Feminism reaches further back than the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. For generations, brave, forward-thinking women have been inviting and even pushing the world to see femininity for what it is; an evolving, dynamic and life-affirming presence that will forever be intertwined within every relationship in our global culture. For women, this has translated into a return to our selves, one in which we’re free to be who we are without shame or apology.
Here, we celebrate the feminists who’ve believed in that message—and contributed toward major societal changes with their work.
Naomi Wolf wrote a new chapter in modern feminism in the early ’90s when she released “The Beauty Myth,” a bestseller that reexamined what it means to be beautiful—or, more accurately, who’s determining what beautiful even is in the first place. The book pushed back against social norms and expectations; patriarchy and accepted determinants of female self-worth. Wolf went on to become a political advisor to both Al Gore and Bill Clinton, but has remained a centerpiece of what’s been coined “Third Wave Feminism.” Her 2012 book “Vagina: A New Biography” has certainly helped her keep this title. It provides an illuminating look at the mind-body link as it relates to female sexuality. Prior to that, she delved into the social response to pregnancy and childbirth with “Misconceptions.” Both works prove that Wolf isn’t shy about exploring controversial (and often misunderstood) aspects of femininity.
Razor-tongued and unafraid to speak her mind, Camille Paglia has been openly critical of many leading female activists of our time. The cultural critic had an ongoing public charged exchange with Naomi Wolf via the pages of The New Republic, and has been on the receiving end of choice words from feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Still, you have to respect Paglia for her refreshingly honest take on modern-day feminism, which she views as sliding women back to the days of censorship. It seems that the free-speech, pro-sex icon will never stop engaging in the current public conversations about feminism, which is always a good thing.
The queen of financial empowerment, Suze Orman is all about awakening women to their own worth. The essence of her message is that we chronically and perpetually under-value ourselves, especially when it comes to work and money. Her work aims to flip that paradigm, giving women the tools they need to stand on their own two feet. Instead of letting others hold the purse strings, Orman urges women to take control of their own financial independence—and, in turn, their destiny.
Beloved writer and political activist Susan Sontag was an artist who lived her truth in every sense. The journals of her youth explore everything from coming to terms with her bisexuality to the interplay between art and consciousness. But it’s really Sontag’s contemplations on writing that have endured. “Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit),” she wrote in 1964. With words like these, it’s little wonder she’s still regarded as something of a role model to aspiring female writers.
Few women have captured the complexities of female psychology like Marion Woodman. The Jungian psychoanalyst spoke often about what she called conscious femininity, placing great emphasis on listening to the body and the power of surrender. She has also devoted much of her life to the inner workings of our dreams. In this space, she says, the soul clues us into our destiny and desires. This, of course, requires us to get quiet and listen.
Patricia Lynn Reilly
Patricia Lynn Reilly brings divinity, love and light to the masses by way of retreats, lectures, her writing and more. The hallmark of her work is a special focus on healing, compassion and self-love. But perhaps the most powerful thing she’s done has been nudging us to imagine God in a new light. “[T]he exclusive imagining of God as male has deeply wounded women,” she writes. Instead, she dares us to rethink our personal theology and to search for God in ourselves and in the world all around us. She elaborates deeply on this notion in her groundbreaking book “A God Who Looks Like Me.” This type of woman-centered path to the divine will come as a breath of fresh air for both male and female feminists alike.
Vicki Noble blends the ever-evolving nature of the healing arts with the sacred traditions from which they stem. Spearheading the female shamanism movement, she’s a self-described radical feminist healer whose work encompasses yoga, Buddhism and beyond. In addition to the many books she’s authored, Noble also co-created Motherpeace Tarot. In all her efforts, goddess and feminine spirituality takes center stage.
Gabrielle Roth delved into shamanism through music, movement and dance. Redefining traditional meditation, she saw dance as the bridge to inner life. In other words, dance becomes the meditation. Dance and movement as prayer. According to Roth, approaching movement in this way frees up creativity and self-imposed limitations, connecting us deeply to the power within. Roth passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on in the international 5Rhythms movement, which she created.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is the new buzzword within schools, especially when it comes to providing young girls with equal opportunities. (The field is a notoriously male-dominated one.) Biologist Ruth Hubbard blazed the trail for female scientists. Inspired by the women’s movement, she urged the scientific community to take a hard look at the relationship between science and ideology. Hubbard asserts that human biology, which includes women’s bodies and sexuality, has an interdependent relationship with society.
Evelyn Fox Keller
Where gender and science converge is where you’ll find Evelyn Fox Keller, the famed theoretical physicist who has been viewing science through the lens of feminism for decades. Her groundbreaking work blurs the lines between gender ideologies and our understanding of the world around us. It also points to the limitations that go hand in hand with traditional approaches to science.
Academic psychologist Cordelia Fine is best known for picking apart gender stereotypes, the biggest one being that male and female brains are wired differently. From a neuroscientific point of view, she’s diving into the enormous impact that culture has on gender roles. In terms of the feminist perspective and science, Fine’s work is among the first to explore the link between neuroscience and sex differences.
Who says that evolution is the sole determinant of gender disparities? Anne Fausto-Sterling has long been challenging this age-old assertion. She’s also breaking down the barriers between the sexes, positing that human sexuality isn’t always so black and white. Instead, her take is that it’s more of a greyish spectrum. Casting gender roles in this light has made her a standout in feminist theory.
Alexandra Rutherford is a psychology professor whose uncovering the give and take between psychology and feminism—and the many ways in which politics and culture influence this complex relationship. Her latest initiative, Psychology’s Feminist Voices, spotlights the deep and layered history of the feminine presence in psychology over the last half century.
Some historians credit Sabina Spielrein with giving rise to psychoanalysis, particularly where children are concerned. In fact, she’s widely regarded as having developed child psychiatry. (One of the things she emphasized was the important role breastfeeding plays in child development, proving that she was indeed light years ahead of her time on the topic of attachment.) The Russian physician ran in the same circles as the greats, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. (The latter started out as her doctor, then rumored lover.) Her life was taken to the big screen with the 2011 film “A Dangerous Method,” in which Keira Knightley played Spielrein. Despite her love affairs, her scientific contributions stand on their own and trump the titillating stories of her personal life, and she’s widely recognized as a feminist pioneer who directly shaped relational psychoanalysis.