Every society prefers to think of itself as more progressive and advanced than those that came before it. There are all kinds of reasons this view is problematic, not the least of which is its inherent ethnocentrism, but perhaps one of the most infuriating is the surprise people express when they encounter unexpected feminists throughout history. Feminism is often seen as a relatively modern concept; the popular view places its beginnings in the suffragette movement in the late 19th century, when the fight for the right to vote took center stage in women's rights.
While it is true that modern feminist theory can trace its roots back to women like Emmeline Pankhurst and Ida B. Wells, forward-thinking men and women throughout the ages have written, fought, and at times shed blood for the cause of gender equality in societies that were overtly hostile towards anyone who wasn't a straight, white man. Although the term "feminist" wasn't coined until the 1970s, the belief that the underlying principles of feminism are solely a modern movement does a disservice to all those who came before. Without early champions of women's rights to pave the way for modern equality, who knows where we would be today?
As these men and women show, feminism can be found where you would least expect it — a fact that holds true even today. With that in mind, let's look at some of the most surprising feminists throughout history. Whether they're ancient rulers or modern-day actors, these women and men show that badass feminists have been badass since the very beginning.
Although female Pharaohs were nigh unheard-of in ancient Egyptian society, Hatshepsut climbed her way to power by the young age of 20 — and, unlike the more famous Cleopatra, her rule was marked by (relative) prosperity and stability.
2. Christine de Pisan
At first glance, de Pisan is your typical Renaissance-era poet and author: As the daughter of an astrologer, she spent an uneventful childhood in France and married at the age of 15. However, her poetry was overshadowed by her feminist writings, which analyzed the role of women in contemporary society and argued for their rights; at the time, voicing such ideals was incredibly rare. As a result, de Pisan is often cited as the first feminist philosopher.
3. Frederick Douglass
In addition to his tireless fight against slavery, the famous ex-slave was a staunch supporter of women's rights, despite his disagreements with white suffragists who claimed that white women deserved the vote before black men. In fact, he was one of the few men present at the historic Seneca Falls Convention. "I
believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the
wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with
the power and authority of woman herself... She is her
own best representative," he said in 1888.
4. Florence Nightingale
Although Nightingale is widely known as the founder of modern nursing, what's less well-known is that she fought against her upper-class upbringing for years to try and do good in the world. Thanks to her strong will and determination, Nightingale saved thousands of lives while also providing an example for women who felt they were languishing away in the forced idleness of the Victorian family. "I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel," she wrote in the essay Cassandra.
5. Eva Perón
The controversial Argentinean political figure may have had a reputation for ruthlessness among her critics, but she was a dedicated champion of women's rights. During her time as First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952, she founded the Female Peronist Party and won several legislative battles — including earning women the right to vote in 1947.
6. Sharon Stone
Famous for titillatingly seductive roles in movies like Basic Instinct and Total Recall, Stone is open and proud of her sexuality, and she makes no secret of how she uses it to subvert patriarchal norms. "The more famous and powerful I get, the more power I have to hurt men," she told David Letterman in 1990.