and to call it a man's strength is an insult."

    This late Labour MP was one of the party's most important figures in the last century. She introduced family planning clinics and free contraception, ensured child benefits were paid directly to mothers and waged a fierce battle for the Equal Pay Act.

    As Transport Minister she defeated opposition from male MPs over the introduction of seatbelts, breathalyser tests and a national speed limit of 70mph.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Eleanor Rathbone

    In the early part of the 20th century, British feminist and social reformer Rathbone campaigned for women's rights and pioneered family allowances. After working as a suffragist to help British women get the vote, she worked to extend women's voting privileges in India.

    Rathbone was a loud voice in the fight to free Jews from Nazi control, criticising the Government's policy of appeasing Hitler in the '30s.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Angelina Jolie

    "I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made."

    Once best known as a Hollywood sex symbol, Jolie is increasingly defined by her humanitarian efforts and campaigning for equal rights for women and girls across the globe.

    The actress' recent announcement that she had a double mastectomy in a bid to prevent breast cancer helped publicise the genetic risks and tackled the stigma surrounding the procedure.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Marie Stopes

    “When a woman marries, it is commonly the custom for her to take her husband’s name … I have taken the necessary steps to retain my own name as my legal one…and it is also the name I use in all my scientific work. It is, in short, my real name.” Marie Stopes, 1911

    Stopes refused to ever wear a bra, refused to change her name when she married, advocated birth control and wrote the bestselling Married Love, a frank text, described as the world's first sex manual, that argued women had sexual needs equal to those of men.

    Despite her achievements she was an unpleasant character who supported Hitler and eugenics, among other misdemeanours.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Sylvia Plath

    "Apparently, the most difficult feat for a Cambridge male is to accept a woman not merely as feeling, not merely as thinking, but as managing a complex, vital interweaving of both."

    This hugely successful poet became a feminist icon after her death from suicide, aged 30. Her 1963 book The Bell Jar is a frank look at a woman who struggles with depression and the expectations placed on her in a male-dominated world.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Margaret Thatcher

    "I hate feminism. It is poison," Thatcher reportedly told her adviser. She also saw only one woman besides herself fit to occupy her cabinet. Yet she was posthumously hailed a feminist icon for being the first woman prime minister.

    Stylist's Lucy Mangan and Susan Riley debate her legacy here.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

    Inspired by Emily Davies from an early age, Garrett Anderson was a woman of many firsts: the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor in France, the first woman to be elected to a school board and the first woman to become a mayor and magistrate in Britain. She also co-founded the UK's first hospital staffed by women.

  • 50 feminist icons


    “I'm tough, I'm ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.”

    She hasn't chained herself to railings or written extensively in favour of women's rights and she's also as commercial as they come, but when Madonna's empowered and unforgiving brand of sexuality emerged in the '80s it put a female music superstar on a par with celebrated promiscuous male artists.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Sojourner Truth

    "If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it."

    An early women's rights activist in the US, Truth was born into slavery and after escaping to freedom, became the first black woman to win a legal case against a white man. Her famous 1851 speech on women's rights, later entitled, Ain't I a Woman? inspired the works of bell hooks.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Susan Faludi

    "Feminism's agenda is basic: it asks that women not be forced to choose between public justice and private happiness."

    US journalist Faludi tackled a subliminal anti-feminist campaign head-on in her bestselling 1991 book Backlash. Despite addressing the attitude towards equality in the years following the second wave of feminism, it is still considered relevant today.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Malala Yousafzai

    "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education. And I'm afraid of no one."

    Willing to stand up to an oppressive regime in order to protect her right to education, Pakistani schoolgirl Yousafzai is a feminist icon for a new generation.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Elaine Showalter

    A pioneer of feminist literary criticism in the US, Showalter is credited with - and criticised for - developing the practice of gynocriticism.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Marion Reid

    "It is designed to show that social equality with man is necessary for the free growth and development of woman’s nature."

    In 1843, Scottish writer Reid published A Plea for Women, an influential text in both the UK, Ireland and the US that argued that the advancement of women was not a threat to society and giving women education and the ability to vote would benefit the whole of humanity.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Baroness Helena Kennedy QC

    "We have to keep confronting discrimination where we see it. There is still a way to go."

    This radical Scottish lawyer from a working class background set up her own practice at 24 to focus on sex-discrimination cases. She sought to defend female victims of domestic violence and women who had retaliated against violent partners.

    In 1990 she co-founded the Doughty Street Chambers and worked on high-profile trials including the Guildford Four appeal.

  • 50 feminist icons

    Dolly Parton

    "I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb... and I also know that I'm not blonde."

    This subversive country singer and actress has been singing about female empowerment since the '60s. Born into poverty, she has built a successful business empire from her work and champions childhood literacy among her many philanthropic efforts.


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Anna Pollitt

Anna is a freelance writer and editor who’s been making her dime from online since 2007. She’s a regular at, ITV News and Emerald Street and moonlights as a copywriter and digital content consultant.