Feminist Heroes of 2013

It’s hard to not get discouraged at a time when women are still fighting for the right to control their bodies, same-sex relations are criminalized in 76 countries, rape culture and victim-blaming run rampant and women are still trafficked for sex and slave labor around the globe. However, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the strong women who are fighting the good fight and giving us hope.

Here is a list of feminist heroes of 2013 who have done just that:

Wendy Davis: This Texas State Sen. staged a heroic 11-hour filibuster in response to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s draconian anti-abortion bill. “They were asking for their voices to be heard. The results speak for themselves,” said Davis about the crowd inside the Texas State Capitol building whose raucous chanting helped ensure that the legislative session ran out of time before the bill could be passed. Currently, this women’s-rights protecting, pink-tennis-shoe-rocking, filibustering warrior is running for governor of Texas.

Malala Yousafzai: This courageous teenage activist survived a gunshot to the head for speaking out for women’s education, but her near-death experience only added fuel to her fire. This year, the 16-year-old published a memoir, spoke eloquently at the UN, confronted President Obama about the use of drones strike when on a visit to the White House and was considered a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. She  will surely continue her fight for the global education of girls, saying “I want every girl, every child, to be educated.”

Gloria Steinem: “I would be crazy if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement,” said Ms. magazine cofounder Gloria Steinem at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., the day before being award the highest civilian honor in our nation” The Presidential Medal Of Freedom.  This honor highlights Steinem’s decades of work in the fight for social justice and brings some much-needed attention to the continued efforts toward gender equality.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: A member of the now-famous Russian feminist punk protest band Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova spent the last year in a remote prison colony in Siberia. Along with two others, she was convicted of “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred for an anti-Putin performance in an Orthodox church. In September, she released an open letter documenting the appalling abuses and human rights violations she has experienced and witnessed at her gulag-like prison work colony, declaring she would go on a hunger strike. Finally, because of an amnesty program that most think was a rather empty gesture by Vladimir Putin to diffuse pre-Sochi Olympics criticism of Russia, Tolokonnikova and fellow Pussy Rioter Maria Alekhina have been released. Still defiant, they plan to start a human rights organization.

Kakenya Ntaiya: Ntaiya overcame genital mutilation and attempts to marry her off as a child to become the first woman in her Kenyan village of Enoosaen to leave and go to a university in the U.S. In 2009, she returned to establish the Kakenya Center for Excellence, which finally enabled girls there to attend primary school. In April of this year, the Feminist Majority Foundation honored Kakenya with a Global Women’s Rights Award, celebrating her hard-fought accomplishments. Kakenya has also been honored by National Geographic as an Emerging Explorer and this year CNN named her one of it’s Top Ten CNN Heroes. Check out her wonderful TEDX talk.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (left) and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have been leading the charge to protect women in the military from sexual assault. This year they introduced and pushed forward bills to change how the military handles sexual assault cases, especially to take the reporting of assaults outside the chain of military command.

Diana Nyad: On her fifth attempt, the 64-year-old endurance swimmer finally made a shark-cageless non-stop swim from Cuba to Florida: 110 miles in 53 hours. Her wobbly-legged stumble onto a Florida beach was an empowering moment for women everywhere, and a reminder that age is just a number. Said Nyad just moments after reaching land, “I have three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”

Social Media Feminists: This year, many activists and feminists have taken the fight for equality to social media stage. There has been an outpouring of discussion surrounding two popular hashtags in particular: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen created by Mikki Kendall and#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen created by Jamilah Lemieux. Check out #TwitterFeminism to look for more trending feminist hashtags.

Edie Windsor: Shortlisted for TIME magazine’s Person of The Year award and called “the unlikely activist,” this now-famed marriage equality plaintiff didn’t plan on taking on the Supreme Court in her 80s, but when her longtime partner (who she had married in Canada) Thea Speyer died and Windsor was levied with a huge tax bill that heterosexual spouses would not have faced, she took action. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Brittney Griner: At 6-8, this basketball star stands tall as a talented athlete, but also as fearless role model for LGBT people everywhere. She announced that she is a lesbian just before she was picked first overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. Griner has spent her first year in the pros tearing up the court for Phoenix Mercury and tearing down stereotypes off the court. She was recognized by GLAAD this year for helping raise awareness of issues around gender and sexuality.

Fast-Food Workers: On December 5th fast food workers in hundreds of cities across the U.S. walked off the job to protest the multi-billion dollar industry’s paying of near poverty-level wages to its employees. They are demanding a $15-an-hour wage, a much-needed improvement on their national median wage of $8.94 an hour. As Ms. documents in our Fall issue, fast-food workers, who are predominantly women, struggle to provide basic needs for their families, and often times tax dollars go towards supporting the employees’ basic needs (through food stamps, etc.). Thanks to the hard work of these women and men, there is hope that future generations of workers may be better able to support themselves and their families

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: This Brooklyn-based artist’s public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile” took a stand against street harassment all across the country. Fazlalizadeh started by peppering the walls of her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with black-and-white drawings of brazen-faced women above slogans such as, “Women are not outside for your entertainment.” Recently, her Kickstarter raised more than double its goal, and she plans to use the funds to take her anti-street harassment art global. Says Fazlalizadeh, “I hope when women see them they’ll feel less alone in the streets.” Read more about Fazlaizadeh in the latest issue of Ms.

Dreamers: United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation. Made up of 52 affiliate organizations in 25 states, its participants advocate for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status. Many young immigration reform activists, referred to as “Dreamers” because of the DREAM Act of 2012, are taking a stand, including Reyna Montoya. Read about her plight here.

Quvenzhané Wallis: In 2013, this child actor from Louisiana became the youngest-ever nominee for an Academy Award, one of only a handful of African American women to be nominated for Best Actress, and the first person born in the 21st Century to be nominated for an Oscar. At just 5 years old, she earned the part of Hushpuppy in the highly praised film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Around this time, she also became the subject of media attention because of an insensitive, derogatory and misogynistic tweet by The Onion. Quvenzhané handled the “satirical” attack, and the resounding outrage by the public, with grace and dignity.  Since then, she has appeared in 12 Years A Slave and most recently was cast as Annie in a remake of the Little Orphan Annie story.

Leticia Van De Putte: This Texas state senator’s question to the Senate’s president pro tem, during the now-famous Wendy Davis filibuster, has become a battle-cry for pro-choice feminist activists: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The question caused the gallery to erupt into cheering that ran out the midnight deadline on the vote, essentially finishing what Senator Davis had begun. Van De Putte is running for lieutenant governor in 2014, alongside Davis, who is running for governor, thus making history again, as it is the first time in Texas that women will lead a major party’s ticket for the top offices.

Barbara Lee: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is a tireless supporter of women’s rights and has spent much of this year making important strides in pro-women legislation. The congresswoman recently introduced a bill (HR 3774) which would repeal abstinence-only program funding and support comprehensive sexuality education. In September of 2013, President Obama nominated her to be a representative of the United States to the United Nations, making her the first African American woman to hold that position. Congresswoman Lee currently chairs the Congressional Social Work Caucus, the Whip’s Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus and the HIV/AIDS Caucus. She uses all these platforms to continue to advocate for women, particularly women of color.

The Women of Chime For Change: This charity organization, founded by Beyoncé, Frida Giannini and Salma Hayek, raises funds and awareness for girls’ and women’s empowerment around the globe. Launched in February with a London benefit concert,The Sound Of Change Live, it focuses on three key areas: education, health and justice. Thanks to the event, funds were sent to 210 programs working for the empowerment of women in 81 countries. Said founding committee member Salma Hayek,

I am proud to be joining the growing international movement on behalf of girls and women around the world. I believe that by working together we can change the course of history to ensure that girls and women are empowered to realize their potential and thrive.

Nina Turner: This Ohio state senator and minority whip has fought for reproductive rights in her state, finding unique ways to point to the absurdity of bills aimed at restricting women’s rights. Turner, who’s now running for secretary of state in Ohio, has also proposed a bill to end the 20-year statute of limitation on rape cases.

That’s our list, but with so many women out there doing great things in the world, it would be impossible to name them all. Who would be on your list? Let us know in the comments below!


Wendy Davis photo courtesy of Alan Kotok, photo of Malala courtesy of The UN Seceretary General’s …, Photo of Steinem courtesy of Jenny Warburg, Photo of Quvenzhané Wallis courtesy of ilacami2, Pussy Riot photo courtesy of Playing Futures: Applied. . . , Photo of Kakenya courtesy of Vital Voices press kit and the Kakenya Center For Excellence, photo of  Sen. Gillibrand Third Way Think Tank, photo of Rep. Speier from Flickr user The Skyline View, photo of Diana Nyad courtesy of Todo Gaceta, Photo Edie Windsor courtesy of Brian Webb, photo of Tatyana Fazlaizadeh courtesy of History of Graphic Design, photo of fast food workers strike courtesy of Andrea Bowers, photo of Brittney Griner courtesy of sportiqe, photo of Leticia Van De Putte courtesy of Roberto Castillo,Photo of Barbara Lee courtesy of One Voice PAC, photo of Salma Hayek courtesy of salma hayek, Photo of Nina Turner courtesy of America SCORES Cleveland, all Flickr users on Creative Commons.


Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms. Read more from her at OhHeyMeliss.com.