Women leaders of today are tenacious and diverse. They are mobilizing the global climate movement, pushing for social protections, addressing the COVID-19 crisis, and dismantling systemic racial discrimination. Around the world, women leaders improve lives and inspire a better future for all.
Yet, equality is still far off, and progress on women’s participation in decision-making is too slow. Too many people still believe men make natural and better leaders than women, too many institutions are set up to favour and propel men’s leadership, and funding for women’s campaigns and initiatives remain pitifully low. At the current rate of progress, it will take 130 years to reach gender equality in the highest positions of power.
To change course, power must be shared equally, made visible and accountable, at all levels, and that is what’s at the core of feminist leadership.
Leading with feminist principles means redefining value and success, sharing power and credit, building community and relationships, and, ultimately, tackling the roots of oppressive structures and social norms that hold back progress for all people, including women and girls.
We need transformative feminist leadership to face the unprecedented challenges of our times. Here are just 16 women leaders among many, many others, who inspire us, and this is what they have to say about feminist leadership.
Michelle Bachelet is a human rights advocate, the first woman President of Chile, and the first Executive Director of UN Women. Today, she serves as the UN Human Rights Chief, working to protect and promote the fundamental rights of all people around the world.
When asked why feminist leadership is important now, as we battle COVID-19 and its fallout, Bachelet says that the pandemic has magnified the extent and impact of inequality and that we need radical transformations of our political, economic and social systems to overcome the current health, economic and social crises.
“This transformation will only be possible through changing the way in which we make decisions and shape policies, through inclusion and participation, particularly of the underprivileged and those who are often voiceless. In other words, through feminist leadership.”
Bachelet says that, while many feminist leaders inspire her, she wants to pay special tribute to women human rights defenders, leaders of feminist movements, and women who collectively and individually work for a better world. “Their vision, strength, courage, empathy, and achievements are enormous sources of inspiration and hope for the future.”
Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi
Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi are successful entrepreneurs and young feminist leaders from Nigeria. Recently, both were named in the Bloomberg 50 list of people who changed global business in 2020 and the TIME Next 100 list in February 2021.
Odufuwa and Eweniyi joined forces in 2020 to create the Feminist Coalition, which focuses on women’s rights and safety, economic empowerment, and political participation of women in Nigeria. For its first project, the organisation supported the #EndSARS protests that swept Nigeria in 2020 and organized a food drive for low-income women and their families.
“A feminist leader will recognize that all women and all men deserve equal opportunities to pursue fulfilling careers and lives, and put structures in place to help others live up to their potential and drive meaningful change,” says Eweniyi. “A feminist leader is empathetic and understands the importance of intersectionality,” adds Odufuwa.
What can leaders do to lead with feminist principles? Odufuwa says, “employ more women into leadership roles and pay women fairly; be willing to unlearn biases and listen to constructive feedback — then effect change; and be conscious of intersectionality.”
Demecia Yat is one of 15 women survivors of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala that lasted 36 years (1954–1996). From 2011 to 2016, the women, respectfully called the abuelas (grandmothers) in their small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost, fought their case in the nation’s highest court.
The abuelas’ pursuit of justice resulted in the conviction of two former military officers of crimes against humanity and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and their communities.
Today, the abuelas demand to experience the full scope of what justice means for them: education, access to land, a health-care clinic, and an end to the poverty and discrimination that their community has endured across generations.
“My message to today’s generation is that they should speak out against any violation of their rights,” says Yat. “I want everyone to know what happened in Sepur Zarco so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Learn more about Yat, the abuelas, and their fight for justice.
Malala Yousafzai was 11 years old when the Taliban announced on the radio that girls could no longer attend school in Pakistan. “That was the moment that I realized that education was more than reading books and doing homework. It was about the empowerment of women,” Malala says.
Yousafzai began speaking up for girls’ right to education, and, because of her activism, she quickly became a target for the Taliban. In October 2012, Yousafzai was shot as she returned home from school. After months of surgeries and rehabilitation, she picked up her activism once again, becoming one of the most forceful advocates for girls’ education worldwide, and the youngest Nobel laureate at 17 years of age.
“I raise up my voice not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
Gordana Comic is Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue in the Republic of Serbia. As the founder of the Women’s Parliamentary Network of the National Assembly and a member of the women’s movement in Serbia, she has played a significant role in the country’s fight for women’s equality and equal participation in decision-making processes.
In February 2020, the Serbian Parliament adopted amendments proposed by Comic that introduced quotas of 40 per cent female candidates on electoral lists for both parliamentary and local elections.
For Comic, feminist leadership matters, and it means changing the very nature and perception of political power. “I am here because of the work, devotion, courage, and commitment of thousands of women before me. I am standing on their shoulders and preparing mine for the next generation,” she says.
Anastasiia Yeva Domani
“I am a leader and a feminist. It is in my mind and my blood,” says Anastasiia Yeva Domani, one of the most visible transgender woman activists from Kyiv, Ukraine. However, Domani never intended to be a human rights activist; after going through her own process of transitioning amidst many institutional barriers, she determined to fight for the rights of trans people in Ukraine.
“Things like adopting children, being a blood donor, and working in several sectors are forbidden…Only a portion of our human rights is available to us,” Domani says. “The visibility and voice of women leaders who advocate for change in media and legislature is of utmost importance.”
Learn more about Domani’s activism.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
As Africa’s first democratically-elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led Liberia through reconciliation and recovery following a decade-long civil war and responded to the Ebola Crisis of 2014–2015. She has won international acclaim for the economic, social, and political achievements of her administration, and, in 2011, she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her work to empower women.
Today, Sirleaf is an influential voice for expanding women’s political participation and involvement in decision-making processes. “Increasingly there is recognition that full gender equity will ensure a stronger economy, a more developed nation, a more peaceful nation. And that is why we must continue to work,” she says.
Dr. Alaa Murabit is a Libyan-Canadian medical doctor, global security strategist, women’s rights advocate, an SDG Advocate and the youngest appointed United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health, Employment and Economic Growth.
Murabit’s career has taken her around the world to promote women’s leadership in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and security. “I know what it looks like to transform a family, community, country, and more, when we support, invest in, and uplift women,” says Murabit. “I strongly believe in women’s leadership, agency, equality, and power.”
Her tips for leading with feminist principles include building an environment where everyone’s input is valid and heard, mentoring and supporting people to cultivate and embrace their own leadership, and having zero tolerance for harassment or abuse of any kind.
Emtithal Mahmoud is a world champion slam poet and activist for the refugee cause. Born in Khartoum, Sudan, “Emi” — as she is known among her supporters– immigrated to the United States of America as a child with her family. She uses her talents to shine a light on the experiences of millions of refugees worldwide.
“I use my words to raise the alarm on the conflicts of our time…in the hopes that someone might hear something that moves them,” says Emi. In 2016, she was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and has visited refugee camps in Jordan, Uganda, and Greece, teaching poetry workshops and inspiring countless refugees to share their story.
Zainab Fasiki is an award-winning Moroccan artivist (artist and activist) and mechanical engineer.
She uses art, literature, and social media to spark conversations about women’s lives and bodies, without censorship or shame.
Fasiki is the founder of a feminist collective that supports young women artists and was named a TIME magazine Next Generation Leader in 2019 for her Hshouma project, a graphic novel that explores topics of gender identities and sexual orientations.
Her advice for how to lead with feminist principles is to remember that, in order to achieve peace, “Our tools are art, literature, politics, philosophy, and love.”
Alicia Garza is an organizer and author from the United States. She is the Principal at Black Futures Lab and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network (with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi), which has become one of the most powerful social justice movements in the world.
Central to Garza’s activism is the belief that Black communities, like all communities, deserve to be powerful in every aspect of their lives.
Speaking from more than two decades of organizing experience, in a recent interview with Forbes, Garza’s advice for forming and leading transformative movements is, “Figure out what you really care about. Find other people who care about the same things that you do. Join them. And once you do, keep bringing other people along with you.”
Gloria Steinem is a feminist activist and acclaimed writer from the United States. She has been on the front lines of social activism for decades and received countless honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her service to humanity.
“A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men,” says Steinem, who remains an active feminist today and encourages us to carry the women’s rights movement forward through collective engagement. “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.”
In 2002, Nanaia Mahuta was the youngest Māori woman to be elected to the New Zealand parliament at 26 years old.
Two decades of legislative leadership later, Mahuta became the first Māori woman Minister of Foreign Affairs in November 2020.
She is part of the country’s most diverse Cabinet ever, appointed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose administration has been recognized for its swift and successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the 2021 World Economic Forum, Mahuta emphasized the importance of pandemic leadership that aims to empower, as well as protect. “As a government, we take a science-based informed approach, and we don’t just respond — we educate the public to get them to understand the global pandemic and the tools of our continued response.”
Luisa Neubauer is a climate activist from Berlin, Germany, who works with the global Fridays for Future movement that has inspired climate protests and action around the world.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Neubauer and her fellow organizers promptly moved their activism online and continued to push for stronger responses to climate change.
“We ask people to post selfies from home showing their protest signs. We organize mass calls and ask people to drop banners from their windows, write messages on their face masks, join us in tweet storms and mass email actions. There is plenty to explore!” says Neubauer.
Read more about how Neubauer and other young women climate activists are adapting their activism during the pandemic.