When talking to NPR journalist Nina Totenberg, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared a nugget of matrilineal wisdom. "My mother told me to be a lady," she told her longtime friend. "And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent." The 13 women featured below — from British wunderkind Michaela Coel to WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike — seem emboldened by that spirit. For Bustle's annual Rule Breakers issue, we honor their notorious independence. From the arts to activism, they've reimagined industries and tropes, and changed the face of power in 2020. Bring it on.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is facing an existential battle, courtesy of Tish James. On Aug. 6, the New York attorney general filed a civil lawsuit against the gun-lobbying behemoth, citing massive financial corruption. She aims to dissolve the organization, because, as she told Cosmopolitan magazine last month, “the rot runs deep.”
James, 61, is a political mainstay in the Big Apple, where she’s risen from a 10-year City Council member to public advocate to her current role. As attorney general, one of the nation's top law enforcement roles, she became the first Black woman in New York elected to statewide office.
Just two months into her role, she launched an ongoing investigation into the Trump Organization, and in the last two months alone, she’s called to investigate slowdowns to the United States Postal Service, and secured undocumented immigrants a place in the 2020 census. “When mastered and used for justice, [the law] is a power that enables us to bend the moral arc towards justice,” she said during her 2018 campaign. —Brianna Kovan
Rule Breakers On Their Own Rule Breakers:
In June, author Brit Bennett’s sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, debuted atop The New York Times bestseller list. It follows the parallel lives of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, two light-skinned Louisiana women whose lives fork when the latter passes as white into white culture and its wealthy Los Angeles manifestation. It’s a story about controlling your fate, but also the trickle-down implications of those choices.
By June’s end, Bennett's publisher, Riverhead, held a 17-way auction for the book’s television rights. HBO won out, inking a seven-figure deal, with Bennett signed on to executive produce. She turned 30 the same week.
It’s perhaps unfair to overlay Bennett’s books with the political environments they entered. (She started writing her 2016 debut, The Mothers, at age 17.) Regardless, The Mothers debuted four days after the Access Hollywood tape was leaked; The Vanishing Half four days after President Trump called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” and threatened violence against demonstrators.
Bennett’s books don’t respond to those moments, obviously, but they are structured within 21st-century America, where racial and economic hierarchies are invisible, pervasive ecosystems. Her books borrow that infrastructure, and then tell tender stories within its walls. The Vanishing Half has been a bestseller for 15 straight weeks, and will likely remain so through Election Day. —B.K.
When she broke through to the mainstream in 2007 with Transformers, Megan Fox became a shorthand in the press for everything men loved and feminists hated. Michael Bay’s camera shamelessly ogled her in the Transformers movies; Terry Richardson shot her for GQ’s 2008 Sexiest Woman in the World cover dipping cherries into her mouth.
But buried in the accompanying interview and many of Fox’s other press appearances were real pleas for independence and respect from the system that made her famous precisely because her looks and brazen personality were so easily packaged for the male gaze. It's only very recently — largely thanks to a resurfaced 2009 clip of Fox telling Jimmy Kimmel about being sexualized in Hollywood at 15 that went viral — that the culture at large has begun to process the damage done to a woman who was simply asking to be respected for her talent, not her looks.
"Of course I look back and think — it would have been nice if any of you had seen this at that time that there was a bandwagon of absolute toxicity being spewed at me for years," Fox told Refinery29. "But I appreciate the reversal of it." —Sam Rollins
On Sept. 17, the Los Angeles Sparks ended their WNBA season with a 59-73 loss to the Connecticut Sun in the league’s single-elimination playoffs. For Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, press conferences will now replace those post-game shows.
As president of the WNBA’s players union, Ogwumike has guided the league’s focus on racial justice. In July, it dedicated the 2020 season to the late Breonna Taylor and the #SayHerName campaign, which raises the stories of Black women killed by police. Warm-up jerseys are printed with the words “Black Lives Matter,” and players have held moments of silence and pregame tributes. After the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the women joined their NBA counterparts by sitting out games. Ogwumike appeared on ESPN, calling for Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, and for the Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul to investigate the officers involved in Blake’s shooting.
It’s not her first foray into headline news. In January, Ogwumike helped negotiate a landmark collective bargaining agreement, which will be in effect through 2027. Players now receive expanded health care, including a child care stipend and up to $60,000 for adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing, and fertility treatment costs. The maximum salary has increased almost 83%, and the average salary exceeds six figures for the first time ever. —B.K.
Rule Breakers On Their Own Rule Breakers:
When Netflix offered Michaela Coel $1 million for I May Destroy You, she turned it down, as they wouldn’t allow her to retain even 0.5% of the copyright. She has said that a Netflix executive told her “nobody does that.” But Coel, 32, brought the drama to BBC instead, which granted her the rights, full creative control, and an executive producer title — something she wasn’t afforded on her 2015 series, Chewing Gum.
The result is a sensitively wrought series that channels Coel’s own sexual assault into a fictionalized account of a London novelist named Arabella (played by Coel). She establishes the protagonist as a character already in the midst of life. The show is centered by her trauma, but Arabella is not.
I May Destroy You charts the ways that sexual assault impacts Arabella’s friendships, career, and sense of self while demonstrating how her more formative years have colored those things, too. In the process, the critically acclaimed drama treads into that precarious gray area of consent — who gives it, when, and how — with nuance and interiority. But it’s in the gut-punch of a finale that proves Coel’s mettle: Her writing, much like her, is brilliant especially when unbeholden to convention. —Dana Getz
When Katie Hill resigned from Congress last October, she knew her political work wasn’t done, but that it would manifest differently, outside the halls of elected power. Her fall from Congress — after a series of nude, nonconsensual photos were leaked by her estranged husband, she says — dominated late-2019 headlines. “I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture,” she said in her resignation speech, “that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”
In January, she moved out of her D.C. apartment, shared with colleague and friend Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), and brainstormed next steps. By August, she was publishing a book, She Will Rise: Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality, which recounts the cyber exploitation, among other things. She was also launching a PAC, HER Time, to support under-funded women running for office. “Women in power … should be using their platform[s] to show the commonality of these experiences,” she explained to former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, when explaining her choice to talk about sexual assault, abuse, and the mental health fallout.
As she explains it, masculinity has been a birthright coup for many candidates. In response, “we need to vote for women because they’re women,” Hill, 33, told Bustle last month. “Women have great potential to lead in a different way.” —B.K.
Alexis McGill Johnson
In late June, Planned Parenthood’s board voted on its next permanent president, unanimously choosing Alexis McGill Johnson. The New Yorker is a familiar face, having led the organization on an interim basis since last July. She now wields the power to shape its long-term policy.
But first, McGill Johnson is focused on a two-pronged herculean task: to help oust President Trump and Republican senators from power, and to combat chronic racism within the reproductive rights movement.
According to an August report from BuzzFeed News, both NARAL and Planned Parenthood affiliates were guilty of widespread systemic racism within their organizations. As the organization’s second-ever Black president, McGill Johnson, 48, is tasked with correcting course. When speaking to Bustle in June, she spoke to the future of reproductive rights. “We need a movement that includes the right to parent,” she said, “the right to not have your child murdered at the hands of state violence.”
On the political front, the stakes couldn’t be higher. As the first president to speak at the anti-abortion March for Life, Trump has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices to “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade, a threat that gained urgency following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In response, Planned Parenthood launched its largest-ever electoral effort, a $45 million campaign. —B.K.
Rule Breakers On Their Own Rule Breakers:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The year 2020 was always going to be a litmus test for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Two years after a primary upset, in which she ousted a 20-year incumbent, voters from Queens and the Bronx would return to the polls for a reelection referendum on their congresswoman. In June, the 14th district validated her work with nearly 75% of the primary vote. (In November, she’ll face Republican John Cummings in the heavily blue district.)
This spring, the 14th was ravaged by COVID-19. Two neighborhoods, ironically named Corona and North Corona, had the most confirmed cases of any U.S. zip codes. Ocasio-Cortez, 30, responded by redirecting campaign money to local food pantries and aid groups, raising more than $1 million in relief, and personally delivering groceries alongside volunteers.
Along the way, she’s corrected misleading headlines on Twitter, advocated for defunding the police on Instagram Live, and turned a C-SPAN clip into a viral video. Much has been made about her use of social media as a way to connect with millennial and Gen Z voters, who will comprise 37% of the eligible electorate in November. Earlier this month, she filmed her makeup routine for a Vogue series, “Beauty Secrets,” in which she riffed about misogynistic pay disparities while applying her trusty Stila lipstick. More than 2 million people tuned in. “I feel something when I look at her,” one viewer commented. “I think it’s hope.” —B.K.
The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder. Since launching Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2007, the self-professed “momager” has produced 19 seasons and five spinoffs, making KUWTK the longest-running reality television show in American history. When the program began, Jenner was the co-founder of a small LA boutique, which she ran with her daughter Kourtney. Twenty-three years later, she’s a published author, television host, celebrity personality, producer, and the entrepreneur behind Jenner Communications.
But perhaps Jenner’s role of a lifetime has been raising her six children. Viewers grew up alongside the Kardashian clan and can still recall iconic moments from the show’s history as though they were memories from their own childhoods. (The image of Kim Kardashian’s face after dropping a diamond earring in the ocean lives in my mind rent-free.) Through different plot points and character development, Jenner has explored global themes such as grief, mental health, and infidelity as they enter the social stratosphere. Her family’s openness has set the tone for dinner-table conversations across America for more than a decade.
As the show’s final season approaches and fans grieve the end of an era, Jenner’s greatest contribution becomes clear: not a single franchise or lip kit, but establishing a new version of celebrity that’s messy, genuine, and, above all else, family-oriented. The Kardashians forever transformed the cultural zeitgeist by allowing their lives to be so accessible for so many years to so many people. Jenner set the precedent for viral TikTok celebrities and YouTube personalities, whose authenticity is now being marketed, sold, and consumed by a new generation. She isn’t a product of pop culture — she defines pop culture. Kris, I think I speak for all of us when I say, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie.” —Iman Hariri-Kia
Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion’s music was the soundtrack of summer. Her song “Savage” went viral in classic 2020 fashion: as a dance challenge on TikTok. Beyoncé got in on the trend, recording a remix with her — Bey rapped, “Hips TikTok when I dance/On that Demon Time, she might start a OnlyFans” — which garnered the Houston artist her first No. 1 on the hot rap songs charts. It wouldn't be her last. Enter “WAP” with Cardi B, an exuberant celebration of female sexuality, which broke the record for the most streams for a song (93 million) in its first week of release in the United States.
But getting those songs into the world wasn’t easy. In March, Thee Stallion announced the postponement of her debut album, Suga, due to sticky contractual issues with her label, 1501 Certified Entertainment. Later that month, after a judge granted a temporary restraining order against the label, she released the music her way: dropping Suga as an EP.
While she spent the first half of the year spreading feel-good affirmations through song, by the summer her message grew more somber. In July, she shared that fellow rapper Tory Lanez had shot her in the feet, resulting in a surgery she called “the worst experience of my life.” When corners of the internet responded callously with rumors and jokes, Stallion silenced them with a barn burner of a tweet: “Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own [sic],” she wrote. “But this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.” —Samantha Leach
In August 2016, Maria Ressa met a group of Facebook officials in Singapore. The meeting was off the record, but according to CNN sources, she told the group, “If you don't change what you're doing, I could go to jail." Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief and future Time 100 honoree, warned them about a growing Filipino misinformation campaign, spread primarily on Facebook. It was three months after her native Philippines' presidential election, and two months before the United States’.
Since then, Ressa, 56, has been arrested twice, posted bail eight times, and in June was convicted of cyber-libel in Manila court. She faces up to six years in prison.
Ressa is the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Filipino news organization that has doggedly investigated President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and genocidal antidrug campaign. The authoritarian president has targeted Ressa and Rappler in kind, ignoring, and thus effectively encouraging, a years-long barrage of online harassment and threats of violence.
After her conviction, Ressa, who holds both Filipino and American citizenship, spoke to a small group of press. “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen,” she said. “If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.” —B.K.
When Rachel Lindsay was first asked to return to The Bachelor franchise as the titular Bachelorette, the Dallas attorney declined. After a top 3 finish on Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor, she’d returned to Texas single — where she preferred to stay. But soon after, a Black mother told Lindsay about her daughter, who’d abandoned the series due to its lack of diversity. “She’s going to start watching again,” the woman said. Game on.
Lindsay, now 35, returned in 2017 as the franchise’s first Black lead in its 18 years and 40 seasons.
This year, timed to the Black Lives Matter protests in late spring, she’s painstakingly removed viewers’ rose-colored glasses to the off-stage inequities of the reality tv behemoth. In June, she opened up about racist criticism and online harassment she faced, as well as one straight-up racist suitor. On her new podcast, Higher Learning, she talked about being asked to remove her braids in lieu of a more eurocentric hairstyle. And on her personal blog, she wrote that if The Bachelor didn't make structural changes, like including people of color in casting decisions, she would “disassociate” herself from it completely.
Since then, the Bachelor has tapped two Black leads: Matt James for 2021 and Tayshia Adams, who’ll reportedly replace Clare Crawley for the drama-doused fall season of The Bachelorette, which premieres Oct. 13. —B.K.
At the beginning of Netflix’s The Old Guard, viewers meet the immortal warrior Andy (Charlize Theron), a relentless do-gooder who’s ready to relent. When checking into a Marrakech hotel, she sees a “Breaking News” chyron rolling on a background TV, with videos of new devastation in Syria and Haiti. She’s jaded. She wants out.
The story, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, is a familiar narrative: of a fresh-faced inductee tasked with shaking an elder from disillusionment. The director superimposes this narrative onto a graphic-novel plot with two female leads. Here, the newbie is the Black American marine, Nile (KiKi Layne). In July, The Old Guard premiered in 190 countries and quickly shimmied into Netflix’s Top 10 most popular films list. Prince-Bythewood, 51, is the first Black woman director to make the list. It’s her first action movie.
Her directorial debut, 2000’s Love & Basketball, teed her up for success. The New York Times called Prince-Bythewood an “intriguing new talent,” and Variety wrote, “The film is so suave, graceful and technically accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s a first-effort feature.” But her career arguably plateaued, until The Old Guard.
Now, she’s already signed onto her next project, The Woman King. The historical thriller, starring Oscar winner Viola Davis, will follow an all-female army in a northwest Africa kingdom near present-day Benin. They are known by historians as the Amazons. —B.K.
Header Photo Credit: Bonnie Biess, Ernesto Distefano, Steve Granitz, David M. Benett, Srdjan Stevanovic, Paras Griffin, Phillip Faraone, Gary Miller, Kevin Winter/Getty