Top 5 women’s rights idols

Alena Johns | Nov 30, 2015

In celebration of the film ‘Suffragette’, which will open in cinemas in the UK on 12 October, we asked you to nominate a woman who has inspired you to take action for women’s rights. The nominations have been counted and we now have the names of our top five inspirational women.

Please click here to vote for your ultimate inspiration.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

One of today’s most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is known as the woman who risks her life to advocate for women’s rights. A Somali-born American writer and activist, Hirsi Ali has highlighted substantial women’s issues around the world, such as female genital mutilation (FGM). She also campaigns against the most radical elements of Islam, and for this has become a target for fatal violence.

Raised a Muslim in Somalia, Hirsi Ali was herself subjected to FGM. In order to escape an abusive marriage she fled to Germany and ended up living in The Netherlands where she was granted political asylum. She later received a refugee scholarship to study at Leiden University, after being elected to stand for Dutch Parliament.

Hirsi Ali was thrust into the headlines in 2004 following the murder of Theo van Gogh, a producer she worked with on a short film about Islam’s attitude to women (Submission). The extremists behind the killing threatened that she would be next. The death threats became too much for even the government to handle and she was forced into hiding.

This has not stopped Hirsi Ali campaigning for women’s rights around the world. She founded The AHA Foundation, whose goal is to combat crimes against women and girls such as forced marriages, FGM and honour killings.

Perhaps due to her own struggles she continues to speak out and fight for a female-friendly future.  As she boldly states, “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice”.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Hers is probably one of the most famous names you will hear when it comes to women’s

history and certainly when it comes to suffragettes. Pankhurst led the struggle for equal votes for women and was repeatedly imprisoned for using violent tactics. During her lifetime she was both loved and despised by her contemporaries, and her obituary claimed that she would certainly live in British history.

Born in Manchester in 1858 to a family with a tradition of supporting radical politics, Pankhurst was exposed to campaigning from an early age. She married Richard Pankhust, an English barrister and supporter of women’s rights and in 1889 Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. Then in 1903 she helped found the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The organisation became notorious for promoting hunger strikes, breaking windows and for night-time arson of unoccupied houses and churches to promote the suffragette cause.

Without a doubt, the activities of the suffragettes raised the profile of an issue to an audience that needed reaching and many argue that their campaigns eventually led to women’s suffrage in 1918.

Malala Yousafzai

The youngest of all of our nominees, but certainly not the least significant. At the tender age of 17 she has certainly made her mark in history and her courageous strides have placed her at the frontline for women’s rights in education. Malala has not only survived a shot in the head by the Taliban, but she has written her own book, given a speech at the UN and become the youngest ever Nobel Prize recipient.

Malala’s courageous story begins back in 2009, when, dismayed about the Taliban’s increasing control over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, she began to write a blog exposing what life was really like for girls and women in the area and chronicling her desire for girls in Pakistan to have the chance of an education. As a direct result, Malala became the target of a failed assassination by the Taliban and was shot in the face in October 2012.

Since the assassination attempt, Malala has gone on to become an international role model. She has continued campaigning for women to be entitled to an education. She has started The Malala Fund, a non-profit organization with the goal of enabling over 600 million out-of-school young women around the world to gain an education. Malala’s approach to persuing human rights is peaceful and takes inspiration from leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi. Malala has become an icon and role model for women and young people everywhere, summed up by an afterword to her memoir “I hope my story will inspire girls to raise their voice and embrace the power within themselves”.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is an inspirational figure for anyone, as she not only overcame her difficult childhood, but made tremendous contributions in the worlds of literature, the arts, civil rights, and women’s rights.

Born in 1928, Angelou grew up in the American south. Throughout her life she experienced racism, the difficulties of being a single parent and poverty. But through her powerful writing and public speaking, Angelou became a pioneer of gender equality. She was a renown speaker and lecturer, as well as writing articles, stories, poetry, plays and compositions. She was the first black woman to have a script produced and is was hugely respected by treasured public figures such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Women around the world respected her stance on the right to choose an abortion and on the strength she found in choosing to keep her own teenage pregnancy and raise her son, Guy, against all the odds, as well as speaking out against issues such as rape and domestic violence.

Her work inspired a necessary, unapologetic message that women should not be ashamed of their background or adversities in life. As she explained:  ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama, the 44th first Lady of the United States has refused to be recognised as just the Presidents wife.

A lawyer and writer, she oozes confidence and encourages self-assurance and education for women, stating “I never cut class. I loved getting A’s, I liked being smart. I liked being on time. I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world”.

Michelle took on the mantle of first-lady of the United States with an enthusiasm that is to be admired and her efforts have not always been favoured. In support of The Fair Pay Act of 2009, Obama hosted a White House reception for women’s rights advocates. Many criticised her, stating she should be less involved in politics, but this certainly has not stopped her.

Just this year Michelle and Barack launched Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government-wide initiative to help girls around the world go to and stay in school. Other issues close to her heart are affordable child care and encouraging women to be able to enter the workplace after having children.

Regularly praised for talking from the heart, Michelle Obama will be remembered as an inspiration for women everywhere, encouraging them to come together in unison. As she told an excited crowd of school girls in east London, “You have the chance to stand up for girls all around the world who don’t have a voice”.

Nominations are now open. Please click here to vote.

The competition will run until until 12 October, when ‘Suffragette’ is released and we’ll announce the winner.


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