9 Pioneering Feminists In History Who Were Way Before Their Time, Because Strong Women Have Always Existed
It's spectacularly tricky to attach the label of "feminist" to women who were writing, working, and living far before the term became widely used. And I'm talking centuries before. We're all pretty familiar these days with the shortest working definition of a modern feminist, thanks to writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and Beyonce) — "a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes" — but putting that label onto people from a pre-feminist period (i.e. before the "first wave" of the late 19th century) is pretty challenging. Why? One, they're not self-defining as feminists because that didn't exist yet; two, they often champion certain bits of feminist thought while repudiating others; and three, they come from radically different societies than our own.
Instead, most historians of feminism use the term "proto-feminists," meaning that these women anticipated the movement (some by nearly half a millennium), but can't be safely seen as part of it. And the list of proto-feminists is long. We've got Abigail Adams, the wife of President Adams, who famously beseeched him in a 1776 letter to "remember the ladies" while drafting the U.S. Constitution. We've got Moderata Fonte, the 16th-century Italian poet who published The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility And Superiority To Men in 1600. And then there's Olympe de Gouges, who wrote pro-feminist tracts before being executed in the French Revolution.
So here are nine other proto-feminists who kicked butt and took names for women's rights at startlingly early dates in history.
1. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)
If you know Margaret Cavendish's name, it's likely because she's widely considered one of the inventors of the genre of science fiction. An aristocrat and the Duchess of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Cavendish was an independent, eccentric woman and a hugely prolific writer, playwright, poet, and essayist — and her works have a decidedly feminist tinge. In the play Love's Adventures , for instance, the female lead cross-dresses as a man, and proceeds to win wars, save lovers, and lecture on theology.
In her Orations of Divers Sorts, she talks about women's lack of power in society and their right to pursue their ambitions with as much freedom as men. However, she then goes on to worry that such ambitious women would become too "masculine" and lose their feminine virtues. So calling her a feminist through and through is far more complicated than it looks.
2. Marie de Gournay (1565-1645)
People who are familiar with the French philosopher Montaigne might recognize de Gournay's name — she was a scholar with a special interest in his works, and he liked her so much that he essentially adopted her. She was the editor of some of his famous essays, but she was also a phenomenally intelligent woman who supported herself as a writer and translator, and, understandably, was pretty outspoken about women's right to education.
She published several passionate essays, with titles like Equality Between Men and Women, Complaints of Ladies, and Apology for the Writing Women, that argued that women could achieve just as much as men if given the same educational opportunities, and pointed out ancient philosophers who believed the same things.
3. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-1695)
One of my personal favorites, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a genius scholar and a vivacious star in the firmament of the Mexican court — who gave it all up to become a nun and pursue intellectual fulfillment. Her proto-feminist credentials come from the book Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply To Sister Philotea), which was published as a defense of the rights of women to education. The book got her into a lot of trouble: she earned massive rebukes from (all-male) religious leaders, and was forced to give away all her books (reportedly a library of over 4000!), and give up writing altogether.
4. Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)
Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan and sparker of the Antomian Controversy, is probably mostly known as a theological trouble-maker, but she was also a powerful figure in the history of women's rights in modern America. Her disagreement with the Puritan establishment of New England (about whether good works meant Godliness) isn't as interesting to us as her ideas about women: she was a female spiritual leader who defied the Church's ban on women preaching, and was dragged to trial for it while five months pregnant. She was also seen as a challenger to female subservience in early Puritan society. The "Jezebel" was sent into exile, where she was killed by a Native Algonquian tribe in 1643.
5. Hannah Woolley (1622-1675)
The author of a book about housekeeping might not seem a natural addition to a list of proto-feminists, but the English Hannah Woolley was a very unusual woman. Probably one of the first women in the world to earn her living writing about households and how to do everything in them (and I do mean everything — The Gentlewoman's Companion and other books contained everything from recipes to childrearing advice to medicine), Woolley was also an advocate for women's rights.
The Gentlewoman's Companion's introduction contains a violently worded defense of women's education:
Take THAT, patriarchy.
6. Jarena Lee (1783-?)
Jarena Lee ought to be far better known than she is. An African-American woman born free in New Jersey, she's got two massive achievements that get her a place in history: she was the first African-American woman to have an autobiography published in American history (The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, 1836), and, like Anne Hutchinson, she repeatedly challenged the ban on women preachers — so often that she made a career out of it.
Lee was a traveling preacher of the kind that 18th-century American knew well, with the one exception that she was a woman. She was authorized to preach by a man, Bishop Allen of the African Methodist Church, and despite facing serious resistance, ridicule, and physical hardship (she often traveled around America on foot), gave 178 sermons over the course of her preaching life. Her autobiography repeatedly details her feeling that women had just as much right to spread God's word as men.
7. Bathsua Makin (1600-1675)
As you'll have gathered, a lot of proto-feminist thought was centered on the idea of women being educated. Feminism today still places huge value on the importance of educating women to give them societal power, but it's a struggle that's been happening for centuries. Bathsua Makin's landmark treatise, An Essay To Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues, with an Answer to the Objections against this Way of Education (1673), was a pretty voluble defense of the universal right to education.
Makin was also a poet and child prodigy who established her own school, and had a flourishing writing career that lasted over 60 years. (Consider that proof of her own thesis.) Mary Astell, who's been called the "first English feminist," drew on Makin a lot when writing her own defense of women's education, Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, in 1694.
8. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)
Christine de Pizan, the Italian-French medieval author of The Book Of The City Of Ladies and 40 other works, was, like many other women on this list, an aristocrat and scholar who made a living by her pen. After she was widowed early, de Pizan became a court writer in the service of various monarchs and author of books about women's attitudes — and her concern was how women could counter the ridiculous, misogynist attitudes that surrounded them everywhere, in literature and everyday life.
She also advocated for women's education, arguing in The Book Of The City Of Ladies that women didn't lack for any natural ability in the sciences, and that they could demonstrate themselves as intellectual equals if men would give them the chance. But she didn't say that women were equal in every sense or deserved the same leading roles in society — merely that they should be allowed to live, and read, in peace.
9. Raichō Hiratsuka (1886-1971)
OK, this is cheating a bit. Feminism had definitely arrived in the Western world by the time Raicho, born Haru Hiratsuka, came onto the scene. But in her native Japan, some scholars argue, ideas about the equality of women didn't have the same historical basis as they did elsewhere, and moved slower — which means that Raicho was a historical groundbreaker. She began Japan's first all-women's literary magazine, Seito or Bluestocking, in 1911, and wrote an impassioned essay in 1913 "To the Women of the World", which demanded that Japanese women be allowed to explore more identities than that of wife and mother.
"Aren't wives treated in the same way as wives and cripples? Isn't it true that they have neither property rights nor rights to their children?" the essay asks. "We do not wish to marry so long as it means submitting to this kind of absurd, illogical system ... Once our eyes are open, we cannot fall asleep again." Despite her passion — which involved founding the New Women's Association, to try and get women a role in politics — Japanese women weren't allowed to vote in elections until 1945.