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The 7 Most Influential Women in Pop Culture

Tonight our friends at the 92YTribeca host a talk entitled Young Women, Feminism and the Future: Third Wavers Then and Now. The panel is an interesting mix of writers and activists: Jennifer Baumgardner (Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics), Amy Richards (co-founder, Third Wave Foundation), Veronica Chambers (Miss Black America, Kickboxing Geishas), Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile), and Debbie Stoller (Editor-in-Chief, BUST Magazine). We caught up with Stoller over email, and asked for a list of the women who she sees as the most influential in shaping today’s pop culture landscape. Click through to find out what she had to say, and weigh in with a comment.

1. Madonna: One of the most important feminist figures of all time, she solved a cultural problem that had long plagued us: if being a sex object is a powerless role, then what is the opposite? Seventies feminists suggested that we should all be overall-and-Birkenstock-clad sex subjects. No, said Madonna. Taking her cue from gay male subculture, she showed that women can be both sex subjects and sex objects at the same time. And voila — a bra was born.

2. Martha Stewart: Another cultural puzzle solver, whether she realized it or not. Second wave feminists chafed against the culturally prescribed role for women of perfect homemaker and happy housewife, blaming the advertising industry of the time for making women mad trying to please their man and kids. As a result, they rejected all of this work as unfulfilling and degrading to women, and basically took the same attitude that men had always taken: that domestic work is simple drudgery, and doesn’t deserved to be valued. Martha Stewart turned that on its head. She not only elevated the status of what had traditionally been considered “women’s work,” she did so without a husband or child in sight, proving that this type of work is done not just to please someone else, but because it can enrich one’s own life.

3. Courtney Love: The embodiment of female indulgence, of girlhood rage, Courtney represents the opposite of what a good girl should be (selfless, quiet) and proved that rock ‘n roll is not just the right, it is the biological imperative of the female gender.

4. Ellen DeGeneres: It was front-page news when she came out as gay on her TV sitcom. At the very same time, Rosie O’Donnell was pretending she had a crush on Tom Cruise on her talk show. Today Ellen is an out lesbian talk show host, which would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. By bringing her sexual preference into American living rooms, she paved the way for the national debate about gay marriage.

5. Oprah Winfrey: The most powerful woman in showbiz got there by standing up for the least powerful citizens of our populace: middle-aged women and women of color. Oprah makes sure we know they exist, takes their concerns seriously, and proves that they are a cultural force to be reckoned with.

6. Tyra Banks: Starting with America’s Next Top Model, Banks launched a campaign to make us think of modeling as an industry that is inclusive of both women of color and plus-sized women. Of course, the modeling industry is not inclusive and black models are rare, but there is not a single young woman out there who thinks that her race would keep her from competing in Tyra’s reality show beauty pageant, and that is an important first step.

7. Tina Fey: As the most visible head-writer in Saturday Night Live‘s history, she certainly had John Belushi, who once infamously said, “women aren’t funny,” rolling around in his grave. With her hit sitcom, 30 Rock, she proves that smart, funny, and yes, ironic comedy is not the exclusive domain of male writers and animation geeks. And with Baby Mama, she also showed that ridiculous, gender-based farce is not the exclusive domain of Judd Apatow.

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