International Women’s Day: Inspirational Women from History

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, members of staff and students from our department have nominated their inspirational women from history!

Dr Jacqui Turner – Mary Wollstonecraft

Oil Painting of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, circa 1979, NPG 1237, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

For me, it is Mary Wollstonecraft. There is always a temptation to choose someone from our own research, and Eleanor Rathbone was a tempting choice, but Wollstonecraft was a real pioneer and lived her life by her own rules and principles. In 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a clarion call for equality:

“If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”

Wollstonecraft’s premise that men and women should be considered equally rational was revolutionary and one of the earliest examples of feminist philosophy. Wollstonecraft’s work had a mixed reception, her own circle lauded this presentation of her ideas but less so more broadly – Horace Walpole referred to her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’. Wollstonecraft died in 1798 as many, many women of her age did due to complications in childbirth. But the scandal of Mary’s life, premarital relationships and an illegitimate child, damaged her legacy for many years.

You can see contemporary copy of Vindication here at the British Library and hear more about Wollstonecraft and her work.

Prof Emily West – Angela Davis

Photograph of Angela Davis at the US ‘Women’s March on Washington’, January 2017

I’ve chosen Angela Davis as my inspirational woman for many, many reasons. An activist, intellectual, professor and author, she played a pioneering role in bringing Black women’s feminism in the US to wider audiences and she remains committed to Left wing activism and social justice. The picture shows her at the US ‘Women’s March on Washington’ in January 2017 in which she called for an inclusive and intersectional feminism to challenge the incoming Trump administration. Angela Davis’ intellectual work is also pioneering. She was imprisoned by the FBI in 1970 on false charges of murder, conspiracy and kidnapping related to her involvement in the left-wing Black Panther Party (part of the wider Black Power Movement at this time). Yet, writing from her prison cell, with scant resources, she successfully managed to write a ground-breaking article about the lives of enslaved women in the US that situated their triple oppression within the fact of their enslavement, being Black, and being women. She additionally framed the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by enslavers as a forms of institutional terrorism by which men manifested their power and authority over women.

Abbie Tibbott – Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Oil Painting of The First Chief Controller, Qmaac in France, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, by William Orpen. ©IWM Art.IWM ART 2048

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan had a very varied career, first graduating with a degree in Botany, studying both at King’s College London and Royal Holloway College (now Royal Holloway, University of London). In WW1 she served as Commandant for the Women’s Royal Air Force, transforming the discipline and morality of the young women who were involved. I encountered her during research for my undergraduate dissertation on the WRAF.

She co-founded the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson, and was involved in politics throughout the 1920s, standing several times for election and speaking at NUSEC meetings. As well as her political life, she was involved with the Girl Guides, an organisation that I was part of growing up, and something that I believe helped shape me as a young woman. She returned to academia as a Professor of Botany in 1921, eventually achieving Professor Emeritus in 1944.

Gwynne-Vaughan is inspirational to me because she excelled at university, was involved in the political arena but also made time for the development of women and girls in the UK. She even has fungi named after her! 

Dr Natalie Thomlinson – Maureen Coates

Maureen isn’t a famous person; in fact, she was just an ‘ordinary’ person, living in an ‘ordinary’ town. Maureen was a community activist who became involved in helping her local community of Scawsby (in Doncaster) during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which her husband Jim took part in. Maureen helped to raise many thousands of pounds to make sure no-one from a striking family went hungry. She died a fortnight ago, and like most working-class women who get involved in activism,  there will be no obituaries in the press for her, or famous people at her funeral. She is one of the many of the unsung heroes of working-class women’s history;  but it seems appropriate to honour the socialist roots of IWD by thinking of those working-class women who have contributed so much to the struggle for social justice.

Dr Dan Renshaw – Millie Witkop

Image from: ‘MILLY WITKOP: ANARCHIST, FEMINIST, AND UNION ACTIVIST’, East End Women’s Museum, https://eastendwomensmuseum.
org/blog/milly-witkop, (accessed: 07/03/2023)

Millie Witkop was one of the leading figures in metropolitan socialism, anarchism, and feminism in London before the First World War, and later was involved in radical politics in post-1918 Germany and the United States. Witkop, born into a Ukrainian Jewish family in 1877,  was, along with her comrade and partner Rudolph Rocker, a leading contributor to the Yiddish-language anarchist journal the Arbeter Fraynt. She was a key mediator in inter-ethnic class solidarity in turn-of-the-century revolutionary and trade union politics, forging links between Jewish, Irish and domestic socialist groups, and organising inter-communal support networks for the families of striking workers in the industrial action that took place across Britain in 1911-1912.  

Amy Longmuir – Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Marie Curie (centre) with four of her students c.1910-15, Library of Congress, available from:

An incredible woman in science, Marie Curie was born in Poland and later moved to France where she was a physicist and chemist researching radioactivity. She is named on a lot of firsts; the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (being the co-winner with her husband Pierre Curie in 1903), the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice, and she remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. In 1906, Curie also became the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. During World War One, Marie Curie became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service after studying radiology to make X-ray machines portable. Assisted by her 17-year-old daughter, Irene, Curie oversaw the use of 20 mobile radiology vehicles and 200 radiological units at field hospitals across France from 1914. She discovered two radioactive elements; polonium and radium.

What is particularly interesting is that Marie Skłodowska-Curie pioneered women in science both at the time and in retrospect whilst also being a wife and mother. Her husband, Pierre, supported her completing her doctorate in 1903, and throughout her scientific career. Her original notebooks and cookbooks are still radioactive, over 100 years after they were exposed to radium, and bring to life her actions as a scientist and cook, which can be viewed here:

She is buried alongside some of France’s most notable people in The Panthéon, Paris.

Fiona Lane – Caroline Wallace

Caroline Wallace of Caldwell Road, Kingstanding, was inspirational. She led the neighbours in her street in a rent strike against Birmingham council. She had been a resourceful woman all her life, coping on her own with a small child, setting up a shop when her husband was sent to the workhouse. Just as life had taken an upturn and she and her family had moved to a new council house, her husband died, leaving her with three of her nine children still dependent on her. She was an ordinary working-class woman and nothing set her back: when the council proposed to put up the rents, she knew many of her neighbours could not afford to pay and she organised meetings and demonstrations. Her determination was part of the success of the city wide strike. In July 1939, the council withdrew the new rent scheme.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the authors.

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