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Influential British Women of the 20th Century

Updated on August 3, 2015

Margaret Thatcher


10 women who changed Britain and the world.

Since the beginning of human history, women have played their part in influencing events, society and the future of mankind. The 20th century however, at least in Britain, was the era when women were granted the vote for the first time, could become members of the armed forces, parliament and even Prime Minister. It was an era of revolution for women's rights: not only did women gain the right to vote, but also the right to equal pay and equal consideration for employment (though some would say there is still a glass ceiling in place)! So, which women contributed to this revolution? Below is a list of the 10 most influential British women of the 20th century.

1 Margaret Thatcher: 'The Iron Lady'

Margaret Hilda Thatcher (nee Roberts) was born in 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her Father, Alfred Roberts, owned 2 local grocery shops and the family lived 'above shop', over the largest store.She married Dennis Thatcher in 1951 and qualified as a Barrister in 1953. Thatcher was elected to represent Finchley in the 1959 election. Although she impressed her fellow Conservative MPs and party members with her talent, and was talked of as a possible future party leader, and perhaps Prime Minister, Thatcher herself was not initially convinced it would happen. In 1970, Thatcher is quoted as saying "There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime—the male population is too prejudiced." She was to be proved wrong, however.

When the Conservatives won the election of 1970, Edward Heath promoted her to a cabinet post as Secretary of State for Education and Science (1970-1974), where she famously presided over the loss of free milk for schoolchildren. The Heath government experienced difficulties with oil embargoes and trade union demands for higher wages. It lost the 1974 election and Heath lost the confidence of his fellow party members. Thatcher won the resulting leadership contest and became Leader of the Opposition in 1975. In the winter of 1978-1979, dubbed 'The Winter of Discontent', the Labour government faced public anger over enforced power cuts and public sector strikes. Thatcher's Conservative party capitalised on this to win the 1979 election, making Margaret Thatcher the first female Prime Minister in history.

'Thatcherism' is now a term for a political ideology of small state, low inflation, tax cuts, privatisation of public services (e.g. British Rail), weakening of trade union power and the reduction of national manufacturing industries (e.g. British Steel), alongside antipathy to European integration.

During her terms of office Margaret Thatcher presided over the miners' strike (1984) and the subsequent closure of many pits, and most notably, The Falklands War, when Britain fought the Argentinian invasion of the British held Falkland Islands (1982).

She was a close ally of US President Ronald Reagan and was one of the first western leaders to respond warmly to Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of Glasnost.

In November 1990 the Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, resigned from his post. This proved fatal to Thatcher's leadership. She faced a leadership challenge the next day from Michael Heseltine. Although he did not secure enough votes to wrest the leadership from her, the contest had irrevocably damaged her, and in a subsequent ballot John Major, Chancellor of the Exchequer, became the new Prime Minister. Thatcher bid a tearful farewell to Downing Street.

2 Emmilene Pankhurst: winning womens' right to vote.

Born in 1858, Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the womens' Suffrage Movement in Britain. Her work is recognised as one of the major factors enabling women to achieve the right to vote. In 1903 she founded The Womens' Social and Political Union (WSPU). This was independent of any political party. It's members used confrontational acts, such as demonstrations, smashing windows, assaults and even arson, to fight for their cause. With the start of the First World War in 1914, the womens' suffrage movement called a halt to their militant activities and turned their attention to supporting the war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over 21 and all women over the age of 30.

3 Marie Stopes: bringing birth control to the masses.

Another campaigner for women's rights, Marie Stopes was a pioneer in family planning. Born in 1880 Marie Stopes came from a scholarly background. When she married in 1911, she realised her husband was impotent and the marriage was annulled in 1914.Around the start of her (initial) divorce proceedings in 1913, Stopes began to write a book called "Married Love". In the book, she included advice on contraception. She offered it to several publishers but it was considered too controversial to publish and they all refused. When a friend introduced her to Humphrey Verdon Roe (later her second husband), her luck changed. A philanthropist who supported Stopes' ideas, Roe paid to have her book published and it became an instant success.

This success prompted Stopes to publish a second book, 'Wise Parenthood: a Book for Married People, which contained more advice on birth control. Many readers wrote to Stopes personally for advice. A year later she wrote 'A Letter to Working Mothers on how to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies,' a free pamphlet with contraceptive advice for the working classes.

In 1921 Stopes and Roe opened a clinic in London which offered birth control advice to married women. This was the start of Marie Stopes International, which now operates in over 40 countries worldwide.

4 Dorothy Hodgkin: Nobel Prize winning chemist.

Born in 1910 in Cairo, Egypt, Dorothy Hodgkin (nee Crowfoot), entered the University of Oxford at 18 to study Chemistry. Hodgkin was particularly noted for her study of 3 dimensional bio-molecular structures using her own advancement of the the technique X ray crystallography.

Her most significant scientific contributions using X Ray Crystallography, were to discover the structures of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. She won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.” She was the third woman ever to win the prize in chemistry and has been awarded many honours since,

She was a lifelong humanitarian and concerned for the welfare of scientists and people living in countries such as China and Soviet Russia.Her colleague Max Perutz (also a Nobel prize winner), is quoted as saying Hodgkin was "a great chemist, a saintly, gentle and tolerant lover of people, and a devoted protagonist of peace."

5 Diana, Princess of Wales; the 'People's Princess'

Diana Spencer was born into a family of British nobility on 1st July 1961. She became Lady Diana Spencer in 1975 after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer.

She became the first wife of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in July 1981 in a ceremony watched by millions worldwide. The Spencer family had long been friends of Charles, who briefly dated one of Diana's elder sisters. They started to date themselves after Diana watched Prince Charles play polo in the summer of 1980. 13 years her senior, Charles was under pressure to marry at this time. The press became fascinated by this couple: the shy, innocent, fashion and pop loving,beautiful Lady Diana, and the hesitant, reserved and rather esoteric, ordinary looking Prince Charles. It seemed a fairy tale come true. The fair tale was not to last.

The royal couple soon welcomed two sons into the family, William (1982) and Henry (known as Harry), in 1984. However, the couple became increasingly estranged, with allegations in later years that both had been unfaithful.

From the mid 1980's, Diana became increasingly associated with charity work. Her support of AIDs charities and AIDS patients themselves, at a time when the disease was stigmatised as a disease suffered by homosexuals and many believed it communicable by touch, could arguably be said to have been a prime force in removing this stigma, circulating the correct information about the disease, and garnering financial support for work to find a cure.

In addition, Diana was the patroness of charities and organisations working with the homeless, youth, drug addicts and the elderly, as well as the battle against land mines. Any charity associated with Diana received publicity and an increase in donations.

During her marriage, Diana suffered from depression and Bulimia. In 1992 the journalist Andrew Morton published "Diane - Her True Story", which alleged Charles had been unfaithful with a former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles and Diana had been unfaithful with Major James Hewitt. In December 1992 the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales was announced in parliament by the the Prime Minister, John Major. This was a sensation: the fairy tale had gone bad. From this time forward, Diana became the primary target of the paparazzi wherever she went.

In 1997, when Diana was in Paris in the company of Dodi Fayed, the son of Mohamed Al-Fayed who owned Harrods. The couple, along with their driver Henri Paul and bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones left their hotel. Their car was followed by paprazzi. In an underpass, their car hit a wall. Although surviving the crash, Diana died hours later in hospital, on 31 August. Many conspiracy theories have been put forward as to the cause of Diana's death, including that it was planned by the Duke Of Edinburgh or MI6. Diana' funeral on 6 September 1997 was watched by 2 billion people worldwide.

After her death and estimated $1 billion poured into the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund.

The lasting legacy of Diana is debatable. What we can be certain of is that she brought issues such as AIDs to the public attention - no longer were they whispered about in corners and sufferers castigated for their own folly. She also talked publically about her own mental health issues: no royal, no public figure, had ever done that before, but many have done so since.She had a determination to direct her loss and suffering outwards and help those who could benefit from her celebrity. This she certainly accomplished. Her death also revolutionised the British Royal Family.For good or ill, they were not allowed to grieve in private. They were pushed to make a public statement, to show their grief. No longer can royalty hide entirely behind closed doors and carefully crafted press releases. Diana remains an icon of fashion, of royalty and sadly, of the consequences of celebrity.

6 Stella Rimington: on Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Dame Stella Rimington was the first woman to become the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) and the first woman to be appointed to Director of any service branch in the UK. Appointed in 1992 she was also the first publicly acknowledged Director General after John Major's Conservative government released her name, much to the surprise and chagrin of the services.

Joining the intelligence service in 1969, Dame Stella took a variety of roles on her way to the top, including counter-terrorism. Under her leadership the agency took the lead role in fighting the IRA. In 1991 she visited Moscow to make the first friendly contact between the British intelligence services and the KGB. She later recalled that old habits died hard: the British intelligence officers were followed round Moscow by KGB officers and even served by Soviet spies at dinner, posing as waiters.

She is particularly noted for starting a programme of increased transparency of the intelligence services, such as releasing historical files to the National Archives (coincidentally Rimington had studied archive administration at the University of Liverpool and once worked as an archivist in Worcester). In 1993 she also oversaw the publication of a booklet entitled "The Security Service", which revealed for the first time details of MI5's activities.

Retiring in 1996, Rimington was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath in the same year. Since then she has published her autobiography and several spy novels.

7 Sue Ryder: a charitable legacy.

Born in 1924*, Margaret Susan Ryder, better known as Sue Ryder, when World War II broke out she volunteered, at age 15, for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which was a source of recruits for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Sue Ryder was soon recruited and assigned to the Polish section of the SOE and often drove recruits out to the airfield where they would leave on missions. She later went to Tunisia and Italy.

After the war, Ryder volunteered for relief work in Europe, particularly in Poland. In 1953 she founded the charity the Sue Ryder Foundation, later known as Sue Ryder Care and now known as simply Sue Ryder. The charity provides nursing care for the elderly and disabled. The charity now operates more than 80 homes worldwide.In 1959, Ryder married Leonard Cheshire, the founder of the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability.

For her work, Ryder was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1957 and made a life peer, becoming Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, in 1979.She continued to work to help Poland and when the Communist rule collapsed, she arranged for lorries carrying medical aid and food to be sent to the country.

When her husband became a life peer in 1991, Ryder also became Baroness Cheshire. She died in Suffolk in 2000.

*there is some dispute as to Ryder's birth date. Her won autobiography claims she was born in 1923, but her birth and death certificates list 1924 as her birth year.

8 Violette Szabo: "A magnificent example of courage and steadfastness"

Born to an English father and French mother in 1921, Szabo spent some of her childhood in Paris, but had moved to London to attend secondary school. She left school at 14 and worked as a hairdresser's assistant and later a retail assistant, at Woolworths.

Szabo married a captain in the Free French army in 1940, but he was killed in action during the North Africa campaign in 1942, having never seen their daughter Tania. Prior to becoming pregnant, Szabo had enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) but gave this up to return to London to give birth, later working at the same aircraft factory as her Father.

It is unclear how she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). All that is known is that she was invited for interview, perhaps because of her fluency in French. She was given security clearance in July 1943 and and selected for training as a field agent.

On 5th April 1944 Szabo was parachuted into France to assess how far a circuit of the French resistance had collapsed, or had been penetrated by the Germans. She found that the circuit had been effectively destroyed, but the mission was not all about loss.Szabo also gathered valuable information regarding factories producing vital supplies for the Germans, which was later helpful in planning Allied bombing raids. She returned safely to London following this mission.

On 8th June 1944 she returned to France on her second mission. On her way to act as liaison between various factions of the French Resistance, her car met a German roadblock. Although she and her companion tried to escape, they were captured. She was transferred to the custody of the SS in Limoges and interrogated for 4 days before being moved to Paris and then Gestapo headquarters. The Gestapo were aware of her true identity.

After interrogation, Szabo was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where 92,000 women died during the war. She endured hard labour, malnutrition and poor hygiene. It is recorded that she helped save the life of a fellow detainee and kept up the spirits of her fellow prisoners, whilst constantly planning to escape. She was executed in the camp on or before 5th February 1945. She is recorded as having been 'Killed in Action'.

Szabo was awarded the George Cross posthumously in 1945. The citation read "She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness".

Other posthumous awards:

1947: The Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Bronze (by the French government)

1973: Medaille de la Resistance (by the French government)

9 Rosalind Franklin: A pioneer of the study of DNA

Born in 1920, Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer. She is best known for her work on the X ray diffraction images of DNA, which led ultimately to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Her work enabled the detection of the of a helical structure for DNA and contributed to the work of Francis Crick. Crick himself has said Franklin's data and research were key in his and James Watson's 1953 model of the structure of DNA. Watson confirmed this opinion in a statement in 2000, when he opened King's College London's Franklin-Wilkins building. Watson has also suggested that Franklin should have been awarded a Nobel prize for Chemistry (though Franklin died in 1958 and Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously).

10 Kate Adie: Grace under fire.

Kate Adie has become famous as a BBC News correspondent reporting from dangerous war zones around the world.

She was born in Northumberland in 1945 and adopted by a family in Sunderland. She joined the BBC national news team in 1976. She first came to prominence with her reporting on the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. As the duty reporter, she was first on the scene when the SAS (Special Air Service) stormed the embassy. The snooker championships were interrupted for her live broadcasts from the siege, unscripted and reporting from behind the shelter of a car door.

After reporting on other incidents (such as the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 and the Lockerbie disaster of 1988), Adie was promoted to Chief News Correspondent for the BBC in 1989. In her 14 years in that position, Adie reported from the Tiananmen Square protests, the first Gulf War, the Balkan war, the Rwandan genocide and the war in Sierra Leone. Her name has become a by-word for calmness under fire.

Since leaving her position as Chief News Correspondent, Adie has written several books and works as a freelance journalist. She was awarded an OBE in 1993.

Margaret Thatcher: 'The Lady is not for turning' speech

Princess Diana
Princess Diana | Source
Emmeline Pankhurst speaking to a crowd.
Emmeline Pankhurst speaking to a crowd. | Source
Kate Adie
Kate Adie | Source


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