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10 female activists who lead the way

31 January 2022

Influential Women


International Women’s Day is held annually on 8 March to commemorate progress and continue working towards gender equality across the world. As it approaches, we wanted to take a moment to highlight 10 women leaders and pioneers who have made extraordinary contributions to history and the development of society.

Emmeline Pankhurst in court c.1909

1. Emmeline Pankhurst

In the early twentieth-century, a group of British women launched a campaign to get women the right to vote. They called themselves the Suffragettes and their leader was Emmeline Pankhurst. Emmeline believed in ‘deeds not words’ and her militant tactics meant that she was no stranger to a prison cell. However even imprisoned, Pankhurst found ways to rebel and inspired fellow inmates to join her in hunger strike. Her campaign finally succeeded in 1928 (when all British women over the age of 21 were finally granted the vote). The victory however was bitter-sweet as Pankhurst herself had died just 2 weeks before.

Rosa Parks sat on bus

2. Rosa Parks

In 1955, Rosa Parks became a powerful symbol for the American Civil Rights Movement when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. Her refusal flouted the strict Alabama segregation laws and signalled to the authorities that Parks was taking a stand – or seat - against institutionalised racism. Her arrest for civil disobedience sparked a massive protest of the bus system and Parks emerged as one of the movements most important political activists. She remained a staunch campaigner for racial equality until her death in 2005.

Obiageli Ezekwesili launched ‘Bring Back our Girls’ in 2014 and is a beacon of hope to young girls

3. Obiageli Ezekwesili

In 2014, the former Minister of Education Obiageli Ezekwesili attended a rally in Nigeria and launched the ‘Bring Back our Girls’ campaign. She was responding to a crisis that had taken place in the Chibok region - where Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, had abducted over 270 girls from a boarding school. The campaign went viral and with global attention on the issue, the Nigerian government was forced to act. Incredibly, many were rescued in negotiated settlements but kidnapping remains an issue in the country. Nevertheless, Ezekwesili stands as a beacon of hope and her voice continues to call out the corruption and apathy that endangers young girls.

Malala Yousafzai, the most famous schoolgirl who stood up to the Taliban

4. Malala Yousafzai

In 2012 Malala Yousafzai became one of the most famous schoolgirls in the world when she was shot by the Taliban in an attempted assassination. She was just 15 years old. Her crime was speaking out publicly on behalf of girls and their right to an education. In 2008, the Taliban takeover of Malala’s village in Pakistan had severely restricted women’s freedom and girls were forbidden from going to school. For her incredible act of bravery, Malala became the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize and is today one of the world’s most recognisable advocates for education.

Sylvia Rae Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson memorial mural in Dallas

5. Sylvia Rae Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

Sylvia Rae Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were self-proclaimed drag performers in Greenwich Village and prominent figures in the 1969 Stonewall Uprisings. Following the police raid on Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village gay bar, Rivera and Johnson resisted arrest and helped organise a series of protests against sexual discrimination. In the aftermath, the pair emerged as leaders in the Gay Liberation Movement and together founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) - a group dedicated to providing housing and support for homeless LGBT youth and sex workers in New York City.

Gloria Steinem Honours 101st anniversary of women’s voting

6. Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem came to national attention when she infiltrated Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club as a freelance journalist to report on the working conditions. Her explosive expose – ‘I was a Playboy Bunny’ – revealed the sexist, overworked and underpaid life of the ‘bunny’ waitresses. Steinem went on to report on other progressive issues, particularly around the women’s liberation movement, and soon made a name for herself as a trailblazing feminist in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Greta Thunberg began Climate strike in 2018

7. Greta Thunberg

Few could have predicted that when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began her school climate strike outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018, it would lead to worldwide protests. Regardless of whether you agree with Thunberg’s brand of activism, few can deny her influence in elevating the discourse on climate change. Today she is regarded as a symbol of Youth empowerment and the voice of a movement that forced world leaders to finally take the climate threat seriously. It was a goal researchers and activists had been working towards for decades.

Waris Dirie fights against Female Genital Mutilation and spreads awareness

8. Waris Dirie

Supermodel and Bond girl, Waris Dirie, was just 5 years old when she was subjected to female genital mutiliation (FGM). FGM has no health benefits and in the days following the procedure, many girls die from blood loss or infection. In 1996, Dirie used her platform to speak out against the inhumane practice and directed worldwide attention to the issue. Since then she has founded several medical centres offering women reconstructive surgery and founded the Desert Flower Foundation to deliver education. It is her hope that by spreading awareness of FGM, we can eradicate it once and for all.

Leymah Gbowee was awarded a Nobel Peace prize for her work as a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate

9. Leymah Gbowee

In 2011, Leymah Gbowee was awarded a Nobel Peace prize for her work as a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate. Her most important work involved bringing women (both Christian and Muslim) together in a non-violent movement that pressured leaders into ending Liberia’s 14 year-long Civil War. They achieved this goal in 2003 in what was an historic victory for peace and which paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state.

Mary Brave Bird joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and quickly emerged as one of its central figures

10. Mary Brave Bird

In the 1970s, Native Americans were engaged in a series of protests against the American Government over broken treaties and colonial policies that affect Native communities. During this struggle, a Sicangu Lakota teenager known as Mary Brave Bird joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and quickly emerged as one of its central figures. She participated in many high profile events, including the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington and the Wounded Knee Occupation and later wrote her book Lakota Woman, to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans.