Influential Feminist Theorists

Key Women Writers on Feminist Theory, 17th Century to Today

Betty Friedan
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"Feminism" is about equality of the sexes, and activism to achieve such equality for women. Not all feminist theorists have agreed about how to achieve that equality and what equality looks like. Here are some of the key writers on feminist theory, key to understanding what feminism has been all about. They are listed here in chronological order so it's easier to see the development of feminist theory.

Rachel Speght

1597 - ?
Rachel Speght was the first woman known to have published a women's rights pamphlet in English under her own name. She was English.  She was responding, from her perspective within Calvinistic theology to a tract by Joseph Swetmen which denounced women. She countered by pointing to women's worth.  Her 1621 volume of poetry defended women's education.

Olympe de Gouges
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1748 - 1793
Olympe de Gouges, a playwright of some note in France at the time of the Revolution, spoke for not only herself but many of the women of France, when in 1791 she wrote and published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen. Modeled on the 1789 Declaration of the National Assembly, defining citizenship for men, this Declaration echoed the same language and extended it to women, as well. In this document, de Gouges both asserted a woman's capability to reason and make moral decisions and pointed to the feminine virtues of emotion and feeling. Woman was not simply the same as man, but she was his equal partner.

Mary Wollstonecraft


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1759 - 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the most important documents in the history of women's rights. Wollstonecraft's personal life was often troubled, and her early death of childbed fever cut short her evolving ideas.

Her second daughter,​ Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, was Percy Shelley's second wife and author of the book, Frankenstein.

Judith Sargent Murray

 National Portrait Gallery

1751 - 1820
Judith Sargent Murray, born in colonial Massachusetts and a supporter of the American Revolution, wrote on religion, women's education, and politics. She's best known for The Gleaner, and her essay on women's equality and education was published a year before Wollstonecraft's Vindication.

Fredrika Bremer
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1801 - 1865
Frederika Bremer, a Swedish writer, was a novelist and mystic who also wrote on socialism and on feminism. She studied American culture and the position of women on her American trip in 1849 to 1851​ and wrote about her impressions after returning home. She's also known for her work for international peace.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
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1815 - 1902
One of the best-known of the mothers of woman suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the 1848 woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, where she insisted on leaving in a demand for the vote for women -- despite strong opposition, including from her own husband. Stanton worked closely with Susan B. Anthony, writing many of the speeches which Anthony traveled to deliver.

Anna Garlin Spencer

Anna Garlin Spencer

 Wikimedia Commons

1851 - 1931
Anna Garlin Spencer, nearly forgotten today, was, in her time, considered among the foremost theorists about the family and women. She published Woman's Share in Social Culture in 1913.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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1860 - 1935
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in a variety of genres, including "The Yellow Wallpaper," a short story highlighting the "rest cure" for women in the 19th century; Woman and Economics, a sociological analysis of women's place; and Herland, a feminist utopia novel.

Sarojini Naidu
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1879 - 1949
A poet, she led a campaign to abolish purdah and was the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress (1925), Gandhi's political organization. After independence, she was appointed the ​governor of Uttar Pradesh. She also helped found the Women's India Association, with Annie Besant and others.

Crystal Eastman
Courtesy Library of Congress

1881 - 1928
Crystal Eastman was a socialist feminist who worked for women's rights, civil liberties, and peace.

Her 1920 essay, Now We Can Begin, written right after the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, makes clear the economic and social foundations of her feminist theory.

Simone de Beauvoir

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1908 - 1986
Simone de Beauvoir, a novelist and essayist, was part of the existentialist circle. Her 1949 book, The Second Sex, quickly became a feminist classic, inspiring women of the 1950s and 1960s to examine their role in culture.

Betty Friedan
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1921 - 2006
Betty Friedan combined activism and theory in her feminism. She was the author of The Feminist Mystique (1963) identifying the "problem that has no name" and the question of the educated housewife: "Is this all?" She was also the founder and first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and an ardent proponent of and organizer for the Equal Rights Amendment. She generally opposed feminists taking positions that would make it difficult for "mainstream" women and men to identify with feminism.

Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, 1980
Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, 1980. Diana Walker / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1934 -
Feminist and journalist, Gloria Steinem was a key figure in the women's movement from 1969. She founded Ms. magazine, starting in 1972. Her good looks and quick, humorous responses made her the media's favorite spokesperson for feminism, but she was often attacked by the radical elements in the women's movement for being too middle-class-oriented. She was an outspoken advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and helped found the National Women's Political Caucus.

Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda, 2012
Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda, 2012. Gary Gershoff/WireImage/Getty Images

1941 -
Robin Morgan, feminist activist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer, was part of the New York Radical Women and the 1968 Miss America protest. She was an editor of Ms. Magazine from 1990 to 1993. Several of her anthologies are classics of feminism, including Sisterhood Is Powerful.

Andrea Dworkin


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1946 - 2005
Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist whose early activism including working against the Vietnam War, became a strong voice for the position that pornography is a tool by which men control, objectify, and subjugate women. With Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin helped draft a Minnesota ordinance that did not outlaw pornography but allowed victims of rape and other sexual crimes to sue pornographers for damage, under the logic that the culture created by pornography supported sexual violence against women.

Camille Paglia, 1999
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1947 - 
Camille Paglia, a feminist with a strong critique of feminism, has proposed controversial theories about the role of sadism and perversity in Western cultural art, and the "darker forces" of sexuality that she claims feminism ignores. Her more positive assessment of pornography and decadence, the relegation of feminism to political egalitarianism, and assessment that women are actually more powerful in culture than men are has put her at odds with many feminists and non-feminists.

Dale Spender

Dale Spender


1943 - 
Dale Spender, an Australian feminist writer, calls herself a "fierce feminist."   Her 1982 feminist classic, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them highlights key women who've published their ideas, often to ridicule and abuse.  Her 2013  Mothers of the Novel continues her efforts to raise up women of history, and analyze why it is that we largely don't know them.

Patricia Hill Collins

Wikimedia Commons 

1948 - 
Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of Sociology in Maryland who was head of the African-American Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati, published Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Her 1992 Race, Class and Gender, with Margaret Andersen, is a classic exploring intersectionality: the idea that different oppressions intersect, and therefore, for instance, black women experience sexism differently than white women do, and experience racism differently from the way black men do.  Her 2004  Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism explores the relationship of heterosexism and racism.

bell hooks

bell hooks


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 1952 - 
bell hooks (she does not use capitalization) writes and teaches about race, gender, class, and oppression.  Her Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism was written in 1973; she finally found a publisher in 1981. 

Susan Faludi, 1992
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1959 -
Susan Faludi is a journalist who wrote Backlash:The Undeclared War against Women, 1991, which argued that feminism and women's rights were undermined by the media and corporations -- just as the previous wave of feminism lost ground to a previous version of backlash, convincing women that feminism and not inequality was the source of their frustration.