By Esmeralda Rocha
We’re all familiar with Harriet, Emmeline, Malala and Susan as names of famous women’s rights advocates as possible inspirational baby names. But what about the women who did amazing things but have slipped into obscurity? If you’re looking for girl names with mountains of feminist cred that are a little more off the beaten track, here are 20 choices you might be inspired by- most of which you’ve probably never heard of.
We’ve also thrown in five boys’ names that also have feminist connotations – because everyone should be an advocate for equality!
Aurembiaix of Urgell was a 12th century Aragonese countess. As the only heir to her father’s lands, she had to fight for the right to succeed him, which she did. Aurembiaix even won battles by cleverly dressing local women as men so that from a distance her army would appear twice its size. Sure, the name is challenging, but it is also intriguing and filled with nickname potential – Aury, Bea, Remy etc.
Magistra Hersend was a 12th century female physician. She was so skillful that the King of France elevated her to the position of court physician, and she accompanied him to battle to tend to his wounds. The name itself brims with importance and, well, majesty.
Why choose the common Sophie, when this amazing name is out there? Sophonisba has two claims to feminist glory – the ancient bearer was a Carthaginian noble who chose to drink poison rather than be humiliated by invading Romans. More recently, US feminist Sophonisba Breckenridge was not only the first woman to pass the Kentucky bar, but basically created an entire academic discipline aimed at the serious study of the family: social work.
Vida Goldstein (shown) was an Australian feminist, the first woman in the British Empire to stand for Parliament. An ardent campaigner for women’s votes and educational rights, her efforts alongside other Australian women saw that country behind only New Zealand in granting suffrage to women. Vida fits nicely with the current trend towards vintage names like Vera and Ida.
Severine was the nom de plume chosen by French journalist, feminist and anarchist Caroline Rémy de Guebhard. She consistently advocated for the rights of all people and against legal and social injustice. This name was popular among second wave feminist French parents in the 1970s.
British suffragette Aeta Lamb was a close collaborator of the more famous Emmeline Pankhurst. Aeta was named by her father after a species of palm found in British Guiana, where she was born. She went to prison several times for her efforts to win British women voting and other legal rights. Aeta is a punchy name which grabs attention without being overly long or frilly.
Isala Van Diest was the first woman in Belgium to qualify as a doctor (only after enormous effort to establish her qualifications!). Once practicing, she advocated for health care rights for all Belgians, treating prostitutes and poor pensioners alongside more affluent citizens, and founding the Belgian Women’s Rights League. Isala has a mellifluous sound, and ties in nicely with more familiar names like Isolde and Isla.
Lin Zongsu was an early Chinese feminist, founding the first organisation campaigning for women’s voting rights in China (in 1911) and writing prolifically in leading publications to advocate for women’s suffrage and other rights. Zongsu means “a simple aim,” summing up her struggle for equality beautifully.
Kalliroi Parren was responsible for almost single-handedly launching the Greek feminist movement when she founded the Women’s Journal in 1887. She advocated strongly for educational and employment equality. Kalliroi is a modern Greek form of the Classical name Callirrhoe, the mythological ocean nymph who accompanied Persephone to the underworld. The name means “beautiful flow.”
This lovely Indian name has two distinguished feminist bearers – freedom-fighting poet Sarojini Naidu and Sarojini Sahoo, a modern Indian feminist writer and journalist. The name itself is as poetic as Naidu’s works, meaning “pond covered in lotuses”.
Japanese feminist Raicho Hiratsuka chose the name Raicho for herself – no doubt because of its fabulous meaning: “Thunderbird.” She founded Seito (meaning “bluestocking”), which started as a literary magazine, but quickly became the preeminent forum for Japanese feminism. She fought for the rights of working class women in Japan’s textile industry and eschewed conventional domesticity, openly living with a lover and having her children out of wedlock.
New Zealand feminist Meri Te Tai Mangak?hia advocated strongly for Maori and women’s rights. She felt that since Maori women were landowners, they should be able to vote in the Maori parliament, and also be allowed to be representatives. This placed her views far in advance of her European contemporaries in New Zealand, who were then advocating only for the vote. Meri is a cheerful, sweet name that would work well in many cultures.
Hermila Galindo was a Mexican feminist who was way ahead of her time – not only did she advocate for women’s suffrage, she also wanted to see sex education in schools, divorce rights legislated, and argued for women to command greater respect in society. When she stood for parliament, she actually won the majority of votes but was not legally allowed to take her seat. Hermila stems from the Greek name Hermes – and she truly was a messenger with a profound message.
Izetta Jewel was an American actress, activist and politician. She became the first Southern woman to run for the US Senate, only narrowly losing this race. Izetta campaigned particularly for the rights and interests of rural women, whose lives she observed as being much more repressed than their urban sisters. Izetta was appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt as Regional Director of Women’s Activities of the WPA, overseeing women’s relief projects in several states. Izetta is a name most commonly seen in the Appalachian Mountain area.
Venetian writer Modesta di Pozzo was anything but modest. In the 16th century, her treatise called “The Worth of Women” criticized the treatment of women by men while celebrating women’s virtues and intelligence and arguing that women are superior to men. Her husband, at least, obviously valued her highly: when she died at a young age, he published her papers and had her tomb inscribed not with the typical “beloved wife and mother” but rather with “a very intelligent woman.”
Maybanke Anderson was an Australian women and children rights reformer. A keen suffragette, believing that the vote was “the kernel for all reform,” she was also passionate about education (founding a school designed to prepare girls for college) and employment (she was key in founding kindergartens to help women with young children continue to work). Maybanke has a sort of Southern charm that could appeal to some parents and is unusual without being too challenging.
Voltairine de Cleyre is regarded primarily as a US anarchist, but her radical philosophy also embraced feminism. She condemned ideals of beauty that encourage women to distort their bodies and questioned raising children in fixed gender roles. Named after Voltaire, Voltairine is a name that packs a lot of intellectual punch.
Tarabai is an Indian name with a lot of feminist clout. Tarabai Bhosale was a 17th century Maratha queen who was a skilled military leader who successfully resisted the Mughal empire on behalf of her people. Three centuries later, Tarabai Shinde authored India’s first feminist text – in which she railed against both the patriarchy and the caste system. Tarabai means feminine star – a perfect name for your budding feminist.
Ezlynn Deraniyagala was the first female barrister in Sri Lanka. A founding member of the feminist movement there, she also turned her attention to international matters – taking the role of president of the International Alliance of Women in the crucial days of the early 60s. Ezlynn is a name popping with modern sounds and style – a great way to honor the international sisterhood.
Aoua Keita’s father insisted on giving her the best possible education- which was unusual in the early 20th century, and particularly so in Mali. As a midwife, Aoua devoted herself to delivering women the best pre- and post-natal care she could, but her feminist credentials skyrocketed after she entered politics. In 1960 she became the only woman elected to Mali’s new National Assembly and the only woman within the ruling party’s leadership. Aoua is a Malian variation of Eve – the original woman’s name.
Feminist boys’ names
Thaddeus is a long-time favorite of Nameberries with both its biblical and abolitionist connotations (and definitely one of mine – I chose it for my own son last year!). But did you know that the same Thaddeus Stevens of racial equality fame was also an avid women’s rights advocate? Thaddeus Stevens was the first politician anywhere in the world to bring a petition to a parliament for women’s suffrage, doing so in 1858. He also advocated for women to hold public office and thought they should have every right that any man had.
Boring old Richard feels like the antithesis of a feminist name – but Richard Pankhurst contradicts that idea. This was a man who not only advocated for women’s suffrage and authored the bill that let married women keep control of all their money and property, but he walked the walk of equality in a way many modern men still do not: he was happy to remain in the shadows while his wife Emmeline attracted the attention and glory of the women’s rights movement. Theirs was a truly equal partnership.
Nicolas de Condorcet was an Enlightenment intellectual who advocated strongly for human equality – that women, people of all races, and all religions should be treated fairly and equally by the state and society. He was sorely disappointed when the new French Republic refused citizenship rights to French women and published a vehement pamphlet on this subject. This along with his other criticisms got him arrested during the Reign of Terror. He killed himself in prison before he could be executed.
Nineteenth century Indian author/reformer Behramji Malabari lends this name a lot of feminist clout – he devoted most of his life to fighting for the rights of women and girls and was a fierce campaigner against child marriage, his reporting of which was crucial to the eventual adoption of a legal age of consent – not only in India but in Britain too.
When Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s sister killed herself to avoid an arranged marriage, the event galvanized him. He became a fierce advocate of women’s rights – and the right of all people to have autonomy over their personal lives. Proving the pen is mightier than the sword, Nizar used his immense literary talent to advocate these positions – and it is thought that Syria’s progressive views on women’s rights were in large part due to the influence he had on Syrian consciousness and society.