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
‘Radical, inspiring, empowering and most importantly permission-giving, Nancy Friday’s book “My Secret Garden” was a massive moment in women’s sexual freedom when published in 1973. It’s still one of the most liberating books in “herstory”. Because of the wealth and extremities of fantasies from ordinary women that the book covers, it helped free us from internalised guilt around fantasy or masturbation we’d been drip-fed. Every woman should read it!’
‘When Pavan Amara found there was nowhere for women to reclaim positive sexuality and body image after sexual violence, she created her own. My Body Back and Cafe V, the initiative we co-run with her, is a practical, self-initiated response to a shortfall of care in women’s recovery. All too often the truth of women’s sexuality, away from commodified versions, is neglected – until women roll up their sleeves and tackle the intricacies themselves.’
‘I thank Chief Theresa Kachindamoto from Malawi, for her pioneering and brave campaign to annul and prevent child marriages as well as the horrible custom of using a “hyena”: a man who is hired to have sex with girls who have reached puberty to “cleanse” the girls and prepare them for “womanhood”. Some of these hyenas are knowingly HIV positive. Her groundbreaking work has protected hundreds of young girls from practices that literally amount to institutional rape. Not only do I want to thank her, I want to bow at her feet.’
‘I would like to thank Susie Orbach for her tireless work devoted to helping us talk about the damage that living under a patriarchy does to our bodies and minds. Through working with her and reading her writing, I have felt equipped to discuss bodily functions (read: vaginas) that we are discouraged from talking about on the grounds of it not being “appropriate” or “ladylike”. She has changed so many lives with her “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” book and rigorous anti-dieting campaign. She showed me that being a woman is about fighting for justice rather than being palatable.’
Gabby and Mandu are running a CupAware party at Southbank Centre’s WOW - Women of the World festival on March 10.
The first black female principal dancer of the Royal Ballet and part of the ‘First Amongst Equals’ exhibition at the Foundling Museum. @1stmunch
‘Dame Ninette de Valois created the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School. Working in a traditionally feminine art form, she perhaps would not have called herself a feminist, but I’d describe her as a visionary who did much to enable women to take on roles that would otherwise have been more difficult.’
‘Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “The goal of feminism is to make itself redundant, and to get there it needs to be a mass movement.” This quote resonates with me. She’s helping to push the idea of feminism into mainstream consciousness regardless of any criticism she receives. My understanding of her explanation of being a feminist is to simply be a humanist.’
Photo credit: Alice Pennefathe
Founder of DrinkUp.London.
‘I first encountered style icon and beauty entrepreneur Linda Rodin through a Q&A in a magazine. There she was, impossibly slim, of indeterminate age, sat in her tiny New York apartment with her poodle. This woman knew how to be a grown-up. The dark glasses, the lipstick, the denim – and what appears to be a kind, calm soul. She reminds me often that it’s inspiring to be entirely yourself and that it’s never too late to be fabulous. Ms Rodin. I think you’re stupendous.’
‘If allowed the chance to say thank you… I’m always going to give a shout-out to my gang, The DrinkUp Team. An all-girl dream team of wonderful young women who work tirelessly alongside one another with lashings of love and grace, and a cracking sense of humour – even during the longest days and nights.’
‘Deirdre Summerbell is the director of a project that uses yoga to change the lives of HIV-positive women surviving sexual violence in Rwanda. Learning about the remarkable impact that Deirdre and Project Air had on this community of women directly influences the work that I do every day. Her dedication has changed the lives of so many women, including me. I’d like to thank her for that.’
‘Edna Adan Ismail is a midwife and reproductive rights activist full of fire, determination and resilience. She founded the Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland and has spent her life pushing for better education, better health and hope for the future of women in Somaliland. She is still totally in love with what she does, aged 80! A true example of boundless devotion.’
Photo credit: Paul Husband
The UK’s first Muslim drag queen, who now identifies as a trans woman. @AsifaLahore
‘Benazir Bhutto, who was the first female to become prime minister of a Muslim country. During my teenage years living in Pakistan, I would see her giving addresses to the nation and on television – she was very outspoken about female rights in Pakistan. She was in a masculine political environment, but she wasn’t afraid to be feminine and use it as a strength rather than a hindrance.’
‘Dana International was the first trans woman to win Eurovision in 1998, when I was a teenager. She came out on a worldwide stage and talked about minority women, minority sexualities and gender nonconformity long before it was cool to do so. I hold her as my first point of call when it came to my own transition.’
Author of ‘Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes’. @DitheDauntless
‘Thank you to singer and actress Kitty Marion, for becoming a suffragette and telling the world about the sexual harassment you and your fellow actors endured in the music halls. Your career collapsed because you smashed windows and burned down empty buildings for which you were sent to prison, went on hunger strike and were fed by force 232 times in 1913.’
‘Thank you to May Billinghurst for whizzing round all over London in your wheelchair, campaigning for votes for women with the suffragettes. At the Black Friday riot in Parliament Square in 1910, 150 of your comrades were physically and sexually assaulted by the police, and even though they pummelled you black and blue, tipped you out of your chair and slashed your tyres, you were not scared off and carried on campaigning right up until WWI broke out in 1914.’
Photo credit: Lawrence Lawry
‘I would like to thank Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick strikers in the 1970s, who defied racism and sexism to campaign for better treatment and working conditions for predominantly Asian women workers and forced the trade union movement to support them. Shattering stereotypes of “subservient” South Asian women, she famously told her line manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance at your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.” ’
‘I’d like to thank the women whose names we don’t see in the headlines or on blue plaques: the women who have done and continue to do the exhausting and draining work, day in, day out, of staffing domestic violence refuges and rape crisis centres. The women who are still forced to scramble for funding to keep the lights on and the doors open. The women who are on the frontline of the battle against misogyny and violence against women. We might not know their names, but they deserve our deepest gratitude.’
Photo credit: Rebecca Miller
‘Rosalind Franklin was a Cambridge-educated scientist who performed critical X-ray work on DNA molecules. Her images of the double helix were key to the later discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin died of ovarian cancer four years earlier, at the age of 37. She's a shining example of the countless women working behind the scenes, who have far more influence than recognition.’
‘Clare Balding is well known to many, yet she’s perhaps still underestimated for her pioneering work to champion women in sport. In 2015 she chose to present the Women’s Boat Race instead of the Grand National (“her” event for 20 years). She’s a role model for our time.’
Photo credit: Emily Moya, Getty Images
Space engineer at Imperial College London.
‘Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is one of my great heroes. A phenomenal scientist, she started research work in the 1930s, showing immense skill, perseverance and insight to discover the structure of vitamin B12 (for which she later received a Nobel Prize) and insulin. To this day there is a fellowship awarded in her name to young scientists.’
‘It took real guts for Professor Michele Dougherty to persuade NASA to change the direction of the spacecraft Cassini based on a small blip seen in the magnetic field of the Saturn system. This fly-by revealed water-rich, geyser-like jets erupting from the moon’s southern pole. It’s a truly unexpected discovery, which brings with it the tantalising possibility of a life-harbouring subsurface ocean and it shows that we still have so much to learn about our solar system.’
A volunteer on Pride’s community engagement team.
‘I would like to thank Maya Angelou. She could sing, dance and act, her writing always inspired me to share my own creative gifts, but she was also a woman of influence. She was a civil rights activist and her spirit and voice blurred colour lines. She showed me that the possibilities for black women were limitless.’
‘How can I thank my grandmother in a few short sentences? She was the soul of our family, the matriarch – she taught me the meaning of hard work, that family is everything. I hope I am a better mother to my little boys because of her guidance in my life. She didn’t believe in sugar-coating, just honest straight talk, and you never appreciate it at the time, but now I’m so grateful. She passed away six years ago this March and I miss her every day; I wish she had got to meet my sons.’
They launched @BlackGirlFest – celebrating black British women past, present and future – in London last year.
Nicole Crentsil @NKrystal
‘Lubaina Himid MBE is a British contemporary artist and curator born in Zanzibar, who recently became the first black woman and oldest winner of the Turner Prize. I would like to say a huge thank you to Lubaina for being a pioneer of the 1980s Black Arts Movement and tirelessly committing to promoting black culture.’
Paula Akpan @paulaakpan
‘I want to thank Diane Abbott for providing representation in a space dominated by white men. Thank you for all the work you do, especially in the face of blatant racism and sexism. Thank you for continuing to blaze a path for black women and girls entering the world of politics.’
Photo credit: Andy Parsons
Guardian journalist and political commentator who writes about disability, economics and social mobility. @DrFrancesRyan
‘Barbara Castle was a pioneer of the Labour movement and – as a rare woman in the cabinet in the ’60s and ’70s – of British politics generally. But, unlike history-making female politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Castle used her position of power to help other women, through policies like equal pay, child benefits and pension reform for women.’
‘Linda Burnip, founder of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts, was instrumental in initiating an unprecedented UN investigation into the UK government’s “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights”. Burnip is one of many unsung heroes at the forefront of the fight for disabled people’s equality.’
Co-leader of the Green Party. @CarolineLucas
‘Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Kenyan Green Party, was a Nobel Prize winning environmentalist and feminist. In the face of authoritarianism, she set up the Green Belt Movement to plant trees in communities across her country and empower women to protect their local environment. The Green Belt Movement has now planted over 50 million trees in Kenya.’
‘Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. Her business pioneered ethical consumerism long before it was fashionable and was among the first to ban the use of ingredients tested on animals and to promote fair trade with the Global South. Her philosophy was summed up well by perhaps her most famous quote: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room”.’
Forward for Chelsea Ladies FC and the first female pundit to appear on ‘Match of the Day’. @EniAlu
‘Ava DuVernay’s films and programmes have left a great impression on me. I am inspired by DuVernay’s achievements as the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award and Academy Award. She is changing the film and TV industry and leading the way for women and women of colour behind the cameras.’
‘As a female athlete advocate for gender equality, I thank Billie Jean King for using her position as one of the greatest tennis players of all time to positively change the gender equality landscape and set the bar for other sports to work towards better gender equality and equal pay for female athletes.’
Photo credit: Alison Palmer
Director of the Whitechapel Gallery.
‘Multimedia genius, French-born artist Louise Bourgeois. It took decades for her to gain recognition but this did not stop her prolific output of building-sized spiders, uncanny environments, surreal objects and poetic drawings. These were inspired by her childhood as daughter of a tapestry restorer, by the female body and the drives and fantasies of the subconscious.’
‘I first encountered American artist Barbara Kruger’s work as a young curator – it changed everything. She translates the power plays of a patriarchal world into dazzling graphic montages that are both visually seductive and subtly consciousness-raising.’
Photo credit: Andy Parsons
Co-founder of Girls Against. @girlsagainst
‘I would like to give thanks to “The Powerpuff Girls”, the original feminist icons of my childhood. This cartoon empowered young girls around the world to be strong and feisty, destroying the stereotype that boys were the only strong characters on TV shows, something that was incredibly important to see as a kid.’
‘I’d like to thank Diane Abbott. Becoming the first black woman to ever be elected into parliament marked a massive jump for black women in politics. Diane is an important figure for providing courage for other BME females to get involved, representing a fresh voice in a system dominated by white men.’
Photo credit: Cameron James Brisbane
Tate Modern director.
‘Joan Jonas is a totally legendary queen of performance and video art. Her range of subject matter is huge – she works on amazing, pointed things about female identity but she’s also hugely invested in critical work around ecology and climate change. She an astonishing creative force.’
‘Louise Bourgeois is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life. In the 1960s when art was becoming deeply abstract and difficult to engage with, she injected her personal identity into her work, connecting the artist with the public. That’s an extraordinary gift.’
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning
Leader of the Women’s Equality Party. @SophieRunning
‘Diane Abbott is a huge inspiration to me in standing up to misogyny and racism for decades and remaining firm in the face of such resistance. She’s an example to women and girls from all backgrounds that we can overcome the barriers to our equal representation.’
‘Temple Grandin is an American professor who speaks with huge emotional intelligence about living with autism. I want to thank her because she coined the term “different, not less” – which took on all the more meaning when my own daughter was diagnosed. It’s such a clear explanation of how poor we are at embracing difference and it’s engraved on my heart.’
Photo credit: Jessica Grace Photography
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