The fifth of six children to Igbo parents, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, and grew up in the house in Nsukka previously occupied by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Perhaps she absorbed the spirit of Achebe, for she showed a flair for writing from an early age – a talent that has taken her to stages around the world and her books into millions of homes. After showing great promise at school, and later studying medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria, she won a scholarship to study communication in the US. She packed her bags at just 19 and headed to Philadelphia, where she graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001, and then a Master’s degree in creative writing at John Hopkins University.

This experience inspired her to begin writing her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which was published in 2003 and attracted immediate critical acclaim, as did her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, set at the time of the Biafran War. Her third novel is called Americanah.

But it was her long essay, We Should All Be Feminists, published in 2014 by Fourth Estate as a book, that set the world alight with its definition of feminism in the 21st century. Originating as a speech at TEDx in 2013, it was called “the most important book of the year” by The Telegraph’s Rupert Hawksley, named in The Independent’s books of the year and was even sampled by Beyoncé for her song ‘Flawless’.

Then in 2015, publisher Albert Bonniers Förlag and the Swedish Women’s Lobby distributed the book to every 16-year-old high school student in Sweden, hoping that it would generate new discussions about feminism and gender equality. It certainly did that.

The reception of the essay in particular means Adichie is now a global feminist icon and is a regular guest speaker at conferences and seminars around the world. She does not always fit the typical feminist mould, however, and has even been criticised for making feminism mainstream, to which she replied in an interview with The Guardian, “Don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed.”

The praise, critiques and outright anger for her essay prompted her own response in 2017 in the form of another short book called Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – a distillation of a long letter she wrote to a friend offering advice on guiding a young girl to feminism. It searches the familiar terrain of motherhood, fatherhood, gender stereotypes and empowering both boys and girls to seek their own way in life.

Honourable mention

Toni Morrison

Morrison passed away last year but her legacy lives on. The writer was the first African–American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and throughout her career her much-lauded work paved the way for others from minority groups.

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Toni Morrison

Margaret Atwood

The Canadian author is well-known for the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It was adapted to film in 1990 and released as a four-season TV series in 2017, spurring Atwood to write The Testaments. The handmaids’ garb has become a symbol of women’s rights.

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Margaret Atwood

From CEOs and politicians to humanitarians and athletes, we profile 30 extraordinary trailblazers creating major change in 2020. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are among the iconic women we're celebrating this International Women's Day.