10 "Nasty Women" Who Shaped American History
Before Trump ever called Clinton a “nasty woman,” these fierce ladies were getting it done—in the face of B.S. from the boys.
10 "Nasty Women" Who Shaped American History
All illustrations (c) 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl.
By Kate Schatz / yesmagazine.org
Nov 2, 2016

“Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote.”

—Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Here’s one way to look at this election: The upside to a certain candidate’s rampant misogyny is that we get amazing feminist memes, like #NastyWomenGetItDone, that allow us a platform for conversations about serious issues that affect women. While we’re all talking about—and celebrating—the “nasty woman,” here’s a roundup of some American women who’ve been making change happen and getting shit done—always on their own terms—and always in the face of B.S. from the boys.

What would Trump have to say about these women? Actually, who the hell cares?


Venus and Serena Williams

1. Venus and Serena Williams

The Williams sisters are arguably two of the world’s greatest living athletes. They’re also fashion designers, actors, entrepreneurs, and activists. Serena has spoken out against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter, and Venus led a multi-year battle for equal pay for winners at Wimbledon and the French Open.

They’ve risen above poverty, racist attacks, and endless criticism and have won Olympic medals, dominated tournaments, and even played a key cameo in Beyonce’s Lemonade. Venus and Serena ain’t sorry, ever.


Emma Goldman

2. Emma Goldman

Like your birth control? Well, then send a thank you to Emma Goldman, who began smuggling contraceptives into the U.S. in the 1910s.

Emma, a devoted anarchist and well-known Socialist activist, speaker, and writer, realized the importance of birth control while working as a midwife in the cramped slums of New York’s Lower East Side. She saw women dying from self-induced abortions and realized that contraception was essential to the liberation and safety of women. Her lectures on birth control were some of her best-attended, and she was arrested at least twice for distributing pamphlets advocating for contraception—writing or speaking about it was a violation of the truly nasty Comstock Law.

Emma also became a mentor to a young activist who would take up the fight for legalized birth control: Margaret Sanger.


Queen Liliuokalani

3. Queen Lili‘uokalani

Lydia Lili‘u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka‘eha was 40 years old when she became the first and only Queen of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and she was up against some serious nastiness right off the bat.

American businessmen like Sanford Dole were ramping up efforts to control Hawai‘i, mostly for pineapple and sugarcane crops. The new queen was fiercely opposed to this and did everything she could to save her kingdom. After she attempted to rewrite the constitution to restore the voting rights of Native Hawaiians, pro-American interests orchestrated a coup and put her in house arrest in her own palace.

While imprisoned, she wrote a book that would become the first published by a Hawaiian woman, as well as her most famous song: Aloha ‘Oe.

Seventy-six years after her death, the U.S. government finally apologized for the unlawful overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.


Guerilla Girls

4. Guerrilla Girls 

For the past 30 years an anonymous group of women have been advocating and agitating for women and people of color in the art world—and they’ve been wearing gorilla masks the entire time. Collectively, they call themselves the Guerrilla Girls. Individually, they take on the names of dead female artists.

With a combination of bawdy humor, bold design, and stark statistics, these masked feminist superheroes have created almost 100 posters, actions, billboards, postcards, and books that call out gender and racial bias in art, film, politics, and pop culture. They even schooled Stephen Colbert.


Josephine Baker

5. Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker is best known as a Jazz Era entertainer who titillated and scandalized French crowds with her topless dances and banana skirt. At the height of her fanciness she had a pet cheetah named Chiquita, whom she paraded around wearing a diamond collar.

But here are some other fun facts about Josephine that you may not know: She was a spy during WWII and seduced Nazis and wrote their military secrets in invisible ink on her sheet music and passed them on to the French Resistance. She helped desegregate top American nightclubs in places like Las Vegas and Miami by refusing to play for segregated audiences. She was the only woman to speak alongside Dr. Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. And decades before the Jolie-Pitts, she adopted 12 children from all over the world to show that racial harmony is possible. 


Angela Davis

6. Angela Davis

Angela Davis has become a cultural political icon, and while she’s most known for her involvement with the Black Panther Party (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year), her life is a case study in “How To Be A Badass Nasty Woman Who Never Stops Working For Social Change and Justice.”

She’s an academic, an author, a speaker, a professor, an organizer, an agitator, and a tireless voice for the voiceless. Armed with a profound intellect that’s deeply rooted in philosophy, she has been speaking and acting from the intersections of race, class, and gender for decades.


7. Dolores Huerta

March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day, a federal commemorative holiday proclaimed by President Obama in 2014. This is a great thing—and no shade at all to Mr. Chavez—but can we please get a Dolores Huerta Day too? She and Cesar worked side by side, co-founding the United Farm Workers union and organizing the labor movement in California and beyond.

It was Dolores who directed the 1965 Delano grape boycott, and her work as a political advocate has resulted in the passage of a number of significant labor protections for farm workers. She also spoke out about sexism within the labor movement, calling out her comrades for their misogynistic remarks in meetings and demanding they speak with respect. At 86 years old, she’s still going strong and fighting the good fight.


Billie Jean King

8. Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King didn’t want to play in a match against Bobby Riggs—in fact, she would’ve preferred to ignore his sexist taunting altogether and just focus on being one of the best tennis players of her time.

But he wouldn’t shut up, so she finally agreed. And then she kicked his ass in front of 90 million eager viewers.

The “Battle of the Sexes” became an iconic match, the one King is most known for. But she had a huge impact on women’s sports off the court as well. She was a champion of Title IX, she led the effort to start the first professional women’s tennis tournament tour, and she started the Women’s Tennis Association, which began as a group of nine female players who were sick of pay inequality and decided to just make their own league.  She’s also been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community for many years.


Lucy Parsons

9. Lucy Parsons 

Lucy Gonzalez Parsons was born in Texas during the Civil War. As a mixed-race woman (Native American, Mexican, and African-American) who married a White man, life in Texas was tough. They moved to Chicago and quickly became involved in the labor movement.

Strong-willed Lucy rose to prominence as a speaker, writer, organizer, and labor leader. She was also a mother of two, and when Albert lost his job she opened her own dress shop—all the while remaining involved in the labor struggle.

She and her family led the first May Day march in 1886, leading 80,000 people down Chicago streets in the fight for an eight-hour workday. And after the infamous Haymarket riots, when Albert was arrested and imprisoned, she toured the county speaking out in his defense. After his execution, she persevered, continuing her fight for labor rights and women’s rights as well.


Patti Smith

10. Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a punk rock legend whose poetic lyrics and gravelly voice helped define the 1970s New York punk scene. For more than 40 years, she’s been consistently creating fierce music, art, and literature that doesn’t shy from speaking truth to power.

When I watched Patti, who is now 70, play in Santa Cruz, California, earlier this year, it was by far the most intense, emotionally charged rock performance I have ever seen. Fists were raised, political revolutions were invoked, and the strings of a Strat were ripped off, one by one.

When Patti stepped to the edge of the stage, held the wrecked guitar above her head, and howled: “This is the weapon of my generation! Love one another!” little beads of her spit landed on my face. I definitely did not wipe it off. Instead I waved my arms and screamed right back at her—one nasty woman among many. All of us, empowered and engaged.


Rad Book Covers

For more stories, check out these books


Kate Schatz wrote this article for YES! Magazine. It is adapted from her New York Times bestselling feminist children’s books Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-ZFollow her at @RadWomenAtoZ

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10 "Nasty Women" Who Shaped American History