30 Quotes To Remind Us That The Fight For Women's Rights Has Been A Long One

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Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an author and assistant professor of history at The New School. The views expressed here are her own.

It felt like a new era for women and feminism. Beyoncé sashaying — or rather, slaying — in front of larger-than-life letters spelling out "FEMINISM"; nudge-nudge, wink-wink onscreen references to same-sex female desire morphing into the unvarnished and acclaimed Orange Is the New Black, and a growing number of colleges piloting "SlutWalks" and affirmative-consent policies.

Until it didn’t. On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton, arguably the most qualified presidential candidate ever (and also the first female nominee for a major party), lost her historic bid to Donald Trump. An outsider with no political experience, multiple bankruptcies, and a dodgy relationship with the law and the truth, Trump ultimately bested Clinton in a move that was both utterly stunning and not surprising at all: Have you ever seen a more qualified woman passed over for a man with less experience?

To add insult to injury, Trump’s rise to the highest office in the land also came in spite of — or more frighteningly, because of — his overt misogyny, from boasting of sexual assault to gleefully fat-shaming and maligning women as dogs and pigs (of course, with the exception of his darling daughter Ivanka, whom he has fondly referred to as a “piece of ass").

And then there’s the policy piece. Trump’s dismissal of sexual harassment, cavalier declaration that he would prosecute women who had abortions, and VP selection of Mike Pence, who has made a career of criminalizing living while female (or gay), promise only to worsen persistent issues that affect women, such as the wage gap, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

But perhaps the most surprising turn of events was the exit-poll data: Despite the pretensions of sisterhood across racial and party lines that briefly glimmered in reaction to Trump's notorious "nasty woman" and pussy-grab quotes, that solidarity flamed out at the ballot box. Women showed up for Clinton 54% over 42% for Trump, a margin that reflects Obama’s lead both in 2008 and 2012, but that lead was driven by women of color — black women in particular voted 95% for Hillary as opposed to a paltry 34% among white women. The many deflating, demoralizing dimensions of the main event, however, are offset by other electoral wins for women: The number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled and in Oregon, Kate Brown — the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected as governor — is committed to standing as a role model for sexual diversity: “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. This is a complicated time because the history of women and the feminist battles that got us here are similarly complex; there’s no straight line from fighting for suffrage to free love to filling the Oval Office. Women have fiercely disagreed, often with one another, about how to realize the goal of gender equality, and the list ahead begins to tell that messy story — emphasizing the tensions between them as much as their sisterhood.

Click through to explore 100 years of feminism through the words of 30 incredible women.
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Declaration of Sentiments (1848)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.”

It’s taken almost a century since the 19th Amendment for a female presidential candidate to lead a major political party. But it also took almost 75 years for women to earn the right to vote! A group of women including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, referred to as “first-wave feminists,” gathered in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848 to draft the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, and aimed to extend the revolutionary spirit of egalitarianism and individualism to include women. These early feminists didn’t mince their words, describing “the history of mankind [as] a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” Though many of them allied with the antislavery movement, they also harbored some racist attitudes, arguing that the continued exclusion of women was especially ridiculous given citizenship rights “are given to the most ignorant and degraded men — both natives and foreigners.”
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Jane Addams (1860-1935)

"Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled." (Newer Ideals of Peace, 1906)

A century ago, Jane Addams (who grew up affluent) witnessed social reformers in Europe working with the poor with zero pretensions of “civilizing” them. Addams dreamed of being a doctor, but was thwarted both by sexism and her own health struggles, and she realized after her trip that she didn’t need an advanced degree to improve the world. Enthusiastic about the Progressive movement’s potential to better the lives of newly arrived immigrant women and children, Addams used her inheritance to buy a warehouse in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, which she called Hull House. Staffed by volunteering middle- and upper-class women, Hull House provided cultural activities, kindergarten (innovative then), and aid for immigrant women. Addams helped create the social work profession, a field now largely populated by women. Few historians mention that Addams and Hull House cofounder Ellen Starr were in love, and that the “world apart” they cultivated at Hull House created a space where, not only class distinctions, but also society’s heteronormative expectations were blurred.
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Alice Paul (1885-1977)

“There is danger that because of a great victory women will believe their whole struggle for independence ended. They have still far to go.” (1921)

#Repealthe19th was an actual trending hashtag recently. #NotKidding. It takes a lot to go from alt-right fantasy to reality, but this election has proven that strange things DO happen, and suffragist Alice Paul knew it. Soon after women won the right to vote, she warned that the battle for equality was far from over. After leading the fight for the 19th Amendment, Paul worked on laws for women’s equality, especially the national Equal Rights Amendment, which failed. Even as suffragists (then called “suffragettes”) fought for equality, they often made “maternalist” arguments for including women’s voices, because women are inherently more moral and community-minded than men, they argued. Interestingly, given Paul made sure the National Women’s Party she headed for 50 years stuck to legal reform and didn’t get involved in questions like birth control, she cautioned that big legal victories like suffrage, or later, the Civil Rights Act, were just one part of alleviating women’s subordination, which continues to permeate life beyond courts and government to this day.
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Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

“The miscegenation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce [rape] all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women.” (1892)

“Is it 1916 or 2016?” asked one Twitter user when the death of an African-American man, hanged from a tree in a former Ku Klux Klan meeting place in Atlanta, was ruled a suicide. Given Donald Trump dilly-dallied in disavowing the endorsement of white supremacists, many fear the racial hatred and violence that journalist, social reformer, and political activist Ida B. Wells fought in the early 20th century. She exposed the racism of the Jim Crow south: Interracial marriage was illegal, but white men raping Black women went unpunished, while white men lynched Black men suspected of sleeping with white women. Wells fought to make the legal system more equitable and to raise awareness of injustice through her writing. She was actively involved in women’s suffrage, and resisted the racist arguments of some white suffragists — the “woman vote” could cancel out “the Negro vote,” for example — refusing to march in a segregated unit of a suffrage parade organized by Alice Paul’s Congressional Union.
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Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove) — best known as America’s first self-made woman millionaire — was born in Louisiana to sharecroppers just two years after the Civil War. Like many working-class Black women, she worked in the cotton fields, then as a laundress and a cook. Because she rarely enjoyed the luxury of a shower, her hair began falling out. After working for another merchant selling “hair grower” to African-Americans, she started her own business, targeting Black women ignored by white businesses, which was wildly successful. But Walker’s products — including hair straighteners, hot combs, and skin bleach — were controversial among Black activists who worried that this model of African-American female empowerment was actually promoting white beauty standards.
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Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973)

“If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier.”

Owning her “nastiness” seems to be working in Hillary Clinton’s favor in 2016, but a century ago, Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to United States Congress, felt “a thousand times a day,” women had to choose between displaying a socially accepted “good disposition” and their self-respect. When Rankin arrived in Washington in 1916, the papers remarked on the arrival of Congress’ “first petticoated member.” Rankin appealed to some traditional ideas about femininity in her platform, championing welfare for mothers and children and pacifism. To her, women should not strive to act like men in politics, but to offer their distinctly feminine perspective. Yet the sisterhood had limits: her unconditional pacifism (she was alone in voting against entering World War II) cost her the support of women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who supported her pro-suffrage male opponent in a Senate race because Rankin’s opposition to World War I damaged support for the women’s vote. Rankin lost that race but unquestionably broke ground in a fight we’ve got to keep fighting: In 2016, Congress is still 80% male.
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Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” (Woman and the New Race, 1920)

By the mid-1960s, the birth control pill was legally available, and women realized that sex could be a source of pleasure without the responsibility of procreation. Margaret Sanger, the early 20th-century birth control advocate, lay the foundation for these reforms, but sexual liberation was relatively low on her list of benefits that better family planning and birth control could bring to the world. Often fatal abortions, high rates of infant morality and abandonment in large families, and overpopulation drove her crusade, though in its service she advocated more open sex education, a priority that shocked her contemporaries and got her arrested. Given the continued political polarization on abortion today, pro-life protesters still vilify Sanger, rightly pointing out that she is not a simplistic feminist icon, but also supported eugenics as a rationale for birth control access.
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Shareefah Hamid Ali (1883-1971)

“We of the East must warn you that any arrogant assumption of superiority or of patronage on the part of Europe or America and any undue pressure or enforcement of religion or of government or of trade or of economic ‘spheres of influence,’ will alienate Asia and Africa, and with it the womanhood of Asia and Africa.” (1935)

When French police prevented Muslim women from wearing burkinis on the beach in summer, progressive feminists defended women’s rights to don the full-body swimsuits, condemning “burkini bans” as misogynistic and imperialistic. How “women’s rights” translates across borders was as big a problem in the 1930s as it is today when, after achieving suffrage in the United States and the United Kingdom, many Western feminists focused on the status of women globally. Sometimes this “ally-ship” looked a lot like colonialism, as Western feminists framed liberation in terms of their own culture and politics— for example, insisting that the veil some women wore was a sign of oppression. At a 1935 international women’s conference, Indian activist Shareefah Hamid Ali (pictured here) spelled out the damage this superior attitude was wreaking on any possibility for a global sisterhood, which can still feel elusive today.
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Dolores Huerta (1930-)

“I couldn't tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”

The abuse of agricultural labor and racism against Latinos has been a staple of the 2016 news cycle. But in the 1950s, when Dolores Huerta left her teaching job at a grammar school to organize farmworkers in rural California, both issues were far from being on the national radar. Realizing that, without higher wages and better working conditions, Latinos would remain a permanent underclass, Huerta channeled her energies into community organizing. In 1960, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association; and in 1962, she cofounded the National Farm Workers Association along with Cesar Chavez. In the highly masculine world of labor organizing and agriculture, Huerta was constantly challenged due to her ethnicity and gender. This prejudice continues to shape our understanding of the movement she built, since historians (with some exceptions) have largely overlooked, not only Huerta’s key role, but also the enormous participation of women in fighting for justice for Latinos in the fields and beyond.
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Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012)

“The sexiest women are the achievers, for they are the most interesting and exciting. They challenge a man by being as desirable, sought after, and respected as he is.” (Sex and the Single Girl, 1962)

Lady mags changed how women participated and were depicted in the media, for better and for worse, and Helen Gurley Brown, who took over Cosmopolitan in 1965, was crucial to this shift — and hugely controversial. Her best-selling book, Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, inspired HBO’s Sex and the City, and horrified many. To traditionalists, Gurley’s advice that a young, unmarried woman should focus on her career, earn her own money, and enjoy sex (maybe even with her boss) while indefinitely unattached was sacrilege. To feminists, the focus on material pleasures such as shopping; on flirting with male coworkers; and on looking fashionable confirmed men's stereotypes of women: that they were superficial and out to catch men. Still, in an era when office jobs were hard to come by for women, not only did Gurley Brown’s advice to do whatever it took to keep such a position hold value to women then, but women today — including Lena Dunham — also find her tips empowering.
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Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

“How can any woman see the whole truth within the bounds of her own life? How can she believe that voice inside herself, when it denies the conventional, accepted truths by which she has been living? And yes, the women I have talked to, who are finally listening to that inner voice, seem in some incredible way to be groping through to a truth that has defied the experts.” (The Feminine Mystique, 1963)

Can we “have it all”…and do we even want to? Talk about #21stcenturyproblems. In the early 1960s, the ideal American woman was a suburban housewife, who was “healthy, beautiful, and educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home.” Activist Betty Friedan noticed that, despite the trappings of a “perfect” life, women felt unfulfilled. Outdated assumptions about women’s “natural” fitness for motherhood, and unsuitability for intellectual and professional life caused what psychologists called “the housewife’s syndrome,” blaming individual women, rather than sexist norms, for their misery. Friedan’s writing ignited awareness, and before long, these suburban women were holding “consciousness-raising groups” to discuss how to resist these oppressive structures, launching another chapter of American feminism (though they ignored class and race privilege).
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Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

“When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being Black.”

Between Barack Obama, our first Black president, and Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of a major political party, it’s tempting to succumb to the “first fetish” and ignore those who laid the groundwork for these momentous events. Seven-term congresswoman and one-time presidential aspirant Shirley Chisholm is a key player; in 1972, she was both the first Black presidential candidate to run for the nomination of a major party and the first woman to attempt to secure the Democratic nomination. (The Republicans had a contender first, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, in 1964.) Chisholm knew she had long odds of winning, but ran because “somebody had to do it first” to enable later African-Americans and women to push the struggle further. She accepted the endorsement of the radical Black Panther Party, explaining that, as an “oppressed group,” the Panthers were “used to the meaningless platforms and empty promises, [which] led them to come to the conclusion that perhaps with me there is hope.”
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Barbara Seaman (1935-2008)

“According to the Western model, pregnancy is a disease, menopause is a disease, and even getting pregnant is a disease. Dangerous drugs and devices are given to women, but not to men — just for birth control. I’ve reached the conclusion that, to many doctors, BEING A WOMAN IS A DISEASE.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, feminist activist and journalist Barbara Seaman and her contemporaries imagined a new approach to women’s health that put women in charge of their own bodies, supporting feminist health clinics that taught women how to do self-exams and provided sex education and affordable access to contraception and abortion. They rejected the common assumption that women should be sedated during labor, that formula was superior to breast milk, and that midwives were charlatans. Seaman helped force drug companies to research the effects popular drugs would have on women.
Her 1969 book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, prompted Senate hearings on the topic, and ultimately the labeling of oral contraceptives and lowering of the estrogen dose they contained. Thanks to the National Women’s Health Network, which Seaman cofounded, the effects of drugs on women are better understood and shared, and living while female is no longer considered a pathology.
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Gloria Steinem (1934-)

“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” (1972)

Journalist, political organizer, and speaker Gloria Steinem and fellow feminist activists pointed out that men holding doors, paying for meals, and helping women with their coats are subtler forms of sexism. Chivalrous behaviors assume that women are weak and need male protection, an attitude that justifies lower pay and social status. Being put on a pedestal and receiving special treatment might feel flattering, but as one acquaintance of Steinem asked in 1970, "Is that feeling worth $2000 less in annual salary?" Steinem experienced it personally — when she arrived in New York City as an aspiring young journalist, men paid attention to her attractive looks, but didn’t take her seriously. At Life magazine, she was told, “We need a reporter, not a pretty girl,” and unceremoniously dismissed. While Steinem has dedicated her life to fighting sexism in all forms, her recognition of the confinement of the pedestal is important to remember.
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Marlo Thomas (1937-)

“I wish someone would have told me that, just because I'm a girl, I don't have to get married.”

A full 40 years after the Ms. Foundation and activist-performer (and Steinem pal) Marlo Thomas released the feminist children’s album and television program Free to Be You and Me (1972; 74), she received some backlash. A conservative New York Post columnist raged that the young boys who were raised on this “gender re-education” were so emasculated that it “was no wonder the girls of the 'Free to Be' generation would grow up to buy millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey…The only place they could find masculine men anymore was fiction.” Thomas and her collaborators intended the album to challenge sexist gender roles at a young age. Girls win races and refuse to get married until they travel; daddies are nurses and mommies drive trucks; NFL football player Rosey Grier sings a ballad about it being “all right to cry”; and despite facing ridicule, a boy named William wants a doll more than anything so he can practice taking care of a baby. It was a dramatic departure from children’s literature of the 1950s and '60s, but radical feminists criticized its tepid messaging: who were the perpetrators of sexism and stereotyping? The models of same-sex love?
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Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927-2002)

“I had a special burden to bear to speak for [all women], because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately. So, I always felt that we were serving a dual role in Congress, representing our own districts and, at the same time, having to voice the concerns of the total population of women in the country.”


For Patsy Takemoto Mink, who in 1965 became the first woman of color elected to Congress, and represented Hawaii for 25 years, the phrase “the personal is political” rang especially true. Mink’s signal accomplishment was co-authoring Title IX (renamed for her posthumously), which barred sex discrimination in any school that accepted federal funds. The act’s most powerful legacy was the expansion of opportunities for girls’ and women’s sports. Mink always felt responsible to women and to nonwhites, but was personally invested in educational equality, as she was rejected from medical school for her gender, as was her daughter when Stanford had already met its “female quota.” Her peers commented on the salience of her Asian ethnicity: “I’d never interacted with [an] Asian woman who was in the power circles, and who was moving the women’s agenda.”
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Judy Freespirit (1936-2010)

“FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE …” (Fat Liberation Manifesto, 1973)

“No Fat Chicks Allowed” and its variations are cruel slurs that got a free pass for decades, even after directing such bigotry at minorities was widely considered unacceptable. Today, with the rise of online body-positive movements like #effyourbeautystandards and #curvy; the prominence of plus-size models; and the shaming of fat-shamers, we seem to be entering a moment of body diversity acceptance. Yet "fat activism" has been around since the early 1970s, and leaders like Judy Freespirit saw fat acceptance as part and parcel with feminism, gay liberation, and disability rights activism. Still, the National Organization of Women did not immediately reciprocate the support, so Freespirit and her peers began the Fat Underground and other organizations to advocate size acceptance, reclaiming the word “fat” over the euphemistic “overweight” (over what weight?) or “obese,” (which sounds clinical but automatically equates bigger bodies with illness). Freespirit was committed to experiencing joy through sex, which she described in her poems, and dance via the troupe Fat Chance, and to putting the joyous “fat dyke” she embodied on display to show it was possible.
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Susan Brownmiller (1935-)

“Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” (Against our Will, 1975)

Not so long ago, “rape culture” was a concept you might happen upon in your gender studies seminar or the overtly feminist neighborhoods of the internet; today, the term is broadly recognized to refer to the normalization of violent attitudes toward women that make rape and other forms of sexual aggression possible. But this idea has been around since the mid-1970s. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975) challenges the assumption that rape is a crime of lust, rather than a way to assert dominance over women, similar to how whites lynched Blacks. Against Our Will included first-person accounts of rape that showed how widespread, and unspoken, the crime was. Critics dismissed Brownmiller as myopic on race. Interestingly, she is highly critical of the 21st century, campus-based version of the movement she helped create, arguing that college women today ignore the plight of working-class women more likely to be victims of sexual assault, delude themselves that they can drink as much as men, and dress like “hookers” at slut marches, and then declare, "'Don’t blame us, we’re survivors.'"
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Photo: Courtesy Of Combahee River Collective.
Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)

“As Black feminists, we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires, among other things, that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture.”

Black feminists meeting in the 1970s released the Combahee River Collective Statement in ’77, which argued that white feminism insufficiently represented the interests of Black women and lesbians, and that a separate movement was needed to reflect and redress their particular struggles. Rejecting years of falling into line at the instruction of the movement’s most vocal, and often elitist, leadership, the statement outright declared that, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” Still, the statement stopped short of separatism, since Black men shared in the experience of racism even as they could be forces of sexist oppression.
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Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016)

“What I am defending is the real rights of women. A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.”

Not all powerful women define as feminists; some strategically avoid the term as “too political.” But very few such women make their career fighting against feminism as did Phyllis Schlafly, who mobilized a generation of conservative women in the 1970s. She sent detailed handwritten notes to housewives, which made “family values” a central plank of contemporary conservatism. The very feminism Schlafly railed against enabled her tremendous political career. Moreover, that career was constrained by misogyny, as her unsuccessful attempts in the 1950s to break into the old-boys’ foreign policy network proved. Schlafly’s homages to homemaking (and her frequent introductory anecdote that she had asked permission of her husband to speak publicly) mobilized masses of female political newbies.
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Photo: University Wisconsin.
Gerda Lerner (1920-2013)

“The number of historians interested in [women’s history] could have fit into a telephone booth.” (1973)

Ever been frustrated a college course doesn’t include women on the syllabus? You have historian Gerda Lerner to thank for making women’s historical visibility a problem people even notice. When Lerner taught what is thought to be the first women’s history course, “Great Women in American History,” at the New School in 1963, she couldn’t initially generate enough interest to run the course. But alongside the growing feminist movement, interest in women’s previously silenced role in history grew. At first, courses like Lerner’s focused on how “great” women like queens and first ladies contributed to history. Responding to the grassroots politics of 1960s political movements, Lerner and her colleagues began to study history “from the bottom up,” investigating the experiences of everyday women from the plantation to the schoolhouse to the department store, places never before considered worthy of historical inquiry.
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Catharine MacKinnon (1946-)

“Pornography, in the feminist view, is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics, and institution of gender inequality.” (Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 1989)

Though proudly strutting in a "SlutWalk" is, in the 21st century, an accepted expression of liberated womanhood, in the late 20th century, feminists were strongly divided about how empowering the sexual revolution’s emphasis on “free love” was for women. The question of pornography became especially controversial, and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, along with Andrea Dworkin, became the voice of anti-porn feminism in the feminist "sex wars" of the 1980s. MacKinnon, also known for her pioneering work on sexual harassment, Dworkin, and groups like the radical Women Against Pornography argued that pornography objectified and dehumanized women for male pleasure. Their opponents, “pro-sex” feminists, argued that their stance amounted to censorship and paternalistic moral policing that they believed was more antithetical to feminism than porn. The strangest part of the porn wars were the weird alliances MacKinnon and her allies cultivated in the fight against pornography: Family-values conservatives and real estate developers eager to gentrify seedy Times Square all joined forces, if for dramatically different motives.
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Winona LaDuke (1959-)

“Indigenous women understand that our struggle for autonomy is related to the total need for structural change in this society. We realize that indigenous people in industrial society have always been and will always be in a relationship of war, because industrial society has declared war on indigenous peoples, on land-based peoples.” (1994)

Despite the popularity of standing with the protestors at Standing Rock on social media, few “slacktivists” understand the deep connections between Native American civil rights, environmental protection, and feminist activism to which writer and organizer Winona LaDuke has devoted her life. Long before she spoke out for #NoDAPL, LaDuke fought against the impact of settler colonialism, especially on indigenous women alienated by white feminism’s individualism: “For us, it is not about civil rights…It is not about equal access to something. It is about ‘Get off my neck.’” White eco-feminists’ attempts at coalition-building with indigenous feminists often fail to acknowledge feminine spiritual identification with the land and their own histories of benefiting from colonialism. LaDuke hasn’t given up on bridge-building, however, and currently is executive director of Honor the Earth, a coalition with the Indigo Girls to raise support and awareness for native peoples.
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Jane Fonda, (1937-)

“The new female consciousness that has developed over the last decade extends to our right to physical as well as economic, political, and racial equality. We refuse to be afraid we will no longer be considered attractive and acceptable when we are strong.” (1982)

Leg warmers and leotards don’t immediately scream feminist warrior, but the dance-exercise workout Jane Fonda popularized in the 1980s was rooted in her own activist identity, and helped ignite a revolution in popular ideas about women’s sweat, health, and beauty. While other dance-exercise formats like Jazzercise and Aerobic Dancing had been around since the late 1960s, Fonda was the first promoter to explicitly tie regular exercise and self-care to pro-woman politics: Her 1981 bestseller framed how-to descriptions of exercises with commentary on eating disorders, the environment, and workplace discrimination. Not everyone saw the aerobics craze as an advance for feminism, and one scholar concluded that the classes promoted a “passive femininity.” Like it or not, the Fonda phenomenon was global — on a Soviet base in Egypt, Communist women gathered to exercise during the Cold War, and in 1990s Colombia, “Beto” Perez skimmed Fonda’s book before teaching an impromptu class that would become the fitness phenomenon Zumba.
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Naomi Wolf (1962-)

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” (The Beauty Myth, 1991)

Journalist Naomi Wolf defined a major strand of third-wave feminism when she published The Beauty Myth in 1991, which argued that while women made greater political, economic, and social progress than any previous generation, they were also having plastic surgery and succumbing to eating disorders in greater numbers than ever before. While second-wave feminists had unmade many formal structures of oppression, she claimed that normative beauty standards still plagued women in all areas of life. Today, beauty standards remain fraught terrain, as women who openly discuss the details of their salaries and sexual experiences might lie about the “feminist taboos” of their own diet regimes or plastic surgeries for fear of selling out the sisterhood. Wolf has proven so influential that when author and beauty blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano argues in 2016 that tending to one’s appearance — and even enjoying it! — need not be a betrayal of feminism, she titles her opening chapter “Beyond the Beauty Myth.”
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Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself — whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. — because that’s the piece that they need to key into. They want to dismiss everything else.” (2004)

The work of self-described “Black feminist lesbian poet warrior mother” Audre Lorde was crucial in raising awareness of how identifying as a member of a marginalized group shaped lived experience. Lorde eloquently showed how categories of identity extended beyond the familiar trio of race, class, and gender to include disability, sexual orientation, and fertility, among others, realms that weren’t necessarily seen as political. Her 11 volumes of poetry and especially her 1982 “biomythology,” Zami, showed how these identities intersect, sometimes to layer on multiple forms of oppression, but always to make us a complicated whole. Before Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced “intersectionality” as an academic theory in the early 1990s, Lorde portrayed it in her literary work. Finally, Lorde famously called “self-care…an act of political warfare,” challenging thinkers who dismissed self-care as narcissistic and bourgeois, and setting the tone for a generation of third-wave activists who know they need to take care of themselves to take care of society.
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Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969-)

“I confront the European elite’s self-image as tolerant while under their noses women are living like slaves.” (2005)

“Tolerance” and “multiculturalism” sound warm and fuzzy, but what happens when a culture directly contradicts principles of liberal Western democracy? Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that fundamentalist Islamic cultures do not deserve the tolerance of the West due to their treatment of women and girls. Ali, who was a victim of female genital mutilation and then a forced marriage, fled her husband and her faith as they traveled in Europe. She became a cleaner and then a translator for Muslim women who had experienced oppression. After attending university in the Netherlands, she turned to politics in 2003 as a member of the Dutch House of Representatives. As anti-Muslim sentiment has grown after 9/11, Hirsi Ali’s personal experiences and belief that the individual autonomy of Muslim women must not be sacrificed in the name of multicultural tolerance, has made her a favorite of Dutch and American conservatives who make feminist arguments to undermine Islam. Hirsi Ali started a U.S.-based foundation to fight “culturally motivated” honor violence against women and girls globally, and is criticized among Muslims and on the political left of stoking Islamophobia.
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Photo: Kyle Monk.
Tristan Taormino (1971-)

"Feminist porn attempts to counteract the messages we get from society that can be reflected in mainstream porn: sex is shameful, naughty, dirty, scary, dangerous, or it’s the domain of men, where only their desires and fantasies get fulfilled. In feminist porn, female desire, pleasure, and orgasm are prioritized and celebrated…sex is presented as joyful, fun, safe, mutual, and satisfying." (The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, 2013)

Sex-positive feminism does away with the moralizing that drove 19th and early 20th century feminists who uncritically railed against “vice” as a scourge upon women. Anti-porn feminists of the 1980s clashed with “pro-sex feminists,” who argued that bashing porn wrongly assumes it has no erotic value to women, stigmatizes sex workers and porn actors, and is censorship. Filmmaker and activist Tristan Taormino has built a career preaching the pro-sex gospel, through columns in the lesbian-produced On Our Backs and a Hustler subsidiary; in a role as a TV sex educator; and in leading the field of feminist pornography. Emphasizing female orgasm, consent, body diversity, and trans experiences, Taormino upsets the genre’s norms and destigmatizes taboo acts like anal sex. Taormino and her peers successfully challenge the assumption that feminists are unsexy and asexual — heterodox feminist Camille Paglia famously said, “Leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.”
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Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images.
Caitlyn Jenner (1949-)

“I am not a spokesperson for the trans community, I am not…I am a spokesperson for my story, and that’s all I can tell.”

From the arrival of all-gender bathrooms to the creation of TV characters like Transparent’s Maura Pfefferman and Orange is the New Black’s Sophia Burset, the long-marginalized “T” in LGBTQIA is having a cultural moment. It’s the work of a generation of trans activists and their allies, but no one did more to make everyday Americans aware of and largely sympathetic to trans experience than Caitlyn Jenner. In true Kardashian style, she announced her 2015 transition in a major media blitz, which was positively received by trans advocates. Despite making “gender reassignment” and “transphobia” household terms, Jenner almost immediately became a polarizing figure. Her wealth and support for Republicans alienated many trans people, who suffer from economic and social discrimination and the conservative policies that intensify it. Others have criticized Jenner for trivializing womanhood — from quipping “the hardest thing about being a woman is figuring out what to wear” to embracing the conventionally feminine look that feminists have for decades argued constrains women. The trans awareness she inspired raises questions about what “makes a woman.”
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Photo: Courtesy Of @andizeis.
Andi Zeisler, (1972-)

“Empowertising not only builds on the idea that any choice is a feminist choice if a self-labeled feminist deems it so, but takes it a little bit further to suggest that being female is in itself something that deserves celebration.” (We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, 2016)

“Women’s empowerment,” once a call to radicalism, now markets everything from panties to pole-dancing classes, which suggests both the widespread acceptance of certain feminist ideas (progress!) and the brilliance of Madison Ave. in marketing that movement (progress?). Founder of Bitch Media Andi Zeisler has been a force behind this 21st century shift and a critic of it. When she cofounded Bitch magazine with Lisa Jervis in 1996, there was no feminist criticism on pop culture, “no Twitter feeds that mashed up Judith Butler and the Incredible Hulk.Bitch sold out of the back of their car, commenting acidly on consumer culture without condemning capitalism, a formula that got them to Barnes & Noble newsstands. Groups like the National Organization of Women criticized Bitch and other third-wave feminist zines as distracting from policy issues. Looking back, Zeisler is impressed and ambivalent that mainstream consumer culture has begun to reflect — and sell — the values she promoted through Bitch: “Something weird happened — feminism got cool.”
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