With a coming-of-age story about Gloria Steinem in the works, we profile the eco-warriors, queer icons and sexual revolutionaries who should be on our screens
The war on women rages on in 2017, but we shall overcome. Amid the harrowing Weinstein allegations and the general sense of mounting dread spurred forth by the Trump administration, women at all intersections rail harder than ever against a globalised patriarchal system that continues to oppress the marginalised. As modern feminist warriors like Janet Mock, Lauren Duca and Rose McGowan rise to the challenge, we also look back across the icons that led the initial waves of feminism for strength, guidance and to see just how far we’ve made it.
With renowned journalist and socio-political activist Gloria Steinem the subject of a forthcoming theatrical biopic (the film will be based on her memoir, My Life on the Road), we celebrate the countless other remarkable and prolific feminist activists who helped pave the way.
From political activists to fearless anarchists and civil rights warriors, here are five international feminists activists who deserve their own biopics, stat.
Throughout the early 1970s, Mitsu Tanaka rose as one of Japan’s loudest feminist voices during the women’s liberation movement. Having established the Garuppu Tatakau Onnatachi (Fighting Women Group), Tanaka staged a number of controversial public protests in which she and her fellow activists railed against Japan’s restrictive patriarchal family structures and oppressive political, social and economic systems.
Emphasizing the need for abortion rights and bodily autonomy, she helped establish the Lib Shinjuku Center in 1972, the first women’s center in Japan to also serve as a shelter and safe space for women to receive assistance with issues ranging from contraception access to divorce. Considered a radical for her time, Tanaka’s feminist mission strongly emphasized the need for equality between men and women, as she argued that her nation’s socio-cultural systems oppressed all genders. Though she left public activism in 1975, her invaluable contributions during the first half of the decade planted the seeds for Japan’s later feminist movements.
Often regarded as the “Joan of Arc of the Arabs”, Nazik Al-Abid remains one of the Middle East’s most prolific and fierce feminist warriors. An activist for women’s suffrage in Syria, Al-Abid staunchly resisted both Ottoman and French occupation in her country. (For her resistance to the Ottoman Empire, she was exiled to Cairo before returning in 1918. Less than two years later, she was exiled one more, this time by France in 1920.)
During her career as a revolutionary, Al-Abid founded a number of advocacy groups, including an educational society, magazine and school called the Light of Damascus between 1919 and 1922, the humanitarian Red Star Society in 1920, and the pro-women’s labour Working Women’s Society in 1933. She was also the first woman to earn rank as a general in the Syrian Arab Army.
Born and raised in New York City, Sylvia Rivera – along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, also the recipient of a forthcoming biopic – remains one of the LGBTQ+ community’s most pioneering figures. A Latinx self-identified “drag queen” who was orphaned early on in life following her father’s abandonment and her mother’s suicide, Rivera fought tirelessly for individuals who became further marginalised during the mainstreaming of the broader gay rights movement in the U.S.
As a fierce civil rights activist, Rivera was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, as well as the co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). She was also present for the famous Stonewall riots in 1969. A trailblazer for LGBTQ+ rights, she rallied against the exclusion of transgender people from the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York, and advocated tirelessly for low-income, unemployed and homeless queer and trans folks, emphasizing oft-overlooked intersectional issues surrounding systemic poverty and racism.
A true rebel for the ages, Emma Goldman was a Russian anarcha-feminist activist and writer who helped catalyse and popularise anarchist political philosophy in the early 20th century. After immigrating to the U.S. as a teen in 1885, Goldman participated in a number of insurgent activities, including railing against social constructs; vehemently criticizing homophobia, capitalism and militarism; and touting free love, freedom of speech and atheism. A firm proponent of the controversial propaganda of the deed, she did not shy away from the inevitable violence of anarchy. Subsequently, she was arrested countless times for actions ranging from inciting labour riots to protesting the draft to collaborating on assassination attempts.
Though unsupportive towards the suffragist movement (Goldman believed that voting provided a dangerous, false illusion of participation), she was a passionate feminist who fought for the rights of women – particularly women’s sexual education, autonomy, access to contraception, and freedom of self, as she viewed marriage as an oppressive tool of the patriarchy. In 1897, she wrote, "I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood."
Movie star, singer, spy, bohemian, war hero: Josephine Baker’s legacy sounds like the fantastical plot of a Hollywood movie. Born in St. Louis, Baker (née Freda Josephine McDonald) got her start in vaudeville before sailing for Paris in the mid 1920s, where she made her debut starring in La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. After becoming a massive star in France and across Europe – Ernest Hemingway once famously called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”– she collaborated with French military intelligence to collect information on German troops during WWII and was recruited to sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
During the 1950s, Baker became a champion for civil rights in the U.S, combating systemic racism and refusing to perform in segregated nightclubs despite being offered large fees. (Her refusal eventually led to the racial integration of shows in Las Vegas.) In 1962, she spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington as the event’s sole official female speaker, during which she advocated for black women and equal rights. In 1991, Lynn Whitfield portrayed the entertainer-activist in the Emmy-winning HBO film The Josephine Baker Story, though a theatrical film about Baker’s life is long overdue. There’s been murmurs over the years that Rihanna would play the woman dubbed “Black Venus” in a biopic that would see two rebellious, fierce artists and activists matched toe-to-toe.