Our Feminist Heroes

An International Women's Day collaborative post. By

Today being International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to think about all of the amazing women who have inspired us throughout our lives. We know that this is a standard of IWD, but as so many of those articles nowadays seem to feature the same four women over and over again, and way too many feature Thatcher (if you don’t understand why that is a problem, please see Frau_bh’s blog on that subject), we thought we should add a little BFC flavour to the mix:


My feminist heroes are many. I owe Rosalind Miles and Jessica Valenti for my activist awakening at college, Miles handing me my history in 'Who Cooked the Last Supper' and Valenti giving me the tools to begin a life of active and open feminism.

From Hypatia of Alexandria, born around AD 351 and an inventor, orator and general badass, through to the present day, where people like Flavia Dzodan regularly challenge my perceptions while inspiring me to go further, learn more, give more – I have So Many Feminist Heroes. So I turned to my mother for advice, and knew in that moment that it was her, really, all along.

I owe so much of my understanding of the world to my passionately feminist mother, whose activism has ranged from shouting FUCK SPUC in her teens to calmly asserting herself in her everyday life as a strong individual. She and my equally-feminist father instilled in me a strong sense of justice, and never once let me or my sister feel we couldn't do something because we were girls.

She now works in a primary school and inspires me constantly with her patience and ability to challenge children's prejudices by making them think. So while it may sound a little cliché, my mother is definitely my feminist hero. And no doubt she always will be.


Writing about or even attempting to choose one individual who I could call my feminist hero is next to impossible. I’ve run lists of authors, theoreticians, educationalists, activists and revolutionaries (I have a huge historical and political love of Rosa Luxemburg) through my mind and still found it impossible to settle on one.

I decided to dig up an article I wrote on international women’s day 3 years ago. I’d just watched Persepolis and it had very much spoken to me. I’m struck again today by just how passionately I’d connected with the film so I’m appropriating my previous words. Marjane Satrapi would object to being held up as heroic in any way and she determinedly doesn’t see herself as feminist, but humanist. Her book and film Persepolis is not a feminist tract, it’s a story about humanity, it’s a brutally honest exploration of the highs and lows of growing up and feeling isolated by numerous factors.

It just so happens that because Marjane’s growth took place against the backdrop of violence and religious patriarchal dogmatism it becomes an integral part of her story. She is independent and isolated and she kicks against that isolation just desperately trying to make her world better and meaningful whether it takes place in Tehran under the guise of veils, oppression and threats of execution or in Europe under the guise of apathy, insincerity and decadence or even the bleak psychological isolation of depression. Heroic in my eyes whatever way.


There are so many people who I have enormous respect for, often for similar reasons – fighting injustice where it’s often over-looked, and putting themselves in the line of fire to speak out against it. One of these heroines is Vandana Shiva. I first came across her writing by accident, during research for one of my uni modules. Her book ‘Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development’ shaped not just my essay but my understanding of the world.

For a start she’s a rare female political activist operating in a culture that is particularly socially conservative. That alone is brave. However it’s the work she’s done at the intersection of postcolonial, economic, patriarchal and ecological injustice that really is so important. She’s spent years bringing to attention the injustices being perpetrated against those at ‘the bottom of the pile’, against developing countries’ poor and tribal peoples, the women in these communities, and the environment that sustains them. Her ecofeminist work is nothing short of brilliant.

Not enough people know that the term ‘tree-hugging’ comes from the Chipko movement of the 70s, where Indian women empowered themselves to protect the resources that sustained them and their communities. Vandana Shiva’s tireless work shows that this movement is still alive and well.


Because International Women’s Day is about women and not specifically feminists (although I draw your attention to Caitlin Moran’s feminist test: “A) Do you have a vagina and B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If ‘yes’ to both then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”) I have chosen one of the many women who paved the way for feminism. Who were feminists before the term feminism has been coined. Who liberated their woman selves before any hobnailed boots hit the streets in protest. Because it wasn’t political for them, it was personal. Which is, of course, true of any of us.

I have chosen the first published woman playwright, Aphra Behn (10 July 1640 – 16 April 1689). As with most women of the Restoration, not much is known about Behn. She was a Royalist and used her plays to promote the Tories (sorry, but go with it).

Behn was widowed young and worked as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II in 1666. However Charles II was a rubbish bookkeeper and after a year petitioning for payment Behn was thrown into debtor’s prison. On her release she began to write and was the first woman to make a living as a writer. Behn’s canon includes Oroonoko, Love-letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister and The Rover which contains one of the most naked, most vulnerable and strong monologue ever given to a woman. Writer Virginia Woolf said of the playwright; “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Which is endorsement enough for me.


April Ashley comes across in interviews as intelligent, witty and thoughtful – an ideal dinner-party companion. Liverpudlian Ashley had gender reassignment surgery in 1960, when the procedure was still pioneering. She subsequently became a model in London. She was never credited for her first and only film role as she was outed as Trans by the Sunday People in 1961 – but the prejudices of the media were not reflected in the public, and she remained popular.
Her first husband, Arthur Corbett, was fully aware of her background. That didn’t stop him taking her to court when they divorced in 1970, claiming that the marriage had never been consummated as Ashley was “really” a man. The judge ruled in Corbett’s favour, in a case that had devastating consequences for trans rights until the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The same act allowed Ashley to change the gender on her own birth certificate to female.


I could not let International Womens Day go by without mentioning Emma Ihrer. A German feminist, socialist and trade unionist, Emma Ihrer was born in 1857, and founded both the Frauen-Hülfsverein für Arbeiterinnen (The Women’s Aid Society for Manual Workers) and with three other women, the Verein zur Vertretung der Interessen der Arbeiterinnen (The Society for the Representation of Female Workers' Interests), which provided free legal advice and health care to thousands of women until the police forcibly disbanded it.

Emma Ihrer fought to ensure that women in Germany had equal rights within the Trade Union Movement and was the only woman at the end of the 1800s elected to the Generalkommission der Gewerkschaften Deutschlands (The General Commission of German Trade Unions). In addition to this, she published several feminist and socialist magazines – including “Die Gleichheit” (Equality) and Die Arbeitrin (The Female Worker), meaning that she was in constant battle with the police.

For me, her dedication to what she believed in and her focus and drive was amazing, and if I manage to achieve a tenth of what she achieved in her lifetime, then my time on this Earth will have been very well spent indeed. In a world where there is so much pressure to confirm and dumb down, she inspires me to stay true to what I know in my heart to be right.


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