They were fierce queens, witty philosophers, passionate advocates, revolutionary scientists and trailblazing politicians. They were defiant, resilient and unbreakable. Most importantly, they shaped the world for women today; enabling us to enjoy a life of equality (mostly), enrichment and option.
Although there are hundreds of women that could have made the list, these are 10 of my personal favourites. If you aren’t familiar with some of them, be sure to pay attention, as each one of these figures deserve a place in everyone’s memory!
1. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
A great deal of Henry VIII’s time on the throne was dedicated to securing a future King for England. The idea of having a woman on the throne was preposterous: women were seen as weak and intellectually inferior, hence no use for leading the country. This is exactly where his daughter, Elizabeth, would prove him entirely wrong.
Queen Elizabeth I would finally put an end to the religious turmoil of the country, encouraging a time of peace and prosperity. When threatened with invasion from the Spanish, her logic, militant pride and fierce leadership provided England with the best morale, ensuring all threats to the country were eliminated. Arts and Science finally flourished; the economy boosted; the ‘Golden Age’ and ‘New World’ unleashed, it’s really no wonder why Elizabeth became a firm and beloved favourite with her subjects.
“The enemy perhaps shall challenge my sex for that I am a woman, so may I likewise charge their mould for that they are but men … Little do I fear their force.”
2. Mary Astell (1666 – 1731)
Often coined ‘the first English feminist’, Astell defied and challenged her contemporary society’s views on women. Rejecting a typical married life, she devoted her time to writing and engaging in debates regarding women’s rights and advancement. Her first piece, A Serious Proposal To The Ladies, wittily advocates and argues for better educational opportunities, stating that men and women alike would benefit from such changes. Her second piece, Some Reflections Upon Marriage, criticises the domestic domain that women were too often enslaved to, encouraging fellow readers to choose partners wisely.
Mary Astell was the first female in print to unashamedly argue that women could be just as rational as men – which would ultimately set the scene for future females to follow. Later in her career, Astell would dedicate most of her earnings and time to her own established school for girls, spreading her message of empowerment to others.
“If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?”
3. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)
Wollstonecraft certainly lived a life of deviation from polite 18th Century society: having sexual relationships and children outside of marriage, and once married, refused to act the part of a submissive, complacent wife – choosing instead to enhance her literary and philosophical career. Pushing Mary Astell’s work much further, Wollstonecraft created fierce and logical arguments that women were just as capable as men in all areas. In particular, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argued that women should be seen as equal companions rather than wives, while the same fundamental rights that men were entitled to should also be extended to women.
Although she was often rebuked in her time due to her scandalous lifestyle, Wollstonecraft’s work became strongly popular during the early 20th Century and would form the philosophical basis for most feminist movements.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
4. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Up to this day, Science and Technology has always been dominated by men. Therefore, it always comes as a surprise to people when they discover that it was a woman who created the first computer program.
Having a close working relationship with Charles Babbage (creator of the first mechanical computer), Ada Lovelace published a translation of an article on the Analytical Engine, adding an extensive amount of her own notes. It was these notes of hers that formed the basis of an algorithm, enabling computers to solve certain mathematical problems. Ada’s inventive mind was incredibly insightful towards the future of technology, with her predicting that the world of computers would extend beyond basic mathematical solving. Of course, she was absolutely right, but this was never going to be seen within her lifetime, with her dying at the untimely age of 36. Who knows what else she could have achieved?
“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.”
5. Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)
Victoria’s mere presence as a strong, stable and well-loved monarch was, in itself, a setting stone for the countless other women of her time standing up for female empowerment. Her reign was a successful one, ensuring peace and prosperity within the country, while Victoria herself simultaneously proved that women could be wives and mothers while also leading a political career.
Whilst Victoria would never have referred to herself as a feminist, nor did she support all women’s causes, that doesn’t mean to say that she completely disregarded them all. The Queen strongly advocated for better education, opportunities and domestic rights for women, alongside an improvement in female medical areas. Victoria even went against the Church and State in her bid to provide all women with adequate medical care and access to pain relief drugs during labour and childbirth.
“When I think of a merry, happy, and free young girl – and look at the ailing, aching state a young wife is generally doomed to – which you can’t deny is the penalty of marriage.”
6. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917)
At a time where a woman’s best chance of a career lay in the field of nursing or teaching, Elizabeth Garrett was having none of it when she decided at a young age that she wanted to be a doctor. Facing countless rejections, numerous hold backs and an abundance of misogyny from male counterparts and education institutions, Garrett miraculously managed to weasel her way into medical school and surpass all of her male colleagues, rendering her the first official qualified female doctor.
Garrett wasted no time in furthering her influence. Soon after gaining qualified status, she opened her own practise for women and established a charity which would enable poorer women to obtain treatment who couldn’t afford it. Later on in her career, she also became a successful surgeon, the co-founder of the first medical school for girls, and the first female mayor in Britain.
“The first thing a woman must learn is to dress like a lady and behave like a gentleman.”
7. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847 – 1929)
Women’s empowerment seems to run in the family! Following in her sister, Elizabeth’s footsteps, Millicent became fiercely passionate about women’s rights from a very young age, in particular, a woman’s right to vote. When we think of the suffrage movement today, we often envisage smashed windows and females chaining themselves to railings – however this was not Millicent’s style. Instead, she chose to lead her battle on the basis of sharp, logical arguments and tireless (non-violent) campaigning.
Millicent later became the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and under her presidency, it became by far the most popular suffrage organisation – with over 50,000 members by 1913. Alongside her eventual victory in 1918 and 1928, where two bills were passed giving women the vote, Millicent also championed for women’s rights to education, work and freedom from sexual and domestic abuse.
“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.”
8. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1929)
It was clear that Emmeline Pankhurst would become an advocate for women’s rights from a very early age. Having developed a thirst for education and politics, Pankhurst was horrified to discover that most of her upbringing would be dedicated towards the cause of becoming a respectable housewife. Barely 20 years old, she set to work with already established suffrage movements.
When it became clear in the early 20th Century that protests for the vote were being ignored and ridiculed by parliament, Pankhurst concluded that more extreme measures needed to be taken. In 1903, she established her own organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) where she enforced the motto ‘deeds not words’ and hence enforcing physical acts of political rebellion. This would include; chaining oneself to railings, smashing windows of parliamentary buildings and even setting fire to public property (although iterating that no life should be harmed). As a result of this, Pankhurst and a great many of her followers would spend a lot of their lives in prison, while simultaneously being subjected to brutal violence and force-feeding.
It is undeniable that Pankhurst’s fierce antics and influence rendered the women’s cause virtually impossible to ignore, inevitably contributing to women finally winning the vote in 1918 and 1928.
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
9. Barbara Castle (1910 – 2002)
When we consider women in 20th Century politics, our first thought probably turns to Margaret Thatcher. While serving as the first elected female leader of the United Kingdom for 11 years certainly furthers progress as a whole, it is Barbara Castle who devoted her politics career to empowering the rest of the women in the nation.
As a Labour politician, Castle passionately fought for the social equality of women in the workplace. During her time as Secretary of State for Employment, she successfully resolved a strike at Ford’s Dagenham Factory over unequal pay, which would effectively lead to Castle introducing The Equal Pay Act (1970) to the rest of the country. Her powerful figure in politics would act as both an inspiration and encouragement for future female politicians and women pursuing alternate ambitious career paths.
“I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead. And that’s what keeps you alive.”
10. Malala Yousafzai (1997 -)
Following the Taliban’s absolute control over her hometown in 2008, Malala Yousafzai was forced to withdraw from school as part of the extremist group’s belief that girls should never be entitled to an education. Despite the horrific dangers, Malala became an increasingly popular spokesperson against this discrimination and eventually found her way back to school. This would result in her being tracked down and shot directly in the head.
Having miraculously survived down to the aid of UK hospitals, Malala now resides in Birmingham and her motives are far from repressed. Dedicating her life to ensuring that girls around the world receive 12 years of quality education, she opened a charity fund (Malala Fund) and travels to developing countries to spread her empowering message and champion women’s rights further.
“If one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?”