Michelle Obama. Simone de Beauvoir. Emily Davison. Malala Yousafzai. Angela Davis.
There’s no shortage of inspirational feminist icons out there, strong and powerful women who serve as role models for future generations. But for every famous icon, there are twenty less well-known women out there.
This article looks at just three of those women. Some you might know, some you might not. But each is equally deserving of the title of icon in 2020.
Mother. Farmer. Politician. Queen. Activist. General. Rebel.
Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire held many roles during her 80 years on this planet. While this is impressive for any individual, it was especially noteworthy for Asantewaa — you’d be hard-pushed to find a woman occupying such powerful roles at this time.
Asantewaa was born in 1840 into a family of traditional rulers in the Ashanti Empire, modern-day Ghana. The history buffs among you might notice that this was around the same time that the British Empire was colonising vast swathes of the world, and the Ashanti Empire was no exception.
Already ravaged by civil wars, in 1896 the Ashanti Empire was invaded by the British. Exiling the current ruler, Prempeh I, to Seychelles, the British set about expanding their control over the region. This control continued until 1900, when British Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson sought possession of an Ashanti throne, the Golden Stool.
He approached Asantewaa, who by this time had taken the role of regent for her people, and demanded the throne be given to him. Beyond simply owning the throne, Hodgson also wanted to sit on it for himself.
This was not a good idea.
The Golden Stool was a valued artifact, an embodiment of Ashani culture, and a highly-treasured symbol of its people.
Naturally, the Ashanti people were enraged. Following the request, a secret meeting of the remaining members of the Ashanti government was held to discuss ways to free the exiled Prempeh I to help them regain control.
Such a venture seemed fruitless, and many of the men present began to argue. At this point, Yaa Asantewaa stepped forward and addressed the disheartened men:
“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king […] Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
Thus sparked the War of the Golden Stool, led by Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire with an army of just 5000.
While the Ashanti army was defeated and suffered heavy losses, the Golden Stool remained protected and in the possession of its rightful heirs. Asantewaa was exiled to Seychelles, and Ghana became the first African nation in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence.
So the chances are you probably have heard of Emma González, but she is someone worth revisiting.
Emma González was born in 1999 in Florida, one of three children to Cuban parents. She served as president of her high school’s gay-straight alliance and as a tracking team leader on a school weather balloon project.
In February 2018, González survived a horrific shooting at her high school in Parkland. A former student entered the school and shot dead 17 people, injuring a further 17. It is the deadliest high school shooting to date.
Just four days after the shooting, González gave an 11-minute speech to an audience of hundreds. She used the speech to attack various organisations and governmental bodies, and pledged to make the shooting the beginning of the end for mass shootings in the US:
In the face of one of the most right-wing US administrations the country has ever seen, she criticised the government’s failure to regulate gun ownership, singling out the National Rifle Association too for being complicit in the shootings.
González also went after the press, condemning them for their intrusive and insensitive coverage of the shooting. She uses the call and response mantra “we call BS” throughout, firing up the crowd as they chanted “shame on you” and “throw them out” in unison.
The speech is made all the more resonant by the fact González was just 17 at the time. She is articulate, emotive, and fiercely passionate, and speaks with an intelligence and fire that far outstrips her years. I defy you to watch it and not share her raw emotion and anger.
Naturally, as a young, queer woman, she has been vilified by many in the right-wing press. Yet she deflects the comments with grace and poise. In her various media appearances, she deftly brushes past political doublespeak and cuts to the truth of her argument.
Emma González is a woman who has faced unimaginable challenges in her life: the loss of her friends and classmates at the hands of a school shooter, deeply savage criticism from the press and politicians, and the weight of a seemingly-unwinnable war for gun control upon her shoulders.
Such pressure would take its toll on anyone’s mental health. And yet she continues ceaselessly, head held high. Emma González is undeniably an icon for our time.
Sonia Burgess was a leading asylum and immigration lawyer based in London. Born in Yorkshire in 1947, Sonia attended a nearby boarding school, going on to study law at St Catharine’s College in Cambridge.
In 1975, she co-founded the legal aid firm Winstanley Burgess Solicitors, where her work with Tamil and Turkish Kurd refugees helped to define asylum legal work as a specialism in its own right.
By 1985, Burgess had married Youdon Lhamo, a Tibetan refugee nurse, with whom she had a son and daughter. They later adopted Lhamo’s niece from India, where she had been living in exile with her family.
Often described as the finest immigration lawyer of her generation, Burgess was responsible for a number of pioneering legal cases. One particularly notable case was that of Saravamuthu Sivakumaran, whose landmark case led to the law being changed to allow refugees greater rights of appeal when refused entry to a country.
Another case found Burgess causing the then-Home Secretary Kenneth Baker to be found in contempt of court for failing to prevent a Zairean asylum seeker being deported. Taking on the British government’s legal team, Burgess was able to pursue contempt proceedings all the way to the House of Lords.
Beyond her work with refugees, Burgess also worked with a number of transexual clients. This departure from immigration law perhaps lay in part due to the fact that Burgess was also a transgender woman.
Growing up, Burgess had always experienced difficulties with her gender identity, and following her separation from Lhamo in 2005, she began to transition. While her free time was spent living as Sonia, she was intensely wary of how she would be perceived by her colleagues at her firm. As such, she lived a life in dichotomy: David Burgess at work, and Sonia Burgess in her personal life.
By all accounts, Sonia Burgess was kind, loving, and deeply committed to doing the right thing. As a lawyer, as a parent, and as a friend, Burgess was selfless through-and-through. She was as altruistic in her personal life and she was in her role as a refugee lawyer. Her friends describe her as a courageous, sensitive woman whose first thought was for others, never herself.
On October 25th 2010, Sonia Burgess was pushed under a train by Nina Kanagasingham, a trans woman whom she had befriended. She was killed instantly.
Kanagasingham, a Sri Lankan trans woman, had met Burgess in a nightclub. Burgess offered her financial and, naturally, emotional support for her gender identity issues. Kanagasingham was arrested and imprisoned, and was found dead in her cell in 2013.
Burgess is a feminist icon by virtue of being a woman who lived her life as best she could. She dedicated her life and career to helping others, to being selfless, to doing the right thing.
Above all, Sonia Burgess had the courage to live her life, as much as she could, as a woman. But beyond this, I think that, as someone who so often put others first, she should be lauded for having the courage to allow herself the same courtesy.
The women above are just three names amongst a roster of countless more. They each led wildly different lives and achieved quite disparate goals. And yet, they all share the same traits: courage, tenacity, selflessness. For these qualities, their achievements, and so much more, they truly deserve the title of feminist icon.