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 right of education of the female sex, as it is in a manner everywhere neglected, so it ought to be generally lamented. Most in this depraved later age think a woman learned and wise enough if she can distinguish her husband's bed from another's... Vain man is apt to think we were merely intended for the world's propagation, and to keep its human inhabitants sweet and clean; but by their leaves, had we the same Literature, he would find our brains as fruitful as our bodies."
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.
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.
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.