speak out

25 Famous Women on Standing Up for Themselves and Others

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Anyone with a Twitter account knows that in addition to the internet’s blessings (e.g. cute pet videos), it’s where some of the harshest critics abound. For women whose jobs require living in the spotlight, having thick skin and a sharp, savvy tongue remain two unspoken requirements for dealing with unwelcome barbs tied to their appearance, bodies, race, rights, politics, and more on the daily. They respond to these comments accordingly. As Roxane Gay eloquently states in her Twitter bio, “If you clap, I clap back.”

Below, 25 women — including Hillary Clinton, Rosa Parks, and Issa Rae — discuss the value of using their voices to speak out against the lowest of trolls, stand up against ignorance, be unapologetic about their beliefs, and fight for basic human decency.


“There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful. Someone said something about my hair at the oscars that left me in awe. Not because I was relishing in rave outfit reviews, but because I was hit with ignorant slurs and pure disrespect. To say that an 18 years old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or ‘weed’ is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive. I don’t usually feel the need to respond to negative things but certain remarks cannot go unchecked. I’ll have you know my father, brother best childhood friend and little cousins all have locs … There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough. To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane. I suggest some people should listen to India Arie’s ‘I Am Not My Hair’ and contemplate a little before opening your mouth so quickly to judge.” — her Instagram, February 2015

Rosa Parks

“No, actually I had no fear at that particular time. I was very determined to let it be known how it felt to be treated in that manner — discriminated against. I was thinking mostly about how inconvenienced I was — stopping me from going home and doing my work — something I had not expected. When I did realize, I faced it, and it was quite a challenge to be arrested. I did not really know what would happen. I didn’t feel especially frightened. I felt more annoyed than frightened … I didn’t feel very good about being told to stand up and not have a seat. I felt I had a right to stay where I was. That was why I told the driver I was not going to stand. I believed that he would arrest me. I did it because I wanted this particular driver to know that we were being treated unfairly as individuals and as a people.” — Scholastic, January/February 1997

Malala Yousafzai

“Women are strong. Women can do anything. Come out and struggle for your rights; nothing can happen without your voice … Do not wait for me to do something for your rights.
It’s your world, and you can change it.” — Glamour, October 2013

America Ferrera

“I am not just an actor, I am not just a Latina, I’m not just an activist, I’m not just a director, a producer, a creative person. I’m all of these things, and I’ve finally come to a place in my life where not only is it okay for me to feed all of those things, but everything gets better when I do. I’m not going to stop being a person in the world because I’m afraid people aren’t going to see me as an actor. I’m not going to turn down a Latino role because I don’t want people to not see me as everything else. I am happiest and most fulfilled when I am nourishing and giving time and energy to all the different aspects of who I am.
And I can’t control how people see me. I can’t control whether when someone says my name they think of an actress or an activist.” — Vulture, March 2017

Hillary Clinton

“Never let anyone silence your voices. Make your voices heard every single day. And when they even try to dismiss your lived experiences, maybe they’ll call it ‘identity politics,’ stand up and say your identity is as important and valuable as the identity of anybody else who lives in the United States of America.” — Medgar Evers College Commencement Speech, June 2017

Constance Wu

“I’ve always been quite outspoken about humanitarian and feminist issues. Because of my TV show, I suddenly have increased visibility. So the media’s amplification of my voice is quite new. But my voice and my passions are the same as they have always been since I was a teenager. I don’t fear being outspoken. The only thing I fear is losing my sense of integrity, or losing sight of the values on which I guide my life.
So I don’t think it’s particularly brave or unusual for me to speak out. At least, it hasn’t been unusual for me in my personal private history. People forget that they don’t have access to my personal history because I don’t post much on social media. Part of me still thinks the internet exists mostly for funny animal videos!” — Teen Vogue, February 2017

Gabourey Sidibe

“I was exhausted with how other people felt about me and that’s what helped me change. I really sat down and made a list of all the things I liked about me: My personality, my face, my body. The world will hand me a hate list. And I just sat down and I developed a love list for myself. And I tell people of all ages to do that. You have to list the things you love about yourself. So when someone says your nose is too big, you can say my nose is cute. It’s like a button and it’s sickening.” — Refinery29, June 2017

Aparna Nancherla

“As comedians, it is up to us to overturn and shake and deconstruct and weigh every system that governs life. This work, my work, feels more active now, more important. I feel driven to express my strong opinions and to challenge people’s thinking, even when it’s scary or inconvenient. To remain stolid in the face of trolls, of which there were always many but now even more.” — The Village Voice, December 2016

Issa Rae

“There was a moment when I was scared to speak up. Everybody was behind this one decision, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. Shonda [Rhimes] told me about a time in her life where if she hadn’t spoken up, her trajectory would have been different. She didn’t know she could get fired — that’s what gave her the confidence! So I try to operate with that same mentality.” — Time, December 2016

Lena Dunham

In response to Perez Hilton’s Instagram post shaming her outfit: “I try at a lot of things.
Mostly I try at being a writer, director, actor, activist, friend, sibling, partner, Godmother … Fashion is fun but sometimes I’d rather not spend 3 hours and lots of cash I could give to charity or spend on books and food to get ready to go out. There’s a lotta different ways to be a public figure and I think there’s room for us to occasionally show up in public like normal people do. When I look at that picture you subjected to ‘caption this’ criticism, I see a day well-spent writing, reading, having tea with a friend. It’s unfortunate that the days you approve of most are the ones where I’m spending the least time on what really matters. With love, Lena.” — Perez Hilton’s Instagram, March 2017

Toni Morrison

“I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] — which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it … a little white man deep inside of all of us.” — The Guardian, April 2015

Tracee Ellis Ross

“I was given the strength to be a woman who has a voice, who speaks up for herself. All of those things come from being supported and given that example by my mother. If I would call home even now and say I felt like I was stifled somewhere or someone wasn’t seeing me or hearing me, my mom would be like, ‘Well, then get the fuck out of there. Tell them that’s not OK and then leave.’” — Bust, December/January 2016

Audre Lorde

“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they/we were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t. We must learn to respect ourselves and our needs more than the fear of our differences, and we must learn to share ourselves with each other.” — Conversations With Audre Lorde, May 2004

Taylor Swift

On her trial with the man who groped her: “I’m not going to allow your client to make me feel like it is in any way my fault, because it isn’t … I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.” — The New York Times, August 2017


“I just want to say that if you have been abused, please don’t be afraid to speak out. There are places that will make you feel safe. There are people who will help you. I for one, will stand beside you and behind you. I know now how this all feels and will forever fight for you the way perfect strangers have been fighting for me.” — her Facebook, February 2016

Michelle Obama

“I always tell young girls, surround yourself with goodness. I learned early on how to get the haters out of my life.” — The United State of Women Summit, June 2016

Jennifer Lawrence

“My opinion is: You can have millions of dollars and a dream career, but if you’re not willing to stand up for what you believe, or if you see wrongdoing and don’t talk about it, then you have nothing … It’s the opposite of ‘Shut up and act!’ If you have a voice, use it. I don’t want to go into the grave just being like, ‘Well, I introduced the world to the Hunger Games movies and I bought a house on Coldwater! Goodnight!’ For me, it’s worth the criticism. The more criticism I get, the more the conversation is happening.” — Vogue, September 2017

Kerry Washington

“I’m a person who’s always been politically active and passionate about people’s rights. I marched against the [2004] Republican Convention. And as my career has expanded, it’s been important for me to not stifle that voice. Because you want to be popular, you want people to hire you, and I have to make sure I don’t do it less because I’m an actor.” — Elle, April 2016

Angela Davis

“I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement. Then I don’t think it’s necessary to feel guilty. Because I know that I’m still doing the work that is going to help more sisters and brothers to challenge the whole criminal justice system, and I’m trying to use whatever knowledge I was able to acquire to continue to do the work in our communities that will move us forward.” — PBS, Spring 1997

Bob Bland, Women’s March Co-President

“Being white is a power position. We have to acknowledge our privilege. Then, we need to have conversations with other white people in our communities about acknowledging their privilege and the ways that they are racist. We need to people to stop saying that they’re not racist when they still unfairly benefit based on their race. Silence is complicit — and silence is how we got to this point as a country where white nationalists feel emboldened. White women need to take leadership by speaking out against all forms of hate and ensuring that we’re not just protecting ourselves. We need to check ourselves and take a seat, and we need to ensure that we’re encouraging other folks in our families and communities to do the same. We need to let people of color lead. We need to listen to them. We need to trust them.” — Time, August 2017

Emma Watson

“I want to offer a few statements of my own that I have struggled with, and I continue to struggle with on a daily basis but that I have found inspiring. … I am willing to be seen. I am willing to speak up. I am willing to keep going. I am willing to listen to what others have to say. I am willing to go forward even when I feel alone. I am willing to go to bed each night at peace with myself. I am willing to be my biggest, bestest, most powerful self. These seven statements scare the absolute shit out of me. But I know that they are at the crux of it all. At the end of the day, and when all is said and done, I know that these are the ways that I want to have lived my life.” — One Young World, September 2016

Janet Mock

“This was not the first time that I’ve been misgendered, dismissed, told that I am an abomination, that I need medical help and God, et cetera, et cetera. Boo boo: You are not original. Everything you’ve spewed has been said to me and my sisters before — hundreds of times. But there are deeper consequences to this casual ignorance … Until cis people — especially heteronormative men — are able to interrogate their own toxic masculinity and realize their own gender performance is literally killing trans women, cis men will continue to persecute trans women and blame them for their own deaths … We must navigate difficult conversations about desire and identity, about the fact that trans girls exist, and for as long as we’ve existed we’ve been desired by men (including high-profile ones who won’t ever own their desires) who are not working toward gaining the tools to deal with their attraction. And just so we are clear: Just because you find me and my sisters attractive does not mean we desire you. You never could … Their fragile masculinity would not allow them to recognize a simple truth: I am an accomplished, beautiful black trans woman. Your willful ignorance will not stop me from being exactly who I am. My sisters and I are here and we exist, and you will not diminish our light and our brilliance.” — Allure, July 2017

Priyanka Chopra

“There’s always a time in life where you get scared or you get afraid. You have to tell yourself, You’re the most important. If you don’t stand up for yourself no one else will.” — Elle, March 2016

Melinda Gates

“[T]rust your own voice and trust your own instincts. When I went to business school and started thinking about what kind of leader I wanted to be, I worried a lot about whether my management and leadership styles were close enough to what I saw others doing.
But when, over time, I developed the confidence to stop trying to emulate others and to lead in a way that felt comfortable and true to me, it made all the difference. So trust yourself and trust your own voice. Women speaking up for themselves and for those around them is the strongest force we have to change the world.” — Fortune, October 2014

Senator Kamala D. Harris

“At a time when there are Americans — disproportionately Black and brown men — trapped in a broken system of mass incarceration … Speak truth — and serve. At a time when men, women, and children have been detained at airports in our country simply because of the God they worship … Speak truth — and serve. At a time when immigrants have been taken from their families in front of schools and outside courthouses … Speak truth — and serve. And at a time of incredible scientific and technological advances as well … when we’re dreaming of a mission to Mars … and unraveling the mysteries of the brain … and entrepreneurs in my home state of California are even starting to test flying cars … Speak truth — and serve. We need you. Our country needs you. The world needs you.” — Howard University Commencement Speech, May 2017

25 Famous Women on Standing Up for Themselves and Others