35 feminist icons that changed the game

From early crusaders like Betty Friedan to Caitlyn Jenner, we celebrate 35 of the coolest, bravest, most inspiring heroines from music, politics, film and fiction. Each has made a huge impact for women with their words, writings, and action.

by Courtney Iseman
11 August 2015, 2:05pm

Photography Evgeny Feldman

Carrie Brownstein
Carrie Brownstein might poke fun at the stereotyped side of feminism as bookstore owner Toni on Portlandia, but she's also been a role model for women for nearly two decades thanks to her role in the riot grrl movement and band Sleater-Kinney.

Petra Collins
Petra Collins has become one of those girls we all want to be best friends with. She's shaken up the photography scene with her envelope-pushing honesty and proudly catalyzed controversy with her t-shirt designs and Instagram action.

Jenny Slate
Comedian and writer Jenny Slate became a true heroine when she starred in 2014's Obvious Child, tackling pro-choice rights. She said of the movie: "I really look forward to a day when a woman can have an abortion in a movie and a dynamic life around that and people are more excited about her authentic, dynamic life being depicted."

Deadpan queen Daria Morgendorffer was #overit when it came to preconceived ideas of what a girl had to do to fit in. "Don't worry, I don't have low self esteem," she comforts her parents in one episode, "I have low esteem for everyone else."

Hillary Clinton
What could be more inspiring (and badass) then possibly becoming the first female president of the United States? Hillary has always used her platform to speak out for women's rights--as she did most notably during her 1995 "Women's Rights are Human Rights" speech in Beijing.

Kathleen Hanna
Writing for the zine riot grrl, Kathleen Hanna kickstarted the movement by striking out against sexism in music and beyond, and building a community of powerful, like-minded women in response. She's also the biggest cheerleader for girls fighting for freedom of expression in music now, evidenced by her idea for an album for Miley Cyrus.

Tavi Gevinson
"Feminism to me means fighting. It's a very nuanced, complex thing, but at the very core of it I'm a feminist because I don't think being a girl limits me in any way," Gevinson once told Vogue. And being the editor of Rookie, a writer, a singer and an actress might be the most walk-the-walk illustration of her feminism.

Gloria Steinem
Fearless leader Gloria Steinem has inspired generations of feminists since her 1969 article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation." She also has a streak of stand-up comedian-like flair: in her 1978 article "If Men Could Menstruate," she imagines that "Street guys would invent slang ('He's a three-pad man') and 'give fives' on the corner with some exchange like, 'Man you lookin' good!' 'Yeah, man, I'm on the rag!'"

Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger became an art-world star with her bold, graphic creations built around wordplay. Her work holds up a mirror to society's views on power and, notably, sexuality with powerful sayings like "Your body is a battleground" and "Your gaze hits the side of my face."

Liz Lemon
Tina Fey's 30 Rock character was maybe one of the most relatable female protagonists on TV. The head of the "TGS" writing staff took all of the standards women are supposed to want to live up to and turned them upside down, embracing awkwardness and individuality in her career success.

Miuccia Prada
"I was a feminist in the 60s and [being in fashion] was the most uncomfortable position." Miuccia recently told Robin Givhan. "I only recently stopped having problems." But she's always expressed her passionate feminist views in her designs, questioning ideas of how a woman is "supposed to" look--remember the zany mismatched patterns of Spring 2008?

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham's Girls broke the mold by depicting real girls with real bodies and real issues, and she's never stopped encouraging women to love themselves since. She also makes sure to give feminism-doubters a reality check: "Feminism doesn't mean women are going to rise, take over the planet, and like cut off men's testicles."

Alice Bag
One of the L.A. punk scene's most important mover-and-shakers, Alice Bag has gone on from leading The Bags to become an author, writer, activist, public speaker and archivist of interviews with inspiring women, all in the name of feminism.

Emma Watson
Emma Watson has bravely rallied for women's rights even after being threatened because of her #HeForShe speech at the UN. But the attacks only motivated the actress and Women's Goodwill Ambassador to keep working against all the harmful ways that women are viewed and treated.

Bey has championed women's rights in her fearless rise to the top, both with her own career decisions and by rallying women everywhere with her songs ("Flawless:" "I took some time to live my life, But don't think I'm just his little wife, Don't get it twisted, get it twisted").

bell hooks
Writer and activist bell hooks (aka Gloria Jean Watkins) has given generations the vital tool of language in their fight for equality and rights. Her seminal works, including Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism among many others, discuss both feminism and race, tirelessly calling for the demarginalization of black women.

Nora Helmer
Henrik Ibsen's then-controversial views on women and marriage took shape in his character Nora Helmer in 1879's A Doll's House. Over the course of the play, Nora goes from subservient housewife to a strong, brave woman, telling her husband, "I have to think things for myself."

Frida Kahlo
Kahlo bravely used her own pain from miscarriage and adultery as the subjects of her work, insisting that a woman's voice be heard through her art. She also refused to conform to what her society deemed beautiful, actually darkening her unibrow and mustache with pencil.

Pussy Riot
Russian collective Pussy Riot represents one of the strongest combinations of activism and music out there. Its members stage guerilla protests and performances, speak out against injustices for women in their music (especially against abortion laws), and demonstrate fierce bravery even in the face of jail time and government threats.

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner has forever changed the public conversation about transexualism. And she uses her platform to speak to and for those outside the spotlight: "If you want to call me names, make jokes and doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it. But for thousands of kids out there coming to terms with the reality of who they are, they shouldn't have to take it."

Sarah Jacobson
Jacobson took a punk-rock DIY approach to filmmaking with I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, setting out to explore the female perspective in movie genres that never seemed to do so. A grant in her name now encourages other female filmmakers to follow her lead.

Annie Hall
Diane Keaton's Annie goes beyond dressing in menswear-inspired duds in Woody Allen's 1977 film. She remains an independent, enlightened woman in the face of neurotic protagonist Alvy's patriarchal relationship goals. At the end of the movie, she refuses Alvy's marriage proposal, choosing to stay a free spirit.

Ellen Page
In a time when many female celebrities put a purposeful distance between themselves and the feminist label, actress Ellen Page embraces feminism as a personal mission. Whether at street protests or on Twitter, she rallies for equality, reproductive rights, gay rights and improvement in the representation of women in film.

It's probably a scary thing to speak out and potentially alienate people right after your album has become huge, but that's exactly what Grimes did with her anti-sexism manifesto in 2013. The Tumblr post calls out misogynist fans, condescending male musicians, and the media.

Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis went to bat for women in 2013 when she led the now-famous 11-hour filibuster against Senate Bill 5, which would require stricter abortion regulations in Texas. While the bill eventually passed, we haven't forgotten the lawyer and politician's fierce support (or her pink sneakers), and we hope her views on reproductive rights, LGBT rights and gun control continue to be heard.

Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman became one of the few women to dominate the contemporary art scene from the late 70s on. And she says she's "still really competitive when it comes to [...] male painters and male artists."

Lisa Simpson
Lisa is the voice of reason in The Simpsons. Memorably, she once fought back against the sexist stereotype embodied by the Malibu Stacy doll (who said things like, "Thinking gives you wrinkles") and worked with its makers to create the Lisa Lionheart doll as a better influence for young girls.

Betty Friedan
An original badass in feminism, Betty Friedan has helped lead the way for women to understand their rights and fight for them. Friedan helped spur on the second wave of feminism with her book The Feminist Mystique and she co-founded and presided over the National Organization of Women.

Meredith Graves
Lead singer of Perfect Pussy, solo artist, writer, record label owner--Meredith Graves is a role model who teaches through her actions that passion and drive can help change an entire scene like punk rock. And she's never backed down from speaking out against sexism -- either in interviews or onstage, confronting misogynist hecklers.

Karen Elson
With a long and successful career like supermodel and singer/songwriter Karen Elson's, it's easy to see the points where fashion and feminism don't get along. But Elson is now deeply involved with social causes, and recently counseled a reader in an advice column about the need for feminism and the things that fashion actually gets right about it.

Daenerys Targaryen
The Mother of Dragons' brave fight for power, and her relentless quest for justice, is especially striking in the world of Game of Thrones, where women are too often abused, raped, married off or treated like servants.

Miranda July
Miranda July weaves thoughtful feminism through her seemingly endless list of projects. She's become an icon for this generation's young women, especially those interested in artistic pursuits, most recently tackling issues of aggression and violence in her debut novel The First Bad Man.

Yoko Ono
Famous for her activism on many fronts--like her "bed-ins" with John Lennon to protest the Vietnam War--Yoko Ono has never stopped heralding the feminist values she started out with. One of her most notable works, Cut Piece, has audience members cut away her clothes, a statement about women's powerlessness and objectification in society.

Murphy Brown
When Murphy Brown dared to portray a single mother who was also a successful career woman (gasp!), Vice President Dan Quayle used the show to support his point about the decay of family values in 1992. The show fired back, with Candace Bergen's fictional character smartly fighting against the VP's comments.

Lesley Gore
Lesley Gore released "You Don't Own Me" in a girl-group era when everyone was singing about how much boys made them swoon. Thanks to Gore, it became popular to take a little more of a stand in your music. Gore went on to take up several social causes over the years, and frequently made a point of proclaiming herself an ardent feminist.


Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Evgeny Feldman

ellen page
Hillary Clinton
Petra Collins
Wendy Davis
Gloria Steinem
Caitlyn Jenner
Yoko Ono
lena dunham
Meredith Graves
miranda july
tavi gevinson
Alice Bag
Tina Fey
Lisa Simpson
Cindy Sherman
Emma Watson
jenny slate
Miuccia Prada
the 35th birthday issue
35 lists
kathleen hana