18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time

D.G. Hewitt - September 22, 2018

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Jane Addams set up homes for women in Chicago and was a leading feminist voice of her time. Wikipedia.

13. Jane Addams returned from a tour of Europe determined to make a difference to the lives of the poorest women in America

In late 18th and early 19th century America, many notable men dedicated themselves to the idea of social reform. Indeed, even Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson proclaimed themselves to be reformers keen to make a difference for all levels of society. But it’s wasn’t just a man’s game. Jane Addams was also one of the era’s most notable social reformers. Above all, she campaigned for women’s rights, arguing that mothers were best-placed to make America’s cities better – and fairer – places to live for everyone.

Addams, who was born in Illinois in 1860, enjoyed a privileged upbringing, though she did suffer from a range of childhood illnesses. When her father died, She inherited a tidy sum of money and decided to devote herself to public work. Addams toured Europe with her friends, and it was here she learned about ‘settlement houses’ in London, where university graduates lived alongside poorer members of society. In 1889, she had opened her own such place, Hull House in Chicago. The mansion house became a refuge for women, as well as a lively center of research and debate.

Not content with just running her settlement house, Addams was also an active political campaigner. She argued that mothers were best-placed to guide education and housing policies. As such, they should be given the vote. She founded the Women’s Peace Party, for which she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and she also helped set up the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Perhaps more importantly, she served as a role model to countless women like her, showing middle-class ladies how they could make a difference in their communities.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson defied the odds – and the rules – to become a doctor. Ipswich Star.

14. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson overcame a number of social obstacles to become Britain’s first female physician

In 19th century England, women weren’t supposed to have careers. They certainly weren’t supposed to be doctors. And they couldn’t even if they wanted to, for medical schools were for male students only. Not that this stopped Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The Londoner broke all the rules to become Britain’s first female physician, making waves and then making history in the process.

Despite being born into relative poverty, Anderson’s father worked hard and became successful enough to ensure each of his 12 children got a good education. After her schooling, it was expected that Anderson would marry and settle down. However, influenced by her feminist friends and by the example of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, she decided to pursue a career in medicine instead. Since all the university courses were closed to her, she enrolled on a nursing course and then sneaked into classes for student doctors. Before long, she got kicked out of the school but still managed to qualify as a doctor since the Society of Apothecaries had never thought to prevent women from sitting its exams.

Anderson established a dispensary for women in London’s East End. She finally married and had a family of her own but was determined not to slow down professionally. She served as a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. However, she still had no proper medical degree. To fix this, she taught herself French, headed to Paris and graduated from university there. Upon her return to London, she established the pioneering New Hospital for Women in London. Her hero and inspiration, Elizabeth Blackwell, was appointed head of gynecology, joining an all-female staff.

Even when she retired and moved to the coast, Anderson kept on being a feminist pioneer. She became the Mayor of her small town, making her the first female to hold such a post in England. Along with her daughter, she joined the Suffragettes, campaigning for the vote for women. She died in December 1917, just months before the British Parliament agreed to give women the right to vote. Anderson did, however, live to see the laws changed to allow female doctors.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Concepcion Arenal laid the foundations for the Spanish feminist movement. La Soga.

15. Concepción Arenal was the first woman to graduate from a Spanish university and remains an icon of the country’s modern feminist movement

Concepción Arenal Ponte’s father, a liberal military officer, died in prison in 1829. His daughter was just 8 at the time. She was forced to move to a small town in the northern province of Cantabria, where her mother struggled to provide her with a happy childhood. Nevertheless, Arenal received a good education and she grew into a determined young woman. So determined, in fact, that she took herself to Madrid and enrolled in the main university there. In doing so, she became the first female university student in the country’s history. More than this, she also became a role model for many more Spanish girls and women and established herself as the founder of the country’s feminist movement.

Being a female student in conservative Madrid was no easy life. Arenal was forced to hide her femininity, dressing as a young man to attend lectures. But she was never deterred. In fact, she even attended literary, philosophical and political seminars in the city, completely unheard of for a woman at the time. Upon graduation, she married and started a family. Alongside these duties, she wrote for a notable liberal newspaper, though when her husband died, she was forced to move back to the north of Spain for financial reasons.

Back in the north of the country, Arenal dedicated herself to writing and helping the poor. She set up a feminist group for disadvantaged women. And above all, she wrote prolifically. Most notably, in 1869 she published her main work, The Woman of the Future, in which she argued that women’s perceived inferiority was simply a societal construct and had no basis in biology. Thanks to her intellectual connections in Madrid, the book was widely-read, and she also contributed numerous essays and articles to leading liberal journals and newspapers of the time.

Arenal died in 1893. More than 30 years later, the short-lived Spanish Second Republic attempted to put her feminist ideas into action. These days, she is best remembered as Spain’s ‘first feminist’, and libraries and university buildings across the country are named after her.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
In another age, Lydia Becker would have been remembered as a scientist not just a feminist. University of Cambridge.

16. Lydia Becker juggled campaigning for women’s votes in Britain with being a scientist and contributor to the work of Charles Darwin

When they were campaigning for women in Britain to be given the vote, the Suffragettes were often dismissed as bored, ‘silly’ housewives without the intellect or sophistication to understand politics. Such a change could never be leveled at Lydia Becker. For as well as being a leading figure in the votes-for-women movement, Becker also possessed a fine scientific mind. Indeed, had she been born in more enlightened times, she might be better remembered for being a biologist rather than for her accomplishments as a feminist.

Born into a family of German immigrants in Manchester in 1827, Becker was educated at home. However, this was not enough to satisfy her fierce intellectual curiosity. As a young lady, then, she taught herself botany and biology. She submitted articles to leading journals with some success. What’s more, she corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin and even contributed her own research and ideas to his work. Alongside this, she also became increasingly involved with the burgeoning feminist movement of the time.

After establishing the Ladies’ Literary Society of Manchester – and even convincing Darwin to share original work with the feminist group – she was an active participant in the first public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, also held in Manchester. She toured the cities of northern Britain, lecturing on women’s rights and suffrage. She also established the Women’s Suffrage Journal and even went so far as to call for unmarried women to be given the vote – something even many ardent feminists of the time were against. Thanks to Becker’s work, some municipalities allowed women to vote in local elections from the 1870s onwards.

Notably, one of Becker’s many talks was attended by Emmeline Pankhust, who was inspired to take up the cause of votes-for-women herself. Pankhurst would, of course, go on to become a leading figure of the later Suffragette movement that succeeded in getting the vote for women in 1918. Becker died in 1890 while she was holidaying in the south of France. She was aged just 63.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Being America’s first ordained female minister was just one of Antoinette Brown-Blackwell’s achievements RLC.org

17. Antoinette Brown Blackwell made history by becoming America’s first female minister but left the pulpit to fight for feminism

Before she was even a teenager, Antoinette Brown was preaching in her family’s Congregational Church in Rochester, New York. A bright, well-educated young lady, she wanted to become a preacher. To this end, she went to Oberlin College in Ohio and, after much trying, succeeded in getting a place on the theology degree course there. Then, in 1851, she obtained a licence to preach, becoming America’s first ordained religious minister. From the pulpit, she preached on a range of topics, above all promoting equality between the genders and races. Within a year, however, she stepped down and hit the road.

After leaving her ministry, Brown focused almost all her energy on campaigning for women’s rights. While some feminists concerned themselves with getting women the vote, she believed this was not a priority. Instead, she wanted to improve the social and economic conditions of America’s women first and foremost. Only then, she believed, should the fight turn to voting. She campaigned against slavery and for temperance and argued that women should take on traditionally ‘male professions’ while men should do more domestic work. Unlike many of her peers, however, she was largely against divorce.

In 1875, Brown published her main work, The Sexes Throughout Nature. Here she argued that men and women are equal but biologically different. The book was well-received and influential. Even Charles Darwin praised the work. To this day, it remains a key text in the history of feminist thought. Brown died in 1920 at the age of 96, living just long enough to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women in America the vote at last.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton died young after going on hunger strike for her feminist beliefs. Paris Review.

18. Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton gave up a life of luxury to fight for women’s votes and ended up paying the ultimate price

While in prison, serving time for affray, Constance Lytton took a piece of broken pottery and carved the letter ‘V’ into the flesh of one of her breasts. It was a V for ‘Vote’. As one of Britain’s leading campaigners for female suffrage, Lytton was prepared to go the extra mile for her cause. While some of her contemporaries believed in taking a soft, long-term approach to achieving her goal, she was far more radical, both in her aims and her methods. Indeed, Lytton paid a high price for her beliefs: she forsook a life of luxury for the cause, and she even died young as a result of her sacrifices.

Born in 1869 to an aristocratic family, Lytton turned her back on her inherited privilege almost as soon as she entered her teenage years. Not content with a quiet, lazy life, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The group were the most extreme of all the organizations campaigning for female suffrage in Britain. They would take direct action and their members were often arrested. For this reason, Lytton assumed an alias, Jane Wharton, so that she would not be given preferential treatment due to her aristocratic background.

In all, Lytton was jailed on four occasions. While serving time in a Liverpool jail in 1910, she went on hunger strike and ended up being force-fed. Then, when war broke out in 1914, the WSPU agreed to halt its direct actions. Instead, Lytton turned her attention to the issue of birth control. She aided Marie Stopes in her mission to establish family planning clinics across England, though alongside this, she never stopped giving lectures and writing pamphlets calling on the government to finally give women the right to vote.

Finally, in 1920, the suffragettes’ wishes were granted. Parliament passed a law giving women over the age of 30 the vote. Just three years later, Lytton died, aged just 54. According to most accounts, she never fully recovered from her time behind bars, and especially her time on hunger strike. She was buried in a casket draped in the colors of the suffragettes museum and interred in the family grounds. Today, she is remembered as a martyr for the cause and one of Britain’s most committed and passionate feminists.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Italian Women Writers: Laura Cereta (1469-1499).” Chicago University Library.

“Who is Aphra Behn?” Abigail Williams, The University of Oxford.

“Mary Astell.” Jacqueline Broad, Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press.

“Abigail Adams – U.S. First Lady.” Biography.com.

“Charles Fourier: The Father of Feminism.” Accredited Times.

“Anne Knight, 1786-1862”. Quakers in the World.

“Thomas Thorlid, Swedish Poet.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Susan B. Anthony: Her Story.” Susan B. Anthony House.

“Sojourner Truth.” National Women’s History Museum.

“Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.” BBC History.