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64 thank yous: inspiring women pay tribute to their heroines

It’s been 100 years since the first women in the UK got the vote. To mark the centenary, 64 women who are changing perceptions in 2018 pay tribute to the heroines who blazed a trail before them

By Isabelle Aron

On February 6 1918, women in the UK got the vote. It took suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to buildings and going on hunger strikes to force that change. And even then, the Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised only a small proportion of the female population.

To mark this momentous anniversary, we’ve invited 64 London change-makers of today, and a couple of out-of-town guests to pay tribute to the women who inspired them. Some thanked their mums, others championed unsung heroines and there were names that popped up multiple times, including Diane Abbott (the UK’s first black female MP), Angela Davis (the US countercultural activist) and Amy Johnson (the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia).

Women have come a long way since 1918, but those we spoke to are all carrying on the fight for equality in their own style. Let’s celebrate them and the groundbreaking women who paved the way. 

64 inspiring women thank their heroines

21. Dany Cotton thanks Amy Johnson and Betty Boothroyd

The first female commissioner of London Fire Brigade. @LFBCommissioner

‘I would like to thank Amy Johnson – the pioneering British pilot who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia back in the days when each flight was fraught with risk. She served in WWII and died while flying to support the Royal Air Force, helping in the fight against appalling extremism.’

‘I would like to thank Betty Boothroyd, a pioneering woman, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, who had the most wonderful, powerful voice. She kept order to ensure free speech and debate could flourish.’

Photo credit: Rex Features


22. Emily Read thanks Eartha Kitt and Mitzi Mueller

Co-founder of EVE. @EmilyReadEVE

‘The first time I watched an interview with actress and singer Eartha Kitt I remember thinking “is that allowed?!”. She didn’t dilute herself to make others feel comfortable, she would not pretend to be less intelligent or less sexy. I’d like to thank Eartha for showing that women do not need to compromise. She's proof of the strength that comes refusing to be shamed for artistic expression, freedom of speech or for being a sexual being.’

Mitzi Mueller isn’t known to many people but she’s had a massive impact on the wrestling world. On May 5, EVE presents the largest ever women’s wrestling event in Europe at York Hall in Bethnal Green and I’m so grateful to Mitzi as this would not have been possible if not for her crusade, which resulted in the ban on women's wrestling being lifted in 1988.’

Andy Parsons

23. Harnaam Kaur thanks Maharani Jind Kaur and Sophia Duleep Singh

Model, body- positive activist and life coach. @harnaamkaur

‘When I think of a woman who stands out to me in history, it has to be Maharani Jind Kaur, wife of the first Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Ranjit Singh. Her assertiveness, her elegance, her bravery, her seductress nature, her power and beauty – what a boss of a lady.’

‘In that same lineage, I’m inspired by Sophia Duleep Singh, a royal princess who became a suffragette and fought for women’s rights when the movement was at its pinnacle state. She fought for the betterment of people, for freedom of the suppressed. She protested with all her might and succeeded in doing so.’

Photo: Andy Parsons

Carol Bates

24. Carol Bates thanks Lily Parr and Caroline Barker

Founder of Crawley Old Girls. @CarolBates

Lily Parr played for the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies football team, made up of women who worked in the munitions factory, Dick, Kerr & Co. They were the most successful women’s football team of all time, losing only 24 of 828 matches and raising money for wounded soldiers. Lily scored around 1,000 goals out of 3,500 during that time and, reputedly, had a harder shot than any male player! 

‘I have long admired Caroline Barker who presents some of the biggest sports’ shows and is knowledgeable on all things football, from non-league upwards. She is a great role model for women, especially working in a mostly male environment and one of the most respected female broadcasters in her field.’

Laura Coryton

25. Laura Coryton thanks Louise Creighton and Coco Chanel

Founder of Stop Taxing Periods. @LauraCoryton

‘Sending a huge thank you to the amazing Louise Creighton, a little-known but inspiring intellectual, historian and completely fearless activist for spearheading the religious suffrage movement, helping us to secure the vote and forcing late Victorian society to challenge the oppressive values it assigned to women. She’s my hero!’

‘A massive thank you to Coco Chanel for breaking gender stereotypes by expanding women’s clothing to include the almighty trouser! Before her, women were forced to wear corsets, long skirts and uncomfortable clothing. She said: “I gave women a sense of freedom... I gave them back their bodies”. Words of feminist gold!’

Sophie Slater

26. Sophie Slater thanks Angela Davis and Sue Slater

Co-founder of Birdsong. @birdsonglondon

‘I’d like to say thank you to Angela Davis. Her pursuit of feminism, socialism and rights for people of colour has made such a dent on the world. At the Southbank Centre last year she talked about how we might not be alive to see the end of the progress we’re working towards, but that we’re little grains of sand in the great arc of progress. That’s the most motivating, selfless thing I’ve ever heard,’

‘I want to say thank you to my mum, Sue Slater. She always stood by me and taught me important life lessons in a trademark no-nonsense northern mum way. She makes mosaics with people with learning difficulties and I doubt I’d be doing Birdsong if it wasn’t for her love of arts, crafts and people showing me the way.’

Amika George

27. Amika George thanks Frida Kahlo and Gracy Mathew Ancheri

A teenager who set up @AmikaGeorge

Frida Kahlo was 18 when she was almost killed in a road accident. I remember reading that when she had her leg amputated, she exclaimed: “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” Frida was honest, original and raw in her depictions of menstruation, miscarriage and breastfeeding. I love her for never hiding her story from the world. It takes real courage to do that.’

‘I have so much to thank my great grandma Gracy Mathew Ancheri for. She was born in the 1920s in India and refused to live her life within the boundaries set for her, including an arranged marriage. As one of India’s top journalists, she didn’t stop learning, searching and asking questions until she died at the age of 92, last year. She taught me how important it is to do what’s right for you and to never be scared of the unknown.’

Diane Abbott

28. Diane Abbott thanks Claudia Jones and Barbara Castle

MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington and Shadow Home Secretary. @HackneyAbbott

‘I thank journalist and activist Claudia Jones for being a strong black woman who blazed a trail for my generation. Her first job was in a laundry, but she went on to become a ferocious campaigner against racism in housing, education, employment and the immigration system. She founded the first black newspaper in this country, the West Indian Gazette.’

‘I thank Barbara Castle for being one of the most significant Labour politicians of the twentieth century and a heroine for many of us. She was the first Minister for Overseas Development; as Minister of Transport she introduced the breathalyser and seat belts; as Secretary of State for Employment she introduced the Equal Pay Act and as Secretary of State for Health & Social Services she introduced a raft of welfare reforms.’

Andy Parsons

29.  Yvonne Taylor thanks Angela Davis and Susie Taylor

Founder of Systematic, which ran at Brixton Women’s Centre from 1986 to 1991.@yveelicous

Angela Davis, the black activist who started out in the 1960s, had me transfixed from the first time I saw her: she was powerful, confident… and that Afro! Her work gave me a real sense of empowerment and made me feel that I mattered and was entitled to be. She’s responsible for my first venture into black politics.’

‘My stepmother Susie Taylor was a huge influence on me. We were not the best of friends. However, my journey of growing up as a young black girl was blessed by her awareness of the difficulties that I would encounter. Ultimately she gave me the skills and emotions to grow up into a fine human being.’

Photo credit: Andy Parsons

Justine Simons

30. Justine Simons OBE thanks Millicent Fawcett and Bishi Priya

London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries. @justinesimons1

‘I would like to thank Millicent Fawcett. She’s arguably the most important campaigner for women’s rights you’ve never heard of. At only 19, she collected signatures for the first petition for women’s suffrage that was handed to Parliament in 1866 – more than 50 years before the first women finally got the vote.’

‘For me, London’s creativity, tenacity and diversity are embodied in the amazing Bishi, an incredible singer and musician, classically trained sitar player and underground club DJ with a penchant for spectacular visuals. She is a Londoner with Bengali heritage and draws on this in a very distinctive way. Her progressive, inclusive and distinctively London voice permeates all her work. And she is a style icon!’


31. Lennie Goodings thanks Margaret Atwood and Carmen Callil

Chair of publishing house Virago. @Lennie_Virago

‘I want to express a deep gratitude to Margaret Atwood. As a novelist, she makes girls and women the motor of the action; as a public figure, she has been unafraid to speak out against injustice. Also, because I am Canadian, I say big thanks to her for putting Canadian literature on the map.’

‘Close to home but correctly so, I want to say thanks to Carmen Callil who founded the Virago Modern Classics list 40 years ago this year. It’s a green-spined series that rediscovered hundreds of forgotten women writers – challenging the idea of great and classic literature being only in the hands of men and a few women, and it changed the history of literature. An amazing and revolutionary achievement.’

Photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson

32. Isabel Adomakoh Young thanks Josephine Baker and Marsha P Johnson

Actor and drag king performer. @isabel_ay

‘Dancer, singer and activist Josephine Baker was the first black woman I looked up to as a kid. Aged ten, I did a whole school project on her, even making one of her costumes. In the racist world of the 1920s and ’30s entertainment industry, Josephine lived her truth, called out bullshit, owned her sexuality and became an international star, largely on her own terms.’

Marsha P Johnson, an African-American activist in the ’70s and ’80s supported struggling people around her by founding the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR), as well as famously sparking the resistance to police oppression in the Stonewall clashes. Trans histories must be sought out and celebrated.’

Photo credit: Habie Schwarz

Natasha Hirst

33. Eleanor Lisney thanks Nasa Begum and Ruth Bashall

Founder of disabled women’s support group Sisters of Frida. @sisofrida

‘Social worker, researcher and senior policy advisor to the Department of Health Nasa Begum made an important contribution to the understanding of the experiences of disabled people and campaigned tirelessly for the right to independent living. Drawing on her personal experience as a service user, she understood the support needed for mental health and physical disabilities.’

Ruth Bashall is the director of Stay Safe East, a unique user-led organisation run by disabled people. It provides advocacy and support for disabled people in east London who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence, hate crime, harassment and other forms of abuse. She works tirelessly for the least advantaged among us and we think she deserves recognition for that.’

Photo credit: Natasha Hirst

Sara Shamsavari

34. Jude Kelly CBE thanks Lilian Baylis and Joan Littlewood

Artistic director of the Southbank Centre. Founder of WOW - Women of the World festival which runs 7-11 March at Southbank Centre.

‘My mind reaches for two women from theatre, producer Lilian Baylis and director Joan Littlewood. Baylis doggedly worked to establish a performance space that welcomed everyone and not just the culturally confident. Littlewood sang the stories of the previously unsung and fearlessly exposed the intricate web of safety nets that only the powerful can access. They also both had a great sense of humour.’

Photo credit: Sara Shamsavari

Anne-Marie Duff

35. Anne-Marie Duff thanks Björk and Bernadette Devlin

London-born actor and one of the stars of 2015’s ‘Suffragette’.

Björk – I can’t think of a female artist who rides as bravely on her own wave of imagination. She defies genre and age!’

Bernadette Devlin – a firebrand of social justice in Northern Ireland. Her legacy is evident today in young politicians like Mhairi Black.’

Anna Veglio-White

36. Anna Veglio-White thanks Binda Rai and Sarah Sophie Flicker

Founder of Sister Supporter. @SisterSupporter

Binda Rai is an Ealing councillor who brought forward a motion to support our petition for a buffer zone outside our local Marie Stopes clinic, a world first. Councillor Rai was also one of the first female, Asian journalists at the BBC and, despite exhausting, systematic racism, her career thrived.’

Sarah Sophie Flicker (@sarahsophief) is an American activist who helped organise the Women’s March after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Sarah and her comrades have now published a book and recently organised a second march. I want to thank her for never giving up. Seeing other women around the world keep going when you want to stop helps me to battle through.’

Jess Thom
Laura Page

37. Jess Thom thanks Ono Dafedjaiye and Holly Stratton

Theatremaker and comedian@touretteshero

Ono Dafedjaiye and Holly Stratton are a pair of women – one with a learning disability and one without. Together they co-lead Perky, an innovative arts organisation that creates spaces for girls and women with learning disabilities to have conversations about womanhood, the body and sexuality. For too long disabled women have been left out of the feminist movement. Ono and Holly are tackling this in inventive, playful and essential ways. Their work makes me feel energised and hopeful for the future of disabled and non-disabled women and girls.’

Jess is appearing at Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival which runs 7-18 February.

Photo credit: Laura Page

Akeela Ahmed
Muna Ally

38. Akeela Ahmed thanks Malala Yousafzai and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

One of the 2017 Women’s March organisers and founder of She Speaks We Hear. @AkeelaAhmed

Malala Yousafzai showed me what courage and bravery look like. In the face of adversity, she was resilient and this taught me how to turn life’s challenges into opportunities. Thank you, Malala, for giving a voice to people who do not have one. You give me hope and inspire me to raise my voice, and empower Muslim women whose voices are often silenced.’

‘For many years I didn’t know how to articulate that ethnic minority women were not just facing one type of injustice but many structural inequalities until I came across Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s work, which finally put a name to the multiple ways in which women of colour face exclusion and prejudice. Thank you for giving me the intellectual tools to fight patriarchy, racism and hatred.’

Photo credit: Muna Ally

Otegha Uwagba

39.  Otegha Uwagba thanks Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton

Author of ‘Little Black Book’ and founder of Women Who. @OteghaUwagba

‘I discovered Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s Another Round podcast about 18 months ago and – to quote Drake – nothing was the same. As the show’s co-hosts they somehow managed to balance serious discussions about race, culture and politics, with a raucous sense of humour and infectious wit. Plus, after BuzzFeed chose to end their support for the show, they even managed to negotiate legal ownership of its intellectual property, which is just an all-round boss move. So shout out to Heben and Tracy, two ladies who’ve taught me multitudes, while keeping me laughing the entire time.’

Vicky Spratt
Andy Parsons

40. Vicky Spratt thanks Mary Barbour and Sisters Uncut

Deputy editor of The Debrief and activist behind the Make Renting Fair and Mad About the Pill campaigns. @Victoria_Spratt

Mary Barbour was an activist in Glasgow who led a rent strike in 1915 after opportunistic landlords tried to put rents up because WWI. She led an eviction resistance and protesters were thereafter known as “Mrs Barbour’s Army”. Landlords and bailiffs were reportedly terrified of her.’

‘I am grateful to Sisters Uncut, a group of feminist direct-action campaigners. Now operating across the country, they don’t just protest, they also support women at a grass-roots level. At a time when the internet privileges the individual above all else, what’s great about Sisters Uncut is the fact that they have no single figurehead. They are, largely, anonymous and decide everything by consensus. It’s more than a movement, it’s a community.’

Photo credit: Andy Parsons

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