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7 Inspiring Women Who Live Life on Their Own Terms

The types of women I admire the most tend to be on the eccentric or kooky side, very strong-minded, opinionated, or gregarious in some way. And are women who are doing something great in some way.

The sorts of women that I would define as Butterflyists are those who are not afraid to challenge the norms, who don’t feel happy being the wallflower, who shock people, even if they don’t intend to, and who will go against the grain (in fact, a good friend of mine who has now sadly died once said to me “You know Andrea, the thing about you is that you always have to go against the grain.” I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one!).

As we’re heading into 2012, I decided to put together a list of the 7 women that I think epitomise my idea of a Butterflyist. All very differently, but there’s a driving force behind each of them that I truly respect. I’d be interested to know if you think the same.

Eve Ensler – the woman who made the vagina mainstream

Eve Ensler is the woman who got the word ‘vagina’ into the title of an internationally acclaimed theatre production. There’s no doubting that this in itself is an achievement, even before I talk about her others.

Many people can hardly bring themselves to say “vagina”, but Eve managed to get a stage show based on it, running world-wide since 1996.

As horrible and disturbing as it is hilarious and forward-thinking, The Vagina Monologues – if you don’t know it – is the result of Eve’s in-depth interviews with a diverse group of women of all ages about their vaginas. Some of the play is focused around sexual violence, parts of it help to break down barriers to women’s sexuality, and much of it is just side-splittingly funny.

I’m not featuring Eve Ensler here in order to review the play, though. She’s in this list because she’s managed to get the subject of women’s sexuality, and also the abuse of it, so unashamedly into the public arena. And of course, there should be no shame in it.

But as well as being celebrated as writer of the Vagina Monologues, Eve has worked hard in creating a global awareness of violence against women, and she still actively campaigns on the issue having founded the V-Day movement in 1998.

‘V-Day’ occurs on 14th February each year, and the movement continues to strengthen internationally, with women and men all over the world creating V-Day events to raise funds each year. Last year, Eve opened City of Joy in Congo, a centre to help survivors of rape.

Eve comes under a lot of criticism from other feminists, but I find it difficult to see how what she has done for women can be disregarded because of petty differences in definitions of feminism.

Ingrid E. Newkirk – not afraid to get her hands bloody

Famous for their provocative anti-fur campaigns and celebrity endorsements, most people have heard of PETA, known in full as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It’s an organisation that has probably done more for animal welfare and rights issues than any other single charity or pressure group.

That’s not to say other groups don’t work hard and haven’t achieved wonderful results, it’s just that PETA have managed to become a household name through being extremely media savvy. And it’s thanks to Ingrid Newkirk, who founded PETA in 1980 and who knows how to pull off a good publicity stunt.

British-born Ingrid is one of the world’s most renowned animal rights activists. She is dedicated, passionate, and vociferous, doing what it takes to be the voice for animals, since they do not have their own voice. In my humble opinion, she’s a living legend.

Like anyone who makes a controversial topic such as ‘animal rights’ their life’s work, when so many people believe animals shouldn’t have rights, Ingrid comes under criticism from many factions. Mostly, it seems, from those who are exploiting and profiting from animals, and have something to lose with every step forward that PETA makes.

What I really love about Ingrid Newkirk is how she doesn’t falter from her ideals, whatever people say, and she has remained consistent in her cause ever since the early 70s. She isn’t scared to say what she thinks, and she isn’t afraid to remain steadfast to her beliefs.

Her tenacious commitment has made PETA what it is today, and while I recognise some people view them as extreme, I think that’s often down to a lack of understanding of the real issues. In which case, I’d recommend reading one of Ingrid’s many books, such as The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.

Oh, and writing this has reminded me that my PETA membership is due for renewal.

Penelope Trunk – as brazen as they come

If you know Penelope, who cofounded Brazen Careerist, you might think she’s a strange one to be included in this list. She’s not nearly as well-known as the other women here, other than amongst blogging communities and in the career management world. But she still has over 128,000 followers on Twitter. And she pisses a lot of women off.

Penelope once wrote a feature for the Guardian on why she tweeted about her miscarriage, saying “I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.” This candid and matter-of-fact manner sums her up. And is exactly why I like her.

On Penelope Trunk Blog, which has its main focus of offering career advice, Penelope writes about anything from checking her own vaginal mucus while in job interviews, to the domestic violence she suffers from her partner, whom she calls The Farmer. Mixed in with the career advice, it’s an odd combination.

Penelope has Asperger’s Syndrome, and says this is the reason she blogs about her most private stuff in such a straightforward and unabashed way. It’s connected to not being aware of the social rules, she says. Penelope receives masses of comments to the majority of her posts, some people raging at her for the things she says.

While I often find Penelope’s blogging very ‘car crash TV’ and sometimes difficult to read, at the same time, I incredibly admire her unmitigated approach and enjoy her exceptionally refreshing honesty.

We all have ‘life issues’ going on, but not all of us have the courage, even if we wanted, to blatantly display them in public. Penelope does this without fearing the loss of her professional image, and more to the point, while still maintaining her professional image. I have nothing but respect for this.

It’s a breath of fresh air to read her site, and while she may be tolerating a domestic violence situation, this does not make her a weak woman. Regardless of how people feel about her situation, it doesn’t stop her from being good at what she does.

Which is bloody good.

Maryam Namazie – supporting others to be free of religious rule

Years ago when I was considering becoming a humanist celebrant (hah yes indeed – and it’s actually still something I’d like to do!), I was in touch with Iranian-born Maryam Namazie via the British Humanist Association, where she worked.

I didn’t know much about her then but through my personal interest in having the right to a life without religion or God, and believing in the right to not have laws based upon religious dogma imposed upon us, I have learned more about Maryam and consider her work to be remarkable.

Maryam campaigns endlessly on secularism and women’s rights violations related to Islam in particular. She is spokesperson for several organisations promoting freedom from religious doctrine, including the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, the One Law for All campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, and Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran.

Presently living in the UK and from Tehran, Maryam had attended university in the US. Following graduation, she moved to Sudan to work with Ethiopian refugees and set up a covert human rights organisation. Here, she was forced to leave the country for her own safety after its Islamic government took power.

Her dedicated campaigning work has continued ever since, and she’s now an internationally known broadcaster and speaker on human rights, as well as being very vocal about Sharia law, which she believes has no place in modern society and in Britain.

I am hugely aligned to Maryam’s political ideals, and I think she puts across her thoughts and views on rationality in an accessible and sensible way. The strapline on her blog is ‘Nothing is sacred’ because she believes that religion, and Islam especially, should not be exempt from open criticism.

And I think she makes a strong argument.

Jane Goodall DBE – the woman who talks to the animals

If there’s ever a woman’s life that I envy and would love to emulate, it’s that of Dr Jane Goodall, the chimp lady – primatologist, conservationist & environmentalist campaigner. The idea of spending 45 years studying wild chimpanzees in Tanzania to bring about the most comprehensive understanding of them that we have today? It would be my dream.

And I think Jane’s great compassion, empathy and commitment to improving the relationship between human beings, animals and our planet is something we can all aspire to and learn from.

Jane’s achievements in her field have been immense. She has founded a world-renowned institute in her own name, has had numerous films made about her work, has written countless books and has won zillions of highly-acclaimed awards.

She is one of the world’s greatest anthropologists, to name but only one of the many ‘ologist’ titles that Jane has. Throughout her work and as former president of Advocates for Animals (now OneKind), she continues to assert how much she abhors laboratory research on animals and vivisection, and does not feel there is any necessity for it in science.

As well as being an animal ambassador and a firm believer in the protection of animals, rather than their abuse, Jane is an ambassador for humans. She is a UN Messenger of Peace and a keen environmentalist.

And according to a write-up on Huffington Post, the Disneynature film ‘Chimpanzee’ will be donating a portion of their opening week sales to the Jane Goodall Institute in order to help aid habitat restoration for threatened primates. That’s pretty good.

It seems even though she’s aged 78 this year, Jane carries on going from strength to strength in what she does. I’m bowled over by what she’s accomplished.

Tori Amos – sings it like it is

If I had to pick the music of only one artist to take on a desert island with me, it would be that of Tori Amos. Her haunting, soul-piercing voice, and compelling and powerful lyrics (“So you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus” for example!) have never failed to draw me in.

I can’t ever tire of listening to her first album, Little Earthquakes. It’s top of my list of all-time favourites and since first hearing it so many years ago, it has etched itself in my mind forever. I know every lyric when I play that album.

What I really love about Tori though is how she doesn’t mind letting people know through her songs how fucked up she has been – to put it bluntly – over many parts of her life, especially her religious upbringing. Because of this she reaches out to people in immeasurable ways.

Especially, she has famously sung about surviving rape with the hard-to-listen-to ‘Me and a Gun’; it was a particularly horrific attack for Tori but rape is something which affects so many women and yet is rarely dealt with in mainstream culture.

What is notable for Tori Amos though in this case is that she has gone though such a brutal experience and yet, quite literally, is singing on the other side. She made the choice to be a swimmer, not a sinker, and find strength through her music to recover and continue to shine in her life. And you have to admire her for that.

But it’s not just the songs she writes, and how stunningly she sings them, I just adore her quirky, off-the-wall, character. She caused a huge stir when the album ‘Boys for Pele’ was released and inside the cover there was a picture of her breast-feeding a piglet. I like women that ruffle feathers.

Tori Amos isn’t just a brilliantly talented pianist, singer, and songwriter – she’s controversial, raw, and opinionated, but gentle, ethereal, dedicated and enviably gorgeous as well.

Dawn Gibbins MBE – the barefoot ‘philanthropreneur’

I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Dawn Gibbins several years ago when I was writing a trade feature for a regional business magazine that I regularly contribute to, and I interviewed her as founder of Flowcrete, a company located in the North West of England.

Dawn was incredibly helpful and keen to assist me in putting my article together, so to see how she has flourished since she sold Flowcrete in 2008, and how she has enabled those around her to flourish too, has been no surprise to me.

Since the sale of her business, Dawn has set up a homes flooring company called Barefoot Living, based on the principles of Feng Shui. But she’s become more widely known for her appearance on the TV series Secret Millionaire, where she gave away a whopping £250,000.

After the original broadcast in a follow up show, Dawn reported that being involved in Secret Millionaire changed her outlook and direction in life. She now puts a lot of time, money and effort into charitable work, calling herself a ‘philanthropreneur’.

But as well as appreciating Dawn for her benevolence and kindness to those in need, I also find her an outstanding female business role model. She has received several awards and accolades as a leading business woman, and continues to inspire people through her public speaking profile.

And as well, Dawn comes across as a down-to-earth, open-hearted northern lass, and she’s also achieved a lot for her home town of Congleton, in Cheshire. How could you not like her?

What about you? Which women of today most inspire you and why?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, and that includes from guys as well as gals!




  1. Wow, what a list, inspiring women indeed, and very brave to defy backward social standards.

  2. I had no idea about almost all of these women! What a great unique list of beautiful taste, thank you!

  3. An interesting list, Andrea! I think you could expand on it by choosing more women throughout the world…both contemporary and historically speaking, first world and third. Could be the start of a whole new web site!

    • Butterflyist says:

      Kerry thanks – it would be good to expand this list and you’re right – there are so many other women in different parts of the world that should be included. If I had the time, it would make a GREAT new blog!

  4. All truly inspiring women, and I agree with the comment that you could look at women from the third world, but also there are many women with inspirational lives who will never make it into print or on to a blog. They are our unsung heroines. In my ‘day job’ as a teacher of adults I come across women who battle against all odds to keep their lives together and achieve what those of us with an education and supported lives take for granted. Only this week I met a woman who had left her Northern Ireland home at the age of 18 with no education and no money. Her home had been the family farm which then, only in the mid 1970s was still making hay by hand. Her journey took her through working in London and family to a life in the North West of England where she has raised two well educated children. She is now embarking on her own education and is currently studying at Level 3 (A level standard) and has hopes to be a nurse. This is nothing to those on the world stage, but these women are also inspiring.

    • Butterflyist says:

      Hi Alvina and thanks for commenting! Yes, you’re right – there are many women who will never be in the public eye but yet at the same time, have inspirational lives. I think we only need to look around our families and communities to see that. My Polish granny is one of them! Like the woman you mention, she came to England with no education or money. Nor did she speak a single word of English or have a job or even a home. But she was escaping the war, then aged 26, now aged 92 with the biggest family you could imagine! And she still digs her own vegetable garden :)

  5. Great post. I was checking continuously this weblog and I am inspired! Very helpful information specifically the remaining section :) I care for such information a lot. I used to be looking for this certain info for a long time. Thanks and best of luck.

  6. An interesting and powerful list of women. Jane Goodall would definitely be on my list too and as for Dawn Gibbs, I really remember her on secret millionaire and being touched by her compassion. I guess that’s what makes a great woman, no a great person, for me, someone who’s compassion shines through their work. I am also greatly inspired by the words of Marianne Williamson, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world,” from “A Return to Love.” Thanks for this and your thought provoking/inspiring blogg.

    • Butterflyist says:

      Thanks for your comment Ju! Yes I agree on the aspect of compassion shining through, that really makes me admire someone too! Glad you like my blog :)

  7. Clare Caves says:

    Hi Andria
    Thanks for sharing your most inspiring women. Interesting to read what they mean to you. Good to get more and more discussion of inspiring women out there. At the moment I’m involved in a great women’s leadership project in Nottingham which features inspiring women speakers talking about their lives and their personal journeys. Films of the speakers will soon be on the project blog which already has loads on many women’s experience and project events and workshops http://womenleadingforachange.org

    • Butterflyist says:

      Hi Clare, thanks for your words & good to hear about your project. That sounds really interesting & bet it’s fab to be involved with something like this? I’ll go and look on your link!

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