3 Pioneering women who changed history

BY Kia Cochrane

1st Jan 2015 Life

3 Pioneering women who changed history

As International Women's Day approaches, we're celebrating women who have changed the world through their lives, work and actions. This extract from Kira Cochrane's Modern Women reminds us of three such trailblazers. 

Mary Anning

Palaeontologist, 1799–1847

Mary Anning

One freezing night in December 1823, Mary Anning was at the foot of a cliff near her home in Lyme Regis, working to free her discovery from the earth. It was the skeleton of a nine foot long creature, with four paddles and a tiny head, an almost complete example of an ancient marine reptile of which she had found a partial skeleton a few years earlier.

The discovery of a Plesiosaurus was the latest in a series of finds which started before Anning reached adulthood. In 1812, a year after Anning’s older brother Joseph found the skull of an Ichthyosaurus, she found its skeleton – the first complete skeleton of what would later be renamed Temnodontosaurus platyodon. She was just twelve years old. The industries open to working class women were farm labour, domestic service and the emerging field of factory work, but Anning pursued a different course, exploring the remarkably fossil-rich coastline of Lyme Regis for bones that profoundly expanded our understanding of the world and its origins. Mary Anning is "probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of palaeontology," wrote Stephen Jay Gould in 1992. "She directly found, or pointed the way to, nearly every specimen of importance."

Born in 1799, Anning’s prospects seemed bleak; Richard and Molly Anning had nine children, and only Mary and Joseph survived infancy. These were particularly hard times for poor families, as Patricia Pierce writes in the biography, Jurassic Mary, and a year after Anning was born, her father Richard, a cabinet-maker, led a bread riot in Lyme, protesting against the scarcity of food. Richard was a dissenter, a religious non-conformist, who attended the Congregationalist church, rather than the Church of England. This was not unusual in Lyme, but was controversial in the wider world, giving the family an outsider status.



"She directly found, or pointed the way to, nearly every [Jurassic] specimen of importance"



Anning learned to read and write at the Dissenters’ Sunday school she attended from the age of eight, and a copy of a religious magazine given to her by her brother survives – it contains essays on two subjects that would define her life’s work, one reasserting the Genesis story that God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, the other encouraging dissenters to learn about the new field of geology (which would call that Bible teaching into question). As children, she and Joseph went on fossil-finding expeditions with their father, selling small finds on a table outside their home.

In 1810, Richard died of consumption, aged 44, and the family was left in debt. Anning’s finds showed an entrepreneurial as well as a scientific streak, with that first discovery of a seventeen-foot ichthyosaur, when she was 12, sold to the Lord of the Manor for £23. In 1826, Anning and her mother Molly opened a shop where they sold fossils, bones and sea shells, and in 1844 Dr Carus, the King of Saxony’s medical attendant, described a visit. "We fell in with a shop in which the most remarkable petrifactions and fossil remains – the head of an Ichthyosaurus, beautiful ammonites, etc, were exhibited in the window," he wrote.

Anning’s search for fossils was often dangerous, notes Pierce. The best discoveries were made when the weather was turbulent, the ground unstable, bones rising to the earth’s surface; on one expedition, Anning came close to being killed by a falling rock, which killed her beloved dog Tray instead. By the age of 30, she had made five major discoveries – including a Pterodactylus macronyx in 1828 (later named the Dimorphodon macronyx) – and had honed her ability, not just in the extraction, preservation, presentation and sketching of the bones, but in investigating them. She became skilled at dissecting existing creatures, comparing their anatomy to that of their prehistoric forebears.

Mary Anning
The Sedgwick Museum displays Anning's portrait next to Plesiosaur fossils. Image via Mirage

This was not a good era in which to be a female scientist – particularly one of a working class, dissenter background. The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, didn’t elect women fellows until 1945, and Anning wasn’t even allowed to attend meetings of the Geological Society, let alone become a fellow. As a result, it was geologist William Buckland, rather than her, who lectured to the society in 1829 about Anning’s discovery of the Pterodactylus macronyx. This was the same Buckland who, in 1831, on becoming president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, explained that members had decided to keep women out, because if they were to attend, "it would at once turn the thing into a sort of Albemarle-dilettante-meeting, instead of a serious philosophical union of working men".

That same year, Anna Maria Pinney wrote about her friend Anning’s bitterness: "according to her these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages." Anning had every reason to be angry. For all her brilliant discoveries, her life was marked by poverty and loneliness, and came to an early end, when she was just 47 years old. She had suffered the pain of breast cancer for at least two years.


Sophia Duleep Singh

Suffragette, 1876–1948

Sophia Duleep Singh

The art galleries at Hampton Court Palace were closed, subject to an unspecified threat from the suffragettes. This was 1913, the height of the militant movement, when the campaign for women’s votes included arson, window smashing and iconoclasm – paintings slashed or vandalised. But outside Hampton Court Palace, the area where she lived in a grace and favour apartment, Sophia Duleep Singh was selling copies of the newspaper The Suffragette. Public anger towards the campaigners was growing, but she would not be silenced. Photographs show her in a fur coat, her bag bearing a ‘Votes for Women’ sash, beside a sandwich board reading ‘The Suffragette Revolution!’

The struggle for votes for women then stretched back more than a century in Britain. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft had made the case for women’s right to political representation in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the first petition for the women’s vote was presented to the House of Commons in 1832. Forty years later, Emmeline Pankhurst, aged fourteen, attended her very first women’s suffrage meeting, and when she was in her mid-forties, in 1903, she co-founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The non-militant movement, known as suffragists, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, had been campaigning carefully and determinedly for years, but with the advent of Pankhurst’s suffragettes (a diminutive and pejorative coined by The Daily Mail newspaper, which the women embraced) the next decade was explosive. Women chained themselves to the Prime Minister’s railings; unveiled a banner on a steam launch on the Thames; and took to the skies in a balloon, scattering suffragette leaflets.



"Singh hurled herself at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s car, pulling a banner from her fur muff reading ‘Give women the vote!’"



Around 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain over the course of a decade, and in 1909, artist Marion Wallace Dunlop went on hunger strike, demanding recognition as a political prisoner. Other women followed her lead and the authorities responded with forcible feeding: a tube forced into a woman’s mouth, nose, or rectum. In June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison was martyred for the movement, stepping on to the racecourse at the Epsom Derby into the path of the king’s horse Anmer, a suffragette banner rolled up in her hand, another pinned around her waist. She died in hospital four days later, and suffragettes processed through London, dressed in white, to mark her funeral.

Sophia Duleep Singh joined the WSPU in 1908, after meeting Una Dugdale, a passionate member, who became the first woman in England to drop the word ‘obey’ from her wedding vows. As Anita Anand writes in her essential 2015 biography of Singh, her activities began, gently enough, with fundraising and bake sales, but in 1909 she became part of the tax resistance movement – women who refused to pay taxes on the basis that there should be no taxation without political representation. On 18 November 1910, Singh was in the vanguard of nine women, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who led a march on parliament, after the latest bill to secure the women’s vote had been deprived the time needed to pass.

When they reached parliament, the group found themselves pressed up against the gates, unable to enter. Not far away, more suffragettes were massing, and Singh watched helplessly as they were brutalised and molested by police and the crowds, in what became known as Black Friday.

This didn’t dent Singh’s commitment. In 1911, she joined the suffragette action to subvert the census, one of thousands of women who stayed out on the night of the count, because ‘if women don’t count, neither should they be counted’. That same year, Singh staged her most audacious protest, hurling herself at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s car, pulling a banner from her fur muff reading ‘Give women the vote!’ This presented a problem for the authorities.

taxation suffragette
Singh's Taxation Without Representation campaign. Image via Historic Royal Palaces

Singh was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, and the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the so-called Lion of the Punjab, founder and ruler of the Sikh Empire in India. A decade after Ranjit Singh’s death, his son Duleep Singh, aged eleven, had been forced to sign over his kingdom to the British, who took control of the territory and proceeded to expel him. He was brought to Britain, where Queen Victoria treated him as an exotic pet, and he was given an annual income by the India Office.

Duleep Singh married Bamba Müller, the child of a German merchant and an Abyssinian slave, and they had seven children, six of whom survived infancy. Sophia Duleep Singh was the second youngest. A rift opened in her parents’ marriage while Singh was a child; her father was increasingly unfaithful and his anger at the British deepened. Her mother was lost to a serious depression and drank dangerously, before dying of renal failure when Singh was eleven. Duleep Singh was in Russia, and the care of his children was left to the palace and the government. Singh became a debutante, moving into a house opposite Hampton Court Palace, her life a round of parties, banquets, shopping and dog shows. But trips to India in her twenties and thirties changed everything.

The campaign against British colonial rule awoke Singh’s political consciousness, and on returning to Britain she wrote in her diary of her loathing for the English and desire for India to awake and free itself. Her dog show days were over. Singh campaigned in support of the lascars, merchant seamen from India and China who were recruited by the British to transport cargo and often exploited, beaten, or left to starve. She became a suffragette, and when Emmeline Pankhurst called for the suspension of campaigning at the start of the First World War, she worked at one of the British hospitals where Indian soldiers were being cared for.

In 1918, women over 30 who owned property won the right to vote in the UK; in 1928, women secured voting rights on the same terms as men. The suffrage campaign was over, but Singh’s commitment to women’s rights was lifelong. In Who’s Who, under interests, she simply wrote, ‘The Advancement of Women’.


Ida B Wells

Activist and journalist 1862-1931

Ida B Wells

On her way home to Memphis in 1883, Ida B. Wells bought a first class rail ticket. She proceeded to the Ladies carriage, where only women and their male companions were allowed, and she could travel without the attentions of single men. The conductor told her to move: he wouldn’t allow a black woman to ride in first class. Wells refused to give up her seat, just as Rosa Parks would, 72 years later, in one of the defining protests of the civil rights movement. The conductor left, then returned, repeating his instruction and moving Wells’s bags to the smoking carriage. He grabbed her arm, trying to move her forcibly. Wells sank her teeth into his hand, and only when two more men joined him did they succeed in moving her.

She filed a lawsuit against the railroad for assault and discrimination, and won, awarded $500. But this led to a racist outcry, and her victory was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, with the rail company lawyer questioning Wells’s right to call herself a lady. She ended up liable for court costs of $200. Wells wrote about the case, and this marked the start of an extraordinary career as an activist and journalist that would make her, for a time, the most famous black woman in the US.

Born into slavery in 1862, Wells was three years old when the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished the slave trade. Her parents were skilled urban labourers and, as Mia Bay writes in her biography of Wells, To Tell the Truth Freely, they were "intent on remaking themselves and their children as free people". Wells grew up a passionate reader, and in the mid-1870s attended Rust College.

This period of study ended when yellow fever swept Wells’s hometown of Holly Springs, killing her parents and baby brother Stanley. She was head of the family, aged 16, and was determined to keep her five younger siblings together, supporting them by teaching.



"He grabbed her arm, trying to move her forcibly. Wells sank her teeth into his hand"



Aged 19, she moved to Memphis with her two youngest sisters and continued to teach; after the article about her protest she continued to write too. There were only 45 black female journalists in the US in the 1880s, writes Bay, and Wells became well known by her pen name: Iola, Princess of the Press. In 1889, while still a teacher, she bought a one-third interest in a newspaper called The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and became editor – she was the first woman in US history to own and edit a black newspaper. She made it a commercial success, which proved fortunate when Wells lost her teaching job, after writing an article which criticised the conditions in Memphis’s black schools.

The courage to write the truth, whatever the consequences, was essential to her next move: investigating lynching. Between 1882 and 1930 lynching was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,220 African-Americans, and as Bay writes, this white-on-black mob violence "was so popular in the South that it was commemorated in postcards featuring the dead black bodies hanging from trees, bridges, and streetlights". Until Wells took it on, it went almost unchallenged.

Her campaign began after the killing of her friend, Thomas Moss, in 1892. Moss owned a grocery store just outside Memphis and its success led to threats from white vigilantes, who resented the competition. One day, some plain-clothes police deputies descended on the store, and were shot and wounded by armed guards, in a case of mistaken identity. According to Moss’s testimony and his wife’s, he was at home at the time, but he and two employees, Calvin McDowell and William Stewart, were jailed, and held without bail for three days until a white mob dragged them off. In a barren field, they were shot, and McDowell’s eyes were gouged out.

Ida B Wells's pamphlet exposed the racism and sexism behind lynchings in the Southern states

Wells was away at the time, and was horrified when she returned to Memphis. She wasn’t the first person to write about lynching, but was the first to unpick the rape myth most often used to justify the violence. It was argued lynchings were necessary punishment for black men who raped white women – inherent in this was the idea that black men had a greater propensity to rape than white men. Wells exposed the fact that in many lynching cases there wasn’t even a rape allegation, and when there was, there often existed a consensual relationship between a black man and a white woman – lynching was a way of terrorising the black community, and laying claim to white women’s bodies. Proof of this last argument was the fact that the rape of black women was not punished by lynching, or generally at all. Wells spent much of her career documenting the sexual assault of black women.

She wrote a series of editorials on lynching for Free Speech and a white mob descended on the newspaper’s offices, destroying them, and leaving a note that anyone who published the paper "would be punished with death". Wells left Memphis with a pistol in her purse, writes Bay, travelling to New York, and then the UK, where her supporters, including the Duke of Argyll, set up the British Anti-Lynching Committee. This didn’t make Wells popular at home. The New York Times described her as "a slanderous and nasty minded mulattress". 

Wells kept going despite the backlash, writing the pamphlets Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895). She married attorney Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, keeping her own name (she was known thereafter as Ida Wells-Barnett), and the couple had four children. She also became owner and editor of The Conservator newspaper.

Wells was involved in the formation of many influential groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but was often sidelined – she refused to be deferential. Settling in Chicago, she set up the Negro Fellowship League to help young men who were struggling to survive, and too often criminalised. From the moment she refused to give up her seat, Wells spent a lifetime fighting for the good.


The above extracts are published in Modern Women: 52 Pioneers by Kira Cochrane, £20 Frances Lincoln

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more inspiring stories

Enjoyed this story? Share it!


Loading up next...