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Little known stories of the women who led struggles

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New book Rebellious Daughters of History brings to light inspiring lives of women that fought for change. Isabel Ringrose spoke to its author Judy Cox
Issue 2736
Some heroes of the book—Lucy Parsons, Nadezhda Krupskaya and Mother Jones (from left to right)
Some heroes of the book—Lucy Parsons, Nadezhda Krupskaya and Mother Jones (from left to right)

Rebellious Daughters of History is a tribute to revolutionary women from different continents and decades who challenged inequality and injustice.

There’s a lot we can learn from them. “The book came from two places,” said author Judy Cox. “One is a response to being locked down and isolated from friends and family. Also from resources of resistance, such as meetings and protests.

“The second is that I get very excited by women who have led incredible lives of struggle and resistance.”

Judy wrote Facebook posts about rebellious women from history throughout the first lockdown last March. This formed the basis for her new book. 

“I was trying to find ways to keep our spirits up and bring out examples from the past to help people to not give up”, Judy said.

“These women stood up for very unpopular issues that are now ­celebrated—such as abolitionism, suffrage and opposing war. They stood up for their principles and changed attitudes.”

In telling their stories, Rebellious Daughters shows that there have always been women leading struggle.

“It was very important for me to put forward an alternative to the idea that the only way we can ­progress ourselves is by taking the lead of somebody like Hillary Clinton,” Judy explained.


“There is a rich tradition of women who have taken the opposite view—who have fought for freedoms by organising collectively and fighting from below.

“This whole tradition has been buried and denied from history books.

“Women’s rights are transformed in struggle rather than patiently campaigning in structures of the system.”

Judy’s book shows that women are more than just wives or mothers. Women such as black activist Louise Little and Russian revolutionary Nadezhda Krupskaya rebelled despite the burdens of the nuclear family that capitalism imposed on them.

“This is one of the most ­important things about the book”, Judy explained. “Women suffered incredible losses and turned personal grief into collective action and anger at the system.

“Leading union activist Mother Jones lost her husband and four little children. She wasn’t broken, and fought against child exploitation. She marched with kids in mills and factory girls. She transported the loss for her own kids to fight for working children.

“And Ella May Wiggins—who also organised workers—worked long hours, had nine kids, four of which died.

“Her bosses wouldn’t let her have time off and she had no money to buy medicine. She became a communist and trade unionist.

“These are incredibly powerful examples for us.”

Our traditions have been built by women who fought. We have history to draw on thanks to their courage, creativity and defiance

The subjects of the book fought for women’s rights, but understood the importance of linking that fight to class.

“The only criteria for the women in the book was that they linked their own struggle with a wider one.

“It’s not a book about women who fought for their own rights, but those who were part of a fight to change the system,” Judy said.

“Their demands were socialist. They didn’t want just bread—they wanted an end to capitalism.”

And working class women have always fought for their voices to be heard.

“Middle class and wealthy women left a written record of their life. Many working class women were illiterate. But they tried at every point to use the power of public speaking.

“Women spoke up in public, risking ridicule and physical violence. No matter how difficult it was, women found a way to resist and speak out.”

Women across the world still lead in struggles, such as in Poland defending abortion rights. Judy says that women today can learn from revolutionaries of the past.


“Our traditions have been built by women who fought. We have history to draw on thanks to their courage, creativity and defiance.

“Labour and socialist history is marginalised, so women’s roles within struggle are hidden. It’s up to socialist women and men to tell their stories.”

Some of the women in the book risked being forgotten in history, and there are still many more lives to discover.

“Many people have contributed to the book. We have just scratched the surface. For the next book I want to get more people contributing, make it a collective effort and move more internationally,” Judy said.

“Ella May Wiggins was suggested to me. And I hadn’t heard of Lucy Parsons.

“She was born into slavery, married a white man, and was run out of town by the KKK. Her husband was one of the Haymarket Eight. Her daughter died but she carried on, becoming a trade unionist and socialist. And there are women I’d heard of but didn’t know they had a radical side.

“Entertainer Josephine Baker was also active in the French Resistance and the US civil rights movement.”

Judy hopes the inspirational ­stories will help us today.

“I want this to spark people with the confidence to fight back. These women went through it, but without access to medical care and Tampax.

“We are the custodians of ­tradition, which means acting as they acted. We want to keep unearthing history, but we have to change things and resist now.

“You can never change history by being passive or a ‘good girl’. You have to be rebellious because rebellious women change history.”

Rebellious Daughters of History is available now from Bookmarks

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