From COVID vaccines to abortion rights, infrastructure bills to Olympic athletes, 2021 has been a monumental year for feminists around the globe. With so many of our rights in jeopardy, and with so many women struggling to recover from the pandemic, activists have had to work even harder to stand up for the causes they believe in.
Tackling voting rights, public health, reproductive justice and much more, here are our top feminists of 2021.
After the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wasted no time in standing up in support of feminist causes on the Supreme Court. While the Court now has a majority of conservative justices, Justice Sotomayor provided a strong opposition to their attempts to chip away at reproductive rights and access to healthcare.
She wrote several scathing dissents emphasizing the importance of abortion access and specifically calling for the Court to acknowledge the rights of people seeking abortions. Throughout 2021, and for as long as the Court continues to have a conservative majority, Sotomayor is a critical voice, speaking up for women and other marginalized communities and representing feminist beliefs on the Supreme Court.
Chloé Zhao made Oscars history this year, becoming the first woman of color and just the second woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director. Her film, Nomandland, was also nominated in five other categories, and Zhao was the first woman to get four nominations in a single year. Nomadland follows the lives of poor Americans who live a nomadic lifestyle in their vehicles, providing a glimpse of a unique low-income community.
The Women of the Cabinet
With Kamala Harris and 11 women nominees, seven of them women of color, President Biden’s Cabinet has become, as he promised, “the single-most diverse… that’s ever existed.” The Cabinet itself is full of “firsts,” with many women leaders making history. Here are the women of the Biden administration:
Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman vice president and the first Black and South Asian vice president. She helped Biden pass his American Rescue Plan and work to pass the Build Back Better Act, and has been the tie-breaking vote in the Senate on a number of important issues, including passing the American Rescue Plan Act.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland also made history as the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. She is working to end violence against Indigenous communities and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Shalanda Young, Acting Director of Office of Management and Budget, is the first Black woman in charge of her agency, and has helped remove the Hyde Amendment from Biden’s budget.
Janet Yellen became the first woman Secretary of the Treasury, and wants to use her position to not just analyze the national debt, but also to address climate change, structural racism and other inequities. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is also working on important climate justice policies, implementing Biden’s ambitious green energy plans.
Marcia Fudge, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was nominated during one of the worst housing crises in history. She understands the need for economic justice and affordable housing, and aims to tackle homelessness across the country. Dr. Cecilia Rouse, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers agrees, saying she wants to “use the tools of economics to generate positive social change”. She is the first Black leader of the Council of Economic Advisers and supports policies that encourage work-life balance.
Isabel Guzman, head of the Small Business Administration, is the first Latina in her position. She manages the Paycheck Protection Program, and is helping women-owned and minority-owned business recover from the pandemic. Similarly, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has been supporting workers via the American Rescue Plan.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is the first woman to lead the intelligence community. She was the Principal deputy national security advisor, legal advisor and assistant to the president under the Obama administration, and was previously the first woman deputy director of the CIA.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai is the first woman of color in that position. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, and is a seasoned expert on international trade agreements.
U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has 35 years of experience as a diplomat, and draws from her experience growing up in 1950s Louisiana to connect to people from different backgrounds and perspectives. She has worked hard to mend the international relationships damaged during the Trump administration and restore trust in the U.S.
Shalanda Young is the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the first Black woman in charge of the agency. Prior to this OMB role, she was the first Black woman to serve as the staff director for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, where she “oversaw $1.4 trillion in annual federal funding for programs ranging from infrastructure to defense to development. Before becoming staff director, Young held other positions within the committee for more than 14 years,” according to the Washington Post.
Julie Rickelman, Marc Hearron and Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar
The Honorable Elizabeth Prelogar, 48th Solicitor General of the United States pic.twitter.com/2U2mXi6Xrz— Anthony Coley (@AnthonyColeyDOJ) October 29, 2021
Feminists watched nervously as multiple abortion rights cases were heard before the Supreme Court this year. Julie Rickelman, senior litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued passionately for abortion access in Mississppi in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, while Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, took on Texas in Whole Woman’s Health et al. v. Jackson et al.
All three defended abortion as a constitutional right, reiterating for the Court how access to abortion has helped women acheive greater success and equality in society. As conservative lawmakers continue to attack reproductive rights, we need strong feminist lawyers now more than ever.
Black Women Members of Congress Leading the Fight for Voting Rights
This afternoon, Vice President Harris and I met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House. We’re committed to working together to make progress on everything from policing reform and voting rights to economic opportunity and racial equity. pic.twitter.com/TfLeJEgEyh— President Biden (@POTUS) April 14, 2021
Over the past few election cycles, states have become emboldened to increasingly attack voting rights, creating electoral systems full of gerrymandering, voter ID laws and unequal resources that resulted in people of color being forced to wait in long lines or otherwise lose access to the right to vote.
In Congress, the women of the Congressional Black Caucus have been leading the fight to advance voting rights through the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act, both of which passed in the House before being blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Representatives Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and many more are on the frontlines of this essential fight for the voting rights of all Americans.
State Sen. @NikemaForSenate is among those being detained during a protest at the Capitol rotunda pic.twitter.com/febG6sCrGS— Maya T. Prabhu (@MayaTPrabhu) November 13, 2018
Kirsten Gillibrand and Jackie Speier
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have spent over 10 years raising awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, and introducing bills to prevent future abuse. This year, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 will change how the military handles sexual assault and harassment cases, taking some power away from military commanders, and instead relying on independent decision makers to prosecute cases. There is still much more work to be done—Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act would be another huge leap forward—but this is an important step towards ensuring women’s safety and equality in the military.
The Women of the COVID Vaccine
Throughout 2021, access to the COVID-19 vaccines have allowed us to work, learn and live safely, transforming all of our lives drastically. Many women scientists, researchers and medical professionals have been at the forefront of the development of the vaccines, in many different roles. For example, women are industry leaders: Hanneke Schuitemaker is the global head of viral vaccine discovery for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Özlem Türeci is the co-founder of BioNTech and Sumathy K is the head of R&D for Covaxin developer Bharat Biotech.
Women were also responsible for running vaccine trials and ensuring their safety. Kathrin Jansen led the effort at Pfizer that produced the first vaccine approved for emergency use, and Sarah GiIbert is the architect of the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Elena Smolyarchuk is the chief researcher of the first completed clinical trials for the vaccine Sputnik V, and Dr. Lisa Jackson was the principal investigator of the world’s first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine (for Moderna).
Finally, women scientists were at the center of vaccine research. Nita Patel and an all-women team of scientists in Maryland led development of the vaccine for Novavax. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is an immunologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who helped develop the mRNA technology used in the Moderna vaccine, and decades of research done by Katalin Karikó made the mRNA vaccines possible.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reelected for a fourth term as speaker this year, and has faced unprecedented challenges as the top Democrat in the House. From enforcing mask mandates in the House and fining noncompliant representatives, to impeaching Trump for a second time, Pelosi has been a steady and determined advocate for feminist policies. By managing to pass the Build Back Better Act in the House, she brought together multiple caucuses within the Democratic party to support social infrastructure policies like paid family leave and historic investments in education. (Fingers crossed for the Senate.)
As lawyers fight legal battles and activists take to the streets to support abortion rights, abortion providers are often unsung heroes, providing aid to everyone seeking an abortion. They face threats, harassment and even violence from anti-abortion extremists, but continue their essential work because they know that everyone deserves to make decisions about their own bodies, families and futures.
The Women Negotiators of Afghanistan
I’ve seen the Taliban burn down girl’s schools and assassinate female politicians.— Rep. Mike Waltz (@michaelgwaltz) April 2, 2021
These brave & determined negotiators are fighting for all Afghan women in the “peace” talks. My honor to speak with them today as co-chair of the Women, Peace, and Security Caucus. pic.twitter.com/WPzH855mjZ
Women in Afghanistan have suffered greatly this year, with the United States withdrawing troops and abandoning our allies, and the Taliban banning girls from schools after sixth grade. Four women were part of Afghanistan’s negotiation team, hoping to preserve the progress Afghan women made in recent decades. Habiba Sarabi, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, Fatima Gailani and Fawzia Koofi have shown tremendous bravery and persistence in the fight for the rights of all Afghan women.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) has been at the center of feminist lawmaking this year. As chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she led legislative action to protect reproductive rights and worked to promote the social infrastructure policies of the BBB. After Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) effectively killed the bill in the Senate, she urged Biden to take stronger executive action to implement those essential policies.
Going into the Tokyo Olympics, all eyes were on Simone Biles as she prepared to lead the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to the gold medal podium. But after Biles started experiencing “the twisties,” a gymnast’s worst nightmare that left her unable to keep track of her body in the air, Biles made a strong statement by putting her mental and physical health first and withdrawing from several competitions. By prioritizing her mental health—and by helping expose Larry Nassar’s systemic abuse of young gymnasts—Biles is defying the traditional structure within U.S. Gymnastics that treats young girls as disposable, and is becoming an inspirational leader for athletes everywhere.
Olivia Rodrigo took the music world by storm this year, with her debut album SOUR becoming the biggest album release of 2021. Her album is full of feminist messages that appeal to young women, from disrupting the sexist “other woman” trope to discussing the pressure social media puts on teenage girls to compare themselves to unrealistic beauty standards. She also includes pro-LGBTQ messages in her song “hope ur ok,” calling out parents who use religion as an excuse to mistreat their LGBTQ children. Rodrigo took advantage of her spotlight this year to visit the White House and promote the COVID vaccine to young people, who were less likely to get vaccinated than older age groups.
Women Members of Congress Who Shared Their Abortion Stories
In the wake of S.B. 8, Texas’s law banning abortions after six weeks, before many even know they’re pregnant, Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) bravely shared their abortion experiences at a House Committee hearing. By coming forward with their stories, they were able to humanize people seeking abortions and demonstrate the important role access to abortion can play in women’s lives. They also emphasized the challenges women of color face in accessing their reproductive rights, due to disproportionate financial burdens and a greater chance of health complications during pregnancy.
Greta Thunberg became an international inspiration in 2018, when she started a student-led climate justice movement in Sweden. Three years later, she’s fed up with world leaders failing to deliver on their promises. This fall, she didn’t hesitate to call out the U.N. climate change conference COP 26 as a “failure” that prioritized fossil fuel lobbyists over climate activists and those most affected by climate change. Her persistence in demanding effective action to combat climate change is helping to galvanize the climate justice movement around the world.
After 16 years in power, Angela Merkel decided not to run for re-election this year, ending her time as Germany’s first female chancellor. Arguably the world’s most powerful woman leader, Merkel has shown that women leaders must be taken seriously, with Germany’s economic stability and gender equality rates growing steadily during her terms, while also taking in millions of refugees—the largest number of any E.U. country.
In November, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai revealed on social media that she was sexually assaulted by former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. Her story was quickly censored in China, and Peng disappeared from the public eye for several weeks, prompting other tennis players and the Women’s Tennis Association to demand proof of her safety. Recently, Peng resurfaced and denied making any accusations, raising further questions about her ability to communicate freely. Despite knowing the risks she was taking, Peng bravely shared her story and became the first—but likely not the last—woman to expose the sexual violence of a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of China.
Indigenous Climate Activists at COP 26
Indigenous climate activists from around the world took things into their own hands this fall when they were excluded from the U.N. COP 26 conference. More than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access, but the voices of Indigenous women—who are stewards of over 80 percent of the biodiversity left on Earth and are also severely affected by climate change—were largely missing. In response, climate activists protested outside the conference, calling for solutions that center people from the Global South and Indigenous communities. They also held a memorial for the 1,005 environmental and land defenders murdered since the 2015 Paris Accord Agreement, one-third of whom were Indigenous.
In January, Sarah McBride was sworn in as a member of the Delaware Senate, becoming the first openly trans state senator ever. She is now the highest ranking trans elected politician, and is using her platform to champion paid family and medical leave bills, as well as ensuring access to the COVID vaccine in Delaware.
Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka set a great example for athletes everywhere this year when she implemented boundaries to protect her mental health. She decided not to participate in press conferences due to the high levels of anxiety they caused her, and later withdrew from two competitions to recover from bouts of depression and anxiety. Sharing her experiences with the world helps to end the stigma around mental health and inspire other athletes to take care of both their mental and physical health on and off the court.
Investigative journalist Maria Ressa was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize this year, becoming the first Nobel laureate from the Philippines. For years, she has worked to expose the corruption and human rights violations of President Rodrigo Duterte. In a series of attempts to suppress the free press, Ressa has been arrested and convicted of “cyber libel,” but she has courageously continued to risk her own freedom to uphold journalists’ freedom of expression.
ERA Advocates Reps. Brenda Lawrence, Carolyn Maloney and Jackie Speier
Fifty years after the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) passed in Congress, the amendment finally has enough states to ratify it, thanks to years of feminist activism. Now, Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) are working on getting the ERA over its final hurdle: eliminating the ratification deadline. This spring, the House held a historic hearing on the ERA and passed a bill removing the arbitrary deadline. Now it’s up to the Senate to finally affirm women’s equality in the Constitution.
The House Impeachment Managers
We have done our duty as Impeachment Managers….. pic.twitter.com/kvlitfYMBa— Rep. Stacey Plaskett (@StaceyPlaskett) February 13, 2021
In advance of former President Trump’s second impeachment trial, Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose nine representatives to serve as impeachment managers. Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI) helped lead the prosecution team, charging Trump with inciting the January 6 insurrection. By taking on this important duty, they upheld our democracy in a time when Trump was attempting to destabilize it.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern taught a masterclass in pandemic response this year, demonstrating the power of female leadership. She worked quickly to implement strict travel guidelines and lockdowns when necessary, resulting in some of the best public health outcomes anywhere in the world—over 90 percent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated, citizens experienced relative normalcy and very few outbreaks and New Zealand has one of the lowest per capita death rates. And Ardern’s effective leadership has public approval as well: Over 80 percent of the population supporting her ambitious COVID precautions.
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, made headlines this year when she and her husband Prince Harry spoke with Oprah about the pressure and prejudice she’s faced as a woman of color in the British Royal Family. Markle opened up about her mental health, sharing that she has suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, and was denied help because of her status as a royal family member. She also revealed the racist discrimination and disproportionate scrutiny she’s received from the press and members of the royal family. Markle has shown that she’s not afraid to stand up for the well-being and mental health of herself and her family, even if it means facing public backlash and the disapproval of the royal family.
At just 22 years old, Amanda Gorman was the youngest inaugural poet ever. Her incredible poem, “The Hill We Climb,” quickly became a viral message, encouraging Americans to imagine a path towards healing while also demanding accountability and justice. Gorman was part of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Girls Learn International program in high school, advocating for access to education, and recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in sociology.
Dr. Rachel Levine made history this year when she became the first openly trans person to be confirmed by the Senate, joining the Biden administration as the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). She is also the first openly trans four-star officer in the military. In her role at HHS, she has worked to reverse some of the Trump administration’s harmful policies, and criticized attempts to prevent trans youth from accessing the gender-affirming healthcare they need.
Country superstar Dolly Parton helped make huge strides in scientific research this year, donating $1 million towards the development of the Moderna vaccine. When the vaccine was approved for her age range, she got vaccinated publicly, posting a video online urging others to get vaccinated as well.
Parton isn’t just focusing on public health, either. Her Imagination Library addresses literacy rates by gifting one book each month from birth to age 5 to children across the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Ireland. To date, the program has distributed over 150 million books.
Billie Jean King
Former tennis champion Billie Jean King has been an advocate for gender equality on and off the court throughout her life. As the Supreme Court considers overturning abortion rights, King recently shared her abortion story in an op-ed, detailing how she had to convince a hospital commitee and get her husband to sign a consent form before she was approved for the procedure. King also weighed in after Peng Shuai’s allegations, praising the Women’s Tennis Association, which she founded, for suspending tournaments in China due to concerns for Peng’s safety.
Elite soccer player and LGBTQ activist Megan Rapinoe has been fighting for equal pay for women athletes for several years. In 2019, The U.S. Women’s national soccer team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging that they earn just 89 percent of what their male counterparts do, even though the women’s team is much more successful.
This year, with the Tokyo Olympics drawing international attention to her team, Rapinoe helped lead the fight for equal wages. In September, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that it will offer the men’s and women’s team identical contracts this year, a huge step towards ensuring Rapinoe and her teammates will be paid what they deserve.
Reps. Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams
Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.), co-founders and co-chairs of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, have made incredible progress this year in bringing attention to the maternal health crisis in America, which disproportionately affects Black mothers. Along with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ.)., Underwood and Adams introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, a set of 12 bills that address different aspects of maternal health, including supporting incarcerated mothers and those with mental health disorders, and improving data collection to shed light on the maternal health crisis. President Biden signed the first bill in November, providing $15 million in maternity care for veterans. Other policies were included in the BBB, which Underwood and Adams have been staunch advocates for.
“Honorary Feminist” Award: Liz Cheney
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) became an unlikely political leader this year, drawing mainstream press by breaking from the Republican party to criticize former President Trump on multiple occasions. After the January 6 insurrection, many Republican legislators chose to ignore Trump’s incitement of the mob to avoid having to acknowledge his attempt to steal the election and destabilize our democracy. But Cheney was one of the few Republicans willing to stand up for the good of the U.S., voting to impeach Trump. Facing severe backlash within her party, she was removed from her leadership position within the House and later disavowed by the Wyoming Republican party.
In Memoriam: Victims of Anti-Trans Violence
Today is #TransDayOfRemembrance, a time to memorialize the trans lives lost due to anti-trans violence.— LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus (@LGBTEqCaucus) November 20, 2021
2021 marks a tragic milestone as the deadliest year on record for the trans and gender non-conforming community.
May we honor their memory today, and every day. 🏳️⚧️ pic.twitter.com/j7deYcZqLP
2021 was the deadliest year in recorded history for trans people, with HRC reporting over 50 people who were fatally shot or otherwise murdered. The true number of victims is likely much greater, since too often anti-trans attacks and transphobic hate crimes go unreported or underinvestigated by law enforcement. The majority of the victims were Black and Latinx trans women, revealing how different forms of oppression intersect to make trans women of color extremely vulnerable to discrimination and violence.
On this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, President Biden released a statement calling for his administration to address this epidemic of violence. But in order to truly honor the victims of anti-trans violence and protect the trans and gender nonconforming people in our communities, we need to ensure trans people are covered under existing hate crime laws, implement economic policies that help low-income trans people and fight back against the increasingly large wave of anti-trans bills making their way through state legislatures.
In Memoriam: bell hooks
Our nation lost a prolific author, activist, and trailblazer. bell hooks’ profound and positive influence will be with us for generations to come. May she rest in power. pic.twitter.com/6yklT75Qqw— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) December 15, 2021
Scholar, author and activist bell hooks was one of the foremost minds on Black feminism and the intersections of race, class and gender, as well as sexual politics and gender roles. Her first nonfiction book, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, is cited by many as their introduction to Black feminist politics, and inspired feminists everywhere to pay attention to intersecting systems of oppression.
In recent years, hooks joined Berea College as a distinguished professor in residence in Appalachian studies. Berea College is a needs-based college that primarily serves Southern Appalachian students, and charges no tuition. It was the first college in the South to be co-ed and racially integrated, and hooks’s residence there demonstrated her commitment to truly making feminism accessible for everyone.
Her loss is a great blow to the world of feminist scholarship, as well as to her students and all of us who were inspired by her words to take action. Her legacy as a writer, activist and feminist legend will never be forgotten.
Katie Fleischer contributed research and editorial assistance for this article.