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.
Josephine Butler, 1828–1906
Josephine Butler brought into open discussion in Victorian Britain the double sexual standard that existed in a male-dominated society. She campaigned successfully for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts which provided for the compulsory and regular medical examination of women believed to be prostitutes, but not their male clients. In later life she campaigned against child prostitution and international sex trafficking.
Emmeline Pankhurst, 1858–1928
In 1903, the social reformer Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain, ‘Deeds, not words’ being its motto. A charismatic leader and powerful orator, Pankhurst roused thousands of women to demand, rather than ask politely, for their democratic right in a mass movement that has been unparalleled in British history. Always in the thick of the struggle, she endured 13 imprisonments, her name and cause becoming known throughout the world.
Rosa Parks, 1913–2005
In 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American living in Montgomery, Alabama, challenged the race segregation that existed in parts of the US by refusing to give up her seat on a bus so that a white person could sit down. Her protest was supported by many other African Americans and sparked the civil rights movement which, in the 1960s, eventually won equal rights. Four years after her death in 2005, Barack Obama became the first African-American US president.
Mother Teresa, 1910–97
Mother Teresa, born in Albania, was a Roman Catholic nun who lived in India for most of her life. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity which attracted many sisters who took vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and free service to the poorest of the poor. The work that the order undertook, in over 130 countries, included managing homes for people who were dying, soup kitchens, orphanages and schools. Although criticised for her opposition to abortion, her charitable work changed the lives of many of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 1916–2000
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a socialist, became the first female head of government in the world when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, in 1960. She served three terms in this capacity: 1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000. Bandaranaikewas an important role model for many political female activists, showing that the glass ceiling which prevented women from reaching the highest political office could be broken.
Marie Stopes, 1880–1958
Marie Stopes, advocate of birth control and sex educator, was born in Edinburgh but studied for a science degree at University College, London. In 1918, she published the highly popular Married Love, a second book titled Wise Parenthood – which dealt explicitly with contraception – appearing shortly after. A controversial figure, especially for her views on eugenics, Stopes nonetheless was a key figure in publicising her cause (a first birth control clinic was set up in a poor working-class area of north London in 1921) and in bringing to women worldwide the opportunity of planned pregnancies.
Eleanor Rathbone, 1872–1946
A humanitarian and suffragist, member of the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship from 1919), Rathbone was returned to the British Parliament in 1929 as the Independent Member for the Combined British Universities. She was a key figure in getting through parliament a family allowances bill that paid the allowance to the mother, not the father. During later years she was actively involved in refugee relief work, trying to rescue Spanish republicans and Jews threatened by Hitler’s rise to power.
Wangari Maathai, 1940–2011
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement which campaigned for the planting of trees, environmental conversation and women’s rights. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Maathai was elected to parliament and appointed assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003– 2005. Her work was internationally recognised when, in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, peace and democracy.
Sarojini Naidu, 1879–1949
Sarojini Naidu, a freedom fighter and poet, was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and to be appointed an Indian state governor. A close friend of Mohandas Gandhi, in 1917 Naidu helped found the Women’s India Association and later played a leading role in the civil disobedience movement in colonial India. Two years before her death, India gained its independence as a sovereign nation, becoming the largest democracy in the world.
Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–97
In 1981, Diana Spencer became the first wife of the heir apparent to the British throne, Charles, Prince of Wales. Their wedding reached a global television audience of more than 700m people and she continued to attract much media attention, even after her divorce in 1996. She became well known internationally for her charity work for sick children, the banning of landmines and for raising awareness about those affected by cancer, HIV/AIDS and mental illness.