Rebel Girls: 9 Badass Black Feminists and Their Books That Shook the World

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

As I’ve read independently about feminism since I graduated, I’ve been struck by how the contributions of Black women in feminism have been consistently minimized, erased, and co-opted by the people who taught me, and ostensibly, many others like me, in women’s studies. It’s legitimately shameful how little credit is given to Black women for expanding feminism and really challenging women who led the movement throughout herstory to consider other components of oppression in their analyses.

These are nine Black women who changed feminism forever with their scholarship. Let’s vow to never forget their names.

Alice Walker


Alice Walker coined the term “Womanism” in a 1979 short story called In Search of our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. She defined such a person as:

A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/ or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…[she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.

The concept quickly took root and become a movement all its own, appealing to folks who both did and didn’t identify as feminists. It also blossomed in religious communities, where womanist theology became a thing.

Books You Should Read Immediately: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist ProseAnything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, Go Girl!: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and AdventureWe Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

Angela Davis


Angela Davis is my ultimate feminist icon because she’s a total badass. She’s legitimately given her life to the revolution. She fearlessly fights on in the face of opposition and refuses, no matter what the consequences, to back down. She’s expanded feminist consciousness to include the ideals of anti-capitalism, prison abolition, racial justice, and LGBTQ rights. Her work is beyond boundary-breaking; it’s Earth-shaking. Angela Davis makes us uncomfortable and demands we push harder for equality.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Women, Race, & ClassWomen, Culture & PoliticsBlues Legacies and Black FeminismAre Prisons Obsolete?The Meaning of Freedom

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde and Gloria Joseph.

Audre Lorde and Gloria Joseph

Audre Lorde was one of the legendary Black feminist women in the 1960s and 70s who stood tall against movements that demanded they parse out their identities to belong in different spaces. Her hallmark contribution to the feminist movement, Sister Outsider, expanded on the intense sense of othering that she experienced as a Black queer woman in the second wave.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices, I Am Your Sister, Sister Outsider, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name

Barbara Smith


You already know that I’m totally obsessed with Barbara Smith, so I’ll keep it short. Smith is a pillar in multiple facets of the women’s movement, having been pivotal in not only building an intersectional framework for social justice but also in creating Black women’s studies and Black feminism. Smith constantly amplifies the voices of the most marginalized in her work and organizing, acknowledging that to do so will ultimately liberate us all.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, Yours in Struggle, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Home Girls: A Black Feminist AnthologyWritings on Race, Gender and Freedom: The Truth that Never Hurts

bell hooks

photo via Denison

bell hooks is known for her incisive and easy-to-digest writing style, which is usually employed to connect the dots between social systems of domination along the lines of race, class, and gender. She’s a prolific writer and “cultural critic” known for cutting right through the bullshit to the heart of social issues. hooks is also an esteemed academic, and she sees a keen potential for liberation in education.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and FeminismFeminist Theory: From Margin to CenterTalking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking BlackYearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural PoliticsBreaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual LifeOutlaw Culture: Resisting RepresentationsHappy to Be NappyFeminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics

Beverly Guy-Sheftall


Beverly Guy-Sheftall made herstory when she became Founding Director of the Spelman College Women’s Research and Resource Center – the first center of its kind on a Historically Black College / University campus. She’s also founding editor of Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Her work has expanded the breadth of Black women’s studies – and, in turn, the feminist movement – by provoking conversations about race within feminist academia. Also, if you remember the feminist frenzy over Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video (were we ever so young?), you remember Beverly Guy-Sheftall: her women’s studies class launched the national conversation around the music video’s depiction of Black women.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist ThoughtGender Talk: The Struggle for Equality in African American Communities

Bonnie Thornton-Dill

15.03.02 Living Thinkers Web

Bonnie Thornton-Dill is an intersectionality pioneer. She played a key role in developing a body of academic work around the concept of intersectionality as Founding Director for both the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis and the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland and has contributed to or published various volumes on race, class, and gender in America. Without people like Thornton-Dill, feminism would’ve glossed over “intersectionality” the same way it glossed over “interlocking oppressions” years before in the Combahee River Collective statement. But I digress!

Books You Should Read Immediately: Emerging Intersections: Race, Class, and Gender in Theory, Policy, and Practice

Dorothy Roberts


Dorothy Roberts is an intellectual who pushes for policy change, specifically around issues of class, race, and gender in reproductive justice. She currently leads a double life as an academic and legal expert, where her work is at the forefront of shifting legal practice and feminist praxis.

Books You Should Read Immediately: Killing the Black Body

Patricia Hill Collins


Patricia Hill Collins made the case in the 1990s that Black feminism was worth remembering. She’s published various books that analyze the history of Black feminism and how it changed the world through the actual stories of Black women and the compilation of their work. Her later work examined contemporary Black issues through a historical lens, as well as zeroing in further on various intersecting oppressions. Also, she was the first Black woman to lead the American Sociological Association. Just thought you should know.

Books You Should Read Immediately: From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New RacismFighting Words: Black Women and the Search for JusticeRace, Class and Gender: An AnthologyBlack Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment

Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


    • Tell marlene cheating on her husband and then being a lying manipulative coward whi threatens a nan with his kids to avoid embarassment doesn’t make her tough… It makes her a lying cunt coward

  1. This is way cool. I just started taking a bunch of classes at a local college and I’ve developed a method of sitting in very busy areas wearing my You Do You shirt while reading Bad Feminist and waiting for cute queer people to approach me. So far there has been no success, but I’m almost finished with Bad Feminist and it’s good to know that I have all these great options!

    (ps if you are a queer person at my school please come say hi, it’s a great book but I’d rather talk to you)

  2. Thank you for this! I’ve already read most of Angela Davis’s work as well as Alice Walker’s but I’m really excited to read everything else. :)

  3. I just heard Carolyn Finney speak. She’s great. She recently published “Black Faces. White Spaces.” It features inspirational stories of people not traditionally considered environmentalists.

  4. For those with geeky and feminist interests, I’ve been reading and enjoying “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”
    Looking forward to checking some of these titles out as well!

  5. I’ve got one more to add! “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present” by Harriet Washington. It adds an incredibly insightful and necessary layer to the dialogue around medicine, science, race, and gender.

  6. if it was just them…maybe i would have turned out different and not something that can easily pass for a love child of GLaDOS and Maldoror.

  7. Thank you HUGELY!

    These are now added to my reading list and will no doubt enrich a section of my thesis pertaining to gender and Cameroonian migration.

  8. I totally loved Audre Lorde’s book: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

    Never felt so related and I’ll definitely need to read the other authors!

  9. OMG. This post is amazing, thank you! I am familiar with most of these women’s work but it was still great to see a post on black feminist activists, writers, and thinkers…because you’re right, so often they are neglected and left out of the conversation. Angela Davis is my freaking heroine (I’m an academic as well) and I think I would die from geeking out if I had to introduce her, omg.

    Also…Beverly Guy-Sheftall, yay! I went to Spelman and it’s great to see her publicly recognized!

  10. Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison..their works of fiction have taught me more about womanism, feminism, race relations, civil rights movements etc. than any professor or university course ever has. Also got to meet Angela Davis last year, she is phenomenal, even in her silences.

  11. I feel like calling a black women a feminist is a misnomer in the highest degree. Black women are womanists. We always had to work because black men were purposely excluded from the work force by the husbands of the white women who became feminists. Main stream feminism is basically white women demanding the same social privilege as white men at the expense of everyone else. They are exclusionary and queerantagonistic.
    Alice Walker was the first woman to tell me I was a womanist! How could you be so disrespectful by calling her a feminist of ALL people.

  12. I am sad that Patricia J Williams, a prominent and amazing legal scholar didn’t make the list. 9 is too short :)

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