Women through history who've changed our world

As one Mumsnetter put it: "There are LOADS of women in history who've done incredible things or had amazing careers" - here we celebrate some of those heroines 

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Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

"My DD has Emmeline in her name, so she'll never forget"  

Emmeline was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. In 1999, Time named Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating: "she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back." 

She was widely criticised for her militant tactics, and historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in Britain. 

Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)

"I have always (and will always) vote as a way of saying thank you to those brave women ... I was particularly moved by the extract from Davison's diary where she said she was doing what she was for women who weren't even born yet."

A key activist in the suffragette movement, Emily Wilding Davison died when she ran in front of King George V's horse in an attempt to raise awareness of the cause at the Epsom Derby. It's unknown whether she was intending suicide or merely to disrupt the race.

christine de pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430)

"Medieval author and poet. She started writing as a way to earn money when she was widowed at 25. Some consider her to be an early feminist."

Widowed with three children at the age of 25, de Pizan was a writer at the French royal court during the reign of Charles VI. Her most successful works included The Book of the City of Ladies - a celebration of women and their accomplishments in history.

james barry

James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley c.1789-1799)

"James Barry was born at the end of the 1700s as a girl. Girls could not become doctors, so she went to medical school aged 15 pretending to be a boy. She pretended for the rest of her life. Postmortem, it was discovered that she also had a child at some point." 

Forced by personal circumstances to earn her own money, James Barry became Inspector General in charge of military hospitals with one of the highest recovery rates of the war. She performed one of the first successful caesarean sections in 1826.

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

"She went to nurse the soldiers in the Crimean War. A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, but without her resources."

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Creole descent who, using her own funds and without official support, set up a 'British Hotel' behind the lines at Balaclava during the Crimean War. Known as 'Mother Seacole' by the troops, her reputation rivaled that of Nightingale at the time.  

nellie bly

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

"An American journalist in the late 1800s who faked insanity so she could go undercover in a mental asylum and report on conditions there."

Born Elizabeth Cochran, Bly caused a sensation when, in 1887 while writing for the New York World, she had herself admitted to an asylum for 10 days in order to expose the conditions there. The resulting piece led to lasting improvements in the care of the mentally ill.

It wasn't her only claim to fame - she also managed to travel around the world in 72 days in 1889 when the paper sent her off to try and beat Phileas Fogg's fictional feat.


Irena Sendler (1910-2008)

"She rescued hundreds of Jewish children in the second world war."

Irena was a Polish nurse who, with the help of the Polish underground resistance, smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and into safety. 

In 1965 she was given the honour of Righteous among the Nations by the Israeli government.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

"The first British female Nobel Prize winner, yet much less known than Rosalind Franklin. Overlooked for the Nobel for years until Max Perutz won it and started to fight her case."

Dorothy Hodgkin was a British chemist, credited with the development of protein crystallography. There is now a fellowship in her name at the Royal Society for "outstanding scientists in the UK at an early stage of their research career who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health issues." 


Nancy Wake (1912-2011)

"WW2 heroine. Brave, determined and lived her life her way. I know someone who met her. At over 90 she drank him (half her age) under the table!"

Born in New Zealand, Wake ran away from home and eventually made her way to London, where she trained as a journalist. During the 1930s, she worked in Paris, where she met and married industrialist Henri Fiocca. When France was invaded, she became first a courier for the Resistance and then a Maquis leader.  Nancy - aka White Mouse - was one of the most decorated secret agents of the second world war. At the height of the war, she was the Gestapo's most-wanted person, with a price of five million francs on her head.


Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

"The actress Hedy Lamarr invented WiFi back in the 1940s - we know that because she took out a patent on the idea, which is why a company wanting to utilise her suggestions paid her to do so as recently as 1998. Bluetooth is based on it. She wanted to support the war effort at the time; it wasn't meant to make her rich."

Best known for her work as a Hollywood actress, including the title role in Cecil B De Mille's Samson and Delilah, Lamarr was also an inventor. Lamarr and her neighbour, composer George Antheil, developed the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes. Their patented invention is the basis for modern tech such as Bluetooth and some WiFi connections.

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Last updated: 2 days ago