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.
Emilie du Châtelet, 1706–49
A superb mathematician, Emilie du Châtelet did much to convince sceptical Europeans that Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was right. But this mother of three also loved to dance, wear fashionable clothes and host dinner parties. Her main aim in life, she maintained, was to enjoy herself – and pleasure included the hard grind of intellectual work.
Grace Hopper, 1906–1992
When electronic computers began to revolutionise society, Grace Hopper was one of the leading players, having already become the first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. First at Harvard, and then in the US Navy, Hopper worked on the very earliest computers and later developed COBOL, the commercial programming language that enabled a military innovation to transform the business world.
Laura Bassi, 1711–78
Almost three centuries ago, Laura Bassi smashed conventions and became Europe’s first female professor. An Italian physicist who specialised in the new and exciting field of electricity, Bassi skilfully negotiated a top salary to compensate for her frequent public appearances as Bologna University’s ‘token woman’.
Lise Meitner, 1878–1968
As a Jewish woman, the Austrian-born physicist Lise Meitner was doubly disadvantaged during her scientific career in Nazi Germany. After fleeing to Sweden in 1938, she received a plea for help from her research collaborator when the experiments they had planned together produced some unexpected results. A couple of days later, she had solved the problem – they had unwittingly initiated the break-up of a uranium atom. By 1945, her theoretical conclusions had been realised practically in the atomic bomb.
Marie van Brittan Brown, 1922–99
The Big Brother technology of Closed Circuit Television is now a ubiquitous public presence, but African-American nurse Marie van Brittan Brown invented it to protect her friends and family at home. Disillusioned by police negligence, in 1966 she filed a patent for a movable camera that could display images on a TV screen monitor of whoever was at the front door.
Marie Skłodowska Curie, 1867–1934
Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes for her pioneering studies of radioactivity and was the first woman to have won the award in two different fields. This Polish-born French scientist discovered two new elements (polonium and radium), lay the foundations for cancer therapy, and was the first to recognise that changes can take place right inside atomic nuclei – the fundamental insight that led to the development of the atomic bomb.
Mary Anning, 1799–1847
Fossils were crucial for convincing Victorian scientists that evolution had taken place over countless millennia – and dinosaurs provided particularly compelling evidence of the earth’s long past. The seashore collector Mary Anning was scarcely educated, yet she became one of Britain’s leading experts on prehistoric life, scouring the cliffs of Lyme Regis to dig out large skeletons that she sold to eminent London specialists. Her unique palaeontological specimens helped transform beliefs about the origins of life.
Mary Somerville, 1780–1872
In Victorian Britain, Mary Somerville was celebrated as ‘The Queen of the Sciences.’ Her research was published in the Royal Society’s prestigious journal, her interpretation of complex French astronomy became a standard textbook, and her syntheses of scientific knowledge communicated the latest discoveries to public audiences. Although unable to go to university herself, the Oxford college named after her opened the doors to women’s education. In 2017, Somerville’s contribution to science was recognised by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which featured her on its new plastic £10 note.
Maryam Mirzakhani, 1977–2017
Maryam Mirzakhani was only 40 when she died, but she had already transcended gender and ethnicity norms by becoming the first woman, and the first Iranian, to win the coveted Fields medal, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Mirzakhani changed the world in her geometrical imagination, calculating the characteristics of countless billiard-table universes, each constantly morphing into different shapes.
Rosalind Franklin, 1920–1958
When the double helix structure of DNA was discovered, scientists claimed that they had unravelled the secret of life itself. The crucial piece of evidence was provided by the expert crystallographer Rosalind Franklin – the famous photograph 51, an X-ray picture showing a dark cross of dots, the signature image of a concealed molecular spiral. The life-changing innovations that followed – mapping the human genome, test-tube babies, genetic engineering – all depend on understanding the chemical foundations of heredity.