5 heroines of democracy you've probably never heard of

We now get taught in school about the suffragettes’ momentous victory, but so many women who changed the course of history still get left out of our stories. The bravery to speak up in a man’s world has helped not only new generations of women, but the success of democracy more widely. So in this blog, I’m honoured to introduce you to 5 women you don’t often hear about. They are real heroines of democracy.

  1. Milada Horáková

    Horáková was a prominent campaigner for women’s equal status in Czechoslovakia. In the Second World War, she was part of the underground resistance movement, and imprisoned until 1945. She returned to Prague and got elected to the National Assembly, where she campaigned for the women’s rights and democratic institutions. She resigned to protest the Communist coup, was arrested for leading a plot against the Communist party, and eventually sentenced to death. She was posthumously cleared and celebrated for her impassioned defence and last words.

  2. Ella Baker

    Baker was an African-American civil rights activist and organizer for more than five decades, working alongside Martin Luther King. Her philosophy seems acutely relevant in today’s politics. She was against professionalized, charismatic leadership and emphasised that the oppressed should advocate for themselves, being one of the first proponents of ‘participatory democracy’.

    “You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders”.

3. Josephine Butler

Butler was a campaigner for women’s suffrage back in the 1850s, and her commitment to women’s rights was central to her life. She is perhaps most well-known for her tireless 20-year campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, where prostitutes (including children as young as 12 who were traded as slaves in Europe) were examined to prevent the spread of venereal diseases in a process she called ‘steel rape’. Her imaginative campaign strategies, like touring grassroots movements all around Europe, were a model for suffragists and feminists afterwards and many consider her political work a milestone in feminism.

4. Victoria Woodhull


In 1872, suffragist, activist and advocate of “free love” (the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children) Woodhull ran for president of the United States when, ironically, women couldn’t vote but could be elected. Her running mate was black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. She didn’t get any votes, perhaps partially due to her arrest for obscenity a few days before the election, for a paper she published with graphic descriptions of the adultery committed by a senior official. However, after making a fortune as the first ever female stockbroker, she broke one last ceiling by being the first to speak of women’s suffrage in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

5. The Mirabal sisters (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa)

The three Mirabel sisters formed an influential movement, relentlessly opposing the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, but were eventually assassinated on his orders. Trujillo hoped that this loss would dent the resistance’s strength, but in fact it angered Dominicans so much that many now say this is why he was assassinated a year later, and the Dominican Republic quickly became a democracy.