You might have learned about feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Emeline Pankhurst at school, but there were plenty of other women — and men — throughout history who took radical steps to promote the cause of freedom and equality for women. Here’s just ten radical feminists your history teacher never told you about.
1. Henry Cornelius Agrippa — The Magician Who Believed Women Were the Superior Sex
Men could be feminists, too — even in the sixteenth century. Henry Cornelius Agrippa courted controversy as a humanist scholar — and reputed magician. But he went further when he wrote a book in 1529 declaring women to be superior to men. In the “Declamation on the Nobility and Pre-eminence of the Female Sex”, Agrippa even used the Bible to build his case. Far from being inferior as the second created sex, Agrippa claimed women were the “summit of God’s creation.”
2. Jane Anger — The Angry, Anonymous Feminist
Jane Anger’s name is probably a pseudonym — and an expression of the fury that she and other sixteenth-century women felt towards male attitudes to their sex. “It was anger that did write it,” claimed Anger in her work Her Protection of Women in 1589 — the first feminist work written in English and attributed to a woman. Anger’s book countered male writers who bewailed women’s loose morals. She declared it was men who were the problem — because as they were the ones who couldn’t leave women alone. They were bullies to boot, as they assumed women couldn’t challenge them in print — all except for Jane Anger, whoever she was.
3. Louise Aston — The Cross-Dressing German Feminist Exiled from Berlin
Louise Aston shocked 1840’s Berlin so badly with her radical lifestyle that she was exiled from the city. After divorcing her wealthy industrialist husband, Louise began a free-thinking life. She began to dress publicly in men’s clothes in public and smoke cigars. But it was her views that thoroughly damned her. She branded marriage for women little better than prostitution and advocated free love. In 1846, she was ordered to leave Berlin because she had “expressed and lived according to ideas which were dangerous for the conservative law and order.”
4. Sojourner Truth — The Former Slave Who Advocated Black Women’s Rights
In 1843, ex-slave and domestic servant Isabella Van Wagener changed her name to Sojourner Truth and followed a religious calling to “travel up and down the land.” Truth was a gifted speaker and drew large crowds. But by the early 1850s, her speeches metamorphosed into a combination of abolitionist politics and women’s rights. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a woman?” tore into the myth of female weakness as Truth described how she “ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me!” — while ripping into the abolitionist movement’s concentration on the rights of black men.
5. Anna Julia Haywood Cooper – The mother of Black Feminism
In 1868, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, the daughter of a female black slave and her white master, received a scholarship to train as a teacher. Even at the age of nine, Anna had a keen sense of women’s rights and campaigned to take classes usually reserved for boys. After achieving an MA in mathematics in 1887, Cooper began to teach in Washington’s only all-black school. Cooper believed education was the only way for black women to overcome the oppression of their sex and colour — and at 65, became the fourth black woman in America to achieve a PhD.
6. Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi — The Iranian Woman Who Defied Conventions
Nineteenth-century Iranian was a society where women had few rights. However, Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi challenged this. In 1895, she wrote the satirical “The Imperfections of Men” as a response to an anti-female diatribe written to curb the westernization of Iranian women — possibly the first Iranian book of women’s rights. Bibi continued to advocate for her cause in newspapers and in 1906 opened Iran’s first school for girls in her home. The school closed when it was attacked by religious radicals outraged by female education. Bibi, however, simply opened another school a year later.
7. Raden Adjeng Kartini — The Javanese Noblewoman Who Became a Symbol for Indonesian Feminists.
Education wasn’t guaranteed to nineteenth-century Javanese aristocrat, Raden Adjeng Kartini’s. However, she was fortunate to attend a Dutch school as her father worked for the Dutch colonial administration. However, when she hit adolescence, tradition kicked in, and Kartini withdrew into the family home. However, she continued written conversations with her Dutch friends and developed ideas about Indonesian independence — and freedom for Indonesian women. For Kartini, education was crucial, so after marriage, she was determined to set up a girl’s school. Sadly, death in childbirth cut her ambitions short. But her letters lived on in a book published in 1911, which inspired Javanese students — leading to Kartini becoming a national heroine.
8. Sophia Duleep Singh — The Indian Princess Who Became a Suffragette
The daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Sophia Duleep Singh lived a privileged, life, protected and financed by her godmother Queen Victoria. Then, she abandoned court life to join the suffragette movement. Sophia became an active member, speaking at rally’s and raising money. She even courted prison by throwing herself at Prime minister Asquith’s car! In 1918, women over 30 received the vote. But instead of returning to life as a socialite, Sophie turned her attention to women’s rights in India instead.
9. Edith Margaret Garrud — Britain’s first martial artist and Suffragette
Edith Garrud learned Jiu-Jitsu from her husband and by 1907 was so skilled that she starred in a short film Jiu-Jitsu Downs the Footpads. However, it wasn’t long before Edith was jiu-jitsuing down policemen instead — or at least teaching others to do so. For Edith joined the suffragette movement and trained “The Bodyguards”, the 30 strong group of women whose role it was to protect other suffragettes from the police.
10. Caroline Haslett — The Electrician Who Invented to Liberate Women
Caroline Haslett began her dream life as an engineer when she trained to work as a boiler engineer during the First World War. After the war, Caroline continued her career — and went on to enable other women to do the same. She was a strong advocate for the equality of the sexes within the workplace and founded the Electrical Association for Women. Caroline also recognized many women were tied to time-consuming domestic duties — so she began inventing household appliances that would free women up to study and pursue careers.
Anand, Anita, Sophia Duleep Singh: princess and suffragette, The British Library, February 6, 2018
Anna Julia Cooper’s Bio, CooperProject.org
Chastain, James, Louise Aston, Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions, 2005
Martin, Randall, Women Writers in Renaissance England: An Annotated Anthology,
Routledge, July 21, 2014
Mohdin, Aamna Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman?” in 1851. Black women today are asking the same thing”, QUARTZ, May 29, 2018
Raden Adjeng Kartini, Encyclopedia Brittanica, April 17, 2020
Suffrajitsu – The Jiu Jitsu Teacher of the Woman’s War, The Women’s History Network, October 12, 2013
Wilson, D K, The First Feminist? October 3, 2016
Zolghadr, Shahnaz, Iranian Women you Should Know: Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi, Iranwire.com, September 30, 2015
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