Today is International Women’s Day; a day to celebrate the achievements of women and highlight the importance of gender equality. The event has been held annually for over 100 years.
Of course there are many, many men over the history of humankind whose names belong in the halls of fame and fortune, and I do not for one moment underestimate their importance. There is also an International Men’s Day in November each year, which is the equivalent event for men, although with a broader focus. Men’s health, promoting basic humanitarian values, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality for men by highlighting discrimination against men and celebrating achievement, and championing positive male role models are all covered.
Days such as International Women’s Day (and indeed International Men’s Day) serve an important purpose in encouraging social engagement and generating awareness about relevant issues. They do not bring immediate results in gender equality. But in the longterm this kind of social influence and community led interest is key in prompting changes in politics and policy.
Globally, the issue of female gender equality remains, whatever naysayers would like to claim. In some nations, women continue to find their basic human rights, health, education and safety are directly affected by the lack of gender equality in their society. In other nations, gender equality has long been recognised as an important goal to work towards, even if the detail of that ideal is hard to deliver in practice. But even the most ‘equality-friendly’ countries of the world still see women facing issues with pay differentiation and the career limiting ‘glass ceiling’ in their working lives. And there are deep-rooted gender stereotypes and cultural assumptions that still prevail about academic choices, career choices and lifestyle choices, which continue to influence our youngest generations into subconsciously continuing gender inequality trends.
As my own small way of marking the day I have spent some time thinking about women who I personally find inspiring. When I think about these women and their achievements and legacies, it makes me realise the magnificence of being a woman. It also makes me realise how fortunate I am to be following in the footsteps of these incredible women, no matter how distantly. I find it empowering and it gives me the confidence to stop thinking about the barriers and just go for it. Which is fitting really, as the theme for International Women’s Day this year is ‘Make It Happen!’.
So who inspires me? The list is long, but here are some of the great women that spring to mind:
- Roberta Bondar – Canada’s first female astronaut and the first neurologist in space. She headed the NASA international space medicine research team for over a decade. Her thoughts on gender equality? ‘Men and boys have to see women not as competitors, but as partners. Society is like being in space. It is about being part of a crew. All are equally important’.
- Georgienne Bradley – as the director of Sea Save Foundation, she encourages divers and others to make a difference in marine conservation. In 1990 she documented the shark-finning practices happening at Cocos Island and her continued work to raise awareness resulted in Cocos Island becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Marie Colvin – a fearless American war correspondent, working for The Sunday Times for 17 years, until a shell landed, causing her death on assignment during the Siege of Homs in Syria. She vehemently believed in the importance of reporting the realities of war from the frontline, and never shied away from getting into the action. I think it is a testament to her passion that she continued her work as a war correspondent, despite losing an eye in Sri Lanka in 2001, while covering the conflict between government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers.
- Marie Curie – sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of modern physics’, she was the first famous woman scientist in the modern world, the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in research science in Europe, and the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She pioneered research into radioactivity. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the first person (male or female) to be awarded Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911).
- Dr Sylvia Earle – an American marine biologist and explorer, who has been hugely influential in marine conservation and marine ecosystem exploration. She is a National Geographic explorer in residence, was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was the first Time Magazine Hero of the Planet in 1998.
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – this lady laid claim to a lot of firsts! An English physician and feminist, she was the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, co-founded the first hospital staffed by women, and was the first dean of a British medical school. She was also the first female doctor of medicine in France, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board and, as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain.
- Ellen MacArthur – the successful solo long-distance yachtswoman who, in 2005, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. Her record has since been broken, but she and other women explorers, travellers, and sportswomen before and since inspire women to compete and push the boundaries, which can only be a good thing.
- Dr Andrea Marshall – the ‘Queen of Mantas’ is world-renowned for her groundbreaking research and conservation programs to save globally threatened manta rays. Marine activists like her are making a genuine difference to threatened marine species.
- Angela Merkel – German politician and Chancellor of Germany since 2005, she has been described as the de facto leader of the European Union. Whatever you think of her politics, that is no small achievement in the political world, which is still very much male-dominated and subject to influence by ‘the old boys’ network’. In 2013 Forbes magazine ranked her as the world’s second most powerful person, the highest ranking ever achieved by a woman. In 2014, Forbes also named her the most powerful woman worldwide.
- Georgia O’Keeffe – an American painter, renowned for her large-scale paintings of flowers and landscapes. She created a body of work which gained a credible reputation for American art as being as important as European art. In a time when female artists received very little recognition, many also felt that her artistry and success proved that female artists deserved more.
- Emmeline Pankhurst – a leading light in the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is thanks to her and women like her, British women like me can vote and have a political voice.
- Eleanor Roosevelt – a mould-breaking First Lady, she was often controversial and outspoken. She was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, write a syndicated newspaper column, and speak at a national convention. She was even bold enough to publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies on occasion. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees.
- JK Rowling – a hugely successful novelist, who is also highly regarded for her philanthropy. Her personal rise from struggle and obscurity to international acclaim and immense fortune are a reminder to me that you never know what lucky break may be just around the corner.
- Amy Tan – a Chinese-American writer whose novels explore mother-daughter relationships and the cultural experience, from a Chinese-American perspective. The mother-daughter relationship is such a special, complex, powerful thing and her novels explore it with great sensitivity.
- Nancy Wake – a British Special Operations Executive agent who played a major role during the Second World War. She was a key figure in the French Resistance against the German Occupation. She was awarded the George Medal, the Croix de Guerre with palm (twice), the Croix de Guerre with star, the Médaille de la Résistance (a rare decoration for a foreigner), and the US Medal of Freedom with bronze palm. The Gestapo dubbed her the ‘White Mouse’, for her ability to repeatedly evade capture. She’s only one of many incredible, resourceful, brave women who contributed to the war efforts, without whose efforts the world may have been a very different place.
- Malala Yousafzai – the young Pakistani human rights advocate and activist for women and female education. She is the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate. She survived a gunshot to the head, received because of her outspoken activism under the Taliban regime in Pakistan, and since then her work around female education has become an international movement.
Perhaps you would not have chosen some of them; perhaps there are others that you would put on this list in their place? More important than who is on my list and who is not, it would be lovely to think that, at the very least, this post made you stop and think about the women you are inspired by. Even better if it made you pause and spend a few moments either celebrating your strengths as a woman, or (if you are a man!) recognising the influence and achievements of women in your life. Happy International Women’s Day!