Despite the political, economic and public health challenges this year—or perhaps because of them—feminists mobilized, fought for our rights, and made progress on many of the issues we care deeply about.
From voter mobilization to reproductive justice, politicians to pop stars, here are our top feminists of 2020.
Stacey Abrams was a powerhouse in the fight for fair elections this year. After the 2018 elections in Georgia were marred with controversy, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, Abrams founded Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to mobilizing voters, advocating for election reform, and educating voters about fair elections.
During the 2020 elections, Abrams and Fair Fight played a pivotal role in grassroots organizing for Joe Biden, and proved to be major factors in Georgia’s flipping blue for the first time since 1992. Abrams then presided over Georgia’s Electoral College votes, and has helped to lead a massive get out the vote effort on the ground in Georgia in the lead-up to the upcoming Senate runoffs on Jan. 5.
“Those Women from Michigan”: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel
Michigan officials Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel found themselves at the center of an unwanted spotlight this year, after President Trump attacked “those women from Michigan” after they had the audacity to ask the federal government for the medical supplies they needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
But despite Trump’s condescension and belittling, Whitmer, Benson and Nessel made it clear that they would not back down from standing up for their state. They listened to public health experts and enforced COVID-19 safety restrictions, even as the Trump administration attempted to undermine their decisions, and right-wing terrorists attempted to kidnap Whitmer (which Trump refused to condemn).
And they helped lead the movement for fair and secure elections this year, mailing absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in Michigan, greatly increasing voters’ abilities to make their voices heard safely.
Throughout 2020, President Trump continually attacked the free press, networks he perceives as “liberal,” and women journalists in particular. CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins experienced his misogyny firsthand at a COVID-19 briefing, when White House officials tried to pressure her to move from her assigned, front-row seat to the back of the room. She resisted the order and defied Trump’s desire to ignore women reporters, bravely standing up to intimidation and threats.
She also stood up to Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who refused to answer Collins’s questions, saying, “I don’t call on activists.” Collins again defended herself and her profession, providing a valuable resistance to the Trump administration’s hostility towards the media.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer in Iran who has represented political prisoners, religious minorities, children and women punished for not wearing hijabs.
In 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested and sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes—all for the “crime” of standing up for women’s rights.
This year, she went on a 46-day hunger strike to raise awareness for the high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in Iranian prisons, and to call for the release of political prisoners during the pandemic. Her amazing work is documented in the recently-released documentary Nasrin, and she has proven this year that she will continue to fight for the rights of political, religious, and gender minorities in Iran, regardless of her own incarceration.
The Biden-Harris administration is making history, and Dr. Jill Biden is no exception. She will be the first presidential spouse to work full-time, as an English professor at the Northern Virginia Community College. As a community college professor, she will bring extremely valuable perspectives and experience into the White House, standing up for teachers and students across the country.
Dr. Biden has already had to defend her profession and qualifications: After a Wall Street Journal opinion piece disparaged her education and titles, Dr. Biden defended her doctorate in education and stood up for women academics. She has made it clear that she will be able to teach her students and pursue meaningful campaigns as presidential spouse—like her work in supporting military families.
Taylor Swift was not idle during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wrote, recorded and released two highly successful albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” becoming the first woman to ever hold the numbers 1 and 2 spots on the Billboard Top Album Sales Chart in the same week. She also released three films this year, including her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, which follows her political awakening and voter mobilization efforts.
She also announced this year that she will be reclaiming her work from the men who have attempted to silence her and derail her career. The masters of her first six albums have been sold twice without her consent, and have been controlled by celebrity manager Scooter Braun, whom Swift has accused of bullying and harassment. This fall, Swift announced that she is rerecording her old music, giving fans the option to support her, and not her harassers. In a highly feminist act, she is reclaiming her past, her work and her voice.
Janet Yellen made history this year as she became the first woman to be named treasury secretary. The Biden-Harris administration is on track to create a Cabinet that will have a record number of women and people of color.
Yellen in particular will have an essential role in the new administration. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a disastrous economic crisis, which Yellen knows has had disproportionate impacts on women and people of color. She has pledged to “move with urgency” to alleviate unemployment, support families, and address structural problems like income inequality and stagnant wages.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) has long been an advocate for veterans, families and women’s rights. Her bill, The Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM), was signed into law this year, requiring that all airports provide designated lactation rooms. This will make traveling much easier and more accessible for mothers, and sends a message that breastfeeding should not be stigmatized.
Duckworth also spoke out against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, bravely sharing her experience using IVF to conceive her two daughters. Justice Coney Barrett has ties to an organization that opposes IVF and some other fertility treatments, and she has refused to acknowledge that criminalizing IVF would be unconstitutional.
Kristen Clarke is the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She criticized the rushed confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and pointed out that Justice Coney Barrett has repeatedly attempted to dismiss and avoid the issues of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, particularly of communities of color.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Clarke raised awareness about voter suppression and fought for policies like absentee ballots that allowed voters to make their voices heard safely during the pandemic.
Vanita Gupta is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. As a part of her “All Voting is Local” campaign, she worked with state legislators to expand voting options during the pandemic, fought against illegal voter purges, and registered and mobilized new voters.
On top of fighting for a fair election, she also wrote about the unprecedented attacks on the 2020 census, and pushed for census integrity and accountability for the many communities of color that were missed or underrepresented.
She also testified before the House Judiciary Committee about police brutality and the necessity of reform, and stressed that Congress needs to act quickly to protect people of color from over-policing and the militarization of police, and create a system that holds officers accountable for unnecessary violence. She explained the same issues to President-Elect Biden, urging him to pick an attorney general that will prioritize civil rights reform.
In 2016, LaTosha Brown recognized the importance of Black votes, particularly in the South, where traditionally red states have been slowly turning blue. She co-founded Black Votes Matter to mobilize Black voters and fight for policies like early voting and no ID requirements that expand access to voting rights.
This year, the organization went town to town on a bus tour in several Southern states, partnering with local organizations, helping rural communities access ballots, and reminding Black communities of the power of their votes.
Kamala Harris made history this year when she won the election to become the first woman vice president, and also the first Black and South Asian vice president. She exemplified feminist attitudes throughout the campaign with her policies, and also with her refusal to be interrupted during the vice president debate, telling Mike Pence, “I’m speaking.”
Harris will bring new perspectives to the White House, and has already pledged to support women’s rights in many ways, including her commitment to ending the national rape kit backlog. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit unopened, denying victims the ability to seek justice. But Harris’s plan will make testing a priority, provide states with the funding they need to process the kits and increase accountability for untested evidence.
Jennifer Carroll Foy
Jennifer Carroll Foy was at the center of many progressive policy changes in Virginia this year—a state where, as of November of 2019, Democrats have control of both the State Senate and the House of Delegates. As a member of the House of Delegates, she led the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. When the bill passed, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA. While the fight for the ERA continues, Carroll Foy’s work helped us take a huge step forward.
She also announced this year that she will be running for governor in Virginia’s 2021 elections. If elected, she would be the first Black woman governor in the country. She is running on a platform that supports racial justice, raising the minimum wage and common-sense COVID-19 precautions, and would help Virginia embrace its increasingly diverse and progressive population.
Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.
As speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has consistently stood up for democracy and pushed back against President Trump’s dangerous policies and rhetoric. She led the impeachment of President Trump, and dismissed his false claims of election fraud. She has been fighting for COVID-19 relief bills for months, and was able to mobilize the House to pass the HEROES Act and the Families First Act—providing access to paid sick leave, free COVID-19 tests, and expanded unemployment insurance.
Pelosi also recognized the work of Jennifer Carroll Foy and other activists by passing a resolution in the House to remove the ratification deadline for the ERA. While the resolution was blocked by Republicans in the Senate, it sent a strong message that women deserve to have our rights represented in the Constitution, and that we will not give up the fight for the ERA.
The Congresswomen of the Impeachment Team: Reps. Val Demings, Sylvia Garcia and Zoe Lofgren
When Nancy Pelosi picked the members of the House to argue for Trump’s impeachment, she made history by picking three women (out of a seven-person team) for the first time.
Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) led the impeachment proceedings, trying to persuade the Senate that President Trump should be removed from office. They upheld the Constitution and defended the rights of the American people, by working to hold Trump accountable for his abuses of power.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) shot into the spotlight this year for her no-nonsense, devastating take down of pharmaceutical CEOs, using her famous whiteboard to break down how price gouging of drugs is used to enrich executives. She used it again to push for free COVID-19 testing, using basic math to demonstrate that CDC officials aren’t aware of what the average American actually pays for health care.
She again demonstrated her confidence and her refusal to be condescended to when she grilled Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about his attempt to make it harder to access emergency funding for COVID-19. Rep. Porter has made it extremely clear that she’s always willing to stand up to powerful men and hold them accountable for the harm they cause.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the National Institute of Health’s lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research, played an essential role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. She worked with Moderna to develop the mRNA technology used in their vaccine.
She’s now working to promote the vaccine, and encourage everyone to get vaccinated—especially Black Americans and other marginalized communities, who are less likely to trust the vaccine.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), the first Asian American woman and first woman senator from Hawaii, is a strong advocate for reproductive justice, immigration reform and access to health care. She spoke out against the nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, citing Barrett’s willingness to overturn the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade.
During the Coney Barrett hearings, Hirono questioned her intently and called her out for using the outdated and offensive term “sexual preference” to describe the LGBTQ community. Hirono will forever be immortalized for her vote in regards to Barrett’s confirmation: not just no, but “Hell no.”
Dolores Huerta has been a labor leader and civil rights activist for decades. Now 90 years old, she is still advocating for immigrants and farmworkers, and for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. The Dolores Huerta Foundation does grassroots organizing to develop leaders and fight for access to education and LGBTQ equality. Huerta is a true inspiration that has helped develop generations of younger feminists, and is still on the ground continuing her activism at 90.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been using her social media presence to advocate for progressive policies since she was elected in 2018. She has persevered through mountains of harassment—mostly from conservative men shocked to see a young woman of color speaking up for what she believes in.
After she was bullied by her colleague Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), who accosted her and called her misogynistic slurs, Ocasio-Cortez spoke on the House floor about the culture of misogyny and racism she faces every day. She was able to bravely shine a light on the disrespect of women that is normalized and accepted throughout society, including in our political processes.
Loretta Ross has played a key role in feminist movements for decades. She helped create the term “reproductive justice,” and was a co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.
This year, she taught at Smith College about white supremacy in our current political climate. And in an op-ed for the New York Times, Ross criticized “cancel culture,” instead preferring “calling people in” and educating them about the goals of our feminist activism. Her tactics promote education, empathy and understanding, instead of unnecessary criticism, and can help bring non-feminists into our movements.
In Memoriam: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her life to advancing women’s rights. She argued landmark sex discrimination cases, and as a Supreme Court justice was never afraid to dissent and argue for what she believed in. She was responsible for many gains we’ve made towards equality and women’s rights in all spheres of life.
Justice Ginsburg was committed to the Court and was very aware of her responsibilities and her power to enact change. She continued serving on the Court through several rounds of cancer recurrences, and even participated in oral arguments from the hospital. She was awarded the National Constitution Center’s 32nd annual Liberty Medal this year for her “historic efforts to advance equality and liberty for all”.
She also spoke out against the increasing polarization of political parties, and condemned the Senate’s acquittal of President Trump after his impeachment trials, calling for more bipartisanship for the good of the nation. Her loss is keenly felt by feminists, but her legacy as a women’s rights advocate will never be forgotten.
Katie Fleischer contributed research and editorial assistance with this article.
You may also like:
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.