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Florence Nightingale

British women who changed the world

Photograph of Florence Nightingale | Wikimedia Commons

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we recognise some of those British women from history who influenced the lives of a great many people and helped shape the world we live in today.

Queens and warriors

Boudicca (Died c.60 - 61 AD)

She was the rebel queen of the ancient British Celtic Iceni tribe, who led an army against the Romans in AD 60/61, securing her place in the history books as one of Britain’s most iconic rulers. After suffering a public flogging and witnessing the rape of her two daughters, Boudicca raised an army that destroyed Roman strongholds at Colchester, London and St Albans, killing between 70-80,000 people in the process. Eventually, Boudicca’s rebellion was put down and she apparently poisoned herself, along with her two daughters.

Æthelflæd - Lady of the Mercians (c.870 – 918 AD)

The eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd helped lead the fight against the Vikings and lay the foundations for England. After her husband passed away, Æthelflæd took over the governing of the kingdom of Mercia, becoming the Lady of the Mercians - a truly remarkable accomplishment given the male-dominated times in which she lived. She went on the offensive against the Vikings and over the coming years played a significant role in the conquest of Danelaw, the Viking kingdom in England.

Anne Boleyn (c.1501/07 – 1536)

The second wife of Henry VIII was a key player in the English reformation – a series of events that saw the Church of England break away from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. Henry wished to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could be free to marry Anne. When Pope Clement VII declined Henry’s wishes, Henry began the separation of the Church of England from Rome. Anne would go on to be Queen of England for three years and give birth to one of the country’s greatest monarchs, Elizabeth I, before being beheaded for treason.

Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) & Catherine Parr (1512 – 1548)

The Virgin Queen is one of Britain’s most successful and popular rulers. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was the last of the monarchs from the house of Tudor. Her reign (known as the Elizabethan era) lasted 44 years, heralding in a period of relative stability and economic prosperity, which gave rise to a golden age in exploration and the arts. She established Protestantism in England and defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, one of the greatest military victories in English history.

Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, played a significant role in Elizabeth’s personal education, shaping the beliefs and convictions of the future Queen. Catherine also helped to influence Henry’s passing of the Third Succession Act in 1543, which restored his daughters into the line of succession. Without Catherine, Elizabeth might never have ascended to the throne.

Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

Her reign (known as the Victorian era) lasted 63 years, longer than any of her predecessors and was a period of great change within the UK. Coming to the throne at just 18, Victoria would preside over the political, social, cultural and industrial transformation of the country, along with the expansion of the British Empire. She became the most powerful woman in the world and helped to restore the reputation of the monarchy after it had been tarnished by the extravagance of her uncles.

Elizabeth II (1926 - 2022)

Like Victoria and Elizabeth I before her, Britain’s former Queen was not expected to rule. When her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, it thrust Elizabeth’s father George VI to the top spot and placed Elizabeth in the direct line of succession. She ascended to the throne at age 25 and has gone on to become Britain’s longest-lived and longest-serving monarch. Her reign has lasted over 70 years, a period that witnessed remarkable societal, technological, scientific and political changes.

Politicians and activists

Suffragists and suffragettes

Democracy in Victorian Britain is not what it is today. Women were effectively treated as second-class citizens - unable to vote, sue or even own property. In the middle of the 19th century, things began to change and organised campaigns for ‘suffrage’ or the right to vote began to be seen. In 1897, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was formed and its leader was Millicent Fawcett. Fawcett led the peaceful suffragist movement, which soon became the biggest women’s rights organisation in Britain.

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union under the motto ‘Deeds, not words’. She believed stronger more militant methods were required to gain the vote and so her group began disruptive, violent and noisy demonstration’s to raise public awareness. They soon became known as suffragettes.

These advocates of women’s rights along with countless others past and present - Josephine Butler, Mary Stopes, Mary Wollstonecraft to name but a few - would help women eventually gain the right to vote. In 1918, women over 30 were granted that right. In 1928, all women over 21 could vote, giving women complete voting equality with men.

Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)

No one on this list divides opinion like Margaret Thatcher. Love her or loath her, the Iron lady was a trailblazer becoming Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979, as well as the longest-serving PM of the 20th century – 11 consecutive years. Through her unwavering leadership style and policies known as Thatcherism, she cemented her place as one of the most dominant figures in modern politics.

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)

Through her findings, fossil collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning changed the way we perceive our world. Anning resided in the seaside town of Lyme Regis in Dorset and would spend her days searching the coast for what she called 'curiosities'. She soon realised these were fossils and during her lifetime she made some significant discoveries. Although ineligible to join the Geological Society of London due to the fact she was a woman, Anning’s findings made a tremendous impact on the scientific world, leading to important changes in our knowledge of prehistoric life as well as the history of the Earth.

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Known for her six major novels including Pride & Prejudice and Emma, Austen helped shape the literary world into the one we have today. With her sharp wit and strong female characters, Austen's books have inspired countless other novels, TV adaptations and movies. Dying at the age of just 41, Austen wouldn't live to see the impact and legacy her works would have on British culture.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

The only legitimate child of famed poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace has been called the world’s first computer programmer. A keen mathematician and scientist, Ada began working with Charles Babbage in her late teens. Babbage is regarded by some as the ‘father of computers’ since he is credited as inventing the first mechanical computer known as the Analytical Engine. Ada worked with Babbage and wrote an algorithm for the Engine to carry out, in other words, the worlds first computer program. She also noted that computers could go beyond just number crunching, realising their full potential before anyone else. She died aged just 36 of uterine cancer.

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) & Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)

Known as the ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale was the remarkable founder of modern nursing. Born into a wealthy family, Nightingale went against what was expected of her and dedicated her life to a profession that was seen at the time as less than respectable. During the Crimean War, she improved the unsanitary conditions of the military hospital in which she worked and provided the soldiers with quality care. After the war, she set up the first secular nursing school in the world. It not only made nursing a respectable career for women but it also made it a professional one, forever changing the face of healthcare.

Along with Nightingale, Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse and another heroine of the Crimean War. Daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother, Seacole had to overcome many prejudices in her life. After the War Office declined her request to be sent to the Crimea as a war nurse, Seacole funded her own way there and established the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava, which she described as ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.’ Although her reputation rivalled that of Nightingale, her great work in nursing was mostly forgotten for almost a century after her death.

Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)

She is the best selling novelist of all time having sold around 2 billion copies, as well as the most translated author of all time. Penning 66 novels, Christie created the fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play in history. Her works have spawned more than 30 movies and countless television adaptations.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Like Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin was another talented young scientist who helped change the world of science forever before succumbing to cancer aged just 37. As a research associate at King's College London, Franklin conducted ground-breaking work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. One of her photographs led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, a discovery that would award three others a Noble Prize in 1962. Without her work, one of science’s greatest milestones would never have been reached.