Frida Kahlo, Audre Lorde, Margaret Sanger, Barbara Castle, Anita Hill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Photos: Rex and Getty)
Frida Kahlo, Audre Lorde, Margaret Sanger, Barbara Castle, Anita Hill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Photos: Rex and Getty)


The women who fought our battles for 100 years

Marisa Bate pays tribute to a snapshot of incredible women who each shaped our futures with their own fights for power post-1918

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By Marisa Bate on

In the story of women’s rights, getting the vote was a momentous line in the sand. But, over the next 100 years, women would continue to push for greater political, personal and economic autonomy, fighting numerous battles on countless fronts. Some would make the history books, but too many wouldn’t – a woman’s story often intentionally forgotten, erased or deemed insignificant. Here’s just the tiniest snapshot of women who fought battles that we know of or, as a society, have chosen to remember.

1 Aletta Jacobs, Margaret Sanger and the fight for birth control

Talking about the heroic campaign for access to birth control at the turn of century can feel bittersweet in today’s world, when it is still a political battleground and many women are still the tragic collateral of policy made by men. No one understood this better than Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Sanger’s own mother died, aged 50, due to the toll that 18 pregnancies took on her body (only 11 survived). Coupled with becoming a nurse in the immigrant communities of the lower-east side of New York, she recognised that a woman’s right to contraception was the fastest path to health, work and financial security. Sanger wasn’t alone – there was Marie Stopes (1880-1958) working in the UK and Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) in Holland. A doctor, Jacobs set up what is believed to be the world's first family-planning clinic in 1880, offering free advice and support to Amsterdam’s poorest women – a service she provided, twice a week, for 14 years. Meanwhile, Sanger went on to form what we now know as Planned Parenthood and was also key in persuading a philanthropist to invest in the creation of the pill.

2 Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Betty Friedan, Jayaben Desai, Barbara Castle and the fight for self-worth

I could get into trouble for putting these names together (it’s very easy to get into trouble when writing about feminism), but these women each led a fundamental battle – a demand to be valued. The Italian Marxist, Mariarosa Dalla Costo (1943-), was inspired by factory strikes in the north of the country and demanded rights for women's unpaid domestic labour. Her battle would eventually become the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Betty Friedan's (1921-2006) seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, spoke of the “problem with no name” and articulated women’s feeling of suffocation in the domestic setting, demanding that they, too, could pursue a life outside the home (problematically ignoring that many women were already working out of necessity, not choice). In 1968, sewing machinists at a Ford factory in the UK went on strike, which led to the creation of the Equal Pay Act championed by Labour MP Barbara Castle (1910-2002) and, in 1976, Indian-born Jayaben Desai (1933-2010) walked out of a factory in London, striking for the equal pay of immigrant women, telling her manager, “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance at your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”

The scale of the #MeToo movement is unprecedented, but we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t a new fight

3 Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago, Guerilla Girls and the fight for acceptance in the art world

When Judy Chicago (1939-) created The Dinner Party in 1979 – an artwork celebrating 39 women from history – male critics were not impressed. A revered art critic wrote in The New York Times that it was “failed art… so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to capture any independent artistic life of its own”. Chicago, however, was never one to be deterred and continued to promote female art, teaching America’s first women-only art course. The second wave’s attempt to penetrate the male-dominated art world led to the rediscovering of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). In her lifetime, Kahlo had just two solo shows and was often known as the wife of her famous husband. Yet the second wave was determined to acknowledge Kahlo’s feminist work in its own right (something that has a lasting result; this summer sees a massive exhibition of the artist at the V&A). In the mid-1980s, the anonymous collective of masked Guerilla Girls arrived, determined to take on sexism within major art institutions, famously asking on huge billboards erected in cities: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”

4 Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw and the fight for an intersectional experience to be recognised

One of the greatest failings of the feminist movement over the last 100 years is how it became a movement that spoke to, and for, the needs of white, mostly middle-class, women. Indeed, the poet and author of The Colour Purple, Alice Walker (1944-), coined the term “womanism” to articulate an experience that spoke specifically to black women – and separated itself from feminism. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 Ain’t I A Woman? speech to Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis (among many others) writing on black womanhood, women of colour have criticised the movement and tried to articulate the multi-faceted nature of their oppression. In 1989, lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw finally gave a name to what women of color had faced: the intersectionality of sexism and racism.

5 Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anita Hill, #MeToo and the fight to be safe and treated fairly in the workplace

The scale of the #MeToo movement is unprecedented, but we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t a new fight. The iconic octogenarian Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-) has been fighting against sexual discrimination in the workplace since probably before you were born. Brought back into public consciousness in recent times, Anita Hill (1956-) sat in front of an all-male, all-white jury panel as she testified against her boss – soon-to-be Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas – after accusing him of sexual harassment in 1991. And, history repeats itself. Despite losing the case, the following year more women than ever ran for office in what became dubbed the Year of the Woman – exactly what 2018 is being heralded as, in reaction to both Trump and the endless revelations of sexual assault and harassment.


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Frida Kahlo, Audre Lorde, Margaret Sanger, Barbara Castle, Anita Hill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Photos: Rex and Getty)
Tagged in:
women's suffrage
women we love
gender equality

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