In light of March being Women’s History Month and March 8th being International Women’s Day, here are ten of the most inspirational and influential women from history. The list is by no means exhaustive, and the article can be used as a starting point for learning about so many more.
Amy Johnson is one of the most influential and inspirational women of the twentieth century. Johnson gained both a ground engineer’s “C” licence and her pilot’s licence. She was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. She also set a number of other flying records. Johnson flew a second-hand Gipsy Moth called Jason on the England to Australia flight. She had no radio link with the ground and no reliable information about the weather. Her maps were basic, and, on some parts of the route, she would be flying over uncharted land.
Johnson flew over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, and she had to fly in the open-cockpit of her Gipsy Moth for at least eight hours at a time which would certainly become difficult at times. She left Croydon Airport on 5 May 1930 and arrived at Australia on Saturday, 24 May to a substantial crowd. After breaking several records, and due to the outbreak of war, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary on Sunday 5 January 1941 Johnson left an airfield in Blackpool in an Airspeed Oxford, which she would be delivering to RAF Kidlington, near Oxford. Amy would unfortunately die while attempting to deliver the Airspeed Oxford and her body would never be recovered.
Elsie Inglis is one of the most influential and dedicated women when it comes to practising medicine. Inglis attended Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women where she began to study medicine however in 1889, she would set up a rival school with her father called the Medical College for Women. After qualifying at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, she went on to work at a number of medical facilities and also worked as a lecturer of gynaecology at the Medical College for Women. Later she would open a hospital or women and children in 1894 with Jessie Macgregor. She was fifty years old when World War One started but that did not stop her offering her services to the war office, only to be declined. Inglis did not let the setback stop her and instead formed independent hospital units staffed by women.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH) and both the French and Serbian governments accepted the offer of all female medical units proposed by Inglis. She went to Serbia in 1915 as the chief medical officer and later was working at the hospital in Serbia when it was invaded by German forces. On 3 April 1916, Inglis became the first woman to be decorated with the order of the white eagle. Inglis knew she had cancer, and by the end of September 1917 was unable to work as a surgeon but she continued to direct the SWH and refused to leave until the Serbs were transferred out of Russia. After that she travelled to England and died the following day on 26 November 1917, in the presence of her sisters.
Violette Szabo Originally joined the Women’s Land Army when World War Two began and then joined the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) in 1941. After the death of her husband in October 1942 Szabo was recruited to ‘F’ Section in SOE, as part of a force that sent agents who could speak French fluently to occupied France to work against German forces. The aim of her first mission in April 1944 was to attempt to re-establish contact with members of the resistance network in Rouen and gather vital intelligence. Her second mission occurred on 7 June 1944, Szabo and a few other agents parachuted into south west of France, near Limoges, with the aim of setting up a new network with local resistance groups.
On 10th June 1944 she was on a courier trip with a resistance leader known as ‘Anastasie’ when they encountered German forces. Their car was stopped at a road block and a gun battle took place and Szabo was captured. She was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in early 1945. After her death she would be awarded the George Cross for bravery on January 28, 1947, which would be collected by her daughter.
Josephine Butler became involved in charity work after her six year old daughter died in 1863. She particularly focused on issues related to the rights of women, one the issues she campaigned for was child prostitution. Butler was part of a campaign group which forced parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. In 1869, She began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act making speeches condemning the acts that were introduced in the 1860’s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces .
A large proportion of people at the time were shocked that a woman would choose to speak in public about sexual matters. Partly due to Butler work in 1883 the acts were suspended and repealed three years later. Additionally, she also advocated for women’s education. An example of this passion for women’s education is demonstrated when she pressured the authorities at Cambridge University into providing further education courses for women, which eventually led to the foundation of the all-women college at Newnham. Butler also wrote pieces promoting social reform such as her famous publication called ‘Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade’ which was written in 1896.
Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II after leaving her job as a maths teacher at a high school. Vaughn was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians due to segregation laws in America at the time. In 1949, she was promoted making her the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA’s) first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. As a supervisor Vaughn was granted Laboratory-wide visibility which was rare for black women, and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers on important projects such as the creation of a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. She was an advocate for the women of West Computing and arranged for promotions or pay raises for black or white female computers who deserved them.
She was valued for her work and was often asked for her recommendation on which girls should be chosen for projects. Vaughan led West Computing for nearly a decade. In 1958 Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group which worked on electronic computing. She became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program. Vaughan never received another promotion and retired from NASA in 1971.
Daphne Pearson was a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force non-commissioned officer (NCO) and later officer during World War II and one of only thirteen women recipients of the George Cross even to this day. On 31st May 1940 Pearson entered the burning fuselage on a bomber plane that had crashed on the airfield in Kent , where she then released the pilot from his harness and removed him from the immediate area around the bomber plane. After she was 30 yards from the bomber plane a bomb exploded. She flung herself on top of the pilot to protect him.
After medical staff had removed the pilot, she went back to the plane to look for the fourth crew member but unfortunately, he was dead. After saving the pilots life she was commissioned as an officer in the WAAF and served in RAF Bomber Command for the rest of World War Two. Pearson received her George Cross on 31st January 1941 from King George VI and was the first women to receive the significant award.
Marvingt was a world class athlete, she won gold medals in skiing, bobsledding, skating, rifle shooting and a variety of events. She was the only person in history to earn the gold medal of the French National Sports Federation “For All Sports” which was awarded to her in 1910. Marvingt was named in a 1914 anti-feminist book where she was sited as setting a poor example for young women, because she did not participate in sports for entertainment or health but instead participated to win. She also became the first French woman to obtain a balloon pilot’s license after learning in 1901 and was the first woman to pilot a balloon from the Continent to England over the English Channel which she completed on October 26th, 1909. She also became the third woman in the world to earn a fixed wing pilot’s license after gaining hers on June 10th, 1910.
Marvingt’s greatest achievement was her life-long effort to make the airplane an essential part of medical support for civilian and military casualties. After World War One She gave 6000 public conferences on five continents, directed and acted in two films, and established civil air ambulances in French Colonies in Northern Africa. Marvingt created the first training program for Flight nurses, additionally when formal training was established in France, she became the world’s first certified Flight Nurse.
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress and inventor who created the technology that would later form the basis for modern WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth systems. Perceived as a natural beauty her inventive genius was often ignored. She studied acting with Reinhardt in Berlin after being discovered by him and was in her first small film role by 1930. She would gain recognition in 1932 as an actress for her role in the controversial film, Ecstasy. In 1933 she married munitions dealer Fritz Mandl, in 1937 she would flee from him to England and took with her the knowledge she had acquired about weaponry. From there she went to Hollywood where she met pilot Howard Hughes. Lamarr combined the fins of the fastest fish and the wings of the fastest bird to sketch a new wing design for Hughes’ planes which he thought was genius. In 1940 she would meet George Antheil and commented that ‘’ she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state.’’ As a direct result Lamarr and Antheil began to create ideas to combat the axis powers.
What the two came up with was an extraordinary new communication system which would be used with the intention of guiding torpedoes to their targets in war. She was awarded U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 in August of 1942 for the design, however the Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The rejection led her to instead support the war efforts by selling war bonds. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s patent expired before she ever saw a penny from it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly awarded Lamarr and Antheil with their Pioneer Award in 1997. She also became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Lamarr was introduced into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology in 2014, 14 years after she died.
Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who is best known for her contributions to the discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Franklin also contributed new insight on the structure of viruses, helping to lay the foundation for the field of structural virology. She studied physical chemistry at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. After graduating in 1941, she received a fellowship to conduct research in physical chemistry at Cambridge. However, World War Two changed her course of action: she served as a London air raid warden, and in 1942 she gave up her fellowship in order to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she investigated the physical chemistry of carbon and coal for the war effort. Franklin used her research from her experience in World War two for her doctoral thesis and in 1945 she received a doctorate from Cambridge. From 1947 to 1950 she worked at the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris, studying X-ray diffraction technology. That work led to her research on the structural changes caused by the formation of graphite in heated carbons, the work was deemed valuable for the cooking industry.
In 1951 Franklin joined the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College, London, as a research fellow. There she applied X-ray diffraction methods to the study of DNA. Her work to make clearer X-ray patterns of DNA molecules laid the foundation for other scientists to further study DNA and continue to find new information about DNA. She learnt the density of DNA and, more importantly, established that the molecule existed in a helical conformation which was a vitally important discovery. From 1953 to 1958 Franklin worked in the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London. There she completed her work on coals and on DNA and began a project on the molecular structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. Franklin’s involvement in cutting-edge DNA research was halted by her untimely death from cancer in 1958.