To mark 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK, we asked the In The Moment and Project Calm team to tell us who they find inspiring. Some of them you’ll have heard of, but others are less well-known.
Mary Quant, fashion designer – chosen by Kirstie Duhig, editor of In The Moment
Born in 1934, designer Mary Quant spoke for women’s equality and freedom of expression through her brave and controversial fashion designs. She is among those credited for the creation of the miniskirt – the no-less-than revolutionary Sixties garment that allowed women to throw off the constraints of previous fashions that have, over the years, hampered our ability to breathe, to walk, to sit – while also liberating women from dressing like their mothers!
Mary Wollstonecraft, writer, philosopher and women’s rights activist – chosen by Julie Taylor, editor in chief of Project Calm and In The Moment
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is best known for her book – A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) which was one of the earliest studies of the equality of women and men. Mary’s work was ground-breaking for the time as it proposed women were the equal of men and that is was only the lack of education for women that was holding them back.
“Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks.”
She was also critical of attitudes to women: “Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.”
Mary’s ideas were so radical for the time that even in the late Victorian suffragette movement she was given a low profile, as her life sat uncomfortably with Victorian attitudes. But by the 20th century, Mary’s writings were seen as key developments in the concept of women’s rights; in many ways, she was years, if not centuries ahead of her time.
Nellie Bly, journalist – chosen by Sarah Orme, digital editor of In The Moment
My choice is pioneering 19th-century American journalist Nellie Bly (her real name was Elizabeth Cochran Seaman). She’s a truly formidable character who carved out her career in a male-dominated profession.
Her big break came when she wrote a passionate letter to the Pittsburg Dispatch newspaper in response to a column which implied that women were only good for childbearing and housekeeping. The editor was so impressed by her writing that he offered her a job.
She’s best known for pretending to be insane in order to report on the appalling conditions inside the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, New York. Her report on her stay – called Ten Days in a Mad-House – caused a public outcry and made her famous.
That wasn’t the end of Nellie’s adventures though. Following the publication of Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days, Nellie set off on her own bid to travel around the world in under 80 days in 1889. On her trip, she met Jules Verne in France, visited a leper colony in China and bought a monkey in Singapore. She arrived back home after 72 days – a world record at that time.
I’ve always found Nellie’s story inspiring and I wish that more people knew her name.
Katharine Hepburn, movie star – chosen by Katharine Bennett, production editor of In The Moment
Katharine Hepburn is my ultimate feminist inspiration. Not only is she my namesake, but she was a sassy feminist icon both on and of screen in a time when women were only just starting to be recognised as equals to men. She portrayed smart, independent female characters that could make their own decisions and take control of their futures. And then there was the fact that she only wore trousers – at the time, it was a crime you could be arrested for, but she darn well did it anyway. “I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road,” she told Barbara Walters in an interview in 1981.
Describing her life, she said “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to and made enough money to support myself, and I ain’t afraid of being alone.” I think we can all learn a little something from Katharine’s fierce independence!
Sophie Scholl, anti-Nazi political activist – chosen by Lara Watson, editor of Project Calm
As a 22-year-old during the Second World War, Sophie campaigned with her brother Hans as part of the White Rose non-violent resistance group. Initially the group came together by a shared love of art, music, literature, philosophy and theology. They were caught distributing leaflets at the University of Munich and Sophie was convicted of treason.
She was executed alongside her brother and one other young man, Christoph Probst, and she faced her death with the utmost grace. I am in awe of such bravery at such a young age and believe she is one of the most heroic figures of the last century. As she said herself: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
It’s a truly tragic story and I can’t think of any other woman more selfless, inspiring and brave.
Yayoi Kusama, artist – chosen by Becki Clark, art editor of In The Moment
My inspiring woman is Yayoi Kusama, she was at the centre of the art world in the 1960s and was an influential figure in the postwar new York art scene. She works primarily in sculpture and installation but also produces poetry, film, performance art and fashion.
She is now Japan’s most prominent contemporary artist after achieving notoriety with ground breaking art installations and events and last she had a 50-year retrospective of her work exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC and the Yayoi Kusama Museum was inaugurated in Tokyo.
One of the things I find most inspiring about her is how personal her work is and how embraces her struggles with severe psychological difficulties and uses them as inspiration and vision for her work.
She has been living by choice in a psychiatric hospital since 1977 creating work in her studio that had built across the street from the hospital. She has traded on her identity as an ‘outsider’ in many contexts – as a female artist in a male-dominated society, as a Japanese person in the Western art world, and as a victim of her own neurotic and obsessional symptoms.
Photography from Getty Images