10 Inspirational Women Throughout History Who Fought for Women's Rights

Women have been at the forefront of positive change for centuries, so let's celebrate them

WORDS BY
Caroline Lundig
Published
January 19, 2024
International Women's Day calls on us to recognise the commendable headway many women throughout history have made (Photo: Quino Al)
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Fighting endlessly throughout their lifetime for women's rights, battling prejudice at every turn, these are some of the most inspirational women who have changed the course of history for the better - from Ida Wells to Malala Yousafzai.

1) Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a powerful social activist

(Credit: Library of Congress, Washington DC)

Born in 1820, in Adams Massachusetts, Susan became an icon in the early women’s rights movement. But she wanted to do more to help end slavery, so she became an abolition activist. Anthony traveled around the country with her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to give speeches against slavery and to give women the right to vote. In 1886, Susan became editor of the newspaper The Revolution, which helped spread her ideas around female equality. Anthony risked being arrested for her statements but it never stopped her.

2) Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a founding member of the NAACP

(Credit: University of Chicago library, Special Collections Centre)

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and later freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, going on to become one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Documenting racial violence in the US during the 1800s, it was in 1895 that she published the “Red Record” – a statistical document of lynchings in the US that could not be refuted. She later married the owner of a Chicago newspaper, Ferdinand Barnett, and together they used their newspaper to expose injustice against black people in the US. 

3) Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) used her art to express taboo subjects surrounding women

Credit: Fridakahlo.org

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who used her work to portray topics such as as abortion, miscarriage, birth and breastfeeding. She wanted these topics to become part of the public conversation and debate. Frida Kahlo was bisexual and she never tried to hide or apologise for her sexuality. Kahlo was married to Diego Rivera and together they were politically active in the communist party. The couple also raised money for the Republicans fighting against Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War.

5) Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) fought a lifelong fight against racism

Credits: Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Centre

Yuri Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Arkansas for two years. Becoming aware of governmental abuse, this led her to participate in anti-war, black liberation, and Asian-American movements. She later started the group called Asian Americans for Action. Kochiyama and her husband often invited people fighting for civil rights to their house for dinner. The couple was known for opening up their tiny apartment for activists who would come and talk with other equals. In 2005 Yuri Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her lifelong fight against racism.

6) Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) used her Supreme Court seat to change the course of history

Credit: Supreme Court

Ginsburg was the second female justice of the US Supreme Court when she started in 1993. Ginsburg started as a young lawyer who fought laws that discriminated on the basis of gender. She also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg was outspoken and a voice for all women in the US. She was known as a feminist folk hero. Later in 2018, Ginsburg expressed her support for the #MeToo movement by saying; “The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing. My hope is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars”.

7) Margaret Hamilton (b. 1936) was a pioneering software engineer 

Credit: MIT Museum

Margaret Hamilton was an American computer scientist and one of the first computer software programmers. She created the term software engineer so she could describe her work with a title. She is most famous for leading the Software Engineering Division at MIT which landed the first astronauts on the moon. Hamilton overall was a pioneer when it came to the development of software engineering and a pioneer as a woman in the workplace in both her field and seniority. In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work leading to the success of NASA’s Apollo missions. 

8) Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) was a prominent transgender activist

Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender activist, sex worker, drag performer, and a central figure in the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969. She lived during a time when dancing with the same gender in public was forbidden. Nonetheless, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera fought for the inclusion of transgender people in the LGBT movement. She also helped Rivera founding the STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). STAR advocated for young transgender people to join the gay pride parades in the 1970s. STAR also advocated for AIDS patients. Her fight for justice, transgender rights, and equality continued throughout her entire life.

9) Sally Ride (1951-2012) was the first American woman in space

Credit: NASA

Ride joined NASA in 1978 where she was selected to be in the first class of 35 astronauts (including 6 women) who would fly on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.  According to her colleague, it was important for Sally to be considered as one of the 35 new astronauts and not as one of the female astronauts. She wanted to be judged by merit, not gender and it was important for her that the bar for women was the same as for men. She received numerous awards throughout her life, including the Jefferson Award for Public service and the NASA Space Flight Medal award.

10) Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) continues to make progress for female education and advocacy

Credit: Malala.org

Born in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai has become an outspoken proponent of girls' rights to education and because of that, she has often been in danger. When she was only 15 years old she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. She survived the attack and soon her story was known all over the world. In the years after the attack, Malala has become a more and more prominent feminist and activist. She also established an educational fund for women and girls called Malala Fund. In 2014 Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. Just 17 at the time, she became the youngest Nobel Prize recipient in history.

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