12 Of The Most Unexpected Feminist Heroes From History

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From powerful or influential women in ancient times to early advocates of gender equality and modern-day champions of women, history is full of unexpected feminist heroes. These are empowered women and men who railed against inequality and oppressive gender roles to change public consciousness. Individuals who stood their ground in the face of subjugation and injustice not only for their own personal interest but for the betterment of women everywhere. People whose lives and work contributed — in direct or unexpected ways — to the advancement of gender equality and women's rights.

The question of what a feminist looks like has probably, by this point in time, been discussed to death. And yet still it seems as if every year articles are written on the topic. Personally, I don't think there's one stock description for what a feminist looks like or what a feminist does. Rather the word feminist feels more like a descriptor that serves each person differently, holding different meaning for different people. Some of the people on this list may not have identified themselves as feminists, indeed some of them lived hundreds of years before the term ever came to be. However, they were all strong, vocal allies of women, folks who challenged the idea that women could not be socially, economically, and politically equal to men.

Finally, I'd like to say that this list is in no way complete, and I welcome your suggestions of other unexpected or lesser-known feminist icons to check out for next time (seriously, tweet them to me). In the meantime, here are 12 of history's unexpected feminist heroes:

1. Sappho (640/610 - 570/550 B.C.)

Although not a whole lot is known about Sappho's personal life (historians are even unclear on exactly when she was born and when she died), she is widely considered to be one of the greatest lyric poets of all time — an especially noteworthy achievement given the male-dominated nature of classic literature. She was one of the first people to give voice — and space — to women's experiences. Unfortunately, much of Sappho's work was destroyed sometime around the 11th century. Some suspect it was the Catholic Church that took issue with Sappho's writing and ordered her works destroyed.

2. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Sometimes referred to as the feminist nun, Hildegard von Bingen was a German abbess, composer, healer, and writer. While many of Hildegard's writings reflect the patriarchal ideas of both the era she lived in and the Church, she lived a decidedly feminist life centuries before the term was even invented. Although women in Hildegard's time were generally not allowed to read or write, Hildegard did both extensively, authoring songs, poetry, theological and medical texts, and creating her own alphabet.

3. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)

Having taken offense to the misogynistic way women were often portrayed in literature, Italian-French medieval writer Christine de Pizan took it upon herself to change the narrative. She authored dozens of works, including The Book of the City of Ladies, in an effort to refute writings she felt to be defamatory by belittling and ridiculing women. Although she did not seek equality between the sexes in the same way modern feminists have, Pizan was an advocate for women's education and argued that it was the male-dominated society of her time that kept women from reaching their full potential.

4. Chevalier d'Eon (1728-1810)

Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Eon de Beaumont, or simply Chevalier d'Eon for short, was one of history's first openly transgender individuals. While the earliest recorded reference of d'Eon in women's dress comes in 1770, historians believe d'Eon lived mainly as a man from 1762 to 1777, before transitioning to living as a woman for decades. Throughout both periods d'Eon remained something of a celebrity being a notable figure in both international politics and 18th-century high society. During their lifetime, d'Eon worked as a diplomatic spy, enjoyed a brief military career, was an accomplished fencer, and helped negotiate the Peace of Paris treaty to end the Seven Years' war. According to historians at the National Portrait Gallery, feminists like Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft often cited d'Eon as an example of "female fortitude" British women should aspire to.

5. Jarena Lee (1783-1864)

Nowadays female preachers are far from being a rarity, but in the early 1800s women weren't seen delivering sermons from the pulpit. Born into a free family, Jarena Lee began took up work as a domestic servant at just 7 years old. In 1807, when Lee was around the age of 24, she felt God pulling her toward ministry. For more than 10 years Lee would advocate for gender equality and women in the ministry, writing in her autobiography, "If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?" Eventually Lee would become the first authorized woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  

6. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill was not only one of liberalism's most influential thinkers, but also one of history's early male feminists. In 1869, Mill published The Subjection of Women, in which he advocated for equality between the sexes and warned that the continued oppression of women would hinder humanity's progress overall. Along with demanding women be given the right to vote and increased access to education, Mill rebuked the idea that women were inherently incapable of doing certain things, arguing that male-imposed gender constructs had never allowed them the opportunity to even try.

7. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

While advanced schooling was practically unheard of for women in the Victorian era, noblewoman Ada Lovelace was something of a revolutionary and received an extensive education in mathematics and science. However, the Victorian mathematician was so far ahead of her time that she died relatively unknown simply because technology had not yet caught up to her ideas. In truth, Lovelace's correction and analysis of Charles Babbage's work on the analytical engine is considered to have been the basis for the world's first computer program. Consider her a pioneering woman of computer science.

8. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

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Harriet Tubman was a staunch abolitionist, well-known for her role in helping slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. But Tubman was also an advocate for woman's suffrage, speaking throughout the Northeast on the issue. What's more, Tubman was also a Union army spy and the first woman in history to command an armed military expedition. Her commitment to fighting oppression and social injustice whether or not she was recognized or appreciated for it earned her the respect and admiration of Frederick Douglas, who in 1868 wrote to her, "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown - of sacred memory - I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have."

9. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

The author of Little Women — a novel that explores how women struggle between family duty and personhood — was also an advocate for equal rights, ending slavery, and the women's suffrage movement. In fact, Alcott was reportedly so keen on getting the right to vote that she was the first woman in her Massachusetts town to register once women won the right.

10. Annie Oakley (1860-1926)

Phoebe Ann Moses, known more commonly as Annie Oakley, is perhaps a more controversial feminist icon. As a teenager Oakley began her own small business selling the meat of animals she'd killed to shops and restaurants as a means of helping her mother with the family finances. At around 16 years old, she beat traveling marksman Frank E. Butler in a shooting competition which launched her to eventually becoming America's first female celebrity sharp shooter. According to historians, while Oakley refused to wear pants and didn't support the women's suffrage movement (she was reportedly afraid not enough "good" women would vote), she did campaign for equal pay and was an outspoken example of a woman doing whatever the hell she wants.

11. Dolly Parton (1946-Present)

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Speaking of a woman doing whatever the hell she wants, let's talk about country singer Dolly Parton. While some have taken issue with how she chooses to present herself, female empowerment has been a running theme in Parton's work since the 1960s. With lyrics like, "Just let me tell you this then we'll both know where we stand / My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I'm a woman" from her 1968 hit Just Because I'm A Woman and, "They just use your mind and they never give you credit ... They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter / You're just a step on the boss-man's ladder" from her 1980 hit 9 to 5, Parton has sung about everything from sexual double standards women face to sexism in the workplace. On top of being a country singer, 71-year-old Parton is also a successful businesswoman and philanthropist. Moreover, she's stayed true to doing what makes her happy despite heavy scrutiny and criticism. As Parton said in her song Backwoods Barbie, "I might look artificial, but where it counts I'm real."

12. Mick Foley (1965-Present)

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Representing perhaps the most unexpected feminist on this list is retired WWE wrestling champion Mick Foley, who many know by his other aliases Mankind and Cactus Jack. Foley came to feminism through the music of Tori Amos, which he credits with helping him ease his fears and anxieties and build confidence before some of the more brutal wrestling matches of his career. When Foley finally met Amos he became intrigued by her work with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) and decided to become a donor and volunteer himself in 2009. Over the years he has continued to work with the organization as both a support volunteer and a fundraiser. This month alone Foley helped raise more than $144,000 for the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Along with volunteering his time to provide one-on-one support to survivors, Foley has also been vocal about breaking down the stigmas society places on women and in particular, sexual assault survivors. In 2015, he teamed up with the UnSlut Project to promote gender equality, sex positivity, and age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education.