20 Women Making History for Animals Past & Present

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These 19 famous female animal rights activists are redefining what it means to be an advocate of animal rights both in their communities and around the globe. At the intersection of both the feminist and animal rights movements, these women leaders represent the many faces of animal advocacy. 

These women have written books, led protests, changed laws, founded organizations and engaged in many other advocacy efforts, even long before women had the legal right to vote.

Some of these famous female animal rights activists are celebrities in their own right, but many others hail from all walks of life. They show us how anyone, anywhere, can be an animal activist in their community! We hope you’re inspired to follow in the footsteps of so many incredible trailblazers. If you want to lead the way towards a more just and equitable world for all living beings, In Defense of Animals offers free and confidential support for animal activists of all genders.


19 Famous Female Animal Rights Activists

Caroline Earle White

Caroline Earle White was deeply troubled by the animal cruelty she saw. Although she and other women often had to be heard through men, that changed when she founded the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WPSPCA) in 1869, which then founded the first animal shelter in the U.S. in Philadelphia.

The shelter continues to operate to this day as the Women’s Animal Society. Fantastically, her work didn’t end there. After battling against scientists’ desire to use shelter animals in experiments, she founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society in 1883, which also still exists today.

“When it comes to the last hour of your life, it will be a great consolation to feel that you always protect the poor, the helpless, and the unfortunate; and that you exercised a particular care towards animals.”


Frances Power Cobbe

In the late 1800s, Frances Power Cobbe was touched by the use of animals in experiments and began advocating for them. She wrote newspaper articles and worked to address other issues, too, such as women’s suffrage and domestic violence.

In 1875, she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV) and what would become the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection in 1898, still operating today as Cruelty Free International.


Harriet Hemenway

In the late 1800s, famous Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway was properly disturbed after learning how birds were being killed at staggering rates for their feathers, which were used to adorn ladies’ hats. Along with her cousin, Minna Hall, she began persuading the ladies of high society to eschew feathers.

Not only did they successfully persuade hundreds of women to join their boycott, their work also led to the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. This was followed by the creation of many local Audubon chapters, the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, the first federal law to protect wild animals, the establishment of reservations for birds in Florida, which would later become the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the passage of what is now the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Margaret Murie

Margaret Murie, who has been dubbed the “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement,” moved to Alaska as a young girl in the early 1900s. She later married Olaus Murie, who worked for what’s now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before he became president of the Wilderness Society. The couple became famous for their conservation efforts, and instrumental role in creating the Wilderness Act, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which remains one of the most pristine untouched landscapes in the U.S.

After her husband passed away, she went on to support the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Margaret Murie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, among other awards.


Velma Johnston 

Velma Johnston’s activism to protect wild horses and burros began in 1950 in Nevada, where she spotted a truck full of horses on its way to a slaughterhouse dripping with blood. She set off to spread the message about the injustices they were suffering, and would later become famously known as Wild Horse Annie.

Her work led to the passage of the Wild Horse Annie Act in 1959, which banned using motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and donkeys on public lands. Unfortunately, that still left many horses and burros unprotected, so she continued to get people involved. More people wrote letters to Congress on this issue than any other, which led to the passage of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Johnston cleared a path, leaving it up to us to hold the government accountable for the fair and equitable stewardship of wild horses and burros who have a rightful place on U.S. soil.


Daphne Sheldrick

Born in Kenya in 1934, Dame Daphne Sheldrick would later go on to marry David Sheldrick, a founding warden at Tsavo East National Park. The pair began taking in orphaned animals and finding ways to reintroduce them to the wild. There, she developed the formula that has become key for orphaned, milk-dependent elephants and rhinos. 

After her husband’s death, Sheldrick founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park in 1977. It continues to provide critical care to orphaned wildlife, operates an anti-poaching program, and mobile veterinary services. Dame Daphne Sheldrick was outspoken against elephant captivity, and received numerous awards and honors for her animal activism before passing in 2018.


Pat Derby

Pat Derby started out as an animal trainer for movies and television shows, but became an activist for animals after seeing how prevalent abuse and neglect were in the entertainment industry. In 1976, her first exposé of the treatment of performing animals, “The Lady and the Tiger” won an American Library Association Award.

She and her husband, Ed Stewart, founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California in 1984. It was the first real animal sanctuary in the U.S. with the capacity to care for elephants, and also one that pioneered elephant handling techniques that don't require the use of bullhooks. It's since been expanded to thousands of acres, providing a much-needed haven for abused, abandoned, and retired wild animals.


What counts as a real elephant sanctuary?


Jane Goodall

In 1960, Dr. Jane Goodall began her landmark study of chimpanzees in what is now Tanzania. Her work and discovery that chimpanzees use tools revolutionized the field of primatology and raised interest in our relationship with animals. She went on to found the Jane Goodall Institute in the 1970s, and has become one of the world’s most well-known ethologists and conservationists. She has won numerous awards and became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2004.

Dr. Goodall has worked with In Defense of Animals on numerous occasions. She first reached out in 1999 after we scored a historic victory in our nine-year campaign to retire 300 nonhuman primates from a New Mexico lab, which was shut down as a result. She currently serves on the board of Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue in Cameroon, a sanctuary In Defense of Animals helped fund in 2002. Dr. Goodall's fame and authority are essential components in our efforts to stop a devastating poison drop on the Farallon Islands, end animal gifting programs, and give animals personal pronouns. Her name may soon become law if the Jane Goodall Act passes, which would end the confinement, breeding, and importing of wild animals in captive facilities throughout Canada.

Dr. Jane Goodall continues her activism for the protection of chimpanzees, other animals, and the environment by inspiring collective action and urging us all to recognize that our individual actions make a difference. 


Join Dr. Jane Goodall to end animal gifting programs



Jane Velez-Mitchell

Jane Velez-Mitchell is a veteran news journalist, who has devoted much of her career to shining a light on issues affecting animals. She is the founder of Unchained TV, a global streaming network devoted to animal rights and promoting a compassionate vegan lifestyle.

She has received multiple awards from animal advocacy organizations, and was named Media Maven of the Year in 2010 by VegNews. Jane Velez-Mitchell has campaigned extensively with In Defense of Animals to raise the profile of our work, including being a vocal supporter of our campaign to save the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles.


Why are endangered animals threatened at Los Angeles' last coastal wetlands?



Dr. Sangdeun “Lek” Chailert

Sangduen "Lek" Chailert was a teenager when she first witnessed “the crush,” a tortuous ritual used to dominate elephants and break their spirits so they can be used for tourism and logging. She’s since devoted her life to protecting elephants and other animals, and created the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. Her sanctuary provides a home to over 200 rescued elephants and helps promote a more compassionate and sustainable tourism model.

Lek Chailert has earned honorary degrees and numerous awards, including being named one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation in 2010. 


Jill Robinson 

The British-born writer and animal rights activist Jill Robinson spent 12 years in Hong Kong during the late 80s and early 90s consulting for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. During this time, she founded Dr. Dog, aiming to change the perception of dogs in Asia through the integration of animal-assisted therapy programs for those in need of a best friend. Robinson later started Animals Asia, to promote respect and passion for all animals and to create long-term change. She now splits her time between Hong Kong, Vietnam, and mainland China. 

In 1998 Robinson was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth and best sanctuary by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries in 2011. Today, Animals Asia focuses on three main projects: ending bear bile farming, cat and dog welfare, and captive animal welfare. 


Michelle Cho

Michelle Cho is well known for being an inspiring leader who uses her passion for animal rights to develop impactful campaigns. Cho regularly engages influential celebrities to lend their voices to her campaigns and the broader animal rights movement. 

Cho served as the Associate Director of Communications at PETA for 7 years starting in 2006, then for the next four and half years worked as the Vice President of Celebrity and Entertainment Outreach for The Humane Society of the United States. Michelle Cho is now Principal at Purposeful Seeding and Strategy, spearheading hundreds of impactful celebrity and entertainment campaigns for nonprofit organizations.


Dr. Leela Hazzah

Lions had been extinct in Egypt long before Dr. Leela Hazzah was born, but it did not stop the future conservation biologist from developing a strong love for lions. She started a nonprofit called Lion Guardians in East Africa, which works with farmers and local communities to ensure safe and sustainable solutions for human/animal conflict.

Dr. Hazzah is a Director and Founding Member of Women for the Environment Africa (WE Africa) and PRIDE Lion Conservation Alliance. She has received numerous awards for her work as an animal rights activist, entrepreneur, and wildlife biologist.

Since her involvement, human-animal conflict in Kenya and Tanzania has improved so much you can now even hear lions roaring — which Dr. Leela Hazzah never experienced as a child.


Jo-Anne McArthur

Award-winning photojournalist and author Jo-Anne McArthur is best known as the founder of We Animals Media. This expansive project documents our (often hidden) relationships with animals. Animals' true lives through powerful imagery which McArthur makes available for media, animal activists, and educators. She has received numerous awards for her work.

McArthur is also a champion of female animal activists. She tells the stories of women changing the world for animals, recognizing and celebrating females at the forefront of animal activism through her Unbound Project, which highlights the stories of women in the animal rights movement.

Her extraordinary experience as an animal activist is detailed in the documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine, which McArthur stars in.

Jo-Anne McArthur shines a light on our treatment of animals around the globe, bringing their stories to a much wider audience.


Brenda Sanders

Have you heard of the "grocery gap?" Dynamo food justice activist Brenda Sanders is fighting it to ensure everyone has access to food that's good for our bodies, the environment, and animals too. Her nonprofit, Afro-Vegan Society, is on a mission to make vegan living accessible to everyone.

In Defense of Animals first collaborated with Sanders in 2019, when she presented at our Sustainable Activism online series on “The Power of Community-Based Vegan Activism.” In 2021, we sponsored Afro-Vegan Society’s Veguary pledge as part of our Animal Activist Appreciation Month. The grant benefited Afro-Vegan Society and its collaborators, Black vegan trailblazer, who spreads compassion through vegan videos, and Silent Patient, which runs a humane education program in Uganda, Africa.

If you're in the Baltimore area, check out Sanders' restaurant, The Greener Kitchen, her community resource center, Thrive Baltimore, and her festival, Vegan SoulFest.


Dr. Linda Alvares

As co-creator of the Vegan Advocacy Initiative and People of Color: Animal Rights, Advocacy, and Food Justice Conference, Dr. Linda Alvares, works to provide a space for people of color, an aspect of the movement that is largely excluded from mainstream discourse, while simultaneously empowering the vegan and the animal rights movements. Alvares has worked to develop a Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color (COVAC). COVAC encouraged activists and community building through organizing events for vegans of color to volunteer and become involved with non-profit organizations that serve communities throughout Los Angeles. 


Gwenna Hunter

Gwenna went from vegetarian to vegan after watching the video Dairy is Scary (see our billboard collab with creator Erin Janus here!) Soon after, she founded Vegans of LA, the first vegan food bank in Los Angeles. It's a vegan- and black-owned idea to spread vegan ideals with palpable actions in the community. Food banks are a vital source of nourishment for many individuals and families, and that’s why she wanted to increase their food options by adding a vegan menu to the mix. Gwenna also builds community by bringing people together for networking, mingling, and dating, while enjoying a safe, fun space. Vegans and non-vegans alike get the chance to experience new and delicious foods while also learning how unnecessary it is to eat animals.

Her online group, Vegans for Black Lives Matter, shows vegan solidarity for racial justice and ignites solution-oriented conversations to inspire new thoughts. It shows how vegans care for both humans and non-humans alike, while creating a compassionate forum to lift marginalized voices.

Gwenna first collaborated with In Defense of Animals since 2018 to speak at a Carnivores Anonymous meeting in Los Angeles. In 2019, we highlighted her work through an Activist Spotlight, and she shared her top tip for discussing veganism:

"Make a heart connection when speaking with people about veganism. Speak with the intent to listen so you can connect with them on their level. Then what you say will count and have a true effect."


Priya Sawhney 

After moving to the United States from India when she was 12, Priya Sawhney faced extreme bullying and discrimination from her classmates. After not one of her classmates stood up for her, she realized that most people remain quiet in the face of injustice, and to her, this was not an option. 

As co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) she puts her body on the line to fight for animal rights. She is well known for being arrested after confronting Jeff Bezos on a Las Vegas stage regarding Amazon’s support of animal cruelty.   


Genesis Butler

At the age of 10, Genesis Butler became the youngest ever TEDx speaker when she gave an inspiring speech about healing the planet through veganism. Since then, she has become a well-known advocate for animals. Genesis campaigns for animals through her social media, on the ground activism, and has even started her own foundation called Genesis For Animals

Genesis has been awarded the Lisa Shapiro Youth Activist Award, the PETA Young Animal Activist of the Year Award, and the Animal Hero Kids’ Sir Paul McCartney Young Veg Advocate award.


Karen Davis

Karen Davis founded the nonprofit organization United Poultry Concerns (UPC) in 1990, which promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation in 2002, she is the author of books on the exploitation, sentience, and greatness of birds such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks. She paved the way for the advocacy of these underprotected species many years ago. Known as a fierce campaigner, she has raised awareness through protests, speeches, books, newspaper columns, a newsletter called Poultry Press, rescue work, and her sanctuary.

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