100 Living women giants providing their shoulders for today's & future generations of feminists Print E-mail

With sincere thanks to the London Guardian, and Women's EditorJane Martinson ....

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100 women: how the list was drawn up

The Guardian women's editor explains how our list of inspiring women was compiled to mark the 100th International Women's Day

Top 100 Women composite (AP/Rex Features)

International Women's Day celebrates the ­economic, political and social achievements of women, so what better way to mark its centenary today than with a list of 100 of the world's most inspirational women?

We wanted to focus on role models from all over the world and from all walks of life. The women on this list have largely achieved astonishing feats in their own right, but most have also in some way, we hope, helped their fellow women. As Madeleine ­Albright once said: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Our starting point was you. Readers ­provided more than 3,000 suggestions. Then a panel – ­including Sarah Brown, campaigner; Emma Freud and Brigid ­McConville of the White ­Ribbon ­Alliance; Liz ­Forgan, chair of the Arts Council; ­Channel 4 News reporter Samira Ahmed; and, from the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting, Afua Hirsch, Homa Khaleeli, Clare Margetson, Natalie ­Hanman, Emine Saner and Katharine Viner – whittled down the list.

We have ordered the list by category rather than in a numerical "power list", because it's impossible to rank women who put their lives at risk for a cause such as Malaya Joya with artists such as Lady Gaga. It's not a power or wealth list but instead it's about an inspirational group of women whose influence will last.

Some of our choices will be controversial, some unknown, some ­obvious. But we hope they are all thought-provoking. Let us know what you think.
Read on for a selection of GSN's favourites from The Guardian's selection process, listed in alphabetical order, with others to be added shortly

  1. Alice Walker
  2. Arundhati Roy
  3. Aung San Suu Kyi
  4. Dilma Rousseff
  5. Franny Armstrong
  6. Germaine Greer
  7. Jane Goodall
  8. Lynda La Plante
  9. Malalai Joya
  10. Martina Navratilova
  11. Michelle Bachelet
  12. Nawal El Saadawi
  13. Vandana Shiva

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Alice Walker

Lifelong political and social activist whose novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer prize

By Emine Saner

Alice Walker. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The Color Purple, the novel that would earn Walker the Pulitzer prize and bring her fame beyond her previous books and poetry, also brought fierce criticism from those furious with her portrayal of violent black men. But Walker's work has always been about the experiences and inner lives of black women – she coined the term "womanism" that describes a movement of black feminists who felt ignored by mainstream feminism.

The eighth child of sharecroppers, Walker grew up in segregated Georgia. When she married the white Jewish civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, they were the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi, defying threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A longtime activist, she has been a vocal member of the civil rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and in recent years has protested against the Iraq war and been part of a mission to deliver aid to Gaza.
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Arundhati Roy

Booker prize-winning author and one of India's most important polemicists

By Homa Khaleeli

Arundhati Roy. (Tom Pietrasik for the Guardian)

Arundhati Roy was in her 30s when she wrote The God of Small Things, winning the Booker prize, and finding the money, fame and adulation that comes with an international bestseller that has been translated into more than 40 languages. Describing herself as a "natural born feminist", perhaps it's not surprising that Roy decided to tear up the rule book when she found herself cast as the "fairy princess of the rising Indian middle-class".

She has not published a second novel. Instead, for the past 14 years she has shone the spotlight on the dark side of the subcontinent; its millions of poor, dispossessed and abused citizens, and the destruction that big corporations and vested interests are wreaking on the environment. Roy, 49, has become one of the country's most important polemicists, taking on the Indian government over a dam project that threatened millions of homes and livelihoods, conflict and human rights abuses in Kashmir, as well as land-grabbing from tribal communities.

"They have tried putting me in prison and they have tried giving me awards," she says, but neither has silenced her. She dismisses the example of Gandhi's non-violence as impractical in the face of impervious capitalist forces. " If you live in a tribal village in the heart of a forest and 800 paramilitaries surround it and start to burn it and rape the women, what Gandhian action would you prescribe? Gandhian politics . . . needs an audience. They don't have an audience."

Her free-spirited, strong-minded approach was honed in a tumultuous childhood. Her mother ran away from a violent father, into the arms of a drunken husband. After the birth of two children, Mary Roy left him to start a private school on her own. At 17 Arundhati escaped to the city and sold empty beer bottles before training to be an architect. She then acted in a film and wrote screenplays.

She is finally working on her second novel. Her critics complain that her outspokenness serves only to turn her into a talking point and fails to highlight the issues she is passionate about, while others decry her bleak focus on India's problems. But as one reader wrote: "She inspires me to stand up for understanding and cooperation, rather than greed and exploitation."

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Aung San Suu Kyi

The Burmese pro-democracy leader who has inspired the world with her non-violent resistance to a brutal dictatorship

By Sarah Brown
Aung San Suu Kyi. (Getty Images)

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for me embodies one of life's most important lessons; you don't need to be fierce to be strong.

Throughout decades of humiliation, a long imprisonment and searing severance from her husband and children, the woman the Burmese affectionately call "Daw Suu" an honorific title given to revered women, has inspired the world with her campaign of non-violent resistance to one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has known. The courage to face down the military regime has come from her belief that, in the end, no junta is stronger than a people's yearning to be free.

The daughter of Aung San, the leader of Burma's struggle for independence, Aung San Suu Kyi originally returned to Burma from the family life she had built in Oxford to nurse her dying and beloved mother. Once there, she was swept up in the pro-democracy movement and with her insight, integrity and quiet charisma soon found herself general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

She did not enter politics for personal power, nor even in pursuit of an ideology. She is sustained by only one mission: the right of a people to govern themselves and the belief that democracy is the means by which free people deliberate about a shared future. Her commitment to the cause has been total, causing her to endure more than 15 years in detention and physical attacks on her and her supporters.

Because the junta fears Aung San Suu Kyi so much, she has lived for many years with threats to her life and has suffered beyond our imaginings. But perhaps the saddest sacrifice of all has been the enforced separation from her family. Her husband, Michael Aris, lived with their children in the UK and last saw her in 1995. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer he made a final appeal to be allowed to see her, but the junta replied that if they wished to be reunited, Aung San Suu Kyi would have to leave Burma, with every indication she would never be allowed to return. He died in 1999.

At the end of last year a new chapter in her struggle began when she was released from house arrest. It is typical of her that thoughts of celebration soon turned to plans to free the 2,100 remaining political prisoners in Burma. Her campaign works to free "the faces the regime wants you to forget".

This is a time to reflect not just on the women who inspire us, but also on the lot of women around the world. The Burmese regime has brutalised so many of its people, but perhaps its women most of all. Women bear the brunt of the extreme poverty the dictatorship's mismanagement has caused and are subjected to abuse, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Throughout all this, Aung San Suu Kyi, 65, has remained resolute for non-violence and has fought for the freedom of her people with a dignity that has entranced the world. Aung San Suu Kyi's amazing life offers a snapshot of heroism as we celebrate 100 years of women changing our world.
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Dilma Rousseff

The teenage socialist guerilla withstood imprisonment and torture and went on to become the first female president of Brazil

By Emine Saner

Dilma Rousseff. (Nabor Goulart/AP)

A teenage socialist guerrilla who withstood imprisonment and torture, Rousseff is the first female president of Brazil. Aged 63, she is said to be a tough, no-nonsense manager, who won power by promising economic stability, to reduce poverty and improve education and healthcare. She also promised to improve the lot of women, saying in her inaugaration speech: "I would like for fathers and mothers to look into their daughters' eyes today and tell them: 'Yes, women can.'" She vowed that nine of her 37 ministers would be women – a record for Brazil. (Although critics noted she not only ignored women's issues during her election campaign, but that the twice-divorced grandmother also publicly reversed her position on the legal right to an abortion to placate the religious right and underwent several rounds of plastic surgery to gain her place.)

The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant her childhood was affluent until the death of her father when she was just 14 when her life changed dramatically. The family struggled financially and Rousseff became involved with socialist and workers groups - eventually joining Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard, which seized foreign diplomats for ransom and shot foreign torture experts sent to train the generals' death squads (although Rousseff says she never used any weapons herself.) She was captured and tortured. After her release she returned to University, had a daughter with her second husband and started working for the government, eventually becoming finance chief of Porto Alegre, the state capital. In 2000 she threw her lot in with Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers' Party.

She is already facing a huge test - the recent floods which have killed hundreds and buried entire towns.
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Franny Armstrong

Filmmaker behind The Age of Stupid, environmental activist and founder of the 10:10 campaign

By Emine Saner

Franny Armstrong. (Graeme Robertson for the Guardian)

Environmental activist Franny Armstrong's brainwave came as she was walking to a debate with the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband. She had read a report saying that the developed world must cut its carbon emissions by 10% by the end of 2010 to avoid passing the tipping point. Armstrong, 39, dropped her idea to start a campaign into the debate. 10:10 was born. It was the obvious next step for the woman whose apocalyptic film The Age of Stupid had already galvanised support for climate activism.

The simple idea for immediate practical action took off, with thousands of businesses and institutions and more than 100,000 people pledging to cut their carbon emissions by 10%. Days after the coalition government was formed, David Cameron announced central government would do the same. The campaign is now active in more than 40 countries.

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Germaine Greer

Academic and feminist commentator who bulldozed her way into women's minds

By Homa Khaleeli

Germaine Greer, 'the only feminist some people have heard of'. (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

She has penned articles for the Sun in favour of Page 3, written a book celebrating the objectification of boys, attacked transsexuals and joined Celebrity Big Brother. Is it any wonder that some feminists fear Greer, now 71, is trampling on her own legacy because of a desire for publicity? Yet as one panellist put it, the controversy she stirs means that "she's the only feminist most people have ever heard of".

When she bulldozed her way into women's minds with The Female Eunuch in 1970, she changed lives. As Lisa Jardine wrote: "The book, and Germaine's attention-grabbing brand of standup-comic, in-your-face assertiveness, taught us all how to behave badly and take control of our lives. She was Mae West, Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein rolled into one."

Ever since she has never left any form of culture untouched – from arguing on panel shows to writing stacks of academic papers celebrating ignored women writers. She is, quite simply, impossible to ignore. Greer has taken on various academic posts and continued to needle, outrage and spark debate whenever she wishes.

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Jane Goodall

Primatologist and environmental campaigner, who has conducted groundbreaking work on chimpanzees

By Emine Saner

Jane Goodall … famous for her work with primates. (Jean-Marc Bouju/AP)

Fifty years ago, Jane Goodall, a young English woman with no formal scientific training, was walking through the rainforest of Gombe in Tanzania when she saw a chimpanzee take a stalk of grass, bend it and use it as a tool. " I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action." Goodall's discovery – and her subsequent decades of seminal work in which she showed that chimpanzees have family ties and social bonds, are capable of reasoned thought, communication and show affection, as well as being capable of extreme acts of brutality – has shortened the evolutionary gap between our species. Made a dame in 2004, the 66-year-old now spends most of her time on conservation.
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Lynda La Plante

Screenwriter responsible for Prime Suspect, a brilliant vision of a woman in a man's workplace

By Emine Saner

Lynda La Plante, a brilliant scriptwriter. (Mok Yui Mok/PA

In Prime Suspect, and DCI Jane Tennison, Lynda La Plante created a brilliant vision of a woman in a man's workplace. The detective, brought to life by Helen Mirren in the ITV drama that started in 1991, is the perfect anti-heroine: tougher and cleverer than her male bosses, she battles sexism at every turn to prove herself. Her sacrifice is her personal life – resolutely single, with a growing addiction to alcohol, everything else suffers because of her dedication to her work. It proved that successful TV series could have a female lead, and set the template for crime dramas. Criticised for sticking too closely to her winning formula – she also gave us Janet McTeer in The Governor, set in the prison service, and a young female detective in Above Suspicion – La Plante, 68, remains a rare female television writer regarded as a bankable name.
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Malalai Joya

Afghan politician and human rights campaigner who has shown phenomenal courage

By Emine Saner

Democracy in Afghanistan is a pretence, says Joya. (Monica Munich)

To watch a 2003 video of Malalai Joya, then in her early 20s, making a speech is to witness phenomenal courage and the power of speaking out. Joya, now 32, was an elected delegate to the Loya Jirga (an assembly to debate the proposed Afghan constitution) when she stood up and publicly criticised the room full of men. "Why would you allow criminals to be present? Warlords responsible for our country's situation . . . The most anti-women people in the society who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again."

Delegates shouted "prostitute" at her, and the guards were ordered to throw her out. Later, a mob gathered where she was staying, threatening to rape and murder her. This moment sealed her reputation as "the bravest woman in Afghanistan ".

Joya was just four days old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Her mother took her 10 children first to refugee camps in Iran, then Pakistan; her father stayed to fight. In the camps, Joya learned to read and began to teach other women, including her illiterate mother. A charity called the Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities smuggled Joya – then 16 – back to Afghanistan to set up a secret school for girls. "Every time a new girl joined the class, it was a triumph," she said.

In the aftermath of 9/11, and the American invasion of Afghanistan, the vacuum left by the fall of the Taliban was filled by warlords. Determined to challenge the authority these men had over the country, Joya decided to stand for election, speaking out against these fundamentalist "warlords", a word few dared say in public. Despite threats from these powerful men, there was also a huge swell of support for Joya, a rare politician, ordinary Afghans felt, who wasn't afraid to speak the truth. She won a landslide victory when she ran for parliament in 2005, the youngest person to be elected, only to be kicked out after she compared the house to a "stable or zoo" in a TV interview.

Joya is married, but doesn't see her husband often and has not named him publicly for fear that he will be murdered; she has survived several assassination attempts. In an interview with the New Statesman she said: [] in January, : "The US replaced the barbaric Taliban with the brutal Northern Alliance. This act betrayed human rights. The situation for women is as catastrophic today as it was before. In most provinces, women's lives are hell. Forced marriages, child brides and domestic violence are very common. Self-immolations are at a peak."

She lives in a series of safe houses run by supporters, travels with bodyguards, wears a burqa and does not attend public meetingsliving in fear for her life. "My parents chose my first name after Malalai of Maiwand," she said in an interview in 2009 to promote her memoir, Raising My Voice. "She was a young woman who, in 1880, went to the front line of the second Anglo-Afghan war to tend the wounded. When the fighters were close to collapse, she picked up the Afghan flag and led the men into battle herself. She was struck down – but the British suffered a landmark defeat, and, in the end, they were driven out."

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Martina Navratilova

One of the all-time greats of women's tennis and gay-rights campaigner

By Homa Khaleeli

Martina Navratilova. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

The most famous female tennis player of all time, Navratilova powered through 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including a record nine Wimbledon singles victories, and 31 doubles titles.

But her fearlessness off the court has also won her admirers; defecting to the US from communist Czechoslavakia at just 18, coming out in 1981, supporting gay rights and animal welfare, and raising awareness of cancer.

Some branded her powerful style unfeminine, but, now 55, she is still playing, and winning. As one reader said: "She took fitness levels and gym work to a whole different plateau for female athletes in an era when most fans wanted to see blushing, coquettish blondes with ribbons in their hair. A true icon for so many."
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Michelle Bachelet

Former president and defence minister of Chile who is now head of UN Women

By Homa Khaleeli

Michelle Bachelet. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, is used to being first. She was the first female president of the South American country after becoming its first female defence minister. Now aged 59, she is the first head of the newly created UN Women, the United Nations organisation dedicated to gender equality.

The former paediatrician and epidemiologist is now promoting female empowerment across the globe. On taking up the new role she said: "We have a historic opportunity to accelerate the achievement of what champions of gender equality have worked towards for years."

Her early life prepared her for such challenges. As a student, Bachelet survived torture after her father, an army general, opposed the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. As a divorced, agnostic mother of three in a Catholic country, her 2005 election campaign focused on meeting the needs of the country's poor, reforming the pension system and promoting the rights of women and indigenous communities. As one panel member said, she is a sign of hope for women who suffered in Latin America's brutal politics: "She talks to anyone who lost someone in the dirty war – and is an example of how you can turn your hatred to something positive."

Once in office, Bachelet shattered the conservative image of Chilean politics, ensuring half her cabinet were women. She also introduced women-friendly policies such as tripling the number of free creches. Although she encountered criticism over her response to the 2010 tsunami in which more than 500 Chileans died, her handling of the impact of the global financial crisis – she had insisted on saving money during the country's boom years – meant she left office as one of the most popular presidents in Chilean history.
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Nawal El Saadawi

Egyptian doctor, psychiatrist, feminist, university lecturer and writer

By Homa Khaleeli

Nawal El Saadawi. (Felix Clay)

This year, at the age of 80, Nawal El Saadawi was back on the streets with her fellow Egyptians in the protests that brought about the end of President Mubarak's rule. The doctor, psychiatrist, feminist and university lecturer who has published almost 50 novels, plays and short stories first cut her teeth during the demonstrations against the British rule of Egypt.

After undergoing female genital mutilation at the age of six, and seeing the damage it could do during her work as a village doctor, she campaigned against the practice – which led to her losing her job as director general of public health.

Her writing takes on controversial issues such as prostitution, domestic violence and religious fundamentalism. Most recently her criticism of patriarchal religion led to an unsuccessful legal attempt to strip her of her nationality and dissolve her marriage.
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Vandana Shiva

Environmentalist and founder of Diverse Women for Diversity

By Emine Saner
Vandana Shiva. (Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)

When Shiva, 58, and women villagers wrapped their arms around trees to prevent them being felled by commercial loggers, the name "tree hugger" was born. Since then Shiva's influence on the global environmental movement has grown. Fascinated by physics, she went to the University of Western Ontario but left her formal scientific work when she was inspired by the non-violence of the Chipko movement. "My father had been a forester and I had grown up on those hills. I learned from the [peasant women] what forests mean for a rural woman in India in terms of firewood and fodder and medicinal plants and rich knowledge." Shiva founded her Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1982, in a cow shed at the foothills of the Himalayas, to "serve the powerless not the powerful, which would not get all its cue from Western Universities and international institutions, but would also be open to learn from the indigenous knowledge of local communities".

Her organisation promotes biodiversity, conservation and small farmers' rights. She is an authority on globalisation and biodiversity, lobbying governments and challenging agriculture giants such as Monsanto.

She has been called naive, with critics saying her promotion of organic farming will not be able to support the world's food needs, but Shiva has always said this is a short-term view. Vandana's main theme is biodiversity - the power of agribusiness, she says, will lead to a domination of homogenous genetically-engineered seeds, that will eventually require farmers to use vast quantities of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water. Farmers in developing countries will not reap the economic benefits of their harvests, she argues; instead, that will go to a handful of global companies who will also hold the future power of food security.

Describing herself as an ecofeminist, Shiva, who also founded the organisation Diverse Women for Diversity , says feminism and environmentalism are inseparable. "Women who produce for their families and communities are treated as 'non-productive' and economically inactive. The devaluation of women's work, and of work done in sustainable economies, is the natural outcome of a system constructed by capitalist patriarchy. This is how globalisation destroys local economies and destruction itself is counted as growth."