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Biographies of Great Feminists

Great Feminists

  • Wollstonecraft
  • Taylor
  • Marx
  • Zetkin
  • Schreiner
  • Lewis
  • Goldstein
  • Beard
  • Kollontai
  • Pankhurst
  • Reed
  • De Beauvoir
  • Friedan
  • Millett
  • Mitchell
  • Rowbotham
  • Davis
  • Firestone
  • Spender
  • Nicholson
  • De Beauvoir, Simone (1908-1986)

    French writer and feminist, and Existentialist. She is known primarily for her treatise The Second Sex (1949), a scholarly and passionate plea for the abolition of what she called the myth of the “eternal feminine.” It became a classic of feminist literature during the 1960s.

    Schooled in private institutions, de Beauvoir attended the Sorbonne, where, in 1929, she passed her agrégation in philosophy and met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning a free, lifelong association with him. She taught at a number of schools (1931-43) before turning to writing for her livelihood. In 1945 she began editing Le Temps Modernes with Sartre.

    Her novels expounded the major Existential themes, demonstrating her conception of the writer’s commitment to the times. She Came To Stay (1943) treats the difficult problem of the relationship of a conscience to “the other”. Of her other works of fiction, perhaps the best known is The Mandarins (1954), a chronicle of the attempts of post-World War II intellectuals to leave their “mandarin” (educated elite) status and engage in political activism. She also wrote four books of philosophy, including The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).

    Several volumes of her work are devoted to autobiography which constitute a telling portrait of French intellectual life from the 1930s to the 1970s. In addition to treating feminist issues, de Beauvoir was concerned with the issue of aging, which she addressed in A Very Easy Death (1964), on her mother’s death in a hospital. In 1981 she wrote A Farewell to Sartre, a painful account of Sartre’s last years.

    Simone de Beauvoir revealed herself as a woman of formidable courage and integrity, whose life supported her thesis: the basic options of an individual must be made on the premises of an equal vocation for man and woman founded on a common structure of their being, independent of their sexuality.


    Friedan, Betty (1921-2006)

    American feminist writer, psychologist and social researcher.

    Friedan was a student of the founder of Gestalt Psychology, Kurt Koffka holding a fellowship at the University of California in Berkeley and assisted in early studies of group dynamics at the University of Iowa.

    Her 1963 Feminine Mystique, which exposed the desparate position of housewives in 1950s USA who had achieved the “American Dream”, and were imprisoned in their automated suburban homes with little to do but visit the hairdresser in order to look her best when hubby came home, marked the beginning of the women's movement in the U.S.

    She is the founder of the Community Resources Pool, a collective of artists, politicians and social workers who work with gifted children in the public school system in New York.


    Millett, Kate (1934-)

    Born to a middle-class Irish-Catholic family in Minnesota, Kate became active in the Women's Movement at an early stage after being active in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. At the age of 17 she attended the University of Minnesota and graduated magna cum lauda in English and went to Oxford University where she received first class honours. Her thesis, written for Columbia University formed the basis for Sexual Politics, to become the most authoritative work of Radical Feminism.

    In 1961, she travelled to Japan to exhibit her sculptures, and met the artise Fumio Yoshimura who was to become her husband. She has taught widely at Colleges in the U.S.


    Mitchell, Juliet (1940-)

    New Zealand-born British feminist, best known for her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Freud, Reich, Laing and Women (1974) which tried to reconcile psychoanalysis and feminism at a time when many considered them incompatible. She is currently a fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge


    Rowbotham, Sheila (1943-)

    British socialist feminist. After studying history at Oxford University Sheila taught in adult education, further education and schools. Her political activism began with her involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British Labour Party’s youth wing, the Young Socialists. Disenchanted with the direction of party politics she immersed herself in a variety of left-wing campaigns, including writing for the radical political newspaper ‘Black Dwarf’.

    In 1969, she published her influential pamphlet ‘Women’s Liberation and the New Politics’ which argued that Socialist theory needed to consider the oppression of women in cultural as well as economic terms. She was one of the small group who pioneered women’s history. She worked at the Greater London Council in the early 1980s developing economic and social policy and editing a newspaper for the Economic Policy Unit called ‘Jobs for a Change’. During the 1980s she worked as a consultant for the United Nations University’s World Institute for Economic Research (WIDER). After part time work at the Universities of Amsterdam and Kent, she came to Manchester as a Simon fellow in 1993-4 and again as a University Research Fellow in 1995. She has lectured extensively in the US, Canada, Brazil, Europe and India and her work has been translated into many languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew. In 2004 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


    Davis, Angela Y. (1944-)

    Angela Y. Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, in the days of Jim Crow. Her father, a graduate of St. Augustine's College, a traditional black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, was briefly a high school history teacher. Leaving teaching due to the low salary, he owned and operated a service station in the black section of Birmingham. Her mother, also college educated, was an elementary school teacher with a history of political activism. Using their modest income, the family purchased a large home in a mixed neighborhood where Angela spent most of her youth. The neighborhood, called locally “Dynamite Hill,” was marked by racial conflict. She was occasionally able to spend time on her uncle's farm and with friends in New York City.

    During her childhood, Angela experienced the humiliations of racial segregation. She was bright and begged to enter school early, attending Carrie A. Tuggle School, a Black elementary school in dilapidated facilities and later Parker Annex, a similarly dilapidated annex of Parker High School devoted to middle school education. Angela read voraciously. By her junior year, at 14, she applied for and was accepted to a program of the American Friends Service Committee which placed Black students from the South in integrated schools in the north. She chose to attend high school at Elizabeth Irwin High School, also known as the Little Red School House, in Greenwich Village in New York City a small private school favored by the radical community. There Angela was exposed to study of socialism and communism and recruited to the Communist youth group, Advance, where she became acquainted with children of the leaders of the Communist Party including her lifelong friend, Bettina Aptheker.

    In 1970, Davis became the third woman to appear on the FBI's Most Wanted List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide, due to her alleged participation in an escape attempt from Marin County Hall of Justice. It was alleged that she had helped Johnathan Jackson, younger brother of prison inmate and cause célèbre, George Jackson, plan a kidnapping in order to secure the release of the elder Jackson. The kidnapping plan went awry, resulting in the deaths of judge Harold Haley, prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, and Jonathan Jackson. The shotgun that killed Haley had been registered in her name. It was alleged by the prosecution that she provided some of the firearms and participated in the planning of the kidnapping. She evaded the police for two months before being captured. She was tried and acquitted of all charges eighteen months after her capture.

    One of Angela Davis’s central concerns is the fight to go beyond “prison reform,” by developing radical alternatives to prison and by combating the private corporations profiteering out of the “correctional” industry.



    Suzanne MacNevin, Feminist Writer


    Suzanne MacNevin, Feminist Writer


    Firestone, Shulamith (b. 1945)

    Born in Ottawa and grew up in St. Louis and moved to live in New York City. One of the founders of Radical Feminism in the U.S., Firestone was among the founders of the Redstockings and the New York Radical Feminist journal Notes.


    Spender, Dale (1943-)

    Australian feminist, started lecturing at James Cook University in 1974 and then went to London and published the book Man Made Language. She taped people’s conversations and discovered that it was generally women who did most of the support work. “They asked the right questions, provided encouragement and feedback, made the male speaker feel important. But this meant that men did most of the talking,” Dale says. “Women who did talk for more than about one third of the conversation were most often described as bossy, aggressive, rude, and as dominating the conversation, even when they got much less than a 50 per cent share.”

    Dale Spender’s current passion is intellectual property, which she dubs “the new wealth.” Dales says she is passionate about turning ideas into a commercial products.


    Nicholson, Linda

    After living most of her life on the Eastern Seaboard, Linda Nicholson, Ph.D., director of the Women and Gender Studies program and the first Susan E. and William P. Stiritz Distinguished Professor in Women's Studies and History, both in Arts & Sciences, decided it was time for a major change. So after 25 years at the State University of New York-Albany, she came to Washington University. Nicholson first became interested in feminism in the late 1960s, but it wasn't until 1975 that she became fully immersed in feminism as an area of academic research. She earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's and a doctorate in the history of ideas program at Brandeis University.

    After Brandeis, Nicholson taught for a year at the University of Lancaster in northern England. She then returned to the United States to teach at SUNY-Albany.

    She received a residential fellowship at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University's Divinity School in 1998. The previous year she received the Bread and Roses Award from the University of Albany for outstanding service on behalf of women. She was National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Scholar in June 1992 at the State University of New York, Potsdam, and the previous year she received a Rockefeller Foundation Humanist in Residence Fellowship at the Center for Research on Women at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    Her first book was Gender and History: The Limits of Social Theory in the Age of the Family. In it, Nicholson argues that in the history of Western political philosophy, there had been a significant problem: Some of the major contributors to that history had not recognized that the relationship between private and public life was a historically changing relationship.

    They took the existing form of that relationship, the form found in their own societies, and assumed it was natural.

    Also while at Albany, Nicholson developed and edited the 32-volume series Thinking Gender, which is often credited with shaping the emerging discipline feminism as a political philosophy. In her career, she has written two books and more than 70 articles and reviews.

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