I thought it would be interesting to highlight a few of the women in history that we rarely learn about as a child. When talking of famous inventors, scientists and pioneers it’s nearly always men we hear about at school – I find it sad that during my school years, I never heard one of these amazing women’s names mentioned in any history/science/maths lesson.
Here are just some of my favourite individuals.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917)
The first female doctor in Britain.
She was born in east London, one of twelve children. Her father was a pawnbroker who broke into the business world and was then able to send his children to good schools. Elizabeth, like all women at the time, was expected to marry well and not engage in any profession. Thankfully for us, Elizabeth encountered Elizabeth Blackwell who was the first American female physician and she convinced her to study medicine, citing that she would be a fantastic doctor. Needless to say, women could not study medicine back then and she was denied access to any courses in the country. Eventually she signed up to a nursing course and enrolled in classes that only male doctors were meant to study. Other students complained about her attendance and she was soon barred from any additional classes other than those for nursing. There was however, a loophole. The Society of Apothecaries didn’t state that women could not take part in their exams and in 1865 she gained her doctors certificate. Following this mishap, the society changed it’s ruling so no other women could attempt the same route.
Elizabeth had an amazingly supportive father and with his help, she opened a doctors clinic just for women, a year later in 1870 she was titled as visiting physician to the hospital in East London. She met James Anderson here and they married a short time later.
Elizabeth taught herself french and moved to Paris to attend their university where she earned a degree in medicine. The British Medical Register was not impressed however and refused to recognise it as a viable qualification. This did not deter Elizabeth and in response she merely founded her own hospital – the New Hospital for Women in London within which she employed an entirely female workforce.
What an incredible lady. Because of her, in 1876 an act was passed that allowed women to work in the medical field.
Amazingly for her, even in retirement she was creating firsts. In 1908, having retired to the Suffolk coastline, she because the local Mayor – the first female Mayor in England. Elizabeth Anderson passed away in December 1917.
Octavia Hill (1838-1912)
Octavia was a housing reformer, managing slum properties and ensuring vulnerable tenants were housed adequately whilst fighting for the decent living conditions for London’s poorest families. Octavia collected rent by knocking on the doors of all of her tenants. She used this as a way of initiating close relationships with people so she could work out their needs, not just in terms of housing but welfare, health and socially. Octavia had a proactive method of helping families with financial problems by creating working roles herself. She set up the Walmer Street Industrial Experiment in 1870 which had the aim of giving work positions and training for hundreds of people.
She was also co-founder of the National Trust in 1895. If it wasn’t for Octavia and her environmentally attuned beliefs, it is highly unlikely that people today would be able to visit the beautiful stately homes and preserved nature reserves that we can gain easy access to around our country. She has made historical times obtainable for future generations through her campaigning to ensure open spaces remain untouched. This is how the National Trust emerged. She strongly believed that humans need breathing space, she based her thoughts on long term requirements and wanted to retain an element of nature for future generations to enjoy.
Whilst Octavia’s most poignant legacy was the provision of safe homes for over 3000 people in Victorian London, she also initiated the foundlings of a modern social care. She introduced the notion of a joined up social service long before politicians adopted it as a trendy method of support. Overall, she was quite an extraordinary woman who regularly gets overlooked in the history books.
I find Ada such a fascinating individual. Have you heard of her?
When she was about seventeen she befriended a man called Charles Babbage who was a mathematician and inventor. Under the guidance of Babbage, Ada studied advanced maths with a Professor from the University of London.
It was a fascinating situation really. Babbage invented machines that helped perform maths calculations and Ada was given the chance to study them before they were entirely finished. She was entranced by the whole world of possibilities involved in these creations. Babbage had plans to create an analytical machine that could cope with more complicated mathematical calculations and it was Ada who he asked to later translate an article written by an Italian engineer about this latest machine. So here was her chance…not only was she translating text, she was able to add her own thoughts and suggestions on the machine during construction.
Her work was published in 1843 in a British science journal and Ada used the initials AAL in her publications (Augusta Ada Lovelace).
Her work involved the first style of mathematical coding. Her theories told of a way that machines could repeat instructions which nowadays is a computer programming method called looping. Because of her ideas and theories, Ada is considered our first computer programmer.
Whilst alive her work drew little attention and it wasn’t until the 1950s that her contributions to the field of computer science were appreciated.
The name many people associate as the spearhead of the women’s rights movement.
Emmeline Goulden was born in 1858 in Manchester to family with a love of radical politics. She married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and supporter of women’s rights, in 1879. Interestingly, he wrote a book, Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which despite sounding as dull as you can get, allowed women to retain earnings or property that they had been given before and after marriage. Sadly, Richard died in 1898.
His death gave Emmeline the impetus to push on with her beliefs and in 1889 she founded the Women’s Franchise League which aimed to bring about the vote for women. A few years later she was co-founder of a more active, militant group called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which attracted a lot more attention because of it’s activity. The members of this group were the first to be titled suffragettes.
Emmeline’s daughters Christabel and Sylvia were both active members of the women’s right movement and together, them and their groups caused havoc through demonstrations, arson and hunger strikes on arrest. The government even passed an act called the Cat and Mouse Act because of the roundabout way that members would go on hunger strike whilst in jail, be force fed and then released because they were deemed too ill to be imprisoned. Once they were better, they were arrested again.
in 1914 Emmeline turned her efforts on supporting the war but her work had been worthwhile as in 1918 women were allowed to vote once over the age of 30. She died in 1928, the same year that women were allowed equal voting rights to men after the age of 21.
This is just some of my favourite women from the history books. Do you have any stories to share?