July 05, 2021
9 American feminists who changed the course of history
Happy Monday, Feministas, and happy belated fourth! In honor of Independence Day and the great work-in-progress that is the United States, we’d love to shift your attention from the founding fathers to some of the most profoundly badass women in American history, without whom we would not enjoy the right to vote, make choices about our own bodies, break glass ceilings, and so much more.
So go ahead and pack up your red-white-and-blues, but before we're done celebrating, let's take a quick look back at the incredible women who fought for equality, paved the way for modern American feminists like Roxane Gay, Beyoncé, AOC, and made this country what it is today.
American Feminist #1: Sojourner Truth
By now, many of us know the names of famous suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but we have so many women to thank for our right to vote in this country and Sojourner Truth is the lesser-known (s)hero we’re celebrating this year.
Born into slavery and freed at the age of 30, she rose to prominence as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist when she became the first black woman to win a lawsuit in the United States. She spent her life speaking on behalf of the rights of slaves and African-American women, and solidified her place in U.S. history at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Ohio, with her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech: “if the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” An inspiration, to say the least.
American Feminist #2: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Will we ever stop talking about RBG? Perhaps not, ladies. She’s notorious for a reason! Even before she became the second-ever woman appointed as a Supreme Court Justice(!!), she focused her career on gender equality and women’s rights. She co-founded and then directed the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and took on some of the most important discrimination cases in the last century.
After she was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, the fight continued and she became well-known for her forceful dissents on behalf of feminism and that oh-so-chic white collar, which we Feministas can’t help but love. She was often asked, “when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” And her answer is as iconic as her career: “when there are nine.” Tell 'em, RBG.
American Feminist #3: Dr. Grace Lee Boggs
Ms. Boggs was an author, philosopher, feminist, and bona fide American revolutionary who came up in Chicago and gained notoriety in the civil rights and Black Power movement in Detroit. She and her husband were beloved community organizers who believed in the nonviolent strategies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and started food co-ops, organized elder care, and co-founded an youth program called Detroit Summer, which repairs homes, plants gardens on vacant lots, organizes music festivals, and builds community through volunteerism.
In her book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, she says, “history is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories... has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.” And we believe that the story of Dr. Grace Lee Boggs needs to be told more often :)
American Feminist #4: Marsha P. Johnson
It’s just one week past the anniversary of Stonewall Riots of 1969, but Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson’s legacy is worth celebrating every day. She was one of a few leading forces who fought back when a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village turned violent, sparking an important conversation about queer and trans safety in public and in the presence of law enforcement.
The uprising and demonstrations that followed are often considered a turning point in the LGBTQ+ movement and it’s all thanks to the bravery of trans women like Marsha P. Johnson, who implored the people and systems that govern us to recognize our shared humanity. Pow-her-ful.
American Feminist #5: Audre Lorde
A self-proclaimed “black-lesbian-mother-warrior-poet” and champion of intersectional feminism to the highest degree, Audre Lorde goes down as one of the most important women in American history.
Her critiques of second-wave feminism were essential for making the movement more inclusive, when it had so often excluded women of color, queer women, and women belonging to other minority groups. Her mastery of language and public speaking made her an important cultural voice, and her poetry, essays, and teachings remain incisive and relevant today.
But she may be most famous for her speech at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981, entitled The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, in which she delivers the iconic feminist quote: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
American Feminist #6: Hillary Clinton
Think what you want of Secretary Clinton, but there’s no denying the impact she’s had on women in this country. As the first ever female candidate in the 2016 election, very nearly elected President, she has spent her career trailblazing her way through male-dominated spaces, from the U.S. Senate to the White House, in her four-year stint as Secretary of State under President Obama.
American Feminist #7: Eleanor Roosevelt
Speaking of First Ladies, no list of American feminists is complete without this woman, who totally upended the traditional notion of what it means to be a “good wife” on the public stage and decided to use her prominence to fight for gender equality and to show that women were capable of greatness.
Over the course of her impressive career, she worked closely with the Women's Trade Union League and the International Congress of Working Women, and for nearly three decades, penned a column called “My Day,” which focused on women’s work and rights. After her time as First Lady, she went on to serve as the U.S. Delegate to the UN and chair the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women under JFK.
Beyond her personal achievements, though, she’s been an inspiration to so many who followed, including one of our favorite feminist icons, Michelle Obama, who went way beyond the usual wining and dining work of First Ladies and used her platform to fight for change.
American Feminist #8: Winona LaDuke
If, like us, you believe that we need to destroy the patriarchy and not the planet, then Winona LaDuke is a name you need to know. Alongside the famous folk rock group Indigo Girls, she co-founded Honor the Earth, an environmental justice organization which raises money and awareness for Native communities across the country, and played an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
She’s an author, economist, and activist whose work on food sovereignty, land preservation and ownership, and sustainability has made her a leading voice in the fight for environmental and indigenous rights in this country, and we should all be paying more attention.
American Feminist #9: Gloria Steinem
This feminist writer and activist may be the most prolific in American history, and has the Presidential Medal of Freedom to prove it. She spent her life raising awareness and fighting for gender equality, starting as a leading activist in the women’s liberation movement throughout the sixties and seventies.
In 1973, she co-founded Ms. magazine, a publication dedicated to women’s lives, rights, and the feminist agenda, and over the years has done so much to make feminism mainstream. Today, she’s nothing short of a cultural icon and continues to inspire and empower women and girls in the U.S. and all over the world to stand up for themselves and make waves. Girl power, baby.
Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The F Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.