Two weeks ago was International Women’s Day, and in honour of that day we have brought you a list of 10 Great British Women in History in our longest blog post to date. Knowing that there were powerful women figures 500 years ago is amazing and amazing women are constantly showing themselves nowadays and standing up to stereotypes that have impeded the pace of our progression in the public and private sphere. Get your reading glasses on and prepare to be blown away by some of the strongest British women yet.
Feminism has become an exceptionally hot topic in the last few years and we’ve seen some famous faces use their fame to share their stances on women right’s or the lack of them and promote feminism. From the likes of Oprah Winfrey to most recently Emma Watson, who became the Goodwill Ambassador to UN Women just two years ago and launched the highly publicised He for She campaign to promote the empowerment of women. We’ve even seen Queens of Pop like Madonna and Beyonce promote their views on girl power through their music. Madonna based almost her entire career on women empowerment and Beyonce embraced feminism and showed this side of her through her album, ‘BEYONCE’ with songs like ‘Pretty Hurts’, highlighting the pressure that society puts on women to look good and the dangerous risks some women take to fit the inaccurate image of beauty that they have instilled into their mind. Not to mention the all-time feminist anthem she released in 2011, ‘Run the World (Girls)’, which was infamously banned in China that same year along with a few other hits.
Women’s rights have been fought for over a century now with the Suffragette movement starting in the late 19th century. ‘Suffragettes’ is a term given to refer to members of a women organisation fighting for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. In mainly refers to the British organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903. Their struggle for the women’s right to vote was a arduous one and not many people took the suffragettes seriously at first and they were imprisoned later claiming to be political prisoners. In prison they were still not taken seriously and were refused to be acknowledged as political prisoners, which led to many of the suffragettes staging hunger strikes. Consequently, this led to the prison guards force-feeding the women to avoid being held responsible if they were to die in prison. Their efforts finally paid off in 1918 when qualified women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote in elections and a decade later this changed to allow women over 21 the right to vote too.
Academics believe that the suffrage movement was fundamental in changing the way society perceived women not to mention the fact that it also changed the way women viewed themselves. Two years after the WSPU was established, it was virtually impossible to convince an intelligent woman that she should only care for domestic issues (Joannou, 1998). 1903 was a year that made history and altered everything to shape the position that women held in society. Although, we’ve come a long way since then, women still suffer human rights violations all around the globe. Society hasn’t entirely accepted women into its arms and women are still very much neglected by society and not offered the protection and recognition that they set out to get over a century ago. A lot of us are blind to this but statistics don’t lie, if you look at how women are portrayed in the media 46% of news content worldwide highlights promotes gender stereotypes as opposed to only 6% opposing it. How can we change mentalities if things like this are slowing down progression? The answer’s simple, we can’t and that’s why we have days like International Women’s Day held on the 8th March every year to celebrate women and their achievements in all aspects of life as well as continuing to promote awareness on women’s rights.
In celebration of International Women’s Day this year, below we’ve included a list of some pretty awesome, strong British women who etched their names into national and global history.
- QUEEN MARY I
Born: 18 February 1516
Died: 17 November1558
Reign: 1553 -1558
Information: The only surviving offspring from Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When her half-brother, Edward VI, died at the tender age of 15 years of age, Mary I fought her way to the English throne seeing herself as the rightful heir to the throne. It was her first cousin who was appointed Queen which displeased Mary I considering she was a direct relative to last Kings. Mary I was a determined lady and managed to dispose of her first cousin and had her beheaded. She was the first woman to succeed to the English throne after her father and half-brother.
However, she wasn’t a popular Queen because she was known to be quite an intolerant individual for instance, she didn’t really agree with her father when he decided to break away from Rome in order to create the Church of England so that he could divorce whenever he pleased. Mary was most known for the reinstating of the Roman Catholicism in England and an agreement between her Majesty and the Pope was made a few years after her coronation that revived the Acts of Heresy. With this Mary I was infamous for the persecution and execution of Protestants. Mary I is notoriously referred to as ‘Bloody Mary’ after killing around 300 Protestants. Killing doesn’t make her an inspirational British lady, however, she still fought for what was rightfully hers at a time when it was unfathomable to see women in position of power. Once she got what she wanted, she sure made sure everyone around her knew she was in charge and even has a cocktail named after the nickname given to her.
- QUEEN ELIZABETH I
Born: 7th September 1533
Died: 24th March 1603
Reign: 1558 – 1603
Information: Elizabeth succeeded her older half-sister to the English throne to become the second reigning queen of England. She was the only daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Since Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was annulled, Elizabeth was then deemed illegitimate and her claim to the thrown was no more until her half-sister contested their half-brother’s will and overthrew their cousin who had the crown bequeathed to her. So if it weren’t for Mary I and her determination then Elizabeth may never have become queen and enjoyed a generally popular reign. Queen Elizabeth ruled by ‘good counsel’ and constantly consulted with her advisors on all matters.
Given Elizabeth I was quite a young queen at 25 years of age, people began to ask whom she would choose to marry. She actually became the most sought out woman by keen European leaders who wanted to win the Queen’s heart. It was her advisors who contemplated each match that came forward but the Queen herself did not show much enthusiasm at the prospect of marriage. In fact, she was known as ‘The Virgin Queen’ the older she got because of this.
She was not as strict as her father and half siblings. She avoided systematic religious persecution (unlike her predecessor *ahem*) and was very careful and calculating when it came to foreign affairs always resorting to the advice of her confidantes. She only acted on defeating the Spanish Armada when war with Spain could no longer be avoided. England went on to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the queen has since then been associated with the greatest military victory in British history, which added to her popularity among the population. It was only towards the end of her reign that her popularity diminished after some poor decision-making. There is no shadow of a doubt that Elizabeth’s 44-year reign provided the country with stability that allowed English culture and identity to begin to flourish.
- JANE AUSTEN
Born: 16th December 1775
Died: 18th July 1817
Information: Jane Austen was an English novelist and we cannot think of English literature without her popping into our minds because she represents a exceptionally important literary voice. She is basically the female version of Charles Dickens. She wrote during the Georgian era which was a time that saw great social and artistic change. By the age of 23 she had already written the first versions of Sense & Sensibility as well as Pride and Prejudice. During her short lifetime she only completed six books but her fame and appreciation for her work didn’t come until after her death. She was a woman who was considered to be ahead of her time and for this reason was not as possible among readers of her time. Nowadays, her work continues to be some of the most read novels out there because her work is so relatable through the ages. Austen wasn’t a proclaimed feminist instead she chose to be subtle for instance her books were often based around strong female characters – all of them were educated. She suggested that women marry for love as opposed for money and social status as was common at the time and she also raised awareness to the fact women could not inherit wealth if their husband died, leaving them in even more difficulty. The satire and wit that she employed in her novels and the notion of “delivering your cynicism with a polite smile” became a national English trait.
- ELIZABETH FRY
Born: 21st May 1780
Died: 12th October 1845
Information: Elizabeth Fry is nicknamed the ‘Angel of Prisons’ because she was famous for reforming English prisons. She played a pivotal role in developing new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners and in particular women prisoners more humane. Her work in prisons came after she visited Newgate Prison and was unpleasantly shocked by the conditions she saw there. Women and children were crowded into a section of the prison and did their own cooking, washed their clothes and slept on straw. She returned the day after her visit with clean clothes and food for some of the prisoners. Her work at prisons was put on hold for four years for personal reasons but in 1816 she set up a prison school for children imprisoned with their mothers and established a system of supervision that required women to sew and read the bible. In 1817 she also helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Thanks to her efforts and humanitarian work, her face has graced our £5 notes. Have a look next time you have a £5 note and you’ll see the face you’re looking at is that of Elizabeth Fry’s.
- FRANCES BUSS
Born: 16th August 1827
Died: 24th December 1894
Information: Frances Buss is most famous for having reformed the educational system for women. She began teaching at the tender age of fourteen and she was occasionally left in charge of the school set up by her mother to help finance her family. The private school moved to a bigger premises and was renamed “North London Collegiate School for Ladies.” She became its first headmistress and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1871 she opened another school called Camden School for Girls in attempt to create affordable schooling for girls. Buss campaigned for girls to have access to education, to be able to sit public examinations and enter university. She was a known suffragist and a member of Suffrage Committees. Education for women would certainly not be the same without Miss Frances Buss.
- QUEEN VICTORIA
Born: 24th May 1819
Died: 22nd January 1901
Reign: 1837 – 1901
Information: Queen Victoria’s reign had been the longest before our current queen. The period she reigned over became known as the Victorian period. It was a time of huge social changes due to the Industrial Revolution taking place and the introduction of the industrial lower class. This new class system caused some problems to arise in the form of prejudice, class clashes and these social changes also influenced women to act very modestly. These women looked up to Queen Victoria as she embodied what Victorian society expected of women – sexual modesty, reservation, and devotion to husband and family. Queen Victoria is also acknowledge for her role in the expansion of the British Empire for instance she crowned herself the Empress of India in 1876. She was also known for restoring the royal family’s reputation that had been tarnished by her uncles and also gave the royal family new duties in the public sphere which has continued to this very day. She was a devoted wife to Prince Albert and when he died in 1861, queen Victoria was devastated and went into mourning after which decreased her popularity as she shied away from her public duties and reluctantly reappeared until she was advised to return to London to put a stop to rumours. As well as being the country’s queen whose reign stretched over 64 years, a wife, she was also a mother to nine children! She was one multitasking woman!!
- EMMELINE PANKHURST
Born: 15th July 1858
Died: 14th June 1928
Information: Emmeline Pankhurst became a political activist and the mastermind behind the British Suffragette Movement which resulted in women obtaining the right to vote. For years women had protested peacefully for the right to vote, but also their efforts went unnoticed. As mentioned before, it was Emmeline Pankhurst who started up the Women’s social and political union (WSUP), this was an independent organisation and opposed political parties. The tactics the WSUP used was usually violent since they felt that it would be the only way men would hear them and the only way that they could eventually make a change. The WSUP reeked havoc by some smashing windows, setting off various explosions around London, which led to the arrest of thousands of women in the UK including the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. At the start of World War I, Emmeline and her daughter, Christabel, asked that all military suffrage activism came to a stop in order to support the British Government in the war… (And probably not to make their life any more difficult). In gratitude to Emmeline’s efforts during the war, women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote in 1918. Pankhurst went on to establish the Women’s Party from what used to be the WSPU, which continued to promote women equality in the public sphere. The female vote age restriction was extended to 21 years of age in 1928. You can find a statue of the pioneer of women’s rights in the UK in Victoria Tower Gardens in London.
- MARGARET THATCHER
Born: 13th October 1925
Died: 8th April 2013
In office: 1979 – 1990
Information: Margaret Thatcher was a British politician and stateswoman. She was the first and only female prime minister in Britain to date. She became the leader of the conservative party in 1975 and went on to become prime minister four years later. She led Britain during her time in office under a Conservative rule. She was known for her unshakable politics. In order to combat the high unemployment rate in Britain, she implemented political and economic initiatives. She cut down on social welfare programs and privatised various industries as well as decreasing the power that trade unions had, she namely went on to attack the National Union of Miners, which had humiliated her conservative predecessor earlier in the 70s. She established a number of legal obstacles in order to deter industrial action and protests. She is also famous for the decisive military action she took when she was faced with news that the Falklands Islands (British territory) had been invaded by Argentina in April 1982. This issue was not new as there had been prior disagreement between Britain and Argentina regarding the islands. However, Thatcher made a swift decision to send British troops to the islands to reclaim them as a result Argentina surrendered just 2 months later. Her policies were referred to as ‘Thatcherisms’ and were so popular that she became the longest serving prime minister being voted in for three terms! She was urged to step down in 1990, due to increasing unpopularity after she sought to socialise the medical system and establish a standardised national educational curriculum. Her stance in Europe also brought about her resignation in 1990, as her anti-EU views forced members of her own party who were pro-EU to force her to resign (rings a bell doesn’t it?). Anyway, despite her downfall, she served as a major in British and worldwide politics and has been dubbed as the ‘Iron Lady’ for the strength and decisiveness that she showed during her time in office.
- PRINCESS DIANA
Born: 1st July 1961
Died: 31st August 1997
Information: Princess Diana was famously known as the first wife of the Prince of Wales, Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth and who is currently first in line to the throne. Diana had a royal background too as she was born into a family of British nobility. Before marrying Prince Charles in 1981, she was formerly known as Lady Diana Spencer. Her wedding to the Prince of Wales in the summer of 1981, was viewed by way over a million people worldwide. Through marriage she was most widely referred to as the Princess of Wales. The marriage produced two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry who from the moment of birth became the second and third in line to the British throne after their father. Princess Diana undertook royal duties and represented the Queen both in Britain and abroad. At first, it is believed that she found the duties daunting but then used her status and media coverage to promote charitable causes. She was most known for her campaign to ban landmines and went on a number of fieldtrips to inspect the clearing of landmines. However, it was only after her death that the Ottawa Treaty was signed to ban the usage of anti-personnel landmines. She also played a huge role in changing people’s perceptions towards AIDs. She was one of the first public figures to have been photographed with an AIDs victim. People were attracted to her innocence, sympathy and beauty. Princess Diana died in a car crash in the summer of 1997 after trying to evade persistent paparazzi in Paris where she was on holiday with her partner, Dodi Fayed. Her death left the world in shock and in mourning and various conspiracy theories have arisen since then.
- QUEEN ELIZABETH II
Born: 21st April 1926
Reign: 1952 – Present
Information: Queen Elizabeth II is queen of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (hence her occasional visits to these countries). However, she is also Queen to twelve other countries that have since her coronation in 1952 become independent, such as Jamaica. She started undertaking public duties during the Second World War as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the female branch of the British Army) in 1945. At the age of 18, she trained and reached the rank of a Junior Commander, after having studied Mechanics at the No.1 Mechanical Training Centre – much unexpected for a Queen. She also became a fully qualified driver during her time with the ATS. After her father, King George VI lost his battle to lung cancer in 1952; Princess Elizabeth at the time had to take over his duties. She had stood in for him during the last year of his life. Since Elizabeth II had married to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, it was assumed that there would be a change in the royal house’s name considering it was customary for the husband’s name to be carried over. If this were the case, it would then become the House of Mountbatten. However, the British prime minister at the time and Elizabeth II’s grandmother, Queen Mary, expressed their desire to see the royal house of Windsor continue to reign. Therefore, in April 1952 Elizabeth declared that Windsor would continue to be the name of the Royal House. Although, the Duke of Edinburgh did complain that he was the only man in the country that could not give his own name to his own children but after the death of Queen Mary and the resignation of Churchill in 1955, the surname Mountbatten – Windsor was adopted for Phillip’s and Queen Elizabeth II’s male children who did not carry royal titles. Her long and continued reign has seen her through huge constitutional changes, one of which being the decolonisation of Africa. She has also reigned through many wars and conflicts involving British territories. Also, remember how Queen Victoria was the longest reigning Queen? Well, it turns out that just last year Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her great-great grandmother as the longest living Queen!
So above were 10 of the Greatest British Women in History that’s not to say that there aren’t any more and we’re constantly seeing more and more great women making their way in life and speaking out for other women. Gender inequality continues across the globe but it is something that women are persisting with. History has told us especially British history has told us that women can make good strong leaders, politicians and activists so it’s about time we kept on smashing stereotypes imposed on us by society.