This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 40, Winter 1999/2000.
As we enter the year 2000, the media are full of retrospectives naming the most influential figures of the century and the millennium. Most of those named are, of course, men, while many of the women who make it onto the list are remembered primarily for their glamour and good looks. How might a radical feminist list be different? We asked a selection of women for their nominations: below we reproduce (in alphabetical order) what they came up with.
As will be evident, some of them took issue with the politics of the ‘women of the century’ idea. Others felt it was no bad thing for feminists to recognise individual women’s accomplishments, though without forgetting the collective nature of our political struggle or diminishing the contribution of its many unsung heroines. The actual nominations include famous names and obscure ones (how many readers will have heard of Grace Hopper or Lise Meitner?), women long since dead and women still doing important work now, radical feminists and women who are not remotely feminist, and even a few fictional characters. The choices clearly reflect the location and historical knowledge of the women who made them: for instance there is an obvious bias towards European and North American women, and more particularly towards women from English-speaking countries. We welcome other nominations from T&S readers.
Anonymous was a woman. The women’s movement is collective, it’s not about celebrating exceptional individuals.
Simone de Beauvoir. For writing a classic work of feminist theory in a time and place (France, 1949) when there was no active feminist movement, and for becoming a supporter and activist when the movement arrived.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A female hero who kicks ass.
Marie Curie. The century’s most famous woman scientist.
Angela Davis. US race, gender and class radical.
Bette Davis. For portraying strong and independent women on screen.
Diana, Princess of Wales. A loose cannon inside and outside an archaic patriarchal institution.
Babe Didickson. US athlete. At the age of 15, she broke two national records, in javelin and basketball throw. She became one of the world’s greatest athletes, with unparalleled success in all sports, including boxing, swimming, shooting, fencing, tennis and billiards. After winning gold medals in the 1932 Olympic Games, she turned to professional golf, winning all major US and British titles. Following treatment for cancer in 1953, she returned to win the US Women’s Open Golf Championship for the third time in 1954.
Early radical feminists. For vision and daring.
Anne Frank. A courageous young woman whose diary became, after her death at the hands of the Nazis, one of the most influential nonfiction works of the century.
Aretha Franklin. One of many outstanding African American women musicians this century, she gets my vote for her version of RESPECT — in her performance, it’s the most inspiring feminist anthem in popular music.
Greta Garbo. An independent woman off screen as well as on it.
Stella Gibbons. For taking the piss out of the arch-sexist D H Lawrence in one of the century’s funniest English novels, Cold Comfort Farm.
Emma Goldman. Feminist and anarchist, who said: ‘If I can’t dance, then it’s not my revolution’.
Greenham women. For their spectacular and memorable activism. ‘You can’t kill the spirit’.
Fannie Lou Hamer. American civil rights leader, the granddaughter of a slave and the youngest of 20 children. In 1962, infuriated when she was given a hysterectomy without her consent, she tried to register as a voter, and her protest lost her her job. She became more involved with the civil rights movement and in 1964 she ran as a candidate for Congress. She also became a committed feminist and was elected to the Central Committee of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Grace Hopper. She was a mathematician, computer scientist, and teacher, amongst other things. She invented the compiler in 1953, and contributed to the development of the COBOL programming language. She also is credited with inventing the word ‘bug’ to refer to a flaw in a program when she opened up a computer and found a dead insect between two circuit boards.
Amy Johnson. Aviation pioneer who more than held her own with her male peers, though she was not allowed to join the Royal Air Force alongside them.
Käthe Kollwitz. One of the great artists of the twentieth century.
Nella Last. An ‘ordinary’ woman (not a journalist or professional writer) who started a war diary in 1939 for the social survey organisation Mass Observation. Her writing gives an outstanding picture of women’s experience during the second world war.
Doris Lessing. Her novel The Golden Notebook includes the first tampax in world literature.
Jan Macleod. Jan has worked against violence against women and children for over 20 years doing paid and unpaid work. I would like to nominate Jan for making a difference — for being reliable and competent and knowing what needs to be done and what to do about it!
Madonna. An allegory in her own time, and a role model for Catholic rebels.
Margaret Mead. Anthropologist who argued early on that sex differences were socially constructed and variable across cultures.
Lise Meitner. Physicist who first described nuclear fission. An Austrian Jew, she moved to Berlin to study, but found herself excluded from the lab on the grounds that her hair might catch fire. Nevertheless, she went on to become Professor of Physics at Berlin University in 1926. She escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938 and worked in Holland and Sweden, where her most important work was done. According to the Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography, ‘when invited to join a team working on the nuclear fission bomb she refused, stopped working on nuclear fission, and hoped the project would prove impossible’.
Hannah Mitchell. Women’s suffrage activist.
Maria Montessori. Educational theorist whose ideas have influenced early childhood education throughout the world.
Toni Morrison. First African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Martina Navratilova. Revolutionised women’s tennis, and ‘she wouldn’t wear that damned skirt’.
Lilian Ngoyi. South African activist and president of The Federation of South African Women. Her whole life was a struggle against the poverty and oppression of her people. She was arrested in 1956 and, along with other leading activists such as Helen Joseph, Frances Baird, Dora Tamana and Ruth First, was charged with treason after an elaborate trial that lasted for more than four years. She was acquitted in 1961 but was confined to her home in Orlando Township under banning orders until her death in 1988.
Nobody. I’m not playing the nominations game. Why is T&S going along with this ‘great women of the century’ shit? How is this different from what you get in women’s mags like Cosmopolitan?
Rosa Parks. The woman whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus inaugurated the Civil Rights movement in the US.
Adrienne Rich. If feminism had a poet laureate, she would be it.
Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Aliens films, which provide a rare example of a strong female hero in mainstream sci-fi.
Dr Raine Roberts. For her contribution over 30 years to the care of women and children who have experienced sexual assault.
Mary Robinson. Irish President and UN Commissioner.
Eleanor Roosevelt. A woman-identified American ‘First Lady’; unlike many of her more recent successors she used her position to pursue a social reform agenda that was radical for its time.
Rosie the Riveter. A symbol of all the women who went out to work when men went off to war.
Muriel Rukeyser. A great and undervalued feminist poet. Her poem Käthe Kollwitz contains the lines ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open’.
Nawal El Saadawi. Feminist theorist and activist of the Islamic world.
Ethel Smyth. Activist, suffragette and composer whose work includes ‘The March of the Women’.
Valerie Solanas. For going over the top. Her SCUM Manifesto is a feminist classic and still an exhilarating read.
Suffragists/suffragettes. The right to vote, which women now have (at least in theory) almost everywhere in the world (whereas a hundred years ago they had it nowhere), is one of the major feminist achievements of the century, and we should recognise the many women who fought to make it happen.
Margaret Thatcher. Politically no feminist, but the first woman elected in her own right — not because she was somebody’s wife or daughter — to wield such huge political power.
The Unknown Activist. The greatest feminist achievements of the century have come about through the actions of many women whose names history/herstory does not record.
The US women’s soccer team. For proving that the beautiful game can be played brilliantly by women too.
Rebecca West. One of the century’s most important women journalists, who made the remark ‘I don’t know what a feminist is; I only know men call me one whenever I say or do anything that differentiates me from a doormat’.
Virginia Woolf. Influential feminist, pacifist and socialist. Her essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas are all-time classics of feminist writing in English.
Mrs X. Think of any male hero of the 20th century and then consider how much of his success he must have owed to his wife.
Nominations by Anonymous, Meryl Altman, Dianne Butterworth, Debbie Cameron, Milly Dorégos, Janette Forman, Liz Kelly, Ann Sargé, Joan Scanlon, Jane Taubman, Lauren Taubman-Franks.