Wednesday, March 09, 2016

14 Female Revolutionaries You Should Know About

I think most people consider the job of revolution to be men's work. That is, at best, a misogynistic view of history. The truth is that no revolution ever happened without the support and participation of women -- and many times, women had a leadership role in them.

In honor of Women's History Month, I bring you some female revolutionary leaders (from Kathleen Harris at and Natasha Rodriguez at You probably haven't heard of most (or all) of these women, but you should know about them -- because they helped change the world we live in.

Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl was a brilliant German revolutionary who was a founding member of The White Rose, a non-violent anti-Nazi resistance group. The group spread its beliefs via graffiti and anonymous flyers. Sophie and other members of The White Rose were arrested in 1942 for handing out flyers at the University of Munich. She was convicted of high treason and was executed by guillotine along with her brother Hans. Copies of group’s flyer were retitled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich and were smuggled out of the country and air-dropped over Germany by Allied forces later that year.

Celia Sanchez

Most people associate the Cuban Revolution with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, few have heard of Celia Sanchez, the woman who played an important role in the famed revolution. The Cuban native joined the struggle against the Batista government following the coup of March 10th, 1952. She was one of the first women to assemble a combat squad and quickly became one of the main decision-makers during the revolution. She was also the founder of the 26th of July Movement—the organization that ultimately overthrew Batista. After the revolution, Celia became the Secretary of the Council of Ministers and served in the Department of Services of the Council of State until her death from lung cancer in 1980.

Nadezhda Krupskaya

Many people know Nadezhda Krupskaya simply as Vladimir Lenin’s wife, but Nadezhda was a Bolshevik revolutionary and politician in her own right. She was heavily involved in a variety of political activities, including serving as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister of Education from 1929 until her death in 1939, and a number of educational pursuits. Prior to the revolution, she served as secretary of the Iskra group, managing continent-wide correspondence, much of which had to be decoded. After the revolution, she dedicated her life to improving education opportunities for workers and peasants, for example by striving to make libraries available to everyone.

 Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) was an Anglo-Irish Countess, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician, revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist. She participated in many Irish independence efforts, including the Easter Rising of 1916, in which she had a leadership role. During the Rising, she wounded a British sniper before being forced to retreat and surrender. After, she was the only woman out of 70 to be put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but was pardoned based on her gender. Interestingly, the prosecuting counsel claimed that she begged “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman”, while court records show she said “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. Constance was one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position (Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic, 1919–1922), and she was also the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (December 1918)—a position which she rejected due to the Sinn Féin abstentionist policy.

Petra Herrera

During the Mexican Revolution, female soldiers known as soldaderas went into combat along with the men although they often faced abuse. One of the most well-known of the soldaderas was Petra Herrera, who disguised her gender and went by the name “Pedro Herrera”. As Pedro, she established her reputation by demonstrating exemplary leadership (and blowing up bridges) and was able to reveal her gender in time. She participated in the second battle of Torreón on May 30, 1914 along with about 400 other women, even being named by some as being deserving of full credit for the battle. Unfortunately, Pancho Villa was likely unwilling to give credit to a woman and did not promote her to General. In response, Petra left Villa’s forces and formed her own all-woman brigade.


Nwanyeruwa, an Igbo woman in Nigeria, sparked a short war that is often called the first major challenge to British authority in West Africa during the colonial period. On November 18, 1929, an argument between Nwanyeruwa and a census man named Mark Emereuwa broke out after he told her to “count her goats, sheep and people.” Understanding this to mean she would be taxed (traditionally, women were not charged taxes), she discussed the situation with the other women and protests, deemed the Women’s War, began to occur over the course of two months. About 25,000 women all over the region were involved, protesting both the looming tax changes and the unrestricted power of the Warrant Chiefs. In the end, women’s position were greatly improved, with the British dropping their tax plans, as well as the forced resignation of many Warrant Chiefs.

Lakshmi Sehgal

Lakshmi Sahgal, colloquially known as “Captain Lakshmi”, was a revolutionary of the Indian independence movement, an officer of the Indian National Army, and later, the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Azad Hind government. In the 40s, she commanded the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, an all-women regiment that aimed to overthrow British Raj in colonial India. The regiment was one of the very few all-female combat regiments of WWII on any side, and was named after another renowned female revolutionary in Indian history, Rani Lakshmibai, who was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Blanca Canales

Blanca Canales was a Puerto Rican Nationalist who helped organize the Daughters of Freedom, the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. She was one of the few women in history to have led a revolt against the United States, known as the Jayuya Uprising. In 1948, a severely restricting bill known as the Gag Bill, or Law 53, was introduced that made it a crime to print, publish, sell, or exhibit any material intended to paralyze or destroy the insular government. In response, the Nationalists starting planning armed revolution. On October 30, 1950, Blanca and others took up arms which she had stored in her home and marched into the town of Jayuya, taking over the police station, burning down the post office, cutting the telephone wires, and raising the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the Gag Law. As a result, the US President declared martial law and ordered Army and Air Force attacks on the town. The Nationalists held on for awhile, but were arrested and sentenced to life in prison after 3 days. Much of Jayuya was destroyed, and the incident was not fairly covered by US media, with the US President even saying it was “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”

Kathleen Neal Cleaver

Kathleen Neal Cleaver is currently a professor of American law at Emory College, but she was also an integral member of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization, during the 1960’s. Cleaver served as the communications secretary and was the first female member of the Party’s decision-making body. She was also the Party’s spokesperson and press secretary. Kathleen has devoted her life to fighting for racial equality and human rights. At one point, she and other women such as Angela Davis made up two-thirds of the Black Panther Party, contrary to beliefs that the Party was overwhelmingly masculine.

Tawakul Karman

Tawakul Karman is a 36-year-old mother of three and serves as the chair of Women Journalists Without Chains, a Yemeni group that fights for human rights and freedom of expression. Tawakul is known for pressuring Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, to resign. She has protested in front of Sana’a University in the nation’s capital, every Tuesday since 2007. Although Tawakul believes in the power of peaceful protest, she has been arrested several times. In 2011, she became the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi is best known for speaking out against the violent rule of Burmese dictator U Ne Win. Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy in 1989 and the party had a big victory in the 1990 elections. Although this victory would have made Suu Kyi prime minister, the U Ne Win refused to hand over the power and effectively enacted a constitution that forbade Suu Kyi from ever serving as Burma’s leader. After starting a nonviolent movement for equality and human rights, Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for 15 years. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was recently granted freedom.

Corazon Aquino

A former self-proclaimed housewife, Corazon Aquino was the leader of the 1986 Philippines’ “people power” revolution which effectively removed Ferdinand Marcos of his 20-year-old reign. After her senator husband was assassinated in 1983, Corazon took up her husband’s cause and decided to run for president of the Philippines against Marcos. Although she was not victorious in the election, Corazon led the peaceful revolution throughout the Philippines that eventually led Marcos to resign. During her years as president, Corazon successfully veered her country towards democracy and ratified a constitution that would limit the power of the presidency. She died in 2009.

Phoolan Devi

Phoolan Devi’s early years were characterized by several instances of sexual abuse by high-caste men, inspiring her to fight against the caste system in India. At 18, Devi was gang-raped by high-caste bandits. In retaliation, she decided to become a gang-leader herself and seek revenge on her assaulters. In 1981, Devi returned to the village of the incident and executed two of her rapists and 20 other villagers. She evaded the law for two years and finally surrendered in 1983, when she was charged for 48 crimes including murder and kidnapping for ransom. After 11 years in prison, the state government dropped all charges against her and she was elected to parliament in 1994. She was assassinated in 2001 by three upper-caste men at the age of 37.

Asmaa Mahfouz

Asmaa Mahfouz is a modern-day revolutionary who is credited with sparking the January 2011 uprising in Egypt through a video blog post encouraging others to join her in protest in Tahrir Square. She is considered one of the leaders of the Egyptian Revolution and is a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution.


  1. Is Emma Goldman too obvious? Or do you not consider her a real revolutionary?

  2. Emma is very deserving of being on this list.


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