The term “feminism” has evolved significantly since it was first used in the 19th century, and the word still may have several different definitions depending on who you ask.
This is largely why many feminist icons over the last century have been cautious to define themselves as a feminist and have instead shifted the focus toward intersectionality.
To be intersectional is to recognize that all of our social identities are connected, and that feminism is just a part of the bigger picture. To understand this is to truly fight for equality, for women and for other marginalized groups that face discrimination.
These 32 women are feminist icons, most intersectional in that they are devoted to overlapping causes that, in turn, support one another. Those on this list who are still living continue to help feminism evolve, as a concept and practice, to meet the current moment.
32 icons who’ve changed the course of feminism
1. Susan B. Anthony
A leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony was committed to the cause, giving speeches around the country and fighting for equality. She worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to fight for women’s rights throughout the late 19th century. She also helped form the National Woman Suffrage Association, advocating for women’s right to vote.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was an early supporter of women’s rights and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She is often considered the “Mother of Feminism” and is one of the first feminist philosophers.
3. Malala Yousafzai
The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai was born in Pakistan in 1997 and at a young age started speaking out about young girls’ rights to an education. She was shot in 2012 because of her efforts but survived, and she has since created the Malala Fund to help girls find educational opportunities.
4. Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir was a political activist, feminist theorist, and writer, perhaps best known for her book The Second Sex, which confronts the treatment of women and is considered an important part of the modern feminism movement.
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5. Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem is an activist, journalist, and feminist who became a leader of the modern feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. She founded Ms. Magazine, the Women’s Action Alliance, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and other initiatives.
6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Known for her widely popular TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” Nigerian writer and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published many books that deal with feminist issues, including a book of essays by the same name as her TED Talk and several novels.
7. Ruth Bader Ginsberg
The Notorious RBG earned her nickname after decades of hard work supporting women’s rights, in and out of the Supreme Court. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, and was the second female Supreme Court justice to serve.
8. Rosa Parks
Activist Rosa Parks did a lot more than spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was a Civil Rights Movement leader in Alabama and worked tirelessly for equality for all people, including women. She founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to help prepare young African Americans for their careers.
9. Toni Morrison
The late Toni Morrison was an author and professor who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though she did not define herself as a feminist, her books dealt with feminist topics and she believed in equality for all, a hint at intersectionality. She worked many years as a book editor and brought in the work of many Black and feminist authors.
10. Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart broke through many barriers for women. She was the first female pilot to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean and helped form the Ninety-Nines, which is an international organization that supports female pilots.
11. Sojourner Truth
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth was an activist who spoke out for civil and women’s rights. She is known for her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” (PDF) speech she gave at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
12. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was much more than First Lady and is remembered for her activism and humanitarianism. She was the first U.S. delegate of the United Nations and was the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She worked with the Women’s Trade Union and the International Congress of Working Women and promoted equality throughout her life.
13. Maya Angelou
Lauded poet, author, and public speaker, Maya Angelou fought against race and gender discrimination and was a civil rights activist. She wrote many books, including several autobiographies and books of poetry, and received over 50 honorary degrees in her life.
14. Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and Latina Supreme Court justice and the third woman to serve in the role. She taught as an adjunct professor at New York University and Columbia Law School and has received several honorary degrees. She was critical in the Supreme Court ruling to make same-sex marriage legal in the U.S.
15. bell hooks
bell hooks is an author and social activist. Her writing discusses women’s oppression and feminism, and explores how race, gender, and class are connected. She founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College and has taught many courses as a professor of literature, African-American studies, and women’s studies.
16. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a lawyer, scholar, and activist who first introduced the theory of intersectionality, which states that all social and political identities (gender, class, race) are connected and overlap and must be examined to fully understand discrimination.
17. Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan was an American author who wrote the monumental work, The Feminist Mystique in 1963. The book is thought to have sparked the second wave of feminism by highlighting the mistreatment and of women after World War II, questioning the notion that women were fulfilled by taking on housework and childcare.
18. Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King spent much of her life focused on women’s equality, in addition to her efforts in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, she founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was the first woman to ever deliver the class day address at Harvard University and to preach a statutory service at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
19. Angela Davis
Angela Davis is a civil rights activist and was a leader in the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s. She joined the Black Panthers and spent time in jail for her efforts. She spoke at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.
20. Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton has paved the way for female politicians in her many years serving the country. She was the first female New York senator and the first female candidate to be nominated for president by a major political party. She is also known for her 1995 United Nation speech, during which she used the signature phrase, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
21. Winona LaDuke
Indigenous environmentalist and activist Winona LaDuke has been working for years to fight climate change and founded the Indigenous Women’s Network and the White Earth Land Recovery Project.
22. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama was the first Black First Lady of the U.S. and started her Let Girls Learn Initiative while in the White House, helping girls find access to education. She is part of the Girls Opportunity Alliance within the Obama Foundation.
23. Zora Neale Hurston
Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was wildly successful in the beginning of the 20th century, writing many novels, short stories, essays, and plays. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, an important work as part of the Harlem Renaissance.
24. Yoko Ono
Musician and artist Yoko Ono, once married to the late John Lennon, is an activist and feminist, and published the essay The Feminization of Society in 1972, in support of radical feminism and criticizing patriarchal society.
25. Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke is an activist who started the #MeToo movement in the early 2000s, long before it gained worldwide traction in 2017. She was named Person of the Year by Time in 2017 as part of a group deemed the “Silence Breakers.” She is the Senior Director of Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn.
26. Alice Walker
Known for her work The Color Purple, Alice Walker has been a central figure in the feminist movement and the Civil Rights Movement. She founded the feminist publisher Wild Tree Press and has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
27. Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a poet and writer who was a civil rights activist and New York City librarian and openly discussed her experiences as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She taught poetry and published many collections.
28. Nina Simone
Nina Simone remains an inspiration to Black women and feminism. The musician, singer, and activist was extremely vocal in the Civil Rights Movement and intersectional issues. Many of her songs, including “Four Women,” showcase the struggles women of color face in life and with identity.
29. Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a writer and professor who writes social commentary for many notable publications. Her book of essays Bad Feminist discussed what it means to be a feminist in today’s world alongside discussions on race and pop culture.
30. Oprah Winfrey
One of the most famous people in the world, Oprah Winfrey has taken many important steps to support women over the years, including founding the Leadership Academic for Girls in South Africa and Oprah’s Angel Network, which helps underprivileged women.
31. Alice Paul
Alice Paul was the head of the National Women’s Party and co-wrote the Equal Rights Amendment with Crystal Eastman in 1923. The two women believed that the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t enough for true equality, and the ERA proposed an end to distinguishing between men and women in many different legal matters. The fate of the ERA is still unknown.
32. Frida Kahlo
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was most known for her self-portraits, which aimed to question societal standards and instead follow what she found to be true. She painted facial hair on her female face, for example, upending what a woman was supposed to look like. She is lauded by feminists for setting her own standards and living an unrestrained life.