18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
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
Charles Fourier was way ahead of his time, and it was he who came up with the term ‘feminism’. Fine Art America.

6. Charles Fourier was the radical French philosopher who first coined the word ‘feminism’

In 1838, French philosopher Francois Marie Charles Fourier put forward his new idea. He called it ‘feminism’, a radical theory for the time. He argued that men and women are born equal and, as such, should have equal opportunities and rights. This was part of his larger world view, one that laid the foundations for the modern socialist movement. Moreover, it wasn’t just his views on gender equality which were way ahead of his time. He also held very progressive views on sexuality too, as his writings show.

Fourier was born in 1772 and worked as a traveling salesman as a young man. It was while on the road in France that he developed his ideas and became a writer. Despite not being a commercial success, by 1815, Fourier had found himself a patron, allowing him to write extensively and develop his philosophy, including his ideas on what he called ‘feminism’. Put simply, the Frenchman argued that women were just as capable as men. As such, no profession or job should be closed to them on account of their gender. He also called for every level of education to be opened up to girls and women so that they might enjoy the same opportunities in life as their male counterparts.

Fourier never married since he was against it on philosophical grounds. Indeed, he believed that marriage could prohibit a woman from asserting her individuality and realizing her potential. Though his ideas were relatively unknown when he died aged 65 in 1837, Fourier had a small but dedicated band of followers. They ensured that his arguments lived on. In fact, they did more than endure. Much of Fourier’s thinking was adopted by later socialist thinkers. Even today, his views on marriage and women’s rights – so controversial at the time – are central to modern feminist thought.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Anne Knight was no cute little old lady but a fierce feminist campaigner. Wikipedia.

7. Anne Knight might have been a pacifist Quaker but she was a passionate campaigner against slavery and for women’s rights

In the one photo that we have of her, Anne Knight looks like a timid old lady. In reality, she was anything but. Sure, she might have been a devout Quaker, a Christian dedicated to non-violence. However, she was one of the most ardent campaigners against slavery in all of Europe. Knight was also a feminist trailblazer, advocating for women’s suffrage long before the more-famous Suffragettes.

Knight was born into a fiercely Quaker family in northern England in 1786. As a young lady, she joined her local Anti-Slavery Society and became increasingly involved in the cause. This was her main passion – until she tried to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. The event was men-only. Knight was furious. From then on, she became an ardent campaigner for women’s rights. Just a few years later, in 1847, she produced what is considered to be the world’s first leaflet on women’s suffrage. This small publication was to have a huge impact on future generations.

Throughout the 1840s, Knight traveled extensively through Europe. As a skilled linguist, she addressed audiences in France and Germany, arguing against slavery and in favour of gender equality. When she did return home, she rallied English women to her cause. Most notably, in 1851, she founded the Sheffield Female Reform Association, Britain’s first such group. She died in France in 1862, having been active in her struggles right up until the end.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Mary Shelley was fiercely independent and asserted her feminist principles to become a top author. Wikipedia.

8. Mary Shelly was the daughter of a famous feminist and a radical philosopher but made a name for herself as an independent woman of letters

The author of the iconic gothic novel Frankenstein had unbeatable feminist credentials: her father, William Galdwin, was a pioneering philosopher and leading advocate for women’s rights; her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the founders of modern feminism. How could their daughter not be a feminist? But she was more than just the daughter of an 18th century ‘power couple’. She was a fiercely independent woman in her own right. Plus, of course, she was one of the finest writers of her generation.

Born Mary Goodwin in 1797, her mother died when she was just an infant. As such, she was raised by Goodwin. He was wealthy enough to provide her with an education, and enlightened enough to ensure that she learned much more than the average girl of the time. Later she would marry eloped to Europe with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, an acquaintance of her father, even though he was a married man. They eventually married in 1816 and, despite near constant debt and social ostracism, they settled down to raise a family and concentrate on their literary careers.

After Percy’s accidental death by drowning, Shelley returned to England and, from 1822 onwards, devoted herself to her children and to her writing. She was fiercely independent and her writing often tackled the theme of gender equality – in every respect. Much of her poetry was passionate, sexual even, and it’s now recognized that, contrary to the gender norms of the time, it was she who seduced her late husband rather than the other way around. Later in life, she was one of the few women in the whole of Europe who managed to make a living from the arts.

At the same time, however, her status as an early feminist is not so clear-cut. Some argue that she wasn’t as radical as her mother. While Wollstonecraft advocated free love and relationship anarchy, her daughter couldn’t wait to get married to Percy. What’s more, some biographers have argued she had a troubling relationship with other women, including her own step-sister. Ultimately, however, she is remembered as one of the literary greats, outdoing almost all of her male contemporaries.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
The Swedish feminist movement can trace its roots back to the work of the intellectual Thomas Thorild. Wikipedia.

9. Thomas Thorild had very progressive views on the place of women in society, shocking his intellectual peers in 18th century Sweden

Not all early feminists were English-language writers and campaigners. Outside of England and the United States, a number of pro-equality voices emerged over the course of the 18th century, including that of the Swedish poet Thomas Thorild. Indeed, in cosmopolitan Stockholm, Thorlid was one of the brightest minds and his progressive – and, one might add, controversial – views on feminism and gender equality made him stand out from the intellectual crowd.

Thorild was a very clever man indeed. After graduating from Lund University’s, Sweden’s finest higher education establishment, he went to Germany to begin his academic career. While the exact dates are unknown, it is known that he returned to his native Sweden when King Gustav III was on the throne, from 1771 until 1792. It was then that his started to really make a name for himself in the salons and debating halls of Stockholm. Above all, his argument that women should enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities as men shocked many. They also made him many admirers, however, including among the ladies of high society (though, of course, his dashing good looks and charm certainly helped him in this regard).

Above all, Thorild maintained that a woman should be judged as an individual. He famously argued: “Just as foolish as it is to regard a woman only in the capacity of a SHE, it would be to regard a man only in the capacity of a HE.” Thorild died relatively young, but his ideas endured. Indeed, for many years, Stockholm was a haven of progressive thought, with the philosopher and poet having laid the foundations of the country’s feminist movement. His famous quote is still used by Scandinavian feminists to this day.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Susan B. Anthony’s tireless work managed to win American women the vote. ThoughtCo.

10. Susan B. Anthony gave her name to the Constitutional Amendment that finally gave women in America the right to vote

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits both individual states and the federal government from barring citizens from voting on the basis of their sex. Notably, before the name was changed in 1920, this was known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. This fact alone is testament to the pivotal role that Antony, a committed Quaker and lifelong social rights activist, played in getting women the vote in America.

Born in Adams, Massachusetts in 1820, Anthony was politically active from an early age. Inspired by her religious upbringing, she was collecting signatures on anti-slavery petitions at the age of just 17. When she turned 30, however, she shifted her attention to women’s rights. After being refused entry to a male-only temperance conference in New York, she helped set up several female-led groups. These campaigned for temperance, for the abolition of slavery and for votes for women.

In 1870, Anthony moved to Rochester, New York. Two years later, she attempted to vote in the local election there. She was arrested – voting was restricted to men at the time – and put on trial. The courtroom drama attracted a huge amount of attention. The court declined to fine her and Anthony used the momentum to put their proposed constitutional amendment before Congress. With the help of Senator Aaron A. Sargent, the amendment was introduced in 1878 and then accepted – women had finally won the vote!

Anthony carried on campaigning on a range of social issues right up until her death. While she was initially mocked for her beliefs, in later life, she was hailed as a true American hero. President William McKinley invited her to the White House on the occasion of her 80th birthday. These days, numerous schools and streets are named after her, and Anthony is widely celebrated as one of the most important feminists in American history.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Mary Wollstonecraft is widely respected today, but was dismissed as a scarlet woman in her day. ThoughtCo.

11. Mary Wollstonecraft was a prolific author and writer who put her feminist principles into practice, much to the dismay of polite English society

Easily one of the most famous British feminists of all time, Mary Wollstonecraft was a true woman of letters. She was an accomplished novelist, poet and essayist. As well as writing fiction, she also wrote history – including one notable account of the French Revolution – and philosophy, plus she was one of the world’s first proper travel writers. However, it’s for her pioneering work in the field of women’s rights for which Wollstonecraft is best remembered, and for good reason.

A true Londoner, Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 and, thanks to the violent rage of her drunken father, endured an unhappy childhood. She found solace in books and as a teenager attended lectures and seminars across London. It was here where she developed her strong views. She started writing while working as a governess for a wealthy family in London. Most famously, she published her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In it, she argued that men and women are naturally equal and so should enjoy equal respect and opportunities.

Wollstonecraft didn’t just write about feminism, she also lived a fiercely independent life. She married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Their happy union was an open one. Mary had a string of lovers on the side, though largely settled down when she had her first child. She gave birth to a second daughter, the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, in 1797, but died just 11 days later. Her adoring husband subsequently penned a book of memoirs. While written with affection, its truthful account of their marital arrangements scandalized polite society and Wollstonecraft became better known for her love affairs and personal troubles than for her writing.

This only really changed recently. Towards the end of the 20th century, Wollstonecraft was embraced by the modern feminist movements. Her writing is now heralded for its originality of thought and strength of argument. What’s more, her views on marriage, female education and more are seen as truly progressive for her time and an inspiration for the campaigners of today.

18 of the Most Powerful Feminists of All Time
Sojourner Truth has been named one of the greatest Americans of all time thanks to her equal rights campaigning. Biography.com

12. Sojourner Truth changed her named to reflect her mission of spreading the message of equality across the United States

When you remember that English was not her first language, and that she was denied a proper education as a child, Sojourner Truth’s achievements seem all the more remarkable. She was one of the most talented orators in American history. Huge crowds would come to hear her speak on a range of topics. But above all, she was known for telling her ‘truth’ on women’s rights and slavery. As well as being remembered as one of the country’s most significant feminist campaigners, she’s also been named as one of the ‘most significant Americans of all time’ – not bad for someone from such a lowly background.

Born into slavery with the name Isabella Baumfree in around 1797, she was passed around between owners as a girl and young woman. On one slave estate she met and married a fellow slave named Thomas. They had three children together. But, for legal reasons, Isabella took only the youngest, an infant daughter named Sophia, with her when she escaped to freedom in 1826. She managed to find work as a housekeeper in New York City. It was here where her Christian faith grew in strength. She became a Methodist. Though she had been raised in a Dutch-speaking community, she believed God had called her to spread His word. She took the name ‘Sojourner Truth’ in 1843, the year she left the city and headed out to preach.

As well as speaking out against the evils of slavery, Truth also advocated for women’s rights. In 1851, addressing a crowd in Akron, Ohio, she gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. This cemented her reputation as a passionate and persuasive speaker, and she put these skills to good use recruiting black soldiers for the Union Army. After the Civil War was over, she turned her attention to getting land for freed slaves to settle on and even met with President Ulysses S. Grant.

Truth carried on preaching into old age. She was notable for calling for equal rights for people of all colors and genders. She died in 1883, aged 86, and is remembered as a tireless and peerless campaigner for civil rights. Truth’s legacy lives on in America and many highways, schools and churches are named in her honor.

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.