International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the power, achievements, and potential of all women, with an eye firmly on making the world a better and fairer place for all.
But it’s also a prime opportunity to look back into the past, and celebrate the work of the women who’ve come before us, and whose achievements still resonate loudly today.
Leaders, pioneers, visionaries – all feature in our list, and all made an impact on London in one way or another. Here are nine women who shaped London that you should know about!
9 Incredible women who shaped London
1. Kate Hall
Here in 2023, the UK’s top visitor attraction (Tate Modern) is run by a woman, director Frances Morris. But back in 1893, no woman had ever ascended to the position of museum curator in England – until Kate Hall became the curator of the Whitechapel Museum.
A great lover of the natural world, Hall turned the museum into a popular community hub, adding plants and animals in order to help visitors learn about flora and fauna in a hands-on approach. She would go on to found her own museum – the Nature Study Museum, opened in 1904 – give lectures on the natural world at the Horniman Museum, write a book about London’s parks, and generally set a stellar example for female curators to follow in the years to come. The East End Women’s Museum has an excellent long read on Kate Hall, which you can read here.
2. Noor Inayat Khan
One can only blame the patriarchy for the fact that there’s no Hollywood blockbuster telling the tale of Noor Inayat Khan (she is, at least, a character in 2019 film A Call To Spy). A pacifist-turned-radio operator-turned WW2 spy, she helped organise the French resistance to Nazi rule, before being sold out by a double agent and executed – although not before she’d launched one last daring escape mission.
Though born in Moscow and raised mostly in Paris, she set off for her brave mission from London, and is honoured with both a statue and a blue plaque in Bloomsbury. You can read more about her here.
3. Rhaune Laslett
What could you achieve with borrowed costumes from Madame Tussauds and one good idea? Rhaune Laslett used those, plus a large helping of community spirit, to lay the foundations for an event that still draws the crowds today: Notting Hill Carnival. Born in London’s East End to a Native American mother and a Russian father, Laslett realised the importance of bringing today the communities of Notting Hill, and did so with The Notting Hill Fayre and Pageant, which drew a reported crowd of 1,500. And the rest, as they say, is history…
4. Claudia Jones
Of course, if we’re going to give Rhaune Laslett credit for Notting Hill Carnival, then we’ll need to mention the other towering figure who helped create the modern festival: Claudia Jones.
She took a rather circuitous route to London – born in Trinidad, raised in the USA, and deported to Britain on account of her membership with the US Communist Party – but once she arrived here, her influence was indelible.
Even before founding and editing the short-lived but influential West Indian Gazette, she was a vocal activist in the growing British African-Caribbean community, and eventually set up the Caribbean Carnivals first held in London in 1959, which would eventually grow into the modern Notting Hill Carnival.
Further proof of her standing in London can be found at her gravestone; not only is it in Highgate Cemetery (final resting place for many an influential Londoner), but it’s right next door to the tomb of her hero, Karl Marx.
5. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah
The only woman on our list still amongst the living, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is the co-founder of UK Black Pride, now Europe’s largest celebration of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQ+ people.
Founded in 2005 with an aim to cross racial and cultural lines, and celebrate the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum of identity, UK Black Pride is as much a movement as it is a London festival (which falls in early July in non-pandemic years), and does excellent advocacy work throughout the year. Opoku-Gyimah remains a powerful force for equality and love, both in her role at UK Black Pride, and as Executive Director for international NGO Kaleidoscope Trust.
6. Hannah Dadds
Pioneers tend to leave an indelible mark on the places and industries they inhabit, and Hannah Dadds was no exception. As the first female Tube driver, Dadds broke through one of London transport’s biggest glass ceilings, with thousands of women following her since.
She took control of a District line train in 1978, the beginning of a 15-year career as the network’s first female driver, and when her sister Edna joined the London Underground, the duo teamed up to become the first all-female crew on the Underground. In 2019, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at her home base, Upton Park station, to detail her career and achievements.
7. Millicent Fawcett
The only woman to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square – yes, we have so much more work to do on recognising and honouring women – Millicent Fawcett was a leading figure in the suffragette movement.
Sixty years of campaigning for women’s rights helped lead to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, passed just a year before Fawcett died. Her other accomplishments include co-founding Newnham College at Cambridge University, and her statue made history in one other way: it’s the first in Parliament Square to be designed by a woman, having been created by Turner Prize-winning sculptor Gillian Wearing.
8. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Millicent Fawcett wasn’t the only ground-breaking woman in her family, though. Elder sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson made history of her own as the first woman to become a doctor and surgeon in Britain, and that is only the start of a long list of achievements.
With her gender preventing her from working in a hospital, she opened her first practice in Marylebone in 1865, tending to cholera patients in the outbreak of that year.
By 1873, she’d become the first woman appointed to a medical post in Britain, and the following year she co-founded the School of Medicine for Women (now part of UCL’s medical school) with fellow pioneer Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, before eventually serving as its dean. Oh, and she still found time to fight for women’s suffrage, and to serve as mayor of her hometown of Aldeburgh, becoming – you guessed it – the first female mayor in Britain.
9. Mary Seacole
‘Mother Seacole’ may not be as well known as her contemporary Florence Nightingale, but since she previously topped a poll to find the greatest Black Briton, she’s someone you really ought to know.
Born and raised in Jamaica, Seacole brought her nursing talents to British soldiers during the Crimean War, where she founded her ‘British Hotel’ to provide care for the wounded. Though her legacy faded after her death, historians and activists have helped raise awareness of her status and deeds over the past 40 years, bringing her back to the attention of the public. Now, hospital wards bear her name and NHS Seacole Centre at Headley Court in Surrey has been used to provide care for those recovering from Covid-19.
You’ll also find a blue plaque dedicated to her in Soho Square, and an impressive statue outside St Thomas’ Hospital – meanwhile, the Mary Seacole Awards recognise the outstanding work of people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Also published on Medium.