What's the term used to describe a figure who comes to represent a movement in the common perception of the population?

I don't mean a leader or a spokesperson, I'm meaning more that they're a mascot for the movement.

  • 1
    I suggested an edit to avoid using mascot in reference to Rosa Parks. It seems to me that it could be interpreted negatively. The edit was rejected, but I encourage you to consider editing your post: (english.stackexchange.com/review/suggested-edits/202151)
    – twip
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 21:57
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    I will note that "mascot" tends to be used (in the US) to refer to either an animal or some sort of comic character or clown, an inappropriate way to refer to Ms Parks. There are certainly several other terms which are more appropriate.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 22:48
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    @HotLicks But that is the entire point of OPs question, that he is looking for a word other than mascot. If he knew a word other than mascot he wouldn't need to ask this question.
    – SGR
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 7:08
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    I don't have the reputation to answer, but have you considered "key figure"? Rosa Parks is a key figure in the civil rights movement. The idiom "key figure" means an important person in an event; a person central to an event. Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 19:38
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    @ab2 no the question is protected it requires 10 rep to answer and the 100 from the association bonus doesn't count. Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 11:06

9 Answers 9


icon. from The Free Dictionary (TFD)

a person or thing regarded as a symbol of a belief, nation, community, or cultural movement

The word icon originally had a deep religious significance, being (TFD)

A representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage, traditionally used and venerated in the Eastern Church.

Rosa Parks has an almost religious significance for the Civil Rights Movement and for many of her admirers.

The words icon or iconic are used much more broadly, for example a fashion magazine might describe a simple little black dress (wildly overpriced) iconic. And Icon in Computerese means "a pictorial representation of a facility available on a computer system" (TFD), but none of these meanings should detract from the more profound meaning that Rosa Parks exemplifies.

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    Icon was the first that occurred to me, or maybe "paragon." Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 14:02
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    Somewhat ironically, Rosa Parks became an icon because she was an iconoclast (person who destroys icons.) Rosa Parks was an iconoclast, because she challenged (and literally defied) the widely accepted beliefs of her day, which ultimately led to her becoming an icon herself.
    – barbecue
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 17:57
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    I know this is now a common use, but I don't like the confusion of the person and the image. An icon was an image, the person depicted on it was a saint. In our information-centered culture, we lose the distinction. I am ok with Pop icon, etc. because those people basically are their images. Parks' participation in her cause was more real.
    – jobermark
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 18:31
  • @jobermark A good illustration of the way language changes -- often not logically!
    – ab2
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 18:35
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    "Rosa Parks, who has resided in the State of Michigan since 1957, has become a living icon for freedom in America." Congressional gold medal award, May 4,1999
    – twip
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 19:54


Rosa Parks not only launched this new paradigm but incorporated all those that preceded it: Old Leftism, New Deal liberalism, unionism, NAACP legalism and gradualism. She was an embodiment of the civil rights movement to that moment, even if the impression persists that she was a simple old lady with aching feet.

Rosa Parks: The story behind her sitting down - By Diane McWhorter - Slate Magazine, 2005. Emphasis mine.

Embodiment means:

Someone or something that is a perfect representative or example of a quality, idea, etc.



"Pioneer", "hero", "champion", or "role model" perhaps could fit also.


  1. a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.
  2. one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress.

She was certainly one of the first activists in the Civil Rights Movement.


  1. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life

She demonstrated courage and risked punishment for her civil disobedience.


  1. An ardent defender or supporter of a cause or another person

Her actions were not just for her own self-interests.

role model

A person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.

And she served as a model for other acts of civil disobedience.


How about emblem, symbol, harbinger, or herald?

From Merriam-Webster:

emblem: a person or thing that represents an idea

symbol: an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

  • "Rosa Parks was an emblem of the civil rights movement."
  • "Rosa Parks was a symbol of the civil rights movement."

These seem rather close to the OP's "mascot".

The following also apply to Rosa Parks, but they might not be as close to the word the OP is seeking:

harbinger: one that pioneers in or initiates a major change; one that presages or foreshadows what is to come

herald: one that precedes or foreshadows

  • "Rosa Parks was a harbinger of the civil rights movement."

  • "Rosa Parks was a herald of the civil rights movement."

  • Yeah, but she is real not merely representational or information-bearing
    – jobermark
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 18:27
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    harbinger usually has a negative connotation to it. I have not yet seen it being used to foretell a positive or happy event. Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 7:13
  • The original harbingers were the people who went ahead of troops or a royal procession to make sure that all the VIPs had somewhere to stay that night, food was sorted out etc. From the point of view of people on the route they were therefore the first signs that they were in for a difficult and dangerous time. Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 15:23
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    @BurhanKhalid and Paul Johnson Thanks for the comments. I've always considered harbinger to be positive, negative, or neutral depending on whether "what is to come" is considered positive, negative, or neutral. One can quickly find dictionary examples of the meaning of harbinger I'm invoking. For example: "Frost is a harbinger of winter" and "Witch hazels are harbingers of spring." There is nothing inherently negative about this sense of harbinger. Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 21:15

I'd like to suggest torchbearer as in the following sentence: In refusing to relinquish her seat, Rosa Parks became a torchbearer for the American Civil Rights Movement.

torchbearer: Someone in the forefront of a campaign, crusade, or movement.



In the sense that the term suggests no actual power, as the person is only perceived as the leader of a movement, I am thinking of figurehead:

a person who is called the head or chief of something but who has no real power

source: Merriam-Webster

The figurehead originally was the carved figure on a ship's bow.

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    I think this has too much of a negative (or at least passive) connotation. Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 16:00
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    A figurehead appears to hold power. She did not, other than as someone to emulate.
    – jobermark
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 18:26

If a single person is synonymous with an idea, they can be described as the face of that idea. It suggests that their physical appearance is so well-known that simply observing it evokes thoughts of the idea they represent. Likewise, it suggests that thinking of the idea itself invariably evokes imagery of that person's physical appearance.

I've written this example to demonstrate:

One picture of Rosa Parks is all it takes to remind us of how far we've come. She's truly the face of the American civil rights movement.

  • This is the best one yet. Signifies uniqueness and has no negative connotation.
    – jph
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 14:02
  • +1 I like this, but is the sentence your own or is it a quotation? If the latter, please provide the source and a link. If your own, please credit yourself!
    – ab2
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 13:59
  • @ab2 It's my own, but it's packed with cliche, so I'm not exactly proud of it. :)
    – talrnu
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 14:40

Folks are factoring the meaning too much. She is both an embodiment and a 'poster-child' so she is an:

exemplar - a person or thing serving as a typical example or excellent model.

or a

paragon - a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality.

Oxford Dictionaries, paragon


As a native speaker, "hero" and/or "poster child" sound best to me.

"Hero" doesn't imply uniqueness. She could be one of many. There's usually only one "mascot" for a team or cause.

"Poster child" suggests uniqueness, but it also doesn't have the positive connotation of "hero". Someone can be the "poster child" for something entirely negative.

"Figurehead" is bad because it has negative implications. It brings to mind a leader who isn't really a leader; someone else is really in charge.

Several of the others ("symbol", "embodiment", "mascot") usually aren't used to refer to specific individuals. "Mascot" in particular, when applied to Parks, sounds vaguely insulting. As if she were cynically used to promote the cause. If that's the meaning you're trying to convey then great, but otherwise I'd avoid "mascot".

  • "Poster child" is good but it seems a little reductive to use for Rosa Parks... Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 22:05
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    Unfortunately, "poster child" carries something of a demeaning connotation.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 22:50
  • As a native native speaker (read: BrE) these are acceptable but sound a bit odd. Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 12:34

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