Katherine Johnson is famous for being the human computer who worked at NASA. Intrigued by the portrayal of her in the film Hidden Figures, I looked into her life further and was captivated by her appreciation of learning and the determination she showed in her pursuit of it. At the age of four she followed her older brother to school so she could help him with his maths – even though there was no class for her. Amazed by her skill the teacher created a class so she could attend, though not for long as she quickly overtook children her age, starting college at the age of 14 and graduating at 18. When she went on to teach, she loved instilling her own love of learning in them, knowing she was helping them get ahead in a time of segregation and sexism. No wonder she is described as an American hero.
Irish screenwriter Johanna Harwood worked in the film industry at a time when it was dominated by men and yet she impressed James Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli to such an extent that she was hired to rewrite the script for the first ever Bond film, Dr. No (1962), and co-wrote its hugely successful follow-up, From Russia with Love (1963).
However, her work on Goldfinger (1964) went uncredited, and despite her key contribution to the creation of the cinematic James Bond, she has largely been forgotten. As Roger Moore wrote in his memoir: ‘Her involvement has often been overlooked and her pivotal role clouded by the vagaries of film history and the egos of those within.’ Shameful.
Artemisia Gentileschi is one of my favourite painters, and in recent years she’s finally been getting the recognition she deserves. Her story – a woman who took her rapist to court in 17th century Italy and then used her biblical paintings to channel her anger – is fascinating and, sadly, still relevant 400 years later. There’s evidence that she used her own body as a model when painting women, and she was unafraid to show a woman uncomfortable with the invasion of her privacy in her version of Susanna and the Elders (1610). She’s an art history icon.
For a frail woman born in the Victorian age and with little formal education, Isabella Bird became a notable traveller, and was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her travels took her to America, Hawaii, Asia, India, China, Korea and Morocco and were recorded in a series of popular books and magazine articles. Covering thousands of miles on each trip, even in her 60s, she had a great ear for languages and was able to communicate with the local population.
Joan of Arc was a leader of war and a ‘witch’ turned saint who positioned herself as a strong woman in medieval France. From a young age she led an army to save her country and persuaded a court she wasn’t going to marry a suitor who was chosen for her. An inspiration to women at the time and throughout the whole of history. I have always admired her resilience, independence and ability to navigate a man’s world in oppressive medieval France.
When the French king Louis XI spread rumours that the new-born son of his greatest rival was actually a girl, Margaret of York acted quickly. As step-grandmother and godmother, she was had the privilege of carrying the baby to and from his christening. So she did – and then she stripped the baby naked and held him up to the crowd. The crowd was delighted. The French king was probably not.
As Duchess of Burgundy (now part of France), Margaret is a lesser-spoken-about figure in the Wars of the Roses. But I love her because of stories like the above: she was an astute politician who knew how to play the game, was a staunch ally to her family (two of which were kings of England) and spent twenty years annoying Henry VII. The Wars of the Roses are full of larger-than-life characters, but Margaret stands head and shoulders above most of them, both figuratively and literally – she was around 6ft.
The late Nell Gifford was a larger than life character. She created her own circus, but not in the traditional sense – it is quirky, raucous and simultaneously hilarious and awe-inspiring. Her passion for creating a spectacle knew no bounds. I had the pleasure of working with her on designing her book Giffords Circus: The First Ten Years, which told the story of the creation of this magical show from humble beginnings. Her drawings and photos of the beautiful costumes and characters were inspirational and she kept creating and performing throughout her cancer treatment, until her untimely death in December 2019 aged just 46. The show will go on.
Araminta (who took her mother’s name ‘Harriet’ after escaping slavery) is always part of school lessons on the Underground Railroad. All that is mentioned of her, however, is a textbook photo of an elderly woman with a handkerchief wrapped around her head accompanied by a caption explaining how she helped around 70 freedom seekers escape slavery. Harriet Tubman’s life was so much more than this – she was a mother, an entrepreneur and an activist. At the start of the Civil War she became a nurse and a spy for the Union Army, guiding an armed raid (the first woman to do this) which freed over 700 slaves. Later in life Harriet was a fervent campaigner for women’s suffrage and civil rights. In the recent podcast Following Harriet she was fittingly described as “a woman of action in a time of men of words.”
Rose Heilbron came from fairly humble beginnings in Liverpool and rose to achieve many firsts for women – the first to achieve a first class honours degree in law at the University of Liverpool, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, one of the first two women in England to be appointed King’s Counsel, the first woman to lead a murder case, the first woman judge at the Old Bailey and allegedly the first woman in Liverpool to wear a calf-length evening dress! On top of her numerous firsts, Heilbron was integral in the reform of sexual assault laws in the UK, securing victims’ rights to anonymity and was a lifelong advocate for improving the lives of women and girls in local communities and across the world.
Delia Derbyshire was a mathematician and musician who persuaded a male dominated industry that she belonged in a recording studio. Delia worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop producing visionary electronic music that helped shape the future of sound in TV and film. Delia is best known for producing the original 1963 Doctor Who theme tune however was only credited for this on screen during the 50th anniversary special.
Despite not personally being a fan of Doctor Who, I believe Delia changed how music is heard and created today. She has inspired many musicians and electronic music certainly wouldn't have been the same without her!
I am inspired by the story of Catherine of Aragon as a young person moving from Spain who had a huge impact on English society and culture. Having visited her birthplace in Alcalá at Christmas, I am also struck by her tragedy that she never saw her home country having moved abroad.
I first heard of Dian Fossey when I was about eight, when anyone standing up for animal rights became an instant hero. Part of a group of female scientists studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda, she strongly opposed poaching and wildlife tourism. Observing gorillas in their natural habitat without interference was hard and she worked tirelessly to deter poachers, witnessing the deaths of many of these beautiful creatures. Tragically, she was found murdered in her cabin in Rwanda.
Whilst some of her views have attracted controversy, there is no denying the legacy she has left, and she and other conservationists like Jane Goodall will always inspire me.
I admire Marie Curie because of her incredible scientific work, much of it in areas traditionally dominated by men. The first woman to win a Nobel prize, Curie went on to become the only woman (so far!) to be awarded a second Nobel prize, this time in Chemistry. Her research into radioactivity led to many important advancements for humanity, but also sadly contributed to her early death, aged just 66.