25 Women Who Drove the Culture in 2014

A thousand and one Internet blowups punctuated 2014, a long and eventful year full of triumph and tragedy for women and and trans folks in American culture. Yet before we look forward to the next frontier, we ought to celebrate the year’s many, many heroines. Whether they sent us into a collective tizzy with their scandalous album covers or had us pumping our fists in favor of their truthful testimony, these 25 women (plus a few honorable mentions at the end) were the ones who got us talking, thinking, re-thinking, and maybe, just maybe, planning a revolution of our own.

 

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Beyoncé

All hail Queen Bey. Her self-titled album, which dropped around this time last year, was the soundtrack for our entire year, full of righteous woman power, sexy confessionals, and unprecedented emotional honesty accented by insane vocal dips and twists that had the whole world saying “surfbort.” Then she put the word “feminist” in lights behind her at the VMAs and made the Internet explode, again.

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Senator Dianne Feinstein

A senator? Really? Yes, and here’s why. This month, everyone’s talking about the fact that “we tortured some folks.” A lot of folks, in a lot of awful ways. This is largely thanks to the efforts of Senator Feinstein, not exactly known for her anti-status quo moves in other arenas. “I came to the conclusion that America’s greatness is being able to say we made a mistake and we are going to correct it and go from there,” she told the Times. Or, as the Fox news headline read: “Feinstein offers aid and comfort to enemy, stabs heroes, allies in the back.” She must have done something right.

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Sarah Koenig

Koenig’s true-crime suspense series, Serial, elevated the lowly podcast into the equivalent of a popular page-turner, though various aspect of the program’s politics did come under question.

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Lena Dunham

Once again, Dunham drove the culture. This year it wasn’t Girls, so much, although we still had plenty to say about that, but her essay collection Not That Kind of Girl and attendant controversy over her book tour and passages describing her rape and her treatment of her younger sister. Dear readers, it was a giant mess, and yet there was Dunham, doing her thing, taking vicious criticism, learning from her mistakes, and apologizing in public, as has become her role in the culture.

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Shonda Rhimes

Another banner year for the force behind Thursday night’s “Shondaland” ABC block. She’s fended off awful criticism with smart tweets, created a new vehicle for Viola Davis with How to Get Away With Murder, and her recent speech about the glass ceiling became an instant classic.

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Nell Zink

While last year Donna Tartt wrote a traditional, rambling epic that was the book of the year, Zink’s extremely strange and offbeat, but acclaimed The Wallcreeper heralded a year in which experimental, boundary-pushing writing by women reigned supreme. Oh, and her book is wickedly funny, too.

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Shailene Woodley

This one’s for the kids. Shailene Woodley is starring in not one, but two blockbuster teen-movie phenomena: Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars and we admit she’s rather winning. OK, she doesn’t quite understand what a feminist is, but she’ll get there. We know she will.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

She was the empress of the “blistering dissent” in Supreme Court cases where the majority trampled on women’s rights. And to top it off, she became an Internet meme and superhero. We love the Notorious R.B.G.

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Laverne Cox

Appearing on the cover of Time magazine as the fabled page’s first transgender subject, making our hearts melt as Sophia on Orange Is the New Black, and opening our eyes to the lives of trans youth in a documentary for MTV and Logo. What’s not to love about Laverne?

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Gina Rodriguez

The star of The CW’s refreshing telenovela remix Jane the Virgin just landed a Golden Globe nomination. “She knocked everything out of the park,” said showrunner Jennie Urman of Rodriguez’s initial audition. “After I had her, I realized she gives me the most freedom as a writer: I can write anything. She can do drama, she can do comedy, she can do small moments and big moments. That’s fun for me. I have this great actor, she has this huge range — let’s use it all. That was Gina.”

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Roxane Gay

She wrote two critically acclaimed books (the essay collection Bad Feminist and the novel An Untamed State) and founded a new website vertical (The Butter). Yet beyond her many achievements, what has made Gay a culture-driver is this: when news got crazy and painful and complicated and funny, as it inevitably did, her considered words and thoughts (and tweets!) generously ushered us Internet hordes along as we, less eloquently, sorted out the conflicting threads in our own minds.

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Taylor Swift

Tay-tay went cray-cray in her video for “Blank Slate,” mocking her public persona and her string of high-profile romances. All year long, whether she was smashing sales records, fueling a conversation about streaming music, or deflecting lesbian rumors, it was hard to shake her off our minds.

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EMA

The rocker’s 2014 album The Future’s Void explored what it is to be a millennial on the Internet, asking whether technology is helping or hurting. And the zine she made about her process and her feminist ethos as an artist is a thing of beauty.

Jill Soloway

Jill Soloway

Transparent won us over with its family drama and honest treatment of gender transition. Wrote Flavorwire’s Elisabeth Donnelly at the time: “Soloway has a handle and tone on this family story that’s assured and unlike anything else on TV, and that’s just one of the many reasons that Transparent is a outstanding, moving, and uncommonly surprising work of television that deserves a big audience.”

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Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate

Obvious Child killed two canards in just over an hour’s worth of hilarity and sweetness. Yes, you can make a romantic comedy where the unintended pregnancy ends at the clinic instead of the maternity ward. And yes, women can make the gross-out, grow-up rom-com their own, and be damn fantastic doing it.

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Lana Del Ray

Performed submission. Tongue-in-cheek regressiveness. Female agency. This is What We Talk About When We Talk About Lana. But more importantly, Ultraviolence worked as a concept album, no matter what you thought about the underlying message.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Selma is the best film of the year, say many critics. DuVernay is the director who has already made history with her Golden Globe nomination for helming it. I cannot wait to see it and, presumably, praise her further.

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Cheryl Strayed

Strayed’s now-beloved tale of self-actualization in the wilderness, Wild, debuted on the big screen this month, with the help of producer and star Reese Witherspoon. Thousands of women wept, yet felt stronger somehow, as they walked out of the theater.

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Sybrina Fulton

Trayvon Martin’s mom represents all the women who have stepped in and organized for the #BlackLivesMatter protests, from Ferguson to both coasts. This is becoming a new wave of the Civil Rights Movement. In a letter to Mike Brown’s mother and family this summer, Fulton wrote, “If they refuse to hear us, we will make them feel us. Some will mistake that last statement as being negatively provocative. But feeling us means feeling our pain; imagining our plight as parents of slain children. We will no longer be ignored.”

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Nicki Minaj

Pop’s provocative pink princess wrapped herself like an anaconda around the cultural consciousness. She was never out of the conversation for long, whether it was through ill-considered Nazi imagery or incredibly smart lyrics or her own bold take on female sexuality.

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Beverly Johnson

The latest and most high-profile of Bill Cosby’s accusers, Johnson’s splashy, honest spread in Vanity Fair perhaps sealed the comedian’s diminished legacy. I chose Johnson to stand for all the women and other survivors who have told their stories about high-profile or celebrity predators this year, making 2014 the year we finally started saying no to serial abusers in our highest cultural ranks.

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Malala Yousafzai

The young Nobel Peace Prize winner who was shot by the Taliban and lived to tell her tale reminded the world that girls’ lives and education matter, and told Obama to stop sending drones into Pakistan. She continues to redefine badass on a global scale, not just a Western one.

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Emma Sulkowicz 

Columbia undergrad Sulkowicz’s performance art project, Carry That Weight, in which she carries her mattress throughout campus while her alleged assailant walks free, is a powerful encapsulation of the burden of rape survivors on campus. By honoring her statement on this list, we honor all the survivors who may not be as media-savvy or narrative-friendly as Sulkowicz and her ilk, but whose pain is just as real. I’m thinking, of course, of UVA’s “Jackie,” among others.

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Janet Mock

Early in the year, the transgender writer and advocate shamed Piers Morgan for misgendering her, and got Stephen Colbert on her side. But more that just being an advocate for the trans community, Mock is a writer and a role model of “realness” for so many people who feel marginalized for their gender expression or any other reason. Having watched the way a group of millennial feminists freaked out about her mere presence in the room, I can attest to her power over an audience — and so can MSNBC, which is giving her a show called “So Popular!” on its digital network, Shift, for 2015.

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Leslie Jamison

Bonus: a few more women who drove the culture in 2014

Laura Poitras brought us a close-up of Edward Snowden. Tar Sands activists have, so far, stopped the Keystone pipeline. Dream Hampton schooled us on Twitter and helped bring “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to the NBA. Jenji Kohan kept churning out women-centric TV. Leslie Jamison helped bring the lady essayist back in vogue. Jenny Offill made us reexamine marriage. St. Vincent rocked out like a smoking-hot mad scientist. DREAMers and undocumented women refused to melt into the shadows. Kirsten Gillibrand fought for rape victims. Hashtag activists like Mikki Kendall and Suey Park inspired often uncomfortable but always needed conversations. Texas feminists in the Rio Grande Valley stood up against a rising tide of racist misogyny — and so, so many more.