NAU’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies has crowd-sourced a list of outstanding historical and contemporary figures who advocated for women’s rights/human rights across all conceivable fields of intellectual, political, medical, and artistic endeavors from different geographical locations. As a caveat, as you read and marvel at these “women-worthies” listed below, please keep in mind that given the temporal and spatial expanse of human history, these individuals far from exhaust the rich archives of women’s/gender histories, personalities and their achievements. Also, as we memorialize outstanding individuals’ achievements, it behooves us to also recognize the communities and collectivities within which they lived and worked. Names of our contributors appear within parenthesis at the end of each profile.
We have curated this list with careful attention to politics of inclusive and diverse representation. We are embedding some links for the individuals on our list—this is an invitation for you to read and research further, especially as you are intrigued by these outstanding figures and their contributions in enriching our collective lives.
Fatima Al-Fihri is known as the founder of the first university in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, in 859 CE. After inheriting a large sum of money from her father, Fatima Al-Fihri created a center for education. The University of al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest degree-granting institution of higher learning in the world. The University of al-Qarawiyyin predates the founding of Egypt’s Azhar University founded in 970 CE, the University of Bologna founded in 1088 CE, and the University of Oxford, founded in 1096 CE, known for being the oldest English-speaking university. (Dilofarid Miskinzod, Women’s and Gender Studies
Amrita Sher-Gil and Frida Kahlo: Painters train our “ways of seeing,” opening up the world for new and competing interpretations. Through their work, they direct the human gaze to admire color and movement, turning the mundane into wonder and art. Two women painters, Amrita and Frida, were contemporaries in the 20th century, leaving behind a plethora of canvases and inviting viewers from across the world to learn from and marvel at their talent.
Amrita Sher-Gil: A Hungarian-Indian avant-garde painter, much of her work today is on display at the National Modern Art gallery in New Delhi, India. She traveled widely, and in her work, she seamlessly adopted techniques and styles from Indian and western artistic traditions. Many of her paintings depict Indian women in strength and resolve, this is especially true of her canonical painting, Three Girls.
Unfortunately, fame and artistic recognition came to Amrita after her death, and sadly even today her work is not well known beyond the subcontinent. Some have also referred to Amrita as India’s Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo: She is a celebrated Mexican painter, whose canvas did not shy away from depictions of pain, death, trauma and loss. In multiple self-portraits Frida autographed her life. Frida’s paintings acquired worldwide recognition and appreciation, a testimony to the power of her brush, imagination, and politics. Scholars have commented extensively on her paintings and used her letters to reconstruct the passion and pain that framed much of her life and work. More than 300 of Frida’s works are on display at the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) in Mexico City. Her home in Mexico City also has been converted into a museum, a loving celebration of her life and her painting.
(Sanjam Ahluwalia, WSG and Department of History)
Ismat Chugtai and Gabriela Mistral: Writers and poets have written for multi-generational readers; together they have cautioned us against dystopian futures, while simultaneously training our sights onto redemptive utopias. What a world of richness they have bequeathed to us—one that only gets richer as each generation of readers encounters them and their written words.
Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaaf/Quilt” (1942) is one of Chughtai’s earliest known Indian short stories focused on women’s sexuality and lesbian sex/love. Lihaaf’s exploration of homoeroticism was deemed vulgar and corrupting of societal values, which led to its ban in 1942. As a Muslim feminist writer, Chughtai defied stereotypes, fighting a legal battle against the ban on her story under British colonial obscenity laws. Defending the freedom of speech, Chughtai was successful in getting the ban legally overturned, and today this story, along with her other works of fiction and non-fiction, mark her as one of the most outstanding South Asian women writers of the 20th century.
Gabriela Mistral: One of Latin America’s most decorated poets, she was the first Spanish-American woman writer to receive a Nobel Prize for literature, winning in 1945. Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, her rich literary oeuvre explores themes of love, nature, loss, motherhood and the complex layers of Latin American identities. While Mistral is celebrated by the Chilean state as a matriarchal figure, feminists highlight her work as an educator and an accomplished diplomat. In her article, Claudia Cabello Hutt identifies Mistral as, “poor, rural, mestizo, unmarried, queer woman.”
(Sanjam Ahluwalia, WGS and Department of History)
Esperanza Sánchez Mastrapa (1901-1958) was a pharmacist from eastern Cuba. She was active in local Black civic associations (like the Federation of Societies of Color of Oriente Province) and in the national Communist Party. Notably, she also served as the only Black woman elected as a delegate to the 1940 Constitutional Assembly. According to historian Takkara Brunson’s book that discusses Sánchez and others, “Radical Black women like Sánchez employed communism as a strategy for democratic reform between 1940 and the 1959 Revolution”. (Elizabeth Schwall, Department of History)
Rosa Luxemburg: A charismatic and articulate revolutionary socialist and Marxist philosopher, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was born in Poland to a Jewish family and later became a naturalized German citizen. She was radically anti-war, organizing demonstrations in 1914 in Frankfurt and advocating conscientious objection to military conscription. As a founding member of the Spartacus League, a communist breakaway of the Social Democratic Party, Luxemburg authored illegal anti-war pamphlets and demanded amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment. Luxemburg was imprisoned for years at a time for her activism and was captured and murdered, her body thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, by members of GKSD, a paramilitary unit, during the German revolution of 1918-1919. She was a tireless advocate of universal suffrage, including women’s suffrage and restructuring of capitalist families and economy, and leaves a legacy of a democratic tradition in Marxism and a passionate commitment to understanding and transforming oppressive systems. (Frances Riemer, WGS and College of Education)
Enid Mary Blyton was a prolific British children’s author born in August of 1897. Before her death in 1968, Blyton published no fewer than 700 books. Her works have been translated into 90 different languages in order to better reach a diverse audience of children who enjoy her stories as much as those of earlier generations. For many children, it is difficult to see themselves in any of the Enid Blyton books they read, as all the characters she wrote about were white, English-speaking British schoolchildren. However, series like “Malory Towers” and “St. Claire’s” provided younger readers with a strong female role model—women and girls who prided themselves on their intelligence and strength, and who supported and uplifted one another. (Aeka Vinod Joshi, Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, Grade 10)
Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Johnson was a black trans woman who (along with Sylvia Rivera, Latinx trans woman) is known for instigating the Stonewall Riots in June 1969. The Stonewall Riots were protests against police violence. She and other queer people in the community, including Rivera, fought back against the terrorizing brutality that the police enacted against working-class queer and trans POC. Together they co-founded STAR, an organization that worked to find shelter, food security and community for queer homeless youth. Johnson and Rivera both struggled with mental illnesses, worked as sex workers, were at various times unsheltered themselves and spoke out about the necessity for the liberation and freedom of those most oppressed by the violent systems of racism, capitalism, ableism, misogyny, and trans bigotry. Rivera also spoke openly of her struggle with addiction and of surviving childhood sexual assault. They are both examples of powerful, unapologetic women of color who have inspired countless activists and community action in the decades that followed, including the speech by Raquel Willis who, at the Brooklyn Liberation March in June 2020, honors Marsha P’s legacy. (Ari Burford, WGS)
Mma Francinah Ramatlakwana: A friend and co-researcher with NAU professor Frances Riemer. Francinah is a village steward, proud Motswana and lifelong feminist. She took Riemer to her first International Women’s Day celebration in Botswana. Riemer met Francinah when she was a teacher in Botswana’s non-formal literacy campaign. Francinah grew up farming and caring for animals in Malolwane, a small village in southeastern Botswana, left school at the equivalent of sixth grade and spent her young adult years working in apartheid South Africa. When she returned to Malolwane, she became a literacy teacher, started and maintained the village’s only daycare and only library and ran a successful sewing business out of her backyard. She was later elected to the Village Council and to the Land Board. An African feminist politically radical in her everyday life and practices, Francinah is deeply engaged in the community and in enhancing the lives of women and children in her community. (Frances Riemer, WGS and College of Education)