This year marks the centenary of one of the most important landmarks in modern British history: the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time.
In honour of this milestone, we launched a poll to discover the women you think have done the most to shape the world around them. There were 100 women to choose from – nominated by 10 historians, who have each selected 10 women they feel are the most important – from science, technology and sport, to politics and literature.
Voting is now closed, view the results of the poll HERE.
Amelia Earhart, 1897-c1939
Earhart took up aviation in 1921, aged 24, and went on to break the women’s altitude record the following year when she rose to 14,000 feet. In 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and over the next five years continued to break speed and flying records. In June 1937 she began a flight around the world, becoming the first person to fly from the Red Sea to India – she was reported missing on 2 July near Howland Island in the Pacific. Earhart’s disappearance is one of history’s unsolved mysteries and she was declared dead in absentia in 1939.
Bessie Coleman, 1892-1926
In 1921, Coleman became the first American woman to earn an international pilot’s license, despite racial discrimination preventing her entry to American flying schools. After travelling to France to earn her licence, Coleman returned to America where racial and gender bias prevented her from becoming a commercial pilot. Stunt flying was her only option and she staged the first public flight by an African-American woman in the US, on 3 September 1922. Coleman drew huge crowds to her shows, refusing to perform before segregated audiences and raising money to found a school to train black aviators.
Gertrude Ederle, 1906-2003
In 1926, Gertrude became the first woman to swim across the icy waters of the English Channel, having already broken seven records in a single afternoon at Brighton Beach, New York, four years earlier. Ederle trained daily in freezing water, pushing her body to new limits. The time she set for her cross-channel swim – 14 hours, 31 minutes – was faster by nearly two hours than the time set by any previous male swimmers who had completed the epic swim. Ederle proved that female sportswomen were more than capable of taking on the same challenges as men.
Isabella Bird, 1831-1904
An intrepid 19th-century explorer who defied Victorian conventions of where a lady should go and what a lady should do. After catching the travel bug while on a sea voyage, taken on the orders of doctors to improve her ill health, Bird went on to explore America, Hawaii, Tibet, Malaysia, Japan, India, China, Iran and many more countries. Her journeys were often fraught with danger; she rode thousands of miles on horseback and climbed mountains and volcanoes. The books Bird wrote, and the photographs she took, on the places she visited helped earn her a place as one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Junko Tabei, 1939-2016
In 1975, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, a place she described as being “smaller than a tatami mat”. It wasn’t an easy climb in many respects – Junko faced criticism for leaving her young daughter at home as she set off for Nepal, as part of the first all-female climbing team to be awarded a permit to climb the world’s highest peak. News of her astounding feat of human endurance made headlines around the world and Tabei came to stand as a symbol for women’s empowerment and challenging female stereotypes.
Katia Krafft, 1942-91
French volcanologist Katia Krafft travelled the world to the edges of human survival, devoting her life to documenting volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in photos and film. Her work was instrumental in gaining the cooperation of local authorities and encouraging them to evacuate the areas surrounding active volcanos. Krafft and her volcanologist husband were both killed while filming the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan, in 1991.
Maria Merian, 1647-1717
A German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, Merian defied expectations of the time by leaving an unhappy marriage and running her own business selling her beautiful artwork depicting the life cycles of plants and insects. At a time when women had few opportunities to study science or to travel, Merian made the journey to Surinam in South America to record the exotic wildlife there. Her stunning full colour prints of tropical plants and animals, including bird-eating spiders, vibrantly coloured butterflies and a snake-wrestling caiman were studied by generations of scientists after her.
Nellie Bly, 1864-1922
At a time when women journalists tended to write about domestic topics such as gardening or fashion, Bly wrote hard-hitting stories about the poor and oppressed. In 1886-87 she travelled for several months in Mexico, reporting on official corruption and the condition of the poor, while another investigation saw her feign insanity in order to expose conditions inside asylums. Bly’s journalistic fame led her to travel the globe, unchaperoned, in her own Jules Verne inspired 80 Days Around the World. She completed the challenge in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, setting a new world record.
Sacagawea, c1788 -c1812
As a female Native American, Sacagawea’s story could easily have been lost to history. But her role as a vital member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, helping them forge relationships with Native Americans all while carrying her newborn baby on her back, ensured this wasn’t the case. Sacagawea travelled thousands of miles with the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6 – from the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest – acting as an interpreter and allaying the suspicions of the tribes they encountered.
Sophie Blanchard, 1778-1819
After the death of her professional balloonist husband, Sophie was forced to take over his business to pay off his debts, making her the first female professional balloonist. Crowds flocked to see her and on a number of occasions she was official aviator to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII. Her adventures came to an explosive end in 1819 when she became the first woman to die in an aviation accident.