Today is international women’s day, and as part of that the WAM Awareness Representatives thought it would be good to reflect on St Mary’s past and devote attention to some of the alumni that have walked these halls. In addition, we’ll look at some of the most influential women in history. However, despite these many acclaimed females; equality still does not exist between men and women. For this reason we must keep pushing for equality and attempt to bring men and women in unison rather than debating who the better “sex” is.
St Mary’s College Alumni
Joan Baxter: Not only was Baxter a hugely influential individual in terms of radio and television, but she also went on to win two BAFTA awards and has written over 38 books. By 1981 she was awarded an MBE for her work as an editor on Blue Peter. Since leaving Blue Peter, Baxter has gone on to freelance as a broadcasting consultant and is a member of the Royal Television Society and the Conservation Foundation, an environmental charity.
Katharine Gun: Most famously attached to the leaking of information relating to the invasion of Iraq, Gun was a translator for the Government Communications Headquarters, which is a British intelligence agency. The information that Gun leaked was related to the illegal bugging of some United Nations individuals, in particular six nations that could sway the vote: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea and Pakistan. As a result, Gun was formally arrested although charges were dropped. In 2006 Gun went on to write an article entitled: “Iran: Time to Leak”, in which she encouraged whistblowers to make information public.
Maali Qasem: Studying Law with Economics between 1996 and 1999, she went on to become the CEO and founder of Schema, which remains the only advisory practice in the Middle East and North Africa relating to Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility. In 2010 she received an award relating to Corporate Governance, and in 2011 was recognised as one of the top 100 Thought Leaders in Europe and the Middle East. Being a strong advocate of women’s rights, she has worked with many businesses to promote the value of women in leadership.
Influential Women in History
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431): Considered one of the most influential women of France, she was a heroine who recovered France from English domination. She went on to become influential after the siege of Orleans which lasted only nine days. With several other swift victories she became known as a morale booster and a way to paving the French victory. However, at only the age of 19 years old she was burned at the stake for her treason to the Crown.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797): A huge advocate of women’s rights, during her career she wrote many novels and a revolutionary book named ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. This book was seen as the first movement of feminism, with the piece advising that women are not inferior to men, but appear to be due to their lack of education (something which was only given to men at the time). As such, Wollstonecraft argued that men and women should be treated as equals and given the same form of social foundations.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817): A novelist whose works centred on romantic fiction, Austen became one of the most widely read writers in English literature. She did not gain much acclaim during her time, but did illustrate the transition that was occurring within the second half of the 18th century into realism. She centred mostly on plots relating to the dependence of women on marriage and social standing, but was acclaimed for illustrating the roles of women at the time.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928): Known for being a suffragette, Pankhurst was a British political activist who shaped the right to vote for women. Although her tactics were criticised, it was clear that it was these actions that were crucial, in some ways, towards bringing together men and women in the right to vote. Pankhurst, through joining the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) went on to carry out physical confrontations, such as smashing windows or even assaulting police officers. She repeatedly received prison sentences, where hunger strikes occurred. Due to the constant confrontations, prison sentences and hunger strikes, at 69 years of age she died. Sadly, this was just weeks before the government enacted the Representation of the People Act (1928) allowing women to vote.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934): Curie was a pioneer in the work of radioactivity and was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, and the first to win twice, both in different sciences (Physics, in 1903 and Chemistry, in 1911). Coining the term ‘radioactivity’ she went on to develop techniques that allowed for radioactive isotopes to be isolated, and discovered both polonium and radium. Unfortunately, due to her exposure with radioactive materials, particularly radium, she died in 1934 at the age of 66. However, her work is still recognised today, and her influence in science is still apparent.
Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011): Both an environmental and political activist, Maathai went on to be awarded the Novel Peace Prize for her developments in sustainability and drive for peace. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which was a non-governmental organisation that focused on planting of trees and environmental sustainability.
Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007): The first woman to lead a Pakistan major political party and the first woman to be elected as the head of the Islamic state’s government. Noted for her authority and astuteness, she drove for national security and Pakistan’s economy. Bhutto went on to develop social-capitalist policies and emphasised the deregulation of the financial sector allowing for more flexible labour markets.
Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997): Becoming recognised as the 20th century model of Royal Patronage, Diana carried out a multitude of charity work. In 1991, she was involved in campaigns of animal protection, AIDS awareness and against the use of inhumane weapons. She worked with many homeless organisations, as well as ones that worked with the youth, elderly and those who were struggling with drug addiction. In 1995, she was awarded with the Leonardo Prize, which is given to those who are distinguished patrons.
J.K. Rowling (1965 – Present): Best known for her Harry Potter series, Rowling has been known to work with many charities, as well as establishing the Volant Charitable Trust, which gets an annual budget of £5.1 million to combat poverty and social inequality. For Comic Relief, in 2001, she went on to create two books: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and ‘Quidditch Through the Ages’, which went on to gross £15.7 million for the fund. Rowling has also worked on funding for multiple sclerosis.
Malala Yousafzai (1997 – Present): An advocate of girl’s education, Yousafzai became a target for the Taliban, with which she was shot in 2012 when travelling home from school. Thankfully she survived and has continued to speak out on the importance of education, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, being the youngest winner of this award. Due to the widespread attacks on girl’s schools in Swat, Yousafzai went on to give a talk about the right to education, speaking out for the rights of women and the right to education. To this day, she is still considered a target by the Taliban, but continues to speak up against issues of women’s rights and education.
Prejudice towards women still occurs around the world to this day. In many countries including the US, women working in the same professions as men are paid less. This pay gap is known to be as high as 20% in some cases. Whilst this has decreased over the years, this demonstrates how work still needs to be done to improve this discrimination. There are also more extreme forms of discrimination taking place. Throughout Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa and central and Eastern Europe, female trafficking occurs with an estimated 700,000 being trafficked each year. The main reason for which is sexual exploitation. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive and if a woman in Nepal is raped or assaulted the perpetrators are not even arrested.
Clearly, we are not able to include all the women who have had an influential impact since leaving St Mary’s College, nor can we consider all women throughout history. However, the aim of this was to illustrate how influential women have been both in the modern day and throughout history. Although equality is on the rise, it does appear that we have a long way to go. Hopefully this article has raised awareness about prejudice that occurs towards women, and also encouraged women through examples of extraordinary people, with the hope that increased awareness will help to alleviate it in the future.