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Ten Influential Women From British History

By Edited Jul 27, 2016 2 0

In AD 60 Boudicca5, also known as Boadicea, the legendary queen of the Iceni tribe, led British tribes in a revolt against Roman oppression to avenge the rape of her daughters. Since the warrior queen challenged the Roman patriarchy, there have been many powerful and influential British women.

Boudica statue near Westminster Pier, London (detail)


1. Elizabeth 16

The 45 year reign (1558-1603) of Elizabeth I was a period of hard won stability and religious peace. She ascended to the throne as the Protestant monarch of a country torn by Protestant-Catholic discord. She foiled Catholic plots against her life, and reduced religious strife by establishing the Church of England, a compromise church which incorporated elements of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Although she foiled a Spanish attempt to invade England by defeating the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth is best remembered not as a warrior queen like Boudicca, but as a shrewd ruler who established England as a major European power through diplomacy, trade, and exploration. 

Queen Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait)

Primarily for political reasons, Elizabeth chose never to marry. She considered herself married to the nation and commanded loyalty and respect from her subjects as their "Virgin Queen." She sponsored voyages of discovery by Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and others which laid the foundation for a vast trade network and future British colonial expansion. Elizabeth's reign also heralded the flowering of the English Renaissance9. The arts flourished, most notably the great literary works of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare.

2. Victoria7

Victoria’s reigned for 63 years. She was crowned in 1837 at the age of 18, and died in 1901.

Queen Victoria

 Victoria used her influence to encourage peaceful foreign policies and her reign saw expansive growth of the British Empire with Victoria becoming Empress of India in 1877.

Victoria's reign was a period of burgeoning industrial growth. During her reign, the constitutional role of the British monarchy within a parliamentary democracy evolved as voting reforms extended the franchise and solidified the power of the House of Commons.

3. Elizabeth II8

Crowned in 1952, Elizabeth II is the longest reigning British monarch. Her reign has been one of dedicated service to her subjects which began during the period of austerity following World War II, saw the evolution of the former British Empire into the network of independent countries which form the present day Commonwealth, and ushered in the technological age of the twenty-first century.

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II is the most traveled monarch in British history. She has traveled extensively throughout the Commonwealth and made state visits to the U.S.A. and many European nations. She has developed an open and communicative style, frequently with the assistance of modern technology. At Elizabeth's request, her coronation was the first royal event to be broadcast on television. In 1969 a groundbreaking television documentary opened the private life of the Royal Family to the public, and the British Monarchy launched its own web site in 1997.

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4. Rosalind Franklin

Other great British women have come from more humble backgrounds, and many have contributed to the advancement of knowledge through their work in scientific fields1 as diverse as paleontology, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Many worked as assistants to husbands, male academics or relatives and did not receive adequate recognition for their work. 

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) is a case in point. She passed her finals at Cambridge University in 1941. However, because Cambridge did grant full degrees to women at that time, she received a titular degree2 a certificate of course completion which did not entitle her to attend the graduation ceremony. She went on to obtain a PhD from Ohio University and to research the structure of DNA and RNA, work which was the foundation for Crick and Watson's Nobel Prize winning work on DNA. Sadly, she passed away before Crick and Watson received their Nobel Prize, and they never acknowledged her pioneering work in their acceptance speeches.

Rosalind Franklin

 

Thanks to the pioneering work of scientists like Franklin, other female scientists have since received the recognition they deserved. These include Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), who received a Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work on the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12and Ann McLaren (1927-2007), a geneticist whose work led to the development of in vitro fertilization and the birth of the first test-tube baby.

5. Aphra Behn

The voices of women writers have generally received more public recognition than those of their sisters in the sciences.

Seventeenth century playwright and poet Aphra Behn paved the way for many great women writers who followed her when she became one of the first members of  "the fair sex" to support herself by her writing.

Aphra Behn by Mary Beale

Since Behn's time, many influential women writers have documented or critiqued their world, although many achieved success by hiding behind a male pseudonym or by using initials4. Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot, while the Bronte sisters wrote as the Bell brothers. Charlotte was Currer Bell, Anne was Acton Bell, and Emily was Ellis Bell.  There is still a bias against women writers, and even Joanne Rowling was advised by her publisher to use the pen name J.K. Rowling so that boys would read her Harry Potter books.

Nevertheless, there have been countless successful British women writers. One of the most prolific and successful is Doris Lessing (1919-2013)3  who wrote over 55 works in a variety of genres from science fiction to opera, and who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

Doris Lessing

 Great writing by women includes the subtle irony of Jane Austen, the passionate poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the avant garde feminism of Virginia Woolf who famously stated that:

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds15

6. Elizabeth Fry10 (1780 – 1845)

Elizabeth Fry was a Quaker minister who worked for prison reform.  She founded a prison school for the children of inmates and helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, which subsequently became the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, one of the first nationwide women's organizations in the country.

Elizabeth Fry

In 1818 Fry became the first woman to present evidence in Parliament concerning prison conditions to a House of Commons committee.  She also worked to help the homeless, founded the Brighton District Visiting Society, an organization which offer aid and education to the poor, and opened a training school for nurses.

In 1823, as a result of Fry's work, Home Office Minister Robert Peel passed the Goal Act which legislated minimum standards in prisons.

7. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)11

Fry’s nursing program inspired the celebrated “Lady with the Lamp,”  who is best known for her pioneer nursing work during the Crimean War. 

Nightingale is mainly recognized as the founder of modern nursing based on sound sanitary knowledge, for bringing respect to the nursing profession, and for the establishment of a nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London.

Florence Nightingale CDV by H Lenthall

Nightingale was also a pioneer in the visual presentation of statistics. She developed a form of pie chart known as the polar area diagram, coxcomb, or Nightingale rose, which she used to present reports on medical care and mortality to Members of Parliament. As a result of this work, she became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and an honorary member of the American Statistical Association. 12

In addition, Nightingale is recognized as an influential writer. Her reports on medical treatment in the British army were used as evidence by an 1858 commission of inquiry, and she served as a medical advisor during both the American Civil war and the Franco Prussian War. She also wrote papers on famine and sanitation in India, and her book Notes on Nursing (1860) became a standard nursing textbook. Most notably, her essay Cassandra, which criticized the over-feminized, near helpless lifestyle of her mother and sisters, is regarded as an important feminist work.12

8. Elizabeth Blackwell  (1821-1910)13

Born in UK, Blackwell moved to the United States with her family in 1832. She studied at Geneva Medical College in New York, overcoming the hostility of the male medical establishment to become the first woman in modern times to qualify as a doctor.

Blackwell worked in both England and the U.S. She was the first woman placed on the British medical register, and was involved in the founding of the National Health Society and the London School of Medicine for Women. She also worked with Florence Nightingale on the development of a Women's medical college in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell (M.D.)

In the U.S. Blackwell trained nurses to serve in the Civil War and opened a dispensary in the New York slums which later became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Dr. Blackwell inspired other women to enter the medical profession, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)1 who was the first woman to quality as a doctor in the U.K.

Garrett before the Faculty of Medicine, Paris

Dr. Anderson opened a dispensary for women in London, became a visiting physician at the East London Hospital, and founded a hospital for women which was entirely run by women. In 1883, she was appointed dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, which she helped to found in 1874.

Dr. Anderson was also an active member of the suffragette movement which fought for women's voting rights. After her retirement in 1902, she continued breaking ground when she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, becoming England's first female mayor.

9. Marie Stopes (1880-1958)14

Marie Stopes was a paleobotanist who became the first female professor in the Faculty of Science at Manchester University. She is, however, best remembered as a pioneer in the field of birth control who provided explicit information on human sexuality in the manual Married Love, published in 1918, and opened Britain’s first family planning clinic in London in 1921.

Marie Stopes in her Laboratory (1904)

Stopes faced fierce religious opposition, particularly from the Catholic church, and criticism from the press and the medical establishment. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this adverse publicity, Married Love was an instant best seller.

Her work is continued today by Marie Stopes International which works to help women in many countries around the world. 

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Married Love
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10. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928)16

Time named Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the suffragette movement and a determined activist for women's voting rights, as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.  Dissatisfied with the lack of success of the political process, Pankhurst became a founding member of the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). This was a group which became associated with demonstrations, civil disobedience, property damage, repeated prison sentences, and hunger strikes, and which often welcomed imprisonment as a way to bring attention to their cause. 

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914

In 1918, when the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to women over 30, the WSPU evolved into the Women's Party, which advocated equal marriage laws, equal employment opportunities for women, and equal pay for equal work.  After her death, the New York Herald Tribune called Pankhurst a "remarkable political and social agitator” and “the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women."

Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement paved the way into politics for women of all political stripes, from radical Irish civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament17, to Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Conservative “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher with George H. W. Bush

During three consecutive terms as Prime Minister, Thatcher18 demonstrated a determined and uncompromising leadership style and became one of the world’s most influential political leaders. A grocer's daughter raised to value thrift and hard work, Thatcher completely transformed the British economic and political landscape. She introduced a monetarist policy committed to privatization, financial deregulation, lowered taxes, and reduced government spending.

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Margaret Thatcher in Parliament

The Iron Lady Wipes the Floor with the Opposition

Thatcher faced severe criticism and violent protests for the economic fallout of her monetarist policies, which included high unemployment, business closures, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Undeterred, she rode rough shod over all opposition and continued with policies aimed at deregulation, the break-up up Britain's most powerful labor unions, and the reformation of the welfare state, eventually alienating her cabinet and losing the leadership of the Conservative party.

Controversial though she was, Thatcher commanded respect from supporters and opponents alike. She brought Britain back to prominence as a world power, shifted British politics to the right, and led a "privatisation revolution"18 which spread around the world.

Women have often influenced British history, sometimes from positions of power but more frequently by challenging the limitations placed on them by society. They have made great contributions to science and the arts.  They have also challenged the male status quo, paved the way for other women, and worked to improved society as a whole.

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