Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart come rightly close to the top of most ‘who are the most influential women in history’ lists, but who are the women that our great-great grandchildren will talk about a century from now as women who pushed the boundaries to (and often beyond) breaking point, women who smashed the glass ceiling to pieces, women who stood up to be counted and women who made their voices heard?
These are the women fighting the good fight – for climate change, for economic inclusion, for political empowerment, for education, for scientific discovery and above all, women who believe in their causes so fiercely they are prepared to make incredible sacrifices to change the world for the better.
Kamala Harris, Vice-President of the United States
‘While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last’
Kamala Devi Harris was born to Shyamala Gopalan, a world-class biomedical scientist who arrived in the US from India in 1958 and Donald J Harris, a Stanford University professor emeritus of economics who arrived in the US from (then) British Jamaica in 1961. She has spent her life collecting ‘firsts’, all the while making an absolute racket as she smashes through glass ceiling after glass ceiling.
She was the first female district attorney of San Francisco. She was the first female attorney general of California. She was the first Indian-American in the US Senate. She was the first Indian-American candidate from the two major parties to run for vice-president. She is the first woman to be vice-president and, if Joe Biden only serves one term (which appears quite likely), she could well become the first female president, the first female black president and the first Indian-American president (delete as appropriate) – in fact don’t, they all are.
Perhaps more importantly, Kamala Harris represents untold millions of women and girls in historically and systematically overlooked, marginalised, underrepresented and ignored demographics and communities from all over the world who can say with conviction that you don’t have to be confined by the colour of your skin or your gender or anything else that has traditionally stood in the way.
In Wilmington, Delaware in her first speech as vice president-elect she said, ‘every little girlwatching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities, and to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before.’
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
‘Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception’
The ‘Notorious RBG’ was the first Jewish woman and only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and throughout her life stood firm and unwavering in her two convictions – there is discrimination against women in America (and elsewhere) and that discrimination violates the constitution.
She was a champion of gender equality and women’s rights as well as being a powerful example of someone who lived her beliefs and wasn’t afraid to put voice to thought. She was inspired in part by her mother who, in a remarkable act of selflessness that forever impressed the young Ruth, decided to forego a college education and work in Brooklyn’s garment district to pay for her brother to attend college.
Married at 21 and a mother shortly after, RBG then enrolled at Harvard Law School after getting her undergrad degree from Cornell University. Balancing life as a law student and mother was hard enough without being chided by the law school’s dean for taking the place of qualified men but she kept calm and carried on, eventually becoming the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
Through her entire career, her struggles neither decreased in intensity nor deterred her from reaching and exceeding her goals. In fact they drove her through the gender-based discrimination women suffered in the 1960s and she made it her life’s work to right the societal wrongs that women were somehow less than men.
She died in September 2020 and Chief Justice John Roberts said, ‘Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature.Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.’
Katherine Johnson, Mathematician, NASA
‘The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there’
If you’ve seen the film Hidden Figures, you’ll know who Katherine Johnson is. If you haven’t, watch it. The story is centred on three mathematicians who worked at NASA during the early 1960s. Nothing unusual about that, there were hundreds of number-crunchers there at the time, but these three were women and they were black at a time in America’s history when there were ‘white only’ and ‘coloured only’ water fountains, segregation on the buses and in schools and deep-rooted racism permeating all aspects of society, white, middle-class, male-oriented NASA included. Once chided for taking a 40-minute loo break, she had to explain to her boss that the bathroom for coloured women was a half-mile walk away in another part of the huge complex.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, she was a gifted mathematician as a child and developed into one of the finest analytical mathematical minds America has ever had. It was her perfect maths that enabled Alan Shephard, the first American astronaut, to fly into space. It was her maths that put John Glenn into orbit in Friendship 7 and it was her maths that calculated the exact trajectories that allowed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to walk on the moon and more importantly, get safely back to Earth.
On the day of John Glenn’s launch, mathematical discrepancies were found in the IBM computer’s calculations. Refusing to fly until the maths was corrected, Glenn instructed the flight director to ‘get the girl.’ Catherine Johnson checked the maths, corrected the maths and assured the Command Centre all was OK. Only then did Glenn board the ship. He was quoted as saying while she was running the numbers on her desktop calculator ‘if she says they’re good then I’m ready to go.’
But because she was a black woman, virtually no-one outside of the space community knows her name.
In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, ‘Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.’ Two years later, NASA opened the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility.
Greta Thunberg, Climate Change Activist
‘When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!’
Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2019, then fifteen year-old Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg started a global movement by bunking off school and standing outside the Swedish parliament building holding a sign which said ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ – School Strike for Climate.
In two-and-a-half short years, she has addressed the world’s heads of state at the United Nations, met the Pope, and on 20th September 2019 she inspired four million people to participate in the largest global climate strike in history. Novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood compared her with Joan of Arc. President Putin declared that she was ‘a kind but poorly informed teenager’ and her Twitter bio was changed to exactly that sentence. After she tweeted about the killing of indigenous people in Brazil, President Bolsonaro said ‘It’s impressive that the press is giving space to a brat like that.’
Within hours, she changed her Twitter bio to ‘pirralha’, the Portuguese word for brat. When Trump was outraged she won Person of the Year he tweeted ‘So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill! (sic). Not long after, her Twitter bio read ‘a teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.’
Three men ruling 700m people owned by a teenage girl with Asperger’s syndrome who doesn’t like crowds, who can’t operate on the same emotional register as most young women her age, who can’t be flattered or distracted and isn’t impressed by celebrity or indeed her own popularity. The irony being of course that it’s these qualities that have turned her into a global sensation. Where others repeat the tired rhetoric of hope, she quotes the science – oceans will rise, cities will flood, millions will die.
She’s not political, she’s not backed by corporate billions and she’s not the first to sound the alarm but because of that and not despite of it, she’s the icon of a generation. She has unwittingly become the standard bearer for a generation of young activists who now have the vehicles at their disposal to get heard on issues such as gun control, gender and racial equality, transparent governments, mental health, science and technology, ethics and education.
Greta Thunberg stood up and said, ‘I’ve had enough of this’, and people listened.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
‘I never, ever grew up as a young woman believing that my gender would stand in the way of doing anything I want’
In March 2017, Jacinda Ardern became the MP for Mount Albert, a suburb of Auckland. At the same time following a resignation she became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. In August of the same year the party’s leader resigned and she was elected unopposed as his replacement. In October she led a gain of 14 seats in the general election and populist party NZ First entered into a coalition with Ardern as Prime Minister. She was sworn in by the Governor-General as the world’s youngest female head of government. She was 37.
In October 2020 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and on a wave of ‘Jacindamania’, she was elected for a second term in a landslide victory.
Not a full day passed as the new leader of the Labour Party when she was not asked whether she felt a woman could have a baby and a high-powered career. In October 2018 her daughter Neve was born, she took six weeks’ maternity leave and shard with the world that her partner Clarke would be a stay-at-home dad.
In the two years’ since, she has energised voters – particularly women and the young – and she has not been afraid to say what she thinks, especially on women’s issues. When an interviewer implied that employers had a right to know whether prospective female employees plan on taking time off to have a baby, she replied ‘it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is the woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.’
She led and comforted her country through one of its ‘darkest days’ after the attack on a mosque in Christchurch killed 50. Her compassionate yet strong response earned her global praise, as has her handling of the coronavirus pandemic which saw just 2,000 cases and only 25 deaths.
She introduced the world’s first wellbeing budget for mental health services, the charge against child poverty and measures to tackle family violence. She is a leader with ambition but she has compassion and unusually for a politician, you’d happily have her round for dinner and a chat.
This of course is not an exhaustive list. We could have filled volumes with women who are making waves in all walks of life but this is just the briefest of glimpses into what can be achieved if you believe it can.
Jules Peck w: vmbt.co.uk e: firstname.lastname@example.org t:+447931325 642