Claire O’Callaghan


A few weeks ago following the passing of former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, I was interviewed for a Sunday newspaper about feminist icons. The journalist wanted me to consider a few questions: what does feminism mean today and who might be a feminist icon for a new generation? To accompany the piece would be my “verdict” on a shortlist of proposed women who the newspaper believed might be feminist icons today.


Initially I thought this might be a fairly straight forward task. For quite a few years now, I’ve been personally, politically and professionally engaged in feminism in one way or another. I have my own feminist role models and figures who inspire me and who I repeatedly draw on or return to in one way or another. But I confess that I don’t necessarily use the word ‘icon’ to describe them. Indeed, while I think that it is a fantastic word and concept, it has some negative ontological realities because of the way in which it is – or can be – applied today. I shall return to this point.


Thatcher’s passing re-ignited the debate on feminist icons. Nearly all media coverage of her death included a question on her legacy and her impact. Responses to this question were diverse. Was Thatcher a feminist icon? Some felt that Thatcher was a feminist because she broke through the political glass ceiling and paved the way for many women to follow in her stead (and here, Geri Halliwell’s assertion that Thatcher was the first Spice Girl was rolled out once or twice). Others felt that Thatcher wasn’t a feminist icon because while she broke through the glass ceiling it was felt that perhaps she pulled the ladder up behind her on her way through. For me, as I stated in the news article, Thatcher isn’t a feminist icon; a political one, yes because she did pave the way for women in politics, but a feminist icon, no.


But, what this debate also generated was a reassessment of what does it mean to call anyone a feminist icon.The term is one that is both powerful and celebratory, but it is also problematic; one person’s icon (Thatcher, for instance) might be, for someone else, a nemesis (and indeed, Thatcher does seem to have this kind of Marmite effect for want of better words). To identify someone, then, as a feminist icon, is a subjective process. Nonetheless, in her book Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2001), Elaine Showalter argues that feminist icons are:


known for the daring and range of their demand for a full life. While women in every era have been instructed or advised to follow rules of conduct, seduction, and success, those who have become feminist icons and heroines were rule-breakers who followed their own paths, who were determined to experience love, achievement, and fame, and who wanted their lives to matter. We do not ask them for perfection. Rather, their fallibility and humanity make them real to us, and even their tragedies are instructive and inspiring for women today who are still trying to combine independence, adventure, and love (15).


I agree with many of Showalter’s sentiments, but I question how straightforward it is to label people in this way. Her definition relies on retrospect and nostalgia for currency, and it is interesting that she starts her book by discussing how her thoughts on the subject were inspired by coverage of the death of Princess Diana. For me, that exemplifies why bestowing “iconic” status on anyone is problematic because it seems that when structured by the media, icons are open to feminist appropriation and hype only after the event of their happening. Why should feminist icons -constructed in this way- only be recognised after death? Why not in life? Showalter claims her book establishes a feminist tradition. I think it does and I am glad for that. Feminism needs it. But how about a living tradition of feminist “icons”.


In addition, how can we distinguish between popular figures and icons. As Showalter states “the term has become debased in popular culture to become a commercially visual image or non verbal sound endlessly repeated, packaged, parodied, marketed, and plugged” (14). This certainly seemed to be the feeling I had when presented with the list of figures to “assess” as icons:  Holly Willoughby, Sharon Osborne, Jessica Ennis, Madonna and Thatcher. For some of these women I identified behaviours that might correlate towards a notion of iconicity. Jessica Ennis, for instance, is a fantastic role-model for women because of her sporting achievements and therefore is an icon. But is she a feminist one? She was also “the face of the Olympics” – a position which some noted was based purely on aesthetics. That seems problematic to me. Overall, I didn’t see any of these women as feminist icons. What a cynic, you may say, and I’m sure the interviewer felt the same.


Having disregarded all of the icons suggested to me, I was asked who I felt, then, was a feminist icon. Loathe as I was after much reflection on the topic, I came up with three women who I felt should inspire a new generation of women to “take on the system” and inspire empowerment: Helen Mirren (because I loved how she used her Empire Awards acceptance speech to challenge Sam Mendes on why he failed to recognise or thank any women in his monologue for Best Film for Skyfall), J K Rowling (because I find her an inspiration in challenging negative attitudes towards single mothers – she began writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when she was on benefits and in one-bed flat in Glasgow, and she refused to give up and look where she is now…), and Adele (I like some of her music, but I love how her talent and persistence have blazed a trail in the music industry and she refuses to succumb to “normalised” images of beauty). Today, I would also add to that list Angelina Jolie. Not only was she courageous enough to share the details of her breast cancer treatment and her brave decision to have a double mastectomy (stating, I feel like a woman – a powerful message from someone revered as the world’s most beautiful woman) but she endlessly battles for women’s issues in her role as a UN Ambassador; most recently, she’s been campaigning for more to be done by governments to stop sexual violence against  women during war.


These are, of course, popular figures. I’m sure a debate about academic feminist icons would be as much if not more contentious. Can we celebrate feminist pioneers without calling them icons? Is this word too loaded? Does it place a politics of gendered pressure on the heads of the women we bestow this term upon? I think so, but I’d very much like to be wrong.



Elaine Showalter, Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.



Claire is researching the fiction of contemporary author Sarah Waters at the University of Leicester. Her thesis examines the representation of homosexuality in Waters’s novels and situates her portrayal of lesbian sexuality within the discourses of lesbian/feminism and queer theory. Her research also contextualizes Waters’s fictions within a tradition of lesbian/feminist writing. Claire’s research interests center around the genre of historical fiction, gender and sexuality, contemporary women’s writing and gothic fiction. Claire is a lead member of the PG CWWN, a founder of the AHRC-funded project Public Engagement in Gender and Sexuality (PEGS), Vice-President of the University of Leicester’s Feminist Society and a founding member of Leicester’s branch of the Fawcett Society. Claire is on the executive committee of the FWSA