International Women's Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History

Mike Wood - March 8, 2018

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Countess Markiewicz, complete with revolver and military uniform. Rejected Princesses.

1 – Countess Constance Markievicz

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.” Countess Constance Markievicz’s advice on what young women should do to help the Easter Rising in 1916.

An attempt to list the achievements of Constance Georgine Markievicz, later known as the Countess Markievicz, is inevitably doomed to failure. Her position as one of the greatest women that Ireland has ever produced is unquestionable and goes far beyond a simple listing of what she managed to do in her six decades on Earth. We’ll try to list them anyway: she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons and the first woman anywhere in the world to hold a Cabinet level post in a government, a woman whose reaction to political violence was not to stay at home while the men went to war but to get her gun and join in, a fierce defender of her beliefs and an inspiring proselytising force for her causes.

Born as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London in 1868, to a family from the Irish gentry, she grew up in County Sligo, in Ireland’s north west. She was from a wealthy background and family friends included the poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats, who would write a poem about Constance and her sister, Eva. Markiewicz left Ireland to study art in London and became active in the suffragette movement, campaigning for the rights of women to vote. She married Casimir Markiewicz, a Polish noble, in Paris and eventually settled in Dublin in the early 1900s.

Constance became enamoured by Irish nationalism, meeting with leaders of the burgeoning movement, and joined Sinn Fein and its women’s section, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”). Despite her high-born status – she often attended meetings in a ballgown and diamonds – she was taken as an equal by the staunchly egalitarian women of InE. She founded an Irish nationalist version of the scouts, which taught boys how to use weapons, and was arrested for the first time, for burning the British flag and protesting against a visit by King George V to Dublin. She later worked with the Irish Citizen Army, a socialist organisation that combatted the British, and helped to assist during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when the striking workers of Dublin were locked out by their bosses.

Finally, at Easter 1916, her moment would come. When the radical Irish nationalists in Dublin staged an uprising against the British, Countess Markiewicz was at the forefront. She fought in the streets and killed a policeman herself, presiding over barricades and digging trenches in the centre of the city. The Easter Rising failed, and Markiewicz was captured. Later, as the only one of 70 captured women to be kept in solitary confinement, she was sentenced to death. She told the court: “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.” Her death sentence was commuted because she was a woman – “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”, said Markiewicz – and was released in 1917 as part of a general amnesty.

She later remarked: “I have always hated war and am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us, and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy.” The Rising was over, but the war was just starting. In 1918, Sinn Fein won a majority of seats in Ireland, with Markiewicz becoming the first woman elected to the British parliament, though in line with Sinn Fein policy, she refused to take her seat. She was also elected to Ireland’s declared parliament, Dail Eireann, and later named Minister for Labour in 1919, the first woman anywhere in the world to hold such a high level of political office. She died in 1927 from appendicitis and is revered as one of the greatest Irish politicians and revolutionaries in history.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd of workers in Stuttgart in 1907. Wikimedia Commons.

2 – Rosa Luxemburg

“With a will, determination, selflessness and devotion for which words are too weak, she consecrated her whole life and her whole being to Socialism. She gave herself completely to the cause of Socialism, not only in her tragic death, but throughout her whole life, daily and hourly, through the struggles of many years … She was the sharp sword, the living flame of revolution.” Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg’s best friend, writing in “Rosa Luxemburg, Ideas in Action”

In a list of rebellious women, Rosa Luxemburg might well be the most rebellious of any of them. She was as dedicated a revolutionary as they came, and a theorist of how revolutions should be carried out and a passionate fighter towards having one. She was lucky enough to have lived in a time in which one large revolution took place – in Russia – and several more looked likely to follow it. It was in the pursuit of creating a revolutionary situation in Germany that she met her end.

Luxemburg was not, contrary to much popular belief, German. She was born in Poland, in 1871, in the southeastern city of Zamosc, close to the border with what is now Ukraine. Her family were Jewish, but spoke both German and Polish at home, while Rosa also became proficient in Russian: at the time, Poland was controlled by Russia via a union with the Russian Tsar. Her family were liberals and she would grow up surrounded by progressive thought. By the age of 15, she had joined the Proletariat Party, a Polish political group advocating for the working class, and organised her first strike. The authorities later executed four leaders from the Proletariat Party and closed it down, but Rosa was well on the way to a life of revolutionary advocacy.

She attended university in Zürich and gained a doctorate, one of the few women to do so. Though qualified in law, economics and finance, she threw herself into the nascent socialist movement, devouring Marx’s books and founding her own radical newspaper, Sprawa Robotnicza (“The Workers’ Cause”). The position of the paper was notably different to most Polish radical journals, calling for socialism rather than independence, and she later founded a social democratic party on the back of it. The struggle was centred in Germany, however, so it was to there that Rosa moved in 1897.

She grew within the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD) to become one of its leading theoreticians, especially on the question of whether socialism could be achieved by reform or if a revolution was necessary. Naturally, she favoured the latter. As the First World War loomed, she agitated tirelessly against it, and argued that, should war break out, the workers of Europe should immediately call a general strike against militarism. It was in vain, however, and when the reformists within the SPD won out and eventually supported German involvement in the war, she left the party. Indeed, so deep was her despair at the way that her fellow socialists had acted, she contemplated suicide.

As the war raged, Luxemburg continued to fight her own battle against it. Her and Karl Liebknecht became leaders within a group called the “Spartacus League” and printed pamphlets against the war, which were highly illegal and found Luxemburg imprisoned for two years from 1916 to 1918. On hearing of the Bolshevik Revolution while incarcerated, she wrote a vicious pamphlet denouncing what she saw an inevitable slide towards autocracy within in. “Freedom,” she wrote, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently”.

As Germany crumbled at the end of the war, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were freed and immediately set back to work. The Spartacist League became the Communist Party of Germany and amid a climate of strikes, mutinies and uprisings, they proclaimed a Soviet republic from the Berlin Reichstag. The SPD, who had assumed power at the end of the war, called in the Freikorps, a paramilitary group of ex-soldiers, to crush the uprising. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, tortured and on January 15, summarily executed. Her body was thrown in Berlin’s Landwehrkanal.

Rosa Luxemburg’s life was one of tireless struggle for ideas. In the subsequent decades, she has become acknowledged as one of the great minds of the Marxism and Communist movement, as well as one of its most effective organisers. On hearing of her death, Trotsky wrote:

“We have suffered two heavy losses at once which merge into one enormous bereavement. There have been struck down from our ranks two leaders whose names will be for ever entered in the great book of the proletarian revolution: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. They have perished. They have been killed. They are no longer with us!”

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Sylvia Pankhurst, pictured here at a protest against British colonialism in India, held in Trafalgar Square. Libcom.

3 – Sylvia Pankhurst

“I know we will create a society where there are no rich or poor, no people without work or beauty in their lives, where money itself will disappear, where we shall all be brothers and sisters, where everyone will have enough.” Sylvia Pankhurst

Think of the name Pankhurst in relation to rebellious women, and it is likely that Emmeline Pankhurst will be the first name that comes to mind. Emmeline was a fair old rebel herself and one of the most famous female activists in history, particularly for her role as a leading Suffragette in the campaign for women to get the vote in the United Kingdom, but compared to her daughter Sylvia, she seemed almost conformist.

Sylvia took what her mother had done and ran with it, fighting for the rights of women, but also for the cause of socialist revolution, of anti-fascism and of anti-imperialism everywhere – so much so that she was denounced as being too left wing by no less than Lenin. When your mother is one of the most famous radicals of the age, one has to really ramp up teenage rebellion to make an impact.

Sylvia was born in Manchester in 1882, when her mother Emmeline was already active in the Women’s Suffrage Society. She was raised in a highly political household, of course, and, on leaving university, began in the “family business”: working for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Even from the start, however, Sylvia was interested in a more rounded approach to politics than simply the cause of women’s voting rights. She fostered active links with trade unions and, in 1913, began speaking at meetings supporting the Dublin Lockout (which we will remember from our profile of Constance Markiewicz) and growing ever closer to the Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie. Eventually, she was expelled from the WSPU for her outside agitation.

This was merely a sign to Sylvia that she should up her radicalism. The First World War was looming, and she threw herself into activism against it. Her mother and sister, Christabel, were supporters of military conscription and she broke with them, turning her home base, the Women’s Suffrage Federation, into the Worker’s Socialist Federation and leading campaigns to support women at home and hide conscientious objectors. She helped to lobby for the rights of soldier’s wives, both on a political level, petitioning the government, but also on a practical level, attempting to create jobs in the poorest parts of London so that they could earn money to feed their families.

As the war raged on, Sylvia became more and more left-wing. She was increasingly involved with the nascent Communist Party of Great Britain and at the end of the war, travelled to congresses around Europe to speak, including a trip to Bolshevik Russia. She vehemently disagreed with Lenin on the subject of parliamentarianism – he had advised her to work more closely with the Labour Party, which she considered reformist – and became identified with the Left Communist current, which was critical of the bureaucratic nature of the Bolshevik Revolution. Her long-term partner, Silvio Corio, was an anarchist and Sylvia’s new orientation drew much from the anarchist movement, which was at something of a historical height.

Her activism became less communist-orientated and coalesced around anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. She was particularly involved in supporting Ethiopia against fascist Italian invasion in the 1930s, as well as opposing the British Union of Fascists at home, and in campaigning for Indian independence. She was monitored by the British security services for decades, until, after the Second World War, she moved to Ethiopia. She died there in 1960, and perhaps we should leave her the last words:

“I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.”

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Emma Goldman, speaking in New York City’s Union Square in 1916. Viral History.

4 – Emma Goldman

“If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” Emma Goldman

From Constance Markiewicz to Rosa Luxemburg to Sylvia Pankhurst, we have been gradually getting more and more radical in our women, and our next candidate might be the most radical yet. Emma Goldman is to the anarchist movement what Rosa Luxemburg is to the Communists: a theoretical titan, an activist heroine and an ideological powerhouse. She moved the anarchist current from one based around labour and economic issues and injected her own brand of feminism into it, talking about issues such as birth control, free love, homosexuality and intersectionality well before anyone else.

Emma Goldman was born into a Jewish family in 1869, in Kovno, now the Lithuanian city of Kaunus but then a part of the Tsar’s Russian Empire. Her father was violent and stumbled through a succession of poor businesses, leading the family to remain poor and to move around. He tried to stop Emma’s education and force her into a career of domestic service, but she refused to be limited to just that. He tried to marry her off to a succession of men, but she again defied him. Eventually, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 16.

The turning point in her life would come in 1886, when she heard of the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, where seven policemen were killed by a bomb, leading to the execution of four anarchists after a show trial. The subsequent red scare that followed moved Goldman to become involved in the anarchist movement, giving her first speech in New York City and meeting Alexander Berkman, a fellow anarchist who would become her life partner. She threw herself into campaigning, supporting striking workers and plotting assassination attempts against bosses.

Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison after the attempted murder of a steel company boss. Emma would soon follow him into jail, having been convicted of inciting unemployed workers to riot against their lack of work and bread. She was still just 24. She was released two years later and toured the world giving speeches in favour of anarchism, as well as working as a midwife to pay the bills. She undertook the first US tour by an anarchist speaker in 1898 and was at the height of her powers.

In 1901, that would all change. The President, William McKinley, was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, who claimed to have been inspired by a speech that Goldman gave. The authorities arrested Goldman for planning the murder, despite Czolgosz being clearly mentally ill and having having been suspected by Goldman and her associates of being a spy. He was executed, but Goldman never condemned his actions, losing her the majority of her friends within the anarchist movement and mass denouncement from the mainstream media. She retired from public life for almost 5 years.

She returned by starting an anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, in 1906 and gradually started speaking again when Berkman was released from prison. In this later period, she began to have her theoretical impact: Her book, Anarchism and other Essays, featured chapters on free love, birth control, women’s suffrage and the fallacies of nationalism and patriotism, while her speeches were now predominantly aimed at women and furthered the idea of contraception for women. As the First World War continued in Europe and America joined in, she began campaigning against conscription and again found herself imprisoned for it, spending two years in jail for her actions.

Eventually, Goldman was deported back to Russia at the end of the war, but found the new Bolshevik government to be as repressive as any other state. Her and Berkman moved onto Latvia, then Berlin, London and finally Canada, where she published an autobiography. She later travelled to Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War – the high point of anarchism as an ideology – and agitated widely for the cause. She died in 1940 in Canada and was buried in Forest Park, Illinois.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Alexandra Kollontai, pictured here in the centre, with female delegates to the Conference of Communist Women of the Peoples of the East, 1920. InRussia.

5 – Alexandra Kollontai

“The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.” Alexandra Kollontai

If Emma Goldman was not taken with the post-Russian Revolution regime, then our next subject certainly was. Alexandra Kollontai was the poster woman of the Bolshevik regime, the most highly-ranked female in the new government. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, she was named People’s Commissar for Social Welfare and founded the Women’s Department of the government, before being appointed as an Ambassador, thought to be among the first women in history to hold such a role.

Alongside her public duties, she was also a noted intellect of the early Soviet period, with views on the power relationship between men and women, and its effect on sex, that were decades ahead of their time. Her works on marriage, the family and the role of women under socialism are still among the most influential in Marxist theory.

Alexandra Kollontai lived at the same time as Rosa Luxemburg and Emma Goldman – in fact, she knew Luxemburg – and had a similar upbringing to the pair. Born in St Petersburg in 1872, she was from a richer than the other two women, but her upbringing would have a similarly influential effect on her later life. Her parents were from different social strata – her father an army officer, her mother the child of a Finnish peasant who had become rich – and the difficulty that they had in fitting into St Petersburg society would do much to form her later views on the family.

After marrying a poor student, Vladimir Kollontai, she had a child and devoted her time to reading Marxist theory. She was involved with the Social Democratic Labour Party and was present at the Bloody Sunday massacre of workers by Russian troops in 1905. Her politics hardened and eventually forced her into exile in 1908, initially to Germany, where she befriended Rosa Luxemburg. Like Rosa, she was vociferously against the First World War and left Germany when it began, first to Sweden and later to Norway. When the Russian Revolution began in February 1917, she rushed back to Russia.

On her return, she immediately became a part of the Bolshevik party and was appointed as the People’s Commissar for Welfare in the new regime. She strived to change the conditions of women via new legislation regarding marriage and the home, as well as expanding education and literacy. Later, she was appointed Ambassador to Norway, only the second ever female ambassador, and wrote her main theoretical treatises.

Her theory of free love was markedly different from that which we might now recognise today: her free love meant that sex should not be monopolised within a marital relationship, which she saw as always being unequal due to the inherent societal patriarchy. Once sexuality could be removed from capital – that is to say, from the economic weight of the man – then sex could be reduced to something that was not encumbered by the idea of being in a relationship with one specific person. Casual sex, because of the imbalance between men and women, would always lead to any child being left for the woman to deal with, whereas free love meant that, eventually, socialism would wither the family away and all children would be raised collectively, by society and the state. As she put it: “Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the joys of parenthood will not be taken away from those who are capable of appreciating them.”

Kollontai lived until 1952 and, at the time of her death, was the only original Bolshevik remaining to have survived Stalin’s purges – aside from Stalin himself. Her legacy was often overlooked, but was taken up after her death by many feminists and is now celebrated within the movement.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Simone de Beauvoir sat with her partner of many years, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in 1960.

6 – Simone de Beauvoir

“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself–on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger. In the meantime, love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon woman confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself.” Simone de Beauvoir

Moving forwards through history, our next female rebel is one of the great theorists of women’s oppression and, indeed, of the 20th century in general. As with so many great women, Simone de Beauvoir is often overshadowed in the pages of history by a great man – in her case her long-term partner Jean-Paul Sartre – but her influence on thought in the last hundred years, and on the women’s movement in particular, is titanic.

Simone de Beauvoir was many things, but above all of them, she was a rebel. She wrote some of the defining works on female emancipation and some of the most cutting dissections of sexism that have ever been written, but also lived a life that constantly put her words into action, challenging stereotypes and pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for a woman. Much of what we know today about sexuality, both homosexuality and heterosexuality, as well as much of what is now known as gender studies, can trace an ideological root right through Simone de Beauvoir.

She was born in Paris in 1908, into a wealthy family. Her father recognised her talents early – “Simone thinks like a man!” he is said to have remarked on his daughter’s intelligence – and encouraged her to read extensively. She studied Philosophy at the famed Sorbonne university in Paris and was just the ninth woman ever to graduate from there. She sat in classes that included Jean-Paul Sartre and came second to him in the final exam, above every other student and at the age of just 21, the youngest person of either gender ever to complete the class.

It was at this stage that her lifelong relationship with Sartre began. They first got together in 1929 and remained a couple until he died in 1980, but their relationship would do much to inform her work. They never married or lived together, had no children and maintained an open relationship, including several menage a trois arrangements. One such tryst became the basis of her first novel, She Came To Stay, which gave a female-focussed slant on the themes of existentialism, alienation and women as “the other”.

These themes would be continued into her masterpiece, The Second Sex, published in 1949. It was a deep analysis of the history of women’s oppression and set out the idea that the world was created for men, with women “the other”, always meant to be in second place. In the second half of the book, she channels the life of a girl from conception to death, detailing extensively the many ways in which it is defined and dictated by men. As critiques go, it is coruscating. The idea, promulgated by de Beauvoir, that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, is seen by many as the first philosophical separation of sex and gender.

The Second Sex made de Beauvoir a hero for women worldwide and is seen as the start of the second wave of feminism, following the original wave that began in the late 19th century with the fight for the right to vote. She continued to write and was seen as a figurehead and godmother to the new feminist movement that her book sparked. Her life as a public intellectual was characterised by her personality, which refused to compromise and which allowed her ideas to pass over into the mainstream. Within her lifetime, many of the goals which she espoused as a young woman became reality, including the legalisation of birth control and abortion in France.

She died in 1986, of pneumonia, and was buried next to Jean-Paul Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery in her native Paris.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, 1955. PBS.

7 – Rosa Parks

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks

The seventh member of our rebellious women’s institute will need absolutely no introduction at all. Rosa Parks is one of the most famous women in American history, a true trailblazer and inspirational figure. Her actions lead her to be dubbed “the first lady of the struggle for civil rights” and her manner, always dignified and resolute to the last, touched millions.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in 1913 to a poor family that lived in a society that was almost completely separated by race. The Alabama in which she was raised was riddled with Jim Crow laws: almost every public service was segregated between white people and black people, with black people invariably receiving far poorer provisions as a result. Racist violence was a fact of life and around Montgomery, where she was educated, the Ku Klux Klan was always a threat. They marched down the street on which Rosa lived when she was a young girl, her grandfather standing on the step with a shotgun. “I’d see the bus pass every day,” she said later of her upbringing. “But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”

She became involved in the civil rights movement as an adult, helping defend black people from miscarriages of justice. When she got a job on an air force base, he was exposed to a non-segregated world – federal properties were integrated – and recognised the injustice of the world to which she had become accustomed in her everyday life. On December 1, 1955, she made her stand. On the bus on the way home from work, she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as the law mandated that she must. The driver called the police and Rosa was arrested.

She later said:
“I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time… there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.”

Her arrest and trial sparked a boycott of the Montgomery bus system by black patrons, which continued for months. A young minister, Martin Luther King Jnr, was elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to coordinate the boycott and other civil rights campaigns. Soon, the whole country had heard of Rosa Parks and her struggle against segregation and discrimination in Montgomery. She toured the United States giving speeches and was seen as a mother of the civil rights movement.

Her actions begat one of the biggest changes in American history. By 1965, a decade after she had refused to give up her seat, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, which explicitly outlawed discrimination based on race and the Voting Rights Act gave black people the right to vote that had long been denied under Jim Crown. Rosa Parks remained a figurehead within the Civil Rights Movement all the way up to her death in 2005 at the age of 92.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela. Insight News.

8 – Miriam Makeba

“I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit. I look at a bird and I see myself: a native South African, soaring above the injustices of apartheid on wings of pride, the pride of a beautiful people.” Miriam Makeba

If you were to look for an equivalent to Rosa Parks in the movement against Apartheid in South Africa, then Miriam Makeba might well be it. To reduce her to that, however, would only capture half of her story. Makeba was one of the 20th century’s finest musicians, a legend who opened the ears of millions outside the continent to the sounds of African music. It was not for no reason that she was known as “Mama Africa”: she was arguably the most famous African in the world at her height, and certainly the most famous African woman, representing her people with dignity and strength.

She was born in a township outside of Johannesburg in March 1932, to a domestic worker mother and a teacher father. Her father died when she was just six years of age and her mother was forced by their extreme poverty to live apart from the family for long periods while working for white families. Miriam learned to sing in church choirs and in a family surrounded by music, and decided on a career in singing. She was almost stopped before she had even begun – she was married to an abusive husband and survived breast cancer – but managed to forge a career in various jazz groups in South Africa.

She first met Nelson Mandela in 1955 – he was impressed and described her as someone who “was going to be someone” – and scored her first hit on the American Billboard chart in 1956. She featured in an anti-apartheid film called “Come Back, Africa”, which propelled her to international fame, leading to appearances in London, New York and Venice. On the back of it, she sang on The Steve Allen Show and became a star in the United States, prompting her to move there permanently in 1959. It would be in the US that she would become an activist.

While Miriam was living in New York, her mother died in back in South Africa. She tried to travel back to attend the funeral, but her passport was revoked due to her perceived political views, though she had rarely made political music up to that point. “I always wanted to leave home,” she later wrote. “I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.” After this, she became a political juggernaut, both in the States and at home in South Africa.

Her career was at a height – she had several hit albums and sang for John F Kennedy – and she was a crossover star: white audiences saw her music as exotic and different, while black audiences identified her as a civil rights campaigner. She herself was less impressed with American politics, remarking that “there wasn’t much difference in America; it was a country that had abolished slavery but there was apartheid in its own way;” referring to segregation policies. She began to travel the world campaigning against apartheid, racism and colonialism, before turning to black power activism in the late 1960s. She raised funds for Martin Luther King Jnr and spoke at the United Nations against apartheid. Eventually, her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael led to a drop off in her popularity in the US and she moved to Guinea in 1968. She would not return to America for nearly 20 years.

While in Africa, she travelled extensively, performing at independence ceremonies in decolonised African countries and raising awareness of apartheid. Her music was openly political, challenging the South African regime at every turn. When the system finally fell, she was invited by Nelson Mandela to return to the country, which she did in 1990. She continued to tour and perform, eventually dying in 2008 at the age of 76.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
A “Free Angela Davis” poster from the period in which she was in prison. National Portrait Gallery.

9 – Angela Davis

“My name became known because I was, one might say accidentally the target of state repression and because so many people throughout the country and other parts of the world organized around the demand for my freedom.” Angela Davis

The next in our trio of strong black women is a powerhouse of the black radical movement, Angela Davis. Davis comes in the same traditions as Rosa Parks and Miriam Makeba, in the sense that she was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, but her causes go far further than the two previous women. Davis’ career in politics – which is now into its sixth decade and shows no signs of slowing down – has always confronted racism and bigotry, but has also delivered scathing criticisms of the systems that perpetuate prejudice.

As an activist, she was an early member of the Black Panther Party (and described as the “dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis” by President Richard Nixon) before transitioning into membership of the Communist Party of the USA, as well as giving speeches in socialist nations such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany. As an academic, she has held positions all over the world and written extensively on civil rights and women’s rights, as well as being one of the major formulators of the concept of the prison industrial complex, which links the prison system of the United States to issues of racism, class prejudice and economics.

She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time one of the most racist cities in the country. She later wrote of her upbringing: “I grew up in the southern United States in a city which at that time during the late ’40’s and early ’50’s was the most segregated city in the country, and in a sense learning how to oppose the status quo was a question of survival.” She was educated there, but moved to New York City as a teenager to attend an integrated school. She became attracted to the far left and, while at university, travelled to a communist youth festival in Finland. She later studied in France and Germany before moving back to the States to teach in 1969, whereupon she was thrust into black activism.

Davis’ political views were well set by the time she returned to America, but her political career was just beginning. As a member of the Communist Party, a campaign began to have her removed from the California university system, led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. She was let go by her employer but reinstated after a judge ruled that her political beliefs were not a ground for her to be fired. In 1970, she would be shot into the national spotlight: a 17-year-old black high school student took a judge and three jurors hostage at a courthouse in Marin County, California, eventually killing the judge with a shotgun that Davis had bought two days before. She was put on the FBI Most Wanted List and remained a fugitive for two months, before being captured.

Her trial made international news. Thousands demonstrated for her release, John Lennon penned a song on her behalf and, over a year after first being arrested, she was released on bail. When her case finally came to court, she was acquitted of prior knowledge of the crime. On the back of this publicity, Davis travelled to speak at conferences around the world: she visited Cuba, the Soviet Union and East Germany, before returning to academia with teaching posts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California. A major subject that she had campaigned over is the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which she has regularly compared to the slavery era:

“For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret — all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor’.”

Her influence on the black feminist movement cannot be underestimated. Through decades of activism and literature, she has done about as much to raise the profile of black women, of women’s rights and civil rights, and of economic justice, as almost anyone still active today.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Jayaben Desai faces down a line of police during the Grunwick dispute, 1978. The Times.

10 – Jayaben Desai

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager.” Jayaben Desai

If Rosa Parks was a woman who made her name by taking a stand (or a seat) against injustice, and Miriam Makeba fought for civil rights with her music, and Angela Davis did the same with her pen, then what of Jayaben Desai. Desai lacks the profile of any of the women that we have covered previously, but her actions are every bit as inspiring.

Desai was a fighter for both worker’s rights and immigrant rights, but unlike the three previous women, she was not particularly inclined towards political action before she had it thrust upon her by events. Born in the Indian state of Gujarat in the early 1930s, she migrated to the African nation of Tanzania in the mid-1960s, along with thousands of other Indians searching for a better life. The entire South Asian population of Tanzania was expelled, however, and she found herself in the United Kingdom, where she took a job as a seamstress in London before moving on to work for Grunwick Film Processing as a factory worker.

It was here that she would make her mark on the world. The women employed at Grunwick were predominantly immigrants, the majority from Asian backgrounds and a substantial number having travelled the same route as Desai, through East Africa. The conditions under which they laboured were harsh: they were routinely paid less than white workers, roughly a third of the national average wage and half of the average wage for a London factory worker, as well as facing regular discrimination on grounds of both race and gender. It was widely thought that Grunwick deliberately hired immigrant workers – new applicants were asked questions about when they had arrived in the UK and asked to provide passport details – in order to underpay and exploit them. During the stifling summer of 1976 – the hottest in British history – there was no air conditioning and many complaining of compulsory overtime.

When Desai and four others were summarily sacked in August 1976, the powder was lit. Desai and the fired workers began a picket outside of the factory and joined their trade union. Soon, they had called a strike and won 50 new members to the union, calling for their jobs back, better conditions and union representation. Other unions that dealt with Grunwick began to boycott the company, with the postal workers refusing to deliver mail to the company. A year into the strike, the national media began to take hold, and suddenly, thousands of supporters descended on the Grunwick factory to man the picket lines. Riot police were called in to bus workers into the factory, leading to clashes between activists and police. Jayaben Desai toured the country raising funds and awareness of the campaign, speaking audiences at which an Indian woman had never been heard before: South Wales miners and Glasgow dockers, as well as political groups the length and breadth of the UK.

After a full two years picketing outside Grunwick, a report was published that recommended that the workers be given their jobs back and union representation be allowed. The boss, however, refused, and Desai and her colleagues eventually were forced to call off the strike. Though the demands of the workers were not met, the effect that the Grunwick dispute had on race relations in the United Kingdom and particularly the role of race in labour relations would never be the same again.

The so-called “strikers in saris”, as the tabloid press dubbed the Indian women, had brought together immigrants and the long-established, traditional white working class. Few thought it possible that the white and male-dominated trade union movement – which was, in the mid-1970s, at the absolute peak of its powers politically – would be open to supporting a cause that was propagated by women of colour, but that they did, changing the face of industrial politics in the United Kingdom forever.

Jayaben Desai, always the beating heart of the “strikers in saris”, later said of the dispute: “We have shown, that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” After the strike, she began working to assist new immigrants to the UK from India, before teaching traditional Asian dressmaking at a college in London. She died in 2010.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Storme DeLarverie, photographed in 1994. The New York Times.

11 – Stormé DeLarverie

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” Stormé DeLarverie

If there is one thing that we’ve learned from the last few women featured on this list, it is that the struggle for female equality often inseparable from other liberation struggles: whether that be campaigns against racism, economic inequality or, in the case of Stormé DeLarverie, homophobia. Stormé DeLarverie is known as the Rosa Parks of the gay community, and not without good reason: she was active in the growth of the LGBT liberation movement from its very beginning with the Stonewall riot of 1969 – though, as the quote above shows, she was far from happy for the incident to be referred to as a riot.

Stormé DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1920, to a mixed race family – her father was white, her mother black – and from the start, her life was harsh. Though the family were not poor (her father had servants, and indeed her mother was previously employed in the household), Stormé was subject to much abuse as a child. She acknowledged that she was a lesbian at the age of 18 and performed as a singer, initially as a woman but later as a male impersonator. She was always a butch lesbian and travelled widely as part of an all-black revue, leading the proceedings as MC in male drag.

By the late 1960s, she was living in New York City and active on the Greenwich Village gay scene. It was here that she would make her largest mark on the world. Gay people in New York were often harassed and abused, especially in gay bars, which were frequently raided by police. On the night of June 28, one such raid took place at the Stonewall Inn, allegedly sparked when a woman, thought to be Stormé, was dragged from the bar by a coterie of cops. She scuffled with the police, who, despite having four officers there, failed to subdue her. She was hit on the head with a police nightstick and, as she bled, screamed “Why don’t you guys do something?” at the crowd of onlookers.

Do something they did. The crowd, which was predominantly made up of gay men and lesbians, began to fight back, flipping over police trucks and throwing coins and beer cans at the cops. Soon, the 500 to 600 people who had gathered vastly outnumbered the police and the officers found themselves trapped inside the bar, surrounded by an angry mob. The riot police arrived, but were met by a kick-line of gay men, dancing in front of them, whom they proceeded to batter with their clubs. The riots continued the following night and, in the aftermath, a whole range of gay rights organisations were founded, inspired by the community’s resistance to the police and their homophobia.

Later, doubt was cast on whether the woman in question was actually DeLarverie – “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did. She told me she did.” said Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of a lesbian bar close to the Stonewall – but regardless of whether it was actually her that sparked it, she was certainly there and certainly one of the main combatants against the police. After Stonewall, she became even more famous among the LGBT community of New York City, acting as a prominent member of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, which continued the fight for gay rights.

She worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars, being described in her obituary as “tall, androgynous and armed – she held a state gun permit – Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls”. She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”

She worked as a bouncer at several Greenwich Village lesbian bars well into her 80s and eventually died in 2014 at the age of 93.


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

Constance Georgine Gore-Booth“. The Lissadell Estate.

Rosa Luxemburg” Tony Cliff, International Socialism, 1959

Sylvia Pankhurst, Citizen of the World” Shirley Harrison, 2009

Living My Life” Emma Goldman, 1931

Red Emma Speaks; Selected Writings and Speeches”, 1972

Alexandra Kollontai Internet Archive,

Simone de Beauvoir, Great Lives, BBC Radio Four

“Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies” NPR

“The Voice of (Which?) Africa: Miriam Makeba in America” April Sizemore-Barber, Safundi: the Journal of South African and American Studies.

“Angela Davis on the 40th Anniversary of Her Arrest and President Obama’s First Two Years”, Democracy Now!, 2010

Jayaben Desai obituary, The Guardian, 2010

Storme DeLarverie obituary, The New York Times, 2014