When March rolls around every year, so does, to our joy, ‘Women’s History Month’ in the US, and International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. Being the diverse, inclusive and forward-thinking company that we are, and will always strive to be, (no entity is ever perfect and there is always room for improvement) we decided to get together on the 8th to share with one another the stories of those women we most admire from both the past and the present. Over coffee we collectively discussed our intense admiration for the courage and bravery, intellect and kindness shown by many women over the years in their plight for emancipation, equality and education. Borrowing from the words of the official International Women’s Day website:
‘Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” So, make International Women’s Day your day and do what you can to truly make a positive difference for women.’
Being a diverse bunch ourselves, those women we spoke about (of whom there were many, many, more to choose from) ranged from activists to artists, actors to inventors, politicians to poets and so on and so forth. I did a little further digging, not only for my own education, but also to share with you in this blog a snap shot of each for you to read, be inspired and relish in all that women have achieved so far and will continue to do so! So, please, enjoy…
If you hadn’t come across her name before, you will most certainly have recently through her coverage of the ensuing war in Ukraine on the BBC. A French-Canadian journalist born in 1958, Lyse is the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent and senior presenter on BBC World Service, BBC World News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC News in the UK, alongside making and presenting documentaries. In 2002 she was the only journalist to accompany Afghan President Hamid Karzai to his brother’s wedding where an assassination attempt was made, with her and her team nominated for a Royal Television Society Award for their exclusive coverage of the attempt. This is just one of many, many, accolades she and her team have won for coverage all over the world during some of the most treacherous wars and violent events. She has shown exceptional bravery and commitment to journalism through intelligent and clear reporting, ‘especially surrounding religious elements of global events.’ to quote the Sandford St Martin trustees’ award.
Katherine enjoyed a 33-year career at Nasa and its predecessor, the NACA. Her ability to master complex manual calculations in her job as a computer, preempted the use of mechanical computers to perform tasks. She was known as a ‘human computer’ for her tremendous mathematical capability and ability to work with space trajectories using only very simple technology. The space agency also noted her ‘historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist’. Whilst she received very little recognition at the time, her tenure at NASA was dramatised in the critically acclaimed film ‘Hidden Figures’, loosely based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about African American mathematicians who worked at NASA. The two other protagonists of this book and film were also loosely based on the next two women we celebrate in this blog.
Mary was born in 1958 and worked at Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, starting as a ‘computer’ at the segregated West Area Computing Division. Later she took advanced engineering classes and, in 1958, became Nasa’s first black female engineer. After 34 years at NASA, she realised she could not progress any further without becoming a supervisor, so she in fact took a demotion to become a manager of the Federal Women’s Program in the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and of the Affirmative Action Program. This allowed her to have influence on the hiring and promoting of women within the agency.
Finally last but by no means least of the trio mentioned above in ‘Hidden Figures’ is Dorothy Vaughan. Another African-American woman with an incredible mind and command of mathematics, she too worked at NACA and NASA as a human computer. In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to receive a promotion and supervise a group of staff at the center, a role that she would ‘officially’ be promoted to at a later date. During her 28-year career, she taught herself and her staff the programming language of Fortran that paved the way for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s.
C J Walker
Born in 1867, she was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, political and social activist. Recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in the Guinness Book of World Records, she made her fortune through a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women. In 2020 Octavia Spencer portrayed her in a TV series called ‘On her Ground’ based on a biography of Walker, written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist, and human rights activist who reported on political events in Russia, particularly the Second Chechen War. For seven years she refused to give up reporting, despite enduring acts of intimidation and violence from those who objected to her efforts. In Chechnya she was arrested by the Russian military and subjected to a mock execution. It was her reporting from Chechnya that cemented her national and international reputation. Russian readers would mostly have experienced her work through the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In 2004 she published ‘Putin’s Russia’ a personal account of Russia for a Western readership. Two years later, on the 7th of October 2006, she was murdered in the lift of her block of flats. Although 5 men were sentenced to prison for perpetrating her murder, it is still unclear who ordered or paid for her contract killing.
Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822, 27 years later she escaped to Philadelphia. She would, however, soon return in secret to rescue her family, one group at a time travelling by night and managed to never lose a passenger along the way. When the American Civil War began, she worked for the Union Army, first as a cook, then as a nurse and finally as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, and guided the raid at Combahee Ferry which liberated more than 700 enslaved people. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, until illness overtook her and she was admitted to a home for African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. The film ‘Harriet’ starring Cynthia Erivo premiered in 2019, and gained nominations for Best Actress and Best Song at the Academy Award nominations.
A British-Jamaican nurse and business woman who set up the ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War. She described the British Hotel as ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Sadly, much of the recognition for her work came posthumously. She was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and in 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton. It is important to note that she applied to the War Office to be included among the nursing contingent, but was refused during the Crimean War, so she travelled independently and set up her hotel alone. She became popular among service personnel who raised money for her when she faced destitution after the war. There is a blue plaque commemorating her at 14 Soho Square London, W1.
An Austrian born, American actress and inventor, she is perhaps best remembered as a film star with her greatest success being her portrayal of Delilah in Cecil B DeMille’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ in 1949. She was also married 6 times! However, perhaps one of her best accomplishments and far less known, was her work outside of Hollywood. At the beginning of World War II, along with George Antheil, she invented a radio guidance system for Allied Torpedoes ‘that used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers’. The principles of this work would later be incorporated into Bluetooth and GPS technology with similar methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
An American Lawyer and jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, she was nominated by Bill Clinton and was generally viewed as a moderate consensus-builder, eventually being part of the liberal wing of the court as it shifted further right over time. She was the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the court. Born in Brooklyn, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, and became a mother before starting law school at Harvard where she was one of a few women in her class. She spent most of her career advocating for gender equality and women’s rights winning many arguments before the Supreme Court. Dubbed ‘The Notorious R.B.G’ (she would later embrace the moniker) she was known for her forceful dissents notably in ‘Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & rubber Co.’ (2007) that would in essence make it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims.
Jane Fonda is an American actress and former fashion model. In the 80s she would have been best known for her keep-fit videos, one of which was the highest-selling VHS of the 20th century. However, it’s for her activism, philanthropy and work to promote feminism that she is most celebrated. She partook in the counterculture movement during the Vietnam War and during this time, she was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun on a visit to Hanoi in 1972, effectively blacklisting her in Hollywood. She protested the War in Iraq and violence against women throughout her life. In 2005, along with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, she co-founded the Women’s Media Centre that works to amplify the voices of women in media. She has publicly showed her support of the LGBTQ community many times throughout her career, and in 2019 was arrested three times inconsecutive weeks whilst protesting climate change outside the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. These are just a few highlights of an illustrious life campaigning, championing and financially supporting causes close to her heart!
Yelena Osipova came to be more widely known only recently when she took to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg to protest the invasion of Ukraine. Yelena is a Russian artist and activist, and a survivor of the Siege of the Leningrad. She has become something of a social media sensation after a video of her being arrested by a huge squad of riot police, despite being tiny and 77, went viral only a few days ago. She has used her artistic skills to protest for many years, creating political posters, paintings, portraits and landscapes. She has been fined with unspecified charges and faces a trial after she was arrested, there is however no confirmed information about her whereabouts since her arrest.
A defector from North Korea, she fled with her family to China in 2007 settling in South Korea in 2009, before moving to the United States in 2014. (During North Korea’s economic collapse in the 1990s, her father was sent to a labor camp for smuggling; this any many other treacherous events and life conditions brought about their escape). Sadly, when they decided to flee, she and her mother were captured and sold into slavery by human traffickers before escaping to Mongolia. Today, she is an advocate for victims of human trafficking in China, and works to promote human rights in North Korea and around the globe. She became widely known when she gave a speech at the 2014 One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland, about her escape from North Korea, which received 50 million views, in just two days, on Youtube.
Phan Thi Kum Phuc
Referred often as ‘Napalm girl’ Phan Thi Kum Phuc was born in Southern Vietnam, but today holds Canadian nationality, and is best known as the nine-year-old child depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War. In 1996 she gave a speech at the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day, where she said that ‘one cannot change the past, but everyone can work together for the peaceful future.’ In 1994 she was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and in 2004 received an honorary Doctorate of Law from York University for her work to support child victims of war around the world.
A critic, author, feminist and the editor-in-chief of Bookslut (a litblog and webzine) Jessa has published three books including most recently ‘Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto’. Beginning her career as a publishing outsider, she started her blog whilst working at Planned Parenthood in Austin, Texas, eventually supporting herself by writing and editing the site full-time. Bookslut received mentions in many newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post and the Guardian.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. She championed the participation of women in the medical profession, ultimately opening her own medical college for women. She was inspired to pursue a career in medicine after a dying friend said that her ordeal would have been better if she had a female physician. She was rejected from everywhere she applied, until ultimately, she was admitted to Geneva College in rural New York. However, her acceptance was intended as a practical joke. She faced discrimination and obstacles at college with professors forcing her to sit separately at lectures, often excluding her from labs. Eventually, in 1868, Elizabeth would open a medical college in New York City, where she would a year later, place her sister in charge, allowing her to return permanently to London, where she became a professor of gynaecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women.
Possibly the youngest woman we have talked about in this blog, born in 1992 Rupi is a Canadian poet, illustrator, photographer and author. Originally from India, she emigrated to Canada where she began performing poetry in 2009. She rose to prominence on Instagram, eventually becoming one of the most popular ‘instapoets’ today. She has been dubbed the ‘Oprah’ of her generation with reception of her collections ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ being received with fervent devotion akin to that given to the Beatles in the 1960s. She has been credited as spearheading the merging of poetry and pop culture.