Women have been the backbone of society from the beginning of times, from playing comforting roles through wartime to causing movements that ultimately lead to unprecedented changes, here is to the women who deserve recognition as figures who fought against all odds to stand for something they believed in.
Amongst many, here are to name a few influential women who were ahead of their time, with a vision and with the courage to raise their voice and make sure they were heard, leaving behind a legacy for future generations to remember and celebrate.
Rosa Parks’s childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality.
Parks was taught to read by her mother at a young age and went on to attend a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama. For the remainder of her education, she attended segregated schools in Montgomery, including the city’s Industrial School for Girls.
She soon became actively involved in civil rights issues by joining the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943.
On December 1, 1955, after a long day’s work at a Montgomery department store, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She took a seat in the first of several rows designated for “coloured” passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. Amongst four other passengers, Rosa was asked to vacate the seat, to which she refused. The driver demanded, “Why don’t you stand up?” to which Rosa replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver called the police and had her arrested. Rosa would later recall that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in. Rosa was arrested at the scene and charged with violation of the Montgomery City Code.
December 5 saw a group of leaders from the African-American community gather at the Mt. Zion Church in Montgomery to discuss a boycott effort. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, electing Montgomery newcomer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Rosa Parks’s case provided an excellent opportunity to take further action to create real change. Rosa’s trial lead to the triggering of The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which turned out to be a huge success.
Although she had become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks suffered hardship in the months following her arrest in Montgomery and the succeeding boycott.
Rosa Parks received many accolades during her lifetime, including the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest award, and the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Award. On September 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour given by the United States’ executive branch. The following year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the U.S. legislative branch. In 1999, TIME magazine named Rosa Parks on its list of “The 20 most influential People of the 20th Century.”
On October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks passed away in her apartment in Detroit, Michigan. Her death was marked by several memorial services.
Born in 1997, in Pakistan, Yousafzai attended a school that her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, had helped construct. Malala actively supported education for women and children, which placed her on the top of the list of targets for the Taliban. Her father was also an anti-Taliban activist.
On October 9, 2012, on her way home from school, a man boarded the bus Malala was on and demanded to know which girl was Malala. When her friends looked toward Malala, her identity was given away. The gunman fired at her, shooting Malala in the left side of her head; the bullet traveled down her neck.
The shooting left Malala in critical condition, so she was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar. A portion of her skull was removed to treat her swelling brain. To receive further care, she was transferred to Birmingham, England.
On October 10, 2013, in acknowledgement of her work, the European Parliament awarded Yousafzai the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. That same year, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In October 2014, Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. At age 17, she became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first non-fiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
Angelou had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
As an African-American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas.
During World War II, Angelou moved to San Francisco, California, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School.
Angelou moved on to other activities, travelling through the 60’s; she first lived in Egypt and then in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.
After returning to the United States, Angelou was urged by friend and fellow writer James Baldwin to write about her life experiences, which resulted in the extremely successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, making literary history as the first non-fiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The poignant work also made Angelou an international star.
Angelou’s career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festival’s 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta; and two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, for her 2005 cookbook and 2008’s Letter to My Daughter.
One of her most famous works was “On the Pulse of Morning”, which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Angelou received several honours throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.
She died on May 28, 2014.
In a statement on her death, President Barack Obama called her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
Aung Saa Suu Kyi
In 1962, Burma dictator U Ne Win staged and carried out a coup d’état in Burma. In 1988, he resigned his post of party chairman, leaving the country in the hands of a military junta, he stayed behind the scenes to orchestrate various violent responses to the continuing protests and other events.
Suu Kyi returned to Burma from abroad in 1988, having completed her education at Oxford, amidst the slaughter of protesters rallying against U Ne Win and his iron-fisted rule.
She began speaking out against the dictator, with democracy and human rights as the forefront of her fight. Whilst put on various house arrests, the Union military told Suu Kyi that if she agreed to leave the country, they would free her. Suu Kyi refused to do so, insisting that her struggle would continue until the junta released the country to civilian government and political prisoners were freed.
In 1989, the government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, and she spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody.
In 1990, a parliamentary election was held, and the party with which Suu Kyi was now affiliated—the National League for Democracy—won more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats.
In 1991, her ongoing efforts won her the Nobel Prize for Peace, and she was finally released from house arrest in November 2010.
Emmeline Pankhurst born 15 July 1858, was a leading British suffragette, who played a militant role in helping to gain women the right to vote. Born in Moss Side, Manchester in 1858 Pankhurst’s family had a tradition of radical politics, and she stepped into that pattern becoming a passionate campaigner for women’s right to vote. Her tactics contrasted with those of the NUWSS and Millicent Fawcett. The government and establishment were shocked at the tactics of the women and many were arrested. When they went on hunger strike they were force-fed or released only to be rearrested – something known as ‘cat and mouse’.
In 1912, Pankhurst was convicted or breaking windows and sent to Holloway Prison. In prison she went on hunger strike in protest about the appalling conditions, prisoners were kept in. She described her time in prison. “like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast”.
In 1926, she surprised many by joining the Conservative party, and two years later running for Parliament as a Conservative candidate. This was contrasting to her earlier political experiences and sympathy with the poor. Nonetheless, after the Russian revolution she was increasingly concerned by Communism and became more conservative in political views.
In 1928 women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21).
Emmeline fell ill, and died on 14 June 1928.
Oprah Winfrey was born in the rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. After a troubled adolescence in a small farming community, where she was sexually abused by a number of male relatives and friends of her mother, Vernita, Winfrey moved to Nashville to live with her father, Vernon. In 1971, She entered Tennessee State University and began working in radio and television broadcasting in Nashville.
In 1976, Oprah Winfrey moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she hosted the TV chat show People Are Talking. The show became a hit and there was not turning back for Winfrey. She stayed with the show for eight years.
Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $51,000,000 for charitable programs, including girls’ education in South Africa and relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Winfrey is a dedicated activist for children’s rights. In 1994, President Clinton signed a bill into law that Winfrey had proposed to Congress, creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She founded the Family for Better Lives foundation. In September 2002, Oprah was named the first recipient of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. In November 2013, Winfrey received the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama gave her this award for her contributions to the United States of America.
Doreen Delceita Lawrence, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, OBE, born on 24th October 1952, is a British Jamaican campaigner, made famous after the murder of her son Stephen Lawrence, in a racial attack in South East London in 1993. She promoted reforms of the police service, and founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Following the murder of their son Stephen in 1993, Doreen and Neville Lawrence claimed that the Metropolitan Police investigation was being conducted in an unprofessional manner, citing incompetence and racism as prime shortcomings. In 1999, after years of campaigning, and with the support of many in the community, the media and politics, a wide-ranging judicial inquiry was established, chaired by Sir William MacPherson, the inquiry; The MacPherson Inquiry was to investigate the circumstances of Stephen Lawrence’s death. The report became international when it concluded that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist” and that this was one of the primary causes of their failure to solve the case.
She was appointed OBE for “services to community relations” in 2003, and was created a Life Peer in 2013.
In October 2012, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th Pride of Britain Awards.
In April 2014, she was named as Britain’s most influential woman in the BBC Woman’s Hour power list 2014.
Lawrence was elevated to the title as a Baroness, on 6 September 2013, and is formally styled Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, of Clarendon in the Commonwealth Realm of Jamaica. She sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer.
Abbott was born to Jamaican immigrants in London in 1953. She attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls, and then Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied history.
Abbott’s career in politics began in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council serving until 1986.
In 1987 she was elected to the House of Commons, as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington. Elected along with Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng, she was the first-ever woman from an African Caribbean background to become an MP.
Abbott’s speech on civil liberties, in the debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008 won The Spectator magazine’s “Parliamentary Speech of the Year” award and further recognition at the 2008 Human Rights awards.
Abbott has served on a number of parliamentary committees on social and international issues. For most of the 1990s she also served on the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons. She went on to serve on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Abbott chairs the All-Party Parliamentary British-Caribbean Group and the All-Party Sickle Cell and Thalassemia Group.
Abbott is founder of the London Schools and the Black Child initiative, which aims to raise educational achievement levels amongst black children.
On 30 November 2014, Abbott says she is intending to put herself forward to become Labour’s candidate and will stand in the London mayoral elections in 2016.
Born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole’s father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a free black Jamaican woman who was skilled in traditional medicine. Seacole was in London in 1854 when reports of the hardships for soldiers in the Crimean War were made public.
Seacole acquired knowledge of herbal medicine in the Caribbean. When the Crimean War broke out, she applied to the War Office to assist but was refused. Instead of giving up, Seacole travelled independently and set up her hotel and assisted the wounded on the battlefield. She became extremely popular among service personnel who raised money for her when she faced destitution after the war.
In Crimea, she assisted at the military hospitals and distributed remedies for cholera and dysentery. Seacole died in 1881. After her death, she was forgotten for almost a century, but today is celebrated as a woman who successfully combatted racial prejudice.
Mary Prince was born into slavery in Brackish Pond, now known as Devonshire Marsh, Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. Her father was a sawyer owned by David Trimmingham, and her mother a house-servant held by Charles Myners.
At the age of 12, Mary was sold for £38 sterling to Captain John Ingham, of Spanish Point. Her new master and his wife were cruel, and lost their temper with the slaves. Mary and other slaves were often severely flogged for minor transgressions.
After surviving a few owners, Mary was sold a fourth time to John Adams Wood of Antigua for $300, in 1815. In 1828 Wood and his family travelled to. Mary Prince accompanied the family to England as a servant. Although slavery was not legally recognised in Britain by this date, and Prince was free to leave Wood’s household, she had no means to support herself alone in England.
In 1829 Wood refused either to manumit Mary Prince or allow her to be purchased out of his control. This meant that as long as slavery remained legal in Antigua, Prince could not return to her husband and friends without being re-enslaved and submitting to Wood’s power.
In December 1829, Pringle hired Prince to work in his own household and encouraged and arranged for Prince to transcribe her life narrative to Susanna Strickland. Pringle served as editor, and her book was published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince.
In the first year, it sold out three printings. When Prince’s book was published, slavery was no longer recognised as legal in Britain, but Parliament had not yet abolished it in the colonies.
The end of slavery in colonies would be detrimental to the British Empire, as the sugar colonies depended on it for labour to raise their lucrative crop.
The book caused a disturbance as the first account published in Great Britain of a black woman’s life; at a time when anti-slavery activism was growing, her first person account touched many people.