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18 inspirational women who have changed history


To mark Women’s History Month, staff at The History Press have nominated eighteen inspirational females from throughout the ages. Here are our picks:

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (c. 870 – 918 AD)

2018 marks 1,100 years since the death of Aethelflaed, the most powerful woman of the Anglo-Saxon era. A diplomat, warrior, general, scholar and mother, Aethelflaed ruled with remarkable dexterity, tact and fortitude and played a major part in laying the foundation for a united England. 

The eldest daughter of King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) and his wife Ealhswith, Aethelflaed was born around 870 AD at the height of the Viking invasions of England when her father Alfred was struggling to fend off the marauding armies from Scandinavia. In order to secure an alliance and fend off the Vikings, Alfred arranged a marriage between his daughter Aethelflaed and the much older Aethelred, King of Mercia, in order to restore the union between Wessex and Mercia. Her brother Edward (the Elder) inherited Wessex after the death of their father Alfred in 899 and, although there is some dispute over whether Mercia was subordinate to Wessex during this period, in the following years the husband and wife team rallied Mercia and fought off renewed Viking attacks alongside Edward. Aethelred and Aethelflaed took back vast swathes of Mercian land from the Danes (both in the Midlands and to the north), fortified Worcester and gave generous donations to Mercian churches. During this time the strong, independent Aethelflaed brought a great deal of military leadership and strategy to the table, including the tactic of fortifying the Mercian borders whenever they had driven the Danes further back a tactic she successfully employed in Chester. In the early 900s Aethelred’s health began to deteriorate and Aethelflaed became the de facto ruler of Mercia. When Aethelred died in 911 Aethelflaed became ‘Lady of the Mercians’ – the accession of a female ruler being one of the most unique events in early medieval history. Working alongside Edward, the brother/sister alliance reconquered parts of Wessex and Mercia; both shared their father’s ideal of a ‘united kingdom’ and understood that the old and fragmented Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could not drive back the Vikings alone. Aethelflaed strengthened the fortifications of Gloucester and turned it into a minster, built defences in the towns of Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick, Chirbury and Runcorn and sent an army to capture Derby. In 918 Leicester surrendered to her without a fight and she even managed to persuade the Viking leaders of York to pledge alliance to her. Unfortunately Aethelflaed died in Tamworth on 12 June 918 before she could take advantage of York’s offer. She was later buried alongside her husband at St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester.

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)

Perhaps best known as the younger sister of astronomer Sir William Herschel, Caroline was a true pioneer in her own right. A literate woman who catalogued stars and discovered comets, she was the first woman to earn a salary for her contribution to science, to acquire honours and be accepted into scientific organisations. Despite her father’s wishes, Caroline never received a formal education as a child as her mother felt it was best for her to train as a house servant. However, following her father’s death, she joined her brother in England who had established himself as an organist, choirmaster and music teacher in Bath. Caroline became principal singer at his oratorio concerts, but quickly found herself supporting her brother’s new obsession – astronomy. When Caroline wasn’t working as her brother’s assistant, she was sweeping the stars with her own small telescope given to her by William. Not only did she unearth three important nebulae, but she discovered eight comets in her own right. When William became Astronomer Royal to King George III in 1782, Caroline too received an annual salary, making her the first ever woman to work as a professional scientist. In 1828 she was awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was named an Honorary Member in 1838.

James Miranda Stuart Barry a.k.a. Margaret Ann Bulkley (c. 1789 – 1865)

Born in Ireland, James Barry was a successful British Army surgeon who rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals following service in India and South Africa. In his travels he not only improved conditions for soldiers, but for the local population too. It comes as a surprise to many, then, to learn that he actually started out life as a woman. In a time where women had very few career choices and were not allowed to study medicine, Margaret Ann Bulkley, after conspiring with some liberal-minded friends, disguised herself as a man in order to attend medical school in Edinburgh, qualifying in 1812. As James Barry she went on to have a remarkable career as a highly accomplished surgeon and a pioneer of hygienic practice; among the achievements was the first caesarean section in Africa by a British surgeon in which both the mother and child survived. Bulkley’s true identity was only revealed once her sex was discovered after death and it is only recently that her achievements in being the first qualified female British doctor and becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of Edinburgh have been recognised. The extraordinary story of Margaret Ann Bulkley illustrates the determination of some women and the lengths that they are willing to go to in order to achieve their dreams.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

The only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer. She is chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. A visionary, her notes on the engine introduced many computer concepts and include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. As a result many regard her as the first computer programmer.

Barbara Bodichon (1827 – 1891)

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a woman who lived a truly remarkable life from the start. Her father was the only son of the prominent abolitionist MP William Smith, and among her eminent cousins she counted Florence Nightingale and the Bonham-Carter family. But her mother was from a lowly background, and her parents lived openly together out of wedlock. After her mother’s death when she was just 7, she and her younger siblings were raised by their radical politician father and educated at a local school alongside working-class children. Unusually, she was also given an allowance from the age of 21 which  she used to travel, study and fund many good causes. Her unconventional upbringing had set her on course for a life of writing and political campaigning as one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights. From the 1850s she was a key figure in a group of radical women who met at No. 19 Langham Place, London, to discuss women’s issues; the group went on to found the English Women’s Journal, which focused on campaigning on women’ employment and education. In 1866 Barbara and Emily Davies founded what later became Girton College, Cambridge, the first college in England to offer a university education for women. That same year, she founded the first ever group to campaign for women’s suffrage. Perhaps most important, though, was her Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women, published in 1854. This pamphlet documented every legal restriction affecting women under English law, and sparked a major national campaign that eventually resulted in The Married Women’s Property Act 1882 – significantly altering English law to recognise married women as legal entities in their own right. For the first time, married women could now own, inherit and control their own property, independently from their husbands. Despite being the architect of such a groundbreaking step for women, Barbara is virtually unknown today, and she deserves to be highlighted for her many achievements on International Women’s Day.

Josephine Butler (1828 – 1906)

Butler was a Victorian-era British feminist and social reformer, who played a major part in improving conditions for women in education and public health, particularly the welfare of prostitutes and the marginalised. After visiting Liverpool’s Brownlow Hill workhouse she set up a House of Rest and Industrial Home for prostitutes, and she also later campaigned against child prostitution, being part of a group which forced parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. In 1869 Butler began her long campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to control the spread of venereal disease in the armed forces. Police were permitted to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in garrison towns and ports and force them to undergo compulsory medical examinations for venereal disease. Despite vilification and the risk of physical assault, Butler toured the country, arguing against the presumption of guilt on the part of the women, seeking instead both to question the morality of the men involved and to bring them to account for their behaviour. Many were shocked that a woman would speak out in public about taboo sexual matters, but in 1889 the acts were repealed. Butler also took a great interest in women’s education, pressurising the authorities at Cambridge University into providing further education courses for women, which eventually led to the foundation of the all-women college at Newnham and she was instrumental in establishing the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women.

Octavia Hill (1838 – 1912)

Octavia Hill was an artist and radical who pioneered affordable housing and can be considered as the founder of modern social work. Born into a family with a strong commitment to alleviating poverty, but with no formal schooling, she worked from the age of 14 for the welfare of working people, starting with teaching toy-making to a group of girls from a Ragged School. In 1864 she embarked on the re-development and management of a handful of run down properties in Marylebone Place in London, her plan being to rehabilitate the slums and then rent them at low cost to poor tenants. Financing her project with a loan from the writer John Ruskin, she was able to set up a network of regenerated tenanted housing. Supporting her tenants by providing clear expectations and promoting financial responsibility, she also believed that people should have access to fresh air and open public spaces and provided playgrounds and parks near her homes. Her campaigning eventually led to the founding of The National Trust in 1895.  

Anne Sullivan (1866 – 1936)

Sullivan was the teacher and lifelong companion of Helen Keller, the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. Keller, of course, went on to be world famous for her own achievements, but Macy was just as inspiring in her own right and deserves to be celebrated. Born in America, to incredibly impoverished Irish immigrants Sullivan contracted trachoma at the age of eight and was partially sighted from then onwards, eventually going blind. After her mother died, her father put Annie and her younger brother Jimmy into an almshouse institution. She was just ten years old. Her brother – whom she adored – had TB and died just a few months later. Annie grew up alone in the almshouse, but learnt about the Perkins Institute for the Blind from another inmate. Sullivan convinced the almshouse authorities to allow her to enrol at the Perkins School, where she thrived. She graduated from there at the age of 20 as her class valedictorian. During her time at the Perkins Institute Sullivan had met a blind and deaf woman called Laura Bridgman, who taught her the manual alphabet which she would later go on to teach to Keller. Not long after she graduated, Sullivan was recommended to Keller’s family by the Perkin’s principal – the Kellers were in search of teacher for their 7-year-old blind and deaf daughter, Helen. Although incredibly young and inexperienced, Sullivan quickly bonded with Helen and they made great progress. Within six months Keller had learned 575 words, some multiplication tables and the Braille system. Sullivan strongly encouraged Helen’s parents to send her to the Perkins School. When they agreed, Sullivan went with Keller and stayed with her there, continuing to teach her remarkable protégée and she remained a close companion to Keller until her death in 1936.

Nancy Astor (1879 – 1964)

American-born English socialite Nancy Astor was the first female MP in British history to take a seat in parliament. Born Nancy Witcher Langhorne in Danville, Virginia, the first years of her life were impoverished, as her railroad businessman father struggled following the American Civil War. However, by the time she was a teenager, her father was making a fortune in construction, rail and tobacco. Having fallen in love with England on a previous visit, in 1905, following the end of her first marriage, Nancy, her son and younger sister, Phyllis, moved to England. Upon her arrival Nancy became known amongst the English aristocracy and began dating Waldorf Astor, the owner of The Independent newspaper. They were married six months later and moved into the Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire, where they raised their five children and Nancy became a prominent hostess amongst the English elite. Both Waldorf and Nancy had an interest in politics – Nancy as a member of a liberal group called ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’ and Waldorf as a Member of Parliament. Waldorf won election to the House of Commons in 1910 as a Unionist and enjoyed a promising political career for a number of years, becoming MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1918 when his constituency dissolved. When Waldorf’s father died in 1919, Waldorf succeeded to the peerage, inheriting the title 2nd Viscount Astor and automatically becoming a member of the House of Lords. Relinquishing his Plymouth Sutton seat in the House of Commons, a by-election was triggered. As the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act had been passed the year before, Nancy decided to contest the vacant parliamentary seat. Despite many people having reservations, Nancy stood as a Unionist candidate (now the Conservative Party) and after rallying support during electioneering, beat her main rival Liberal Isaac Foot. The result was announced on 28 November 1919 and she took up her seat in the House on 1 December as a Unionist Member of Parliament. Although Nancy was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, she was not the first elected (that was achieved in 1918 by Constance Markievicz, an Irish Republican who was detained in Holloway Prison at the time and, as a member of Sinn Fein, disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath). Nevertheless, Nancy successfully entered the male-dominated world of politics and stayed there for over 25 years, winning seven elections before retiring in 1945. In the same year that she retired, 24 women became MPs and took their seats in parliament.

Amelia Earhart (1897 – disappeared 1937)

American aviation pioneer Earhart was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, earning her the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for the record. She set many other records during her career, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organisation for female pilots. A member of the National Woman’s Party, she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and in 1935 she joined the aviation department of Purdue University as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and help inspire others with her love for aviation. During an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe, Earhart mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

Irena Sendler (1910 – 2008)

Irena Sendler may be an unfamiliar name to many people, but this remarkable woman defied the Nazis and smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving their lives. A Polish nurse and social worker, Sendler was so appalled by the conditions she witnessed in the Ghetto that she was one of the first recruits of Żegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organised by the Polish underground resistance movement. Assisted by other Żegota members, Sendler saved around 2,500 Jewish children from certain death by providing them with safe hiding places and false identity documents, before finding non-Jewish families to adopt them. With the exception of diplomats who issued visas to help Jews flee Nazi-occupied Europe, Sendler saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust. German occupiers eventually discovered her activities and she was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death, but she managed to evade execution and survive the war. Later in life she was awarded Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, for her wartime humanitarian efforts.

Violette Szabó (1921 – 1945)

SOE agent Violette Szabó was one of the most incredible women who operated behind enemy lines during the Second World War. The daughter of an English father and French mother, and widow of a French army officer, Szabo joined the Women’s Land Army in 1940 and also worked in an armaments factory, before joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). After her husband died in action, she trained as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) field agent. Daring and courageous, she conducted sabotage missions, was embroiled in gun battles and battled betrayal. On her second mission into occupied France she was captured by the Nazis, interrogated and tortured, then deported to Germany where she was eventually executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp, aged just 23. Violette was one only four women to be awarded the George Cross for bravery, which she received posthumously.  

Dame Elizabeth Taylor (1932 –2011)

Elizabeth Taylor, considered one of the last, if not the last, major star to have come out of the old Hollywood studio system, was born in Hampstead, north London to wealthy American parents. Her mother, Sara, was a former stage actor and her father, Francis, an art dealer. In 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of war, the family moved to Hollywood, where her father opened an art gallery. With dark hair and striking violet eyes, Taylor’s beauty attracted praise and she was invited to audition for both the Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios. Accepting a contract with Universal, the child actress made her screen debut with a minor role in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942), but her contract was terminated a year later. She was then signed by MGM, appearing briefly in a couple of films before and had her breakthrough role in National Velvet (1944). It was not long before she became one of the studio’s most popular young stars. Making the transition to adult roles, Taylor was one of the big stars of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1950s and in 1960 she won her first Academy Award, Best Actress for BUtterfield 8 (1960). In 1963 she was paid a record-breaking $1 million to play the title role in Cleopatra, the most expensive film ever made at that time. Although she had less roles in the 1970s and 80s, she continued to star in films and on television and was the first celebrity to launch a perfume brand. Although her personal life was subject to constant media attention – she was married eight times to seven men, endured serious illnesses and led a jet set lifestyle – Taylor dedicated the later years of her life to philanthropy. One of the first celebrities to take part in HIV/AIDS activism, she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985 and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000.

Margaret Hamilton (1936 – )

Margaret Hamilton is a computer scientist and systems engineer who was the Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. Were it not for Hamilton, Neil Armstrong might not have walked on the moon in 1969. Hamilton worked hard to gain hands-on experience during a time when computer science and software engineering courses or disciplines were non-existent. What’s even more unusual is that she was a working mother. At NASA, Hamilton supervised the team which was responsible for helping pioneer the Apollo on-board guidance software required to navigate and land on the moon – a radical feat for a woman in the 1960s – and she later helped popularise the term ‘software engineering’.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – )

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the space-based phenomena known as pulsars and established herself as a an esteemed leader in her field. Despite having an appetite for learning as a child and an early interest in science, Bell Burnell failed her eleven-plus exam. Her parents sent her to a Quaker girls’ boarding school before she was accepted into the University of Glasgow where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1965. Following this Bell Burnell began her graduate studies in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge and as a research assistant working under the astronomers Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle she to helped build a large radio telescope designed to monitor quasars. Tasked with analysing the data the telescope produced once it became operational in 1967, Bell Burnell spent endless hours poring over the charts and numbers on the three miles of printouts generated. When she noticed some anomalies that didn’t fit with the pattern she called them to her superior’s attention. Over the next few months the team worked to eliminate the sources of the pulses until eventually deducing that they were made by neutron stars – fast spinning collapsed stars which are too small to form black holes. When the findings were published in the February 1968 issue of Nature (the same year that Bell Burnell earned her PhD) they caused an immediate sensation and resulted in a Nobel Prize – but only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. The fact that Bell Burnell did not receive recognition was been a point of controversy ever since, yet this has not prevented her from continuing to blaze a trail for women in academia as since then Bell Burnell has gone on to earn countless awards and honours throughout her distinguished career, including serving as dean of science at the University of Bath, and being president of the Royal Astronomical Society, Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Edinburgh. In March 2013 she was elected Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin and has worked on projects aimed at boosting the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Elizabeth Warren (1949 - )

American Democrat Elizabeth Warren has served as senator from the state of Massachusetts since 2012. Originally from Oklahoma, Warren worked as a lawyer specialising in bankruptcy until 2008 when she served as Chair of Congressional Oversight Panel and later in 2010 as President Obama’s Special Advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In February 2017 she made headlines when she was silenced on the Senate floor. Warren was reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King Jr’s widow) which outlined why Trump’s nominee Jeff Sessions would not be a fair choice for Attorney General. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, ‘She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.’ ‘She persisted’ became a rallying cry for women in those weeks that followed the Women’s March, the largest peaceful protest in US history, in the start of the year. Warren spoke at Boston’s march stating, ‘We come here to stand shoulder to shoulder to make clear: We are here, we will not be silent, we will not play dead, we will fight for what we believe in.’

Sudha Varghese (1949 – )

Sudha Varghese, also known as Sister Sudha, is a social worker and Catholic nun in India who has devoted herself to the Manjhi, Musahar, Dalit and other Mahadalit castes who are considered ‘untouchables’. Moving to Bihar in 1965 to work for the poor with the Sisters of Notre Dame at the Notre Dame Academy (a Roman catholic secondary school), she trained there for a few years learning English and Hindi. After hearing about the conditions in which the Musahar where living in, in 1986 she moved into a complex of mud and brick houses (tola – used by the lowest castes in India) in Musahar in order to help educate the marginalised villagers. Since then Sudha has raised money, built around 50 schools and set up self-help groups which bring women, children and young people together to support one another. She teaches the groups reading, writing, sewing, nutrition, sanitation and money management and has also opened five centres which teach Musahar girls nursing. In 1989 Sudha also obtained a law degree from a school in Bangalore to help fight cases of rape, sexual harassment and violence against women. In 2005 Sudha moved to Patna where she has established a number of residential all-girls school designed to remove girls from farm labour and give them an education.

Catherine Mayer, Sandi Toksvig (1958 – ), Sophie Walker (1971 – )

The Women’s Equality Party was co-founded by author and journalist Catherine Mayer and broadcaster and author Sandi Toksvig in 2015. The Party’s leader is Sophie Walker, a journalist, blogger, marathon runner and autism campaigner. The Party are campaigning for equal representation in politics, business, industry and throughout working life; equal pay and an equal opportunity to thrive; equal parenting and caregiving and shared responsibilities at home to give everyone equal opportunities both in family life and in the workplace; an education system that creates opportunities for all children and an understanding of why this matters; equal treatment of women by and in the media; and an end to violence against women. The party’s mission statement opens with: ‘Equality for women isn't a women's issue. When women fulfill their potential, everyone benefits. Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population and a society at ease with itself.’

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