20th century’s female artists who continue to inspire us today

These women were ahead of their time


By Guadalupe Ferrandez Tari


Culture has always shifted according to zeitgeist, reflecting on the ideals and values that the population would, later on, wish to adopt. Creatives and artists have always predicted and exposed “the spirit of the future”, opening up people’s minds and slowly liberating society from the imposed and restrictive values leading it.


When it comes to women artists, it is remarkable to explore the female masterminds who, a century ago, already spoke out about topics which are currently in the spotlight through their body of work, as well as through their liberal way of living. Enjoy this list of eight outstanding women who were ahead of their time and continue to inspire us today.

Virginia Woolf


Born in 1882, the English writer and novelist Virginia Woolf can be considered legendary due to her contemporary way of thinking – she was an icon during the 70s feminist wave and still influences pop culture today. Woolf, who maintained a romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West while being happily married to her husband Leonard Woolf, has become timeless, not only for her modernist and experiential literature, but especially for her innovative and liberal perspectives on life.

The writer, who fought mental illness and lived in a conservative society led by rigid values, explored the future of women in society and education. Woolf would say: “what if Shakespeare had had a sister?” as a way of streaming female empowerment and expressing the difficulties female writers faced. Through her innovative stories, which challenged traditional narratives and values, Woolf expresses her liberating thoughts and visions on complex topics such as gender and sexuality.


Claude Cahun

The French surrealist photographer, known by her pseudonym Claude Cahun, pioneered the exploration of gender fluidity and diversity of identities – declaring herself a “neuter” at the beginning of the 1990s. Thinking ahead of her time, this artist doubted notions and standards of gender through her art, by creating portraits and collages in which she recreated characters with different identities and undefined genders.

Along with her lover and artistic partner Marcel Moore (whose real name was Suzanne Malherbe), Cahun questioned the concept of personal identity from a surrealist point of view. Through a set of photographs, she both explored the diversity of the self and the complexities of the human condition, raising awareness on the idea of ‘third gender’ and non-binary gender identity.



Lois Mailou Jones

This American painter and educator created African tribal art through her canvases, embracing the cultural legacy of African-American people with accuracy and dignity and creating a body of work over seven decades in the 20th century by merging a vast number of references and styles. Although, during her career, she personally overcame the usual racial and gender prejudices of the time in order to professionally become a respected painter.


Thanks to her ability to draw inspiration from different places and people, the artist incorporated her experiences into her art, using her travels to create unique and cross-cultural paintings. Jones’ influences merged and transformed into a new and liberating body of work, which combined Parisian and African styles by experimenting with patterns, shapes, and themes.


Mary Quant


The British fashion designer, Mary Quant, is known as the designer who popularised the mini skirt. Through her designs, she was able to bring a revolutionary attitude to fashion that reflected a new sense of freedom, demonstrating what women from the 1960s actually wanted and desired. Her clothes provided a language that cherished the past while also bringing something new to the present.

Quant is also considered the godmother of the youth movement, Quant’s designs demonstrated that couture era had finished and reflected what women asked for: self-expression, functionality, fun, and originality. Among her rebellious thoughts, the designer also disrupted class hierarchy and gender roles by making clothes accessible; as in today’s fashion, she embraced the irreverence and energy of the street, and transformed it into fashion.


Josephine Baker


An American icon in Paris, the dancer, actress, and activist Josephine Baker became a resonating influential character of the 20th Century. Coming from a disadvantaged family from St Louis, Baker moved to Paris when she was nineteen, captivating the city with her charm and her sensual yet artful performances. She also became one of the highest-paid artists in Europe and the first African- American female to star in a major motion picture.

However, her force in life was her endless fight for racial equality, mocking the colonialist stereotypes put upon black women and breaking barriers as female African American. A true activist, Josephine Baker used her notoriety to fight in the Civil Rights Movement and used her privileged position to spy for the French Resistance on the Nazis by collecting information, as well as campaigning with the National Association for the Advantages of Coloured People.


Yayoi Kusama

The Japanese performance artist is recognised by her large scale immersive installations, repetitive patterns, and bright colours, that brought her into New York’s avant-guard scene in the 1960s. Her art can be seen as an extension of her own mind and as a consequence of her harsh and abusive childhood, Kusama developed metal disturbances which led her to seeing hallucinations and flashes of light, transforming her trauma into art. Kusama acts as an example of someone who has moved past personal difficulties to create something beyond herself.

However, her highly relevant influence in culture, as well as her fame, are also a result of the artist’s fearless capacity to disrupt. By bringing ideas of Pop, Conceptual art, and Minimalism into the public eye, she has been able to profess her desire to live in peace and harmony with the universe.



Janis Joplin


A cultural hero from the 60s, Janis Joplin broke through the misogynist and male-dominated industry of music, establishing herself as an equal to her male counterparts with her unique and blues-inspired vocals, as well as her iconic style. Her magnetic and powerful performances, along with her lyrics and her lifestyle, were Joplin’s way of sharing her liberating vision on women’s role in society, through which she promoted women’s rights, acceptance, and liberation.


She also became part of the rebellion social movement that aimed to push the limits of individual self-expression and free speech. In addition, the singer stood up for sexual liberation and adopted an unapologetic attitude towards sexuality, defying gender roles and refusing traditional ideals based on sex.


Vera Chytilová


Being the first woman ever to study film direction at FAMU, the Czech filmmaker Vera Chytilová can be considered a true avant-garde legend from the 1960’s Czech new wave. In her radical and anarchic movies, she was able to capture the new spirit of the era, creating an a rebellious reaction to social hypocrisy and exploring gender roles, sex, censorship, women’s rights, and political issues.

Through a vibrant and playful style, black humour, and a touch of surrealism, Chytilová – who defined herself as an individual who broke rules she did not believe in – expressed her own moralistic criticism and outlook on women’s endless fight for equality. With a punk sensibility and a free-spirited way of experimenting, this filmmaker was part of the fight against issues we still face today in our contemporary society.



Every single one of these women have contributed to the establishment of a more inclusive and liberal world. They have enforced new ideals that have been adopted into contemporary society and through their creativity and notoriety, they continue to inspire us today.