Today is International Women’s Day. The celebration originated in New York in 1908 and is today observed in over 40 countries, celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. To celebrate, we’re looking at eight of the many women who have changed the world, accelerated gender parity and made their societies fairer places for all.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an early advocate of women’s rights throughout her short life that spanned the second half of the eighteenth century. She is best known for her 1792 work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argued that women were not naturally and biologically inferior to men, and that the main difference between the two genders was that women were insufficiently educated. Wollstonecraft disrupted contemporary stereotypes of women, questioning how they could fulfil their predestined roles as mothers and wives if they were not taught to think. She argued that intellect will always govern, and identified the “pernicious effects” that arise from “unnatural distinctions established in society.”
Alimatu Dimonekene, originally from a privileged family in Sierra Leone, experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) as a teenager. She remained silent for two decades, before breaking her silence at an event hosted by the British government in 2014. Since then, Alimatu has continued to speak to and work with parliaments and governments, health services and organisations across the world to raise awareness on FGM and child and early marriage, and forced marriage. She believes that with enough support and awareness, activists can end FGM “in our generation.”
Emily Davison is perhaps the most famous suffragette, one of thousands of women who fought for female suffrage. Everyone has heard of Davison, largely due to her death: in June 1913, in a bid to draw attention to her cause, Davison threw herself under King George V’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby. It is unclear whether her death was intentional, but her dedication to democratic equality was unwavering. The year before her death, Davison quit her job as a teacher to focus solely on her activism. We have her and her fellow suffragettes to thank for the vote today.
In October 2009, Malala – then aged 12 – was shot in the head on the way home from school in Pakistan, where the Taliban was systematically destroying schools and limiting girls’ access to education. Her case struck people all over the world, and today Malala continues her activism, working to advance female education. Her not-for-profit Malala Fund recently financed a school for Syrian refugees, and in 2014 Malala was announced as the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate. Of her attack, Malala has said: “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”
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Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi is one of today’s greatest living champions of democracy. Daughter of Aung San, Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest for promoting democracy and non-violent protest, emerging with total grace, dignity and faith in humanity intact. Of the political upheaval in Yangon in the 1980s, she has said: “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on.” More recently, she has stated that “the only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” In 2015 she led her party to victory in a general election and is currently Myanmar’s first ever female foreign minister.
Lady Lothian OBE
Lady Lothian, known to friends as Tony, was a journalist, broadcaster, author and founding president of the annual Women of the Year Lunches – which she started in 1955. Guests today include politicians, archaeologists, nuns, nurses and academics. In 1970, she lost an eye following a battle with cancer, forever after wearing a black eye patch. In 1997, she was awarded an OBE for services to women and blind people. She pursued her career independently of her husband, and as Director of the National Council of Women, she campaigned to honour and encourage women who had been successful in any walk of life. She believed in “inclusive” feminism (before it became a buzzword).
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was an African American political and social activist who became America’s first female self-made millionaire. In 1910, Walker founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a cosmetics manufacturer that makes beauty and hair products for African-American women. The company began training women to work for them, before running lessons teaching women how to budget, build their own businesses and become financially independent. Furthermore, Walker founded the first conference for female entrepreneurs in 1917.
Let’s end with a slightly more controversial one. The Prime Minister may not be everybody’s favourite person, but there’s no denying her strength, commitment, ferocity, and her excellent ability to work constructively in an overwhelmingly male environment. The second female Prime Minister has spoken out saying that she tried not to consider her gender as an obstacle. “I always took a view… that I should never think I’d failed a selection because I was a woman. I should always ask myself, ‘Which subjects did I not know so much about’… rather than thinking it was about being a woman… It’s important for women and girls to be themselves and be confident about what they do,” May told The Sunday Times earlier this year. And unlike Margaret Thatcher, May has spent her political career encouraging more women to go into politics and addressing the institutional barriers to a more diverse parliament. Mary Wollstonecraft would be proud.