It’s International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, and to spread awareness of the need for equality.
So as a young women who finds herself constantly influenced and inspired by others, I thought I’d do a quick post listing some of the female public figures from both past and present whom I have found inspirational.
These are women who have each made an impact on the world in their own way.
And I warn you now, it’s a very varied list!!
Surely she needs no introduction… Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose members – known as suffragettes – fought to enfranchise women in the United Kingdom. Thanks to the passion and determination of both her and her followers, women eventually won the vote, although tragically she died before women were given full voting rights. We owe her a lot.
After surviving a shark attack in which her left arm was bitten off, professional surfer Bethany Hamilton could be forgiven for hating the creatures. But she’s since spoken about the importance of sharks, taking to social media to share messages of conservation and advocating for their protection. She’s also an exceptionally bright and positive individual who proves that sheer determination can help you succeed. When she lost her arm, everyone thought that her surfing career was over. But she’s proven everyone wrong and still manages to shred awesome waves.
At just 26 years old, Jane Goodall travelled from England to Tanzania to study chimps. But rather than simply observe them, she took a new tactic and decided to immerse herself in their world, experiencing their lives as a neighbour. Her discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees make and use tools is considered one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century scholarship and it’s, in part, thanks to her that we understand as much about chimps as we do today.
Personally I think Emma Watson is a seriously inspirational modern-day role model. She advocates sustainable fashion, launched Book Fairies (an international project that sees thousands of books left in public places for people to enjoy) and, in 2013, became a UN Goodwill ambassador, consistently speaking out on women’s rights and equality. She’s supported the recent #MeToo campaign and she speaks incredibly intelligently and passionately about the things she cares about.
Simone de Beauvoir
Her landmark book, The Second Sex, was an inspiration for the Women’s Liberation Movement, but interestingly Simone de Beauvoir was initially reluctant to call herself a feminist. However, as time progressed, she became more and more vocal, advocating for equality of the sexes. I think her novels are brilliant, but I also think she deserves to be on this list because she highlighted the need for feminism to be recognised as a movement for equality (a hugely important point to make when so many people wrongly label feminists as ‘man haters’). She also said that work was the most important thing women can do in their lives, because work was the “first condition for women’s independence.”
Despite writing in the male-dominated Victorian era, Elizabeth Gaskell repeatedly created strong, independent female characters. In North and South, she lets Margaret Hale express her feelings and physically defend a man from protesting factory workers in a way women just wouldn’t have done. And in Cranford, she creates an entire village where women are solely dependent on themselves and extremely opinionated…
“Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior.” From Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
An incredibly passionate conservationist who spent her live dedicated to the study and conservation of mountain gorillas. Spending time in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Diane fought passionately to protect the ‘gentle giants’ and had an active role in campaigning against poaching. She was tragically murdered in 1985.
Wangari Maathai, was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded the prize for encouraging women in rural Kenya to plant trees, launching the Green Belt movement which challenged deforestation in the country. She became an environmental activist, challenging what she saw as the incompetent, corrupt and often brutal rule of many male-dominated regimes in post-colonial Africa.
For years, Isatou has been educating women in the Gambia to recycle plastic waste – one of the worst pollutants – into revenues for themselves. As founder of the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG), she has helped devise separation systems for paper, plastic, metals and glass and worked on solutions to the ever-growing piles of waste in her village and beyond. What’s incredible is that she didn’t stop there. Some plastics are separated and up-cycled by local women into bags, mats and purses, while rubber is turned into necklaces. She’s helping to reduce waste while empowering women with an income. What’s more, these women then continue to deliver and manage the recycling schemes.
The six-time women’s World Surfing Champion is a well known figure in the surfing world and a billboard for female clothing brand Roxy, which has just launched a campaign to inspire young females. But that’s not all. Steph also sits on the advisory board for Sea Shepherd, taking an active role in promoting ocean conservation. She sits alongside esteemed advisors from the animal protection, conservation, media, arts, legal, and business communities who all lend their expertise in support of Sea Shepherd’s mission to defend, conserve and protect ocean wildlife worldwide.
‘A woman should be two things. Who and what she wants’
Although she may not have realised it, Coco was a feminist and a progressive. Refusing to stick with the traditional clothes of her time, Coco challenged the gender restrictions of clothing. She designed clothes which appropriated styles, fabrics and articles of clothing worn by men but also appropriated sports clothes as part of the language of fashion. If you are a woman and you have a blazer in your wardrobe, you may partly have Coco Chanel to thank for that freedom.
Virginia McKenna OBE
Originally an actress, Virginia McKenna became involved in conservation after acting in the true-life film Born Free (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe). This was a life-changing experience for her and her husband Bill Travers as it led to them becoming active supporters for wild animal rights. Virginia also appeared in the film An Elephant Called Slowly which inspired them to launch the Zoo Check Campaign after one of the elephants, Pole Pole, died prematurely in London Zoo. Virginia and her husband established the Born Free Foundation in 1991 and despite being in her late eighties now, she still takes part in public events, interviews and travels to and from Africa on rescue and rehabilitation efforts. I’ve seen her speak and her sheer knowledge about the numbers of animals left in the wild, and her passion for conservation is truly inspirational.
Most well-known for being First Lady to President Roosevelt, Eleanor frequently spoke out for women’s rights, joining a number of movements and working groups which focused on women’s issues and inequality. She held press conferences for female reporters only (to make a point!) and she urged women to speak their mind on politics, advocating the need for female political bosses. But personally, I admire Eleanor for one of her quotes which has stuck in my head and given me many a confidence boost over the years…
All of these women are famous for very different things. But hopefully as you read through this list, you’ll realise that they all have one thing in common.
And that’s the simple belief that they CAN.
They can make a difference, they can become a world champion, they can speak up for others without a voice…
I think everyone, not just women, need to grasp that belief more. So much is possible if only we believe in ourselves.
So, this International Women’s Day, why not think about who you find inspirational.
And who knows? In a few years, you might even make it on to someone else’s list…