7 Inspiring women who shaped Britain

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Life

7 Inspiring women who shaped Britain

We're paying tribute to seven women who proved that when it comes to ambition, there should be no limit. These trailblazing scientists, politicians, musicians, computer programmers and astronauts each did their bit to change the world. Prepare to be inspired. 

Science – Rosalind Franklin

English chemist Rosalind Franklin identified the structure of DNA long before the 'official discoverers' James Watson and Francis Crick, who stole some of her research and gave her no credit.

Franklin produced X–ray diffraction images of DNA at King’s College London, which led to her discovery that the structure was a double-helix.

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Watson suggested that Franklin should be awarded her own Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sadly by that time she had passed away from ovarian cancer, aged just 37, and the Nobel Committee refused to make a posthumous nomination.


"Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated."

- Rosalind Franklin

Franklin was working against a great deal of sexism during her career. Her close friend and biographer Anne Sayre described the great inequalities between the male and female staff at King’s College, where Franklin worked:

“While the male staff at King’s [would] lunch in a large, comfortable, rather clubby dining room [the female staff would have to] lunch in the student halls or away from the premises."

Francis Crick later admitted that the male staff, himself included, “always used to adopt—let’s say, a patronising attitude towards her.”

Since her death, Franklin has been widely recognised for her contribution to science. The National Portrait Gallery hung her portrait next to those of Crick and Watson in 1998.


Space – Helen Sharman

Chemist Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space as part of Project Juno in 1989. After responding to a radio advertisement looking for the first British astronaut, she was selected for the mission ahead of 13,000 other hopefuls.

Sharman was no simple lottery winner, however. The scientist was subjected to a demandingly thorough selection process that looked for an impressive scientific, educational and aerospace background as well as an aptitude for learning new languages.


"We should be pushing our boundaries. After all, we Britons are explorers and adventurers."

– Helen Sharman


Of the 545 individuals to ever fly to space, at the age of 27 Dr Sharman remains the sixth youngest person to ever leave our planet.

Following her stint as a cosmonaut, Sharman dedicated her career to teaching the public about science has even written a children’s book called The Space Place.


Journalism – Dorothy Lawrence

Dorothy Lawrence
Image via S Moda

Essentially an orphan since birth, despite her minuscule connections, Dorothy Lawrence grew up determined to become a journalist. 

Having had some minor success with her writing, and articles published in The Times, Lawrence wrote to several Fleet Street newspapers when World War One broke out, desperate for a chance to cover the conflict.

With no luck, the amateur reporter decided to take matters into her own hands. Lawrence entered the war zone as a freelance war correspondent for the French. To her frustration, she was soon arrested and removed.

After spending a rough night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris with her mind made up. Disguising herself was the only was she could obtain the story she wanted to write.


"I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish."

– Dorothy Lawrence

Lawrence befriended ten British Army soldiers—she dubbed them her “khaki accomplices"—and convinced them to smuggle her a uniform, piece by piece.

She then began using corsets to flatten her chest, padding her shoulders with cotton wool, darkening her complexion with shoe polish and shaving her cheeks to add an authentic razor rash. She also persuaded two Scottish military policemen to cut her long brown hair. Finally, she obtained forged identity papers that named her as Private Dennis Smith, and cycled off for the front line of the Somme.

The extremes Lawrence went to conceal her identity soon led to health problems, scared she handed herself in. On the ferry back to her homeland, she met Emmeline Pankhurst who convinced her to speak at a Suffragette meeting back in the UK.

Eventually, Lawrence settled back in Islington and wrote a memoir of her experiences, entitled Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Sadly she was deemed insane later in life and committed to a North London mental asylum where she died and was buried in a pauper’s grave.


Politics – Diane Abbott

British Labour Party politician Diane Abbott made history when she became the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons in 1987, representing Hackney North and Stoke Newington. 

Born to Jamaican immigrants living in London, Abbott worked her way up in the Labour Party, starting out as an admin trainee in the Home Office. She now serves as the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.


"Outsiders often have an insight that an insider doesn't quite have."

– Diane Abbott

Abbott has never been afraid to speak her mind, and is notable for voting against Labour Party policy on several major issues. She cites herself, for example, as the "only candidate who listened and voted against the Iraq War."

She also opposed ID cards and renewing Trident and she has spoken out for race rights and equal marriage laws. 


Computing – Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace
Image via Mashable

The only legitimate child of the renowned poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace certainly wasn’t preoccupied with following in her father’s footsteps.

Remembered by history as the first computer programmer, today Lovelace is chiefly praised for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine, an early mechanical computer. Her notes for the project are now recognised as the first algorithm intended for use by a machine.

In Lovelace's youth, her mother—who was understandably bitter about her husband’s repeated infidelity—encouraged her daughter's interest in logic and mathematics, in order to stamp out 'Byron’s insanity'.

"The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be." 

– Ada Lovelace

Lovelace however, didn’t see the line between the disciplines as so rigid. In fact, she frequently described herself as a “poetical scientist” or “analyst and metaphysician”.

As a girl, Lovelace was surrounded by powerful women. Her tutor was the great mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, who played an instrumental role in the discovery of Neptune, and the pair remained close throughout her adult life.

Ada Lovelace’s legacy is extensive. The US Department of Defence uses a computer language named 'Ada' and 'Ada Lovelace Day', celebrated every October, aims to raise the profile of women working science, maths and technology.


Art – Barbara Hepworth

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s work was primarily occupied with the notion of relationships. Not just between people, but between people, their environment, the landscape, colour and society.

Hepworth was a major international figure in the artistic community and exhibited her work all over the globe during her five-decade career. Conscious of her position as a prominent woman in a male-dominated art form, Hepworth was always careful to control the way her work was presented and documented.


"At no point do I wish to be in conflict with any man or masculine thought. It doesn't enter my consciousness. Art is anonymous. It's not competitive with men."

– Barbara Hepworth

Known for breaking boundaries with her technique, she also broke down boundaries of gender in the industry. As art historian Alan Bowness put it, “She simply asked to be treated as a sculptor (never sculptress), irrespective of sex”. 

Hepworth maintained a friendly rivalry with fellow sculptor Henry Moore, who she met when the pair were studying at Leeds School of Art. The area of St Ives, Cornwall, where the pair both lived, is infamous for the artist's colony Hepworth helped establish there. Other artists settled there included Piet Mondrian, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis.

A museum and garden dedicated to Hepworth remains one of St Ives' most popular tourist attractions. 


Music – M.I.A (Mathangi Arulpragasam)

Image via StereoGum

The multi-talented singer, rapper, painter and director Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam—better known by her stage name M.I.A—is one of the most progressive musicians of the 21st century.

Her work combines alternative, electronic, hip-hop, dance and world music genres to create a truly unique sound. Influences on the anti popstar's musical style include Lou Reed, Beastie Boys, Madonna, Bjork, Michael Jackson and Timbaland.


"Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs. Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked."

– M.I.A

M.I.A has defied lyrical conventions with the highly politicised themes of her music. Her debut album Arular spoke about her experiences with identity politics, gender, war and the living conditions of working class Londoners. She also used her album’s platform to speak out about the West’s involvement in the Iraq war during the Presidency of George Bush.

Arular also made heavy reference to the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka, of which her father—who the album is named after—was a part. 

Arulpragasam has also used her platform to bring awareness to the oppression of Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans: a decision which has seen the USA restrict her access to the country on numerous occasions. 

Feature image via Sidney Smart

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