In honour of International Women’s Day, we are highlighting ten women who inspire us daily in their actions and words and legacies.
Maya Angelou is a poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her numerous poetry and essay collections.
Maya overcame a troubled childhood to enjoy great success on the stage as a young performer, and soon as a celebrated play write. Her 1972 drama, Georgia, Georgia, became the first screenplay produced by an African American woman. She was nominated for a Tony Award two years later. Despite her acting successes, it was her writing that moved her to international fame. Her 1969 memoir about her childhood and adolescence, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing”, was the first best-selling book by an African American woman. Her poetry won countless awards, including a Grammy for “On The Pulse of the Morning” and a Pulitzer nomination for her book “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die.” Maya Angelou was a passionate advocate for the rights of all humankind– and was an outspoken feminist.“I’m a feminist. I’ve been female for some time now and I would be stupid not to be on my own side.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning Nigerian writer and speaker, most known for her novels and short stories, written largely about her home country of Nigeria.Chimamanda was born and raised in Nsukka, Nigeria, where she studied at the University of Nigeria before moving to the United States to continue her studies at John’s Hopkins, and later at Yale. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and her second novel. Shortly after its publication, she encountered a Nigerian man who said that people were calling her a feminist, and advised her to never call herself a feminist, as they were unhappy women who were unable to find husbands.Chimananda has been outspoken on the topic of feminism, particularly in relation to women in Africa, and how these ideas fit into cultural systems. In her viral 2013 Ted Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”, she spoke about her experiences as an African feminist, and her anger at restrictive cultural and gender norms that shape who a person becomes.
“I am angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change, but in addition to being angry, I’m also hopeful because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to make and remake themselves for the better.”
Famously in 2013, parts of her speech were featured in Beyonce’s hit song “Flawless”, which has her voice featured in the track:
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller
We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much
You should aim to be successful, but not too successful
Otherwise, you will threaten the man”
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important
Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
Feminist: a person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes”
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for the education of women and girls, and is the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2014.Malala has been an activist for education since a very young age in her home country of Pakistan. When Malala was 11–12, she wrote a blog post under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing how life was like for her under Taliban occupation, and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. The following summer, a New York Times documentary was made about her life.Malala’s compelling story quickly gained international attention and she was soon giving speeches and interviews around the world. In 2012, she was shot in the head by the Taliban in an assassination attempt. Malala survived the attack, and it has only strengthened her resolve to fight for education.
By 2013, Malala had become a global advocate for the millions of girls being denied formal education because of social, economic, legal and political factors. She has launched the Malala Foundation to support the building and running of schools and education programs around the world. Her passion and commitment to girl’s education has propelled her into the spotlight and is recognized as one of the most influential women in the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician and President of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her political activism.Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career began when she spoke out against the Burmese dictator U Ne Win in the late 1980s. She had just returned to Burma after years living abroad and was appalled at the state of her home country. She initiated a nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights. In 1989, the government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she spent 15 of the next 21 years. In 1991, her ongoing efforts won her the Nobel Prize for Peace, and she was finally released from house arrest in November 2010. She has since gained a parliamentary seat with the National League for Democracy party. In the 2015 Myanmar General Election, the NLD, Aung San’s party, won a sweeping victory, taking 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union.Aside from being an outspoken political figure, Aung San has been passionate about ensuring women’s voices are heard in the political arena.
“I believe women play the more important part in our world because not only are they entering the professional world, they still remain the pillars of their homes and families. So I hope the menfolk in this audience will forgive me for speaking in favor of women–for speaking out in favor of women–because I think only a woman can understand the troubles, the problems, the discrimination that other women have to face.
So, from this day onwards, until all the people in the world, particularly all the women in the world, are able to achieve their full potential, I hope we will be able to work together closely and in the true spirit of sisterhood.”
Barbara Walters has been breaking barriers her entire professional career. She began working as a journalist in the early 60s, and began broadcasting on-air in 1962. This was the era when women were given the so-called fluff pieces because no one thought a woman could be taken seriously to deliver newsworthy stories. But, within a year she had become a reporter-at-large developing, writing, and editing her own reports and interviews.Not only was she the first ever female co-host on any news show (despite the fact that she was earning half of her male colleagues), but she went on to become the first female anchor of an evening broadcast for ABC News. She mediated a presidential debate in 1984.She became known for ‘personality journalism’, and her in-depth one-on-one interviews with prominent public figures, from politicians to actors, including Hugo Chavez, Margaret Thatcher, Muammar al-Gadaffi, Boris Yelstin, Katherin Hepburn, Michael Jackson and Anna Wintour.
Over her 50-year career, Barbara Walters has become one of the world’s most respected and admired journalists. She has broken down barrier after barrier for women in the professional setting and repeatedly shattered the glass ceiling. “She arrived at a time when the thinking in this business was that the man is the king of the desk and that the woman is more or less a sidekick. Thankfully, that doesn’t exist anymore — and she helped to change it.”
Gloria Steinem might be one of America’s most recognized feminist icons. She helped to build and lead the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s.As a young journalist in New York City, Gloria developed a reputation for writing about women’s rights. Her first pieces discussed the injustice of forcing women to choose between a family and a career, and the way that women were systematically treated in the workforce. An avid traveler, Gloria spent many of these early years living on the road, and speaking to women across America. By speaking in schools and community groups, she was able to learn new perspectives and mobilize women from all backgrounds.In 1968 she helped to launch New York Magazine, where she worked as a political columnist, and in 1972, she went on to co-found the feminist themed Ms. Magazine. She has co-founded numerous women’s organizations across the USA, including the Women’s Action Alliance, Women’s Media Center, Voters for Choice, and the Ms Foundation for Women. She has been awarded with numerous awards for her writing and activism. Her most recent book, My Life on the Road is the first pick of Emma Watson’s feminist themed book club Our Shared Shelf.
Gloria Steinem is one of the worlds most recognized feminists and has contributed in significant ways to gender equality. As a life-long feminist organizer, Gloria has created platforms for women of all ages and backgrounds to express themselves and demand respect and recognition.
“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
Wangari Maathai was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, and dedicated to life to activism and environmental protection, all the while breaking down barriers and going where no woman had gone before. Wangari became on of the first Kenyan women to obtain a Masters Degree, the first to obtain a PhD, and the first female faculty of the University of Nairobi. Along the way, Wangari had to battle for everything, including her right to have a voice in politics, serving as a Member of Parliament for many years. She was an active and outspoken advocate for democracy against the Moi Regime of the 1970s, getting arrested multiple times for her actions.In 1977, she launched a grassroots feminist movement to counter the deforestation that was destroying the subsistence means of the agricultural population of her homeland. The foundation of the movement was to mobilize and empower women to plant trees. The Green Belt Movement grew quickly across East Africa, and led to the planting of over 30 million trees.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Price for her incredible contributions to humanitarian work around the world.
Alice Walker has become one of the world’s most celebrated African American writers, and is most widely known for her novel The Colour Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Alice grew up in segregated Georgia, and her experiences as a young girl during these times was one of her main influences in her writing.Alice coined the term womanism as a reaction to her realization that the term “feminist” often did not encompass the perspectives of Black women. She has spent her entire adult life as a passionate advocate, and is a staunch defender of human rights. In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King inspired her to return to the South and work as a civil rights activist. She registered Black voters in Georgia and Mississippi, and took part in the Washington March in 1963.Alice Walker is one of the world’s most prolific writers and passionate activists. She continues to travel the world to stand alongside the poor, the economically, spiritually, and politically oppressed. She stands on the side of the revolutionaries, teachers and leaders who seek change and transformation in the world.
Emma Watson might have found her fame playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise, but she is quickly building a powerful reputation as a formidable feminist.In 2014, Emma became the spokesperson for the UN funded campaigned He for She, where she boldly stood up and called men to the table in the gender equality conversation. Since then, she has been the UN Ambassador for UN Women – a role she has taken very seriously, and has become more and more outspoken about women’s rights and gender equality. In 2016, Emma said she was taking a year off from acting to explore feminism, and pledged to read at least one book a week.Her passion for learning and reading and speaking to women from around the world has inspired a new generation of young women to speak up and explore the issues.
Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the original feminists. After surviving an abusive upbringing, Mary dedicated herself to her writing. In 1792 she published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, her most famous work. She discussed the ideas of gender equality in the home and workplace, and demanded educational reform that gave women and girls the same opportunities as men and boys. Her views were truly revolutionary for her time and caused great controversy.Despite her powerful writings, her social life received more attention than her books until the 20th century, particularly her two daughters born out of wedlock. (Her second daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein.) But the growing feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century, Mary’s ideas of women’s equality and her critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly significant in the battle for gender equality.Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.