International Women’s Day: 10 Pioneering Women

Happy International Women’s Day! Today is all about celebrating women and their achievements. I recently read 100 Pioneering Women, a book published by the National Portrait Gallery in conjunction with their 2018 Rebel Women exhibit, which feature portraits from the Collection of prominent and ground-breaking women, to celebrate 100 years of (some) women’s suffrage in the UK. I visited the exhibit when it was on and had a great time, and decided to pick up the book in the gift shop, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until now. I decided that to celebrate 2020’s International Women’s Day, I would share some of my favourite entries from the book, so here are my top 10 Pioneering Women featured in the National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Somerville

1780 – 1872

A mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville was also a staunch support of women’s emancipation and education. She was described as the nineteenth century’s ‘queen of science’.

Dame Freya Stark

1893 – 1993

Freya Stark was an explorer and travel writer, travailing all across the Middle East. She was adamant that she would live her life how she wanted, heading to Lebanon in 1927 to learn Arabic. She wrote thirty books in her lifetime.

Margaret Bondfield

1873 – 1953

Margaret Bondfield started her career as a shop assistant, and rose to become a prominent trade unionist, Labour politician and fierce campaigner for women’s rights. She was the first female MP for my hometown of Northampton, and became the first female cabinet minister.

Noor Inayat Khan

1914 – 1944

Noor Inayat Khan left her career from writing children’s stories to become a wartime secret agent, codenamed Madeleine, who infiltrated Occupied France in WWII. She was captured in 1943 by the Gestapo but never revealed a thing about her work, resulting in her eventual execution.

Helen Brook, Lady Brook

1907 – 1997

Lady Helen Brook was an early birth-control advocate. Her Brook Advisory Centre helped both men and women, especially those unmarried and often refused advice elsewhere, to seek sexual health and family planning advice. She sought to reduce illegal abortion and understood that attitudes toward sexuality were evolving, and so should policy.

Kanya King

Kanya King is the creator of the MOBO Awards, which since 1997 has recognised the achievements of artists performing in traditionally black music genres such as gospel, R&B, hip hop and jazz. Her belief in the importance for this recognition to exist was so strong that she re-mortgaged her home to finance the the first awards show. The MOBO Awards sister organisation helps educate children from diverse backgrounds in the performing arts.

Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond

b. 1945

Brenda Hale has a lot of ‘firsts’ under her belt: first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission, first female Law Lord, first female Supreme Court justice, and its first female president. She is a huge advocate for diversity in the judiciary. She made headlines in 2019 when she declared Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament unlawful.

Nicola Adams

b. 1982

Nicola Adams was the first female boxer to represent England internationally, only five years after the Amateur Boxing Association of England lifted the ban on women boxing. She went on to become the first woman to win an gold medal in boxing at the London 2012 Olympics, and in the next Olympics became the first British boxer to retain their gold medal since 1924. Adams is openly bisexual, and in 2012 the Independent named her the most influential LGBT person in Britain.

Leyla Hussein

b. 1980

Leyla Hussein is an activist who fights to end gender-based violence and FGM with her non-profit Daughters of Eve. She herself is a survivor of FGM and has previously given evidence to Home Affairs about the practice within the UK, despite verbal threats arising from her public work. Her documentary The Cruel Cut was nominated for a BAFTA.

All images from the National Portrait Gallery website.

Who are some of your favourite inspiring women?

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