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At its core, feminism is about fighting for women’s equality and there are a number of women who have been pushing forward the fight for decades. From well-known and influential women from years gone by, to modern-day champions, our history is full of feminist heroes.
Educating ourselves and learning more about these trailblazing women will give us not only the knowledge, but also the confidence to continue to strive for equality ourselves. “In the fight for any social justice cause, we need people who inspire, motivate and guide us with their own experience and story,” says Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society’s chief executive. “Women need other women to look to, to believe that they can do it. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Smethers cited Dame Millicent Fawcett as a feminist hero women who want to feel inspired should learn about. Millicent will be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square later this year. She was a suffragist and campaigner for equal rights for women, leading the biggest suffrage organisation (NUWSS) from 1890 to 1919.
At the age of 19, Millicent organised signatures for the first petition for women’s suffrage, even though she was two years too young to sign it herself. She died in 1929, a year after women were finally given equal voting rights. The fight for women has continued in her memory, as The London Society for Women’s Suffrage renamed as The Fawcett Society in her honour in 1953.
“She campaigned for 62 years for the vote as well as for other social justice causes,” says Smethers. “She was a real feminist.” Smethers said other important names for her include: Mary Wollstonecraft - “the mother of feminism, at least in the UK”, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinhem and Catherine MacKinnon. And, more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Mary Beard, Julia Gillard, Malala Yousafzai.
Joanna Whitehead, editor of The F-Word, said while there are tonnes of women who have earned their place in the history books for celebrating women’s rights, we also shouldn’t forget about everyday women doing their bit to support other women every day. “There are a lot of incredible folks - ‘heroes’ - doing vital work who we rarely hear about in the mainstream media,” she says. “These aren’t necessarily people doing high-profile or high status work. One example is those working with victims of crime, domestic or sexual violence. I used to work in the sector and it’s tough, emotionally demanding work. These people are providing an essential service.
“The adage ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ really resonates with me, which is why representation is so important. We need to ensure that we have a broad section of women in all areas of public and private life and that everyone has an opportunity to make a difference, however big or small. That way, the next generation can learn, grow and be inspired to contribute and make changes in our world. A minority elite simply doesn’t cut it anymore; we want heroes for - and from - the 99%.”
Smethers suggested those who want to know more about feminist history should visit the Feminist Library and LSE Women’s Library, or go online to read Suffrage stories here.