Here’s To Strong Women: May We Know Them,
May We Be Them, May We Raise Them

Investors in People. The clue is in the name: Investors in People. So we don’t just invest in men, we invest in women too. Women make up half of this world, but still don’t share everything equally with men. In the UK the gender pay gap is running at 17%, and in the US it is nearly 19%. And that’s just one of many measures of equality. It’s over a hundred years since the Suffragettes started their long campaign to win the vote for women, but the fight for equality continues. That’s why we at Investors in People, believe it’s important to celebrate International Women’s Day, to remind us all – women and men – of how far we have come in a century and how far we have still to go. So here are five strong women who blazed a trail in a male-dominated world. Let them inspire a new generation of strong women to do the same – and make a world fit for everyone.

ADA LOVELACE (1815-1852)

Ada was the only daughter of Lady Wentworth and Lord Byron, who died when she was just eight years old. Her mother cultivated Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to protect her from Byron’s perceived insanity. Ada’s interest in science brought her into contact with notable figures of the day, including the scientist Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. She used her contacts to further her education in what she called ‘poetical science’. As a teenager her mathematical talents led to a long working relationship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first Analytical Engine. Ada wrote a series of notes on the use of the Engine which are widely regarded to be the first ever computer program. Essentially, she invented the algorithm – so when you search for ‘Strong Women’, it is Ada’s work that leads you to this article.

MARIE CURIE (1867-1934)

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903; in 1911 she won a second Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Her lifelong research into radioactive materials not only gave us the word radioactivity, but she also invented the use of X-rays for medical scanning. Born in Warsaw to an impoverished family of Polish teachers, she was educated in maths and physics at home by her father. Unable to enrol in university because she was a woman, she joined the Flying University. This underground organisation allowed her to continue her scientific studies. After making a deal with her sister that they would both support each other’s academic studies, Marie worked as a governess for two years before moving to Paris to start her university education. After earning her degree in 1893, she began work in an industrial laboratory. Hoping to return to Poland to continue her studies, she was again denied a place at university because of her gender. She began a PhD, in Paris, into the properties of uranium rays, leading to her ground-breaking studies. Despite having her education thwarted in Poland, Curie named the radioactive element she discovered polonium, after her native country. Her archive is considered highly dangerous because of its constant exposure to radioactivity. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes and visitors have to wear protective clothing to read anything – even her cookbook is radioactive. Ironically, this strong woman died of prolonged exposure to radiation, unaware of its effects.

VIGDÍS FINNBOGADÓTTIR (1930-)

Born in Reykjavík, after studying French Literature at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne, Vigdís studied the History of Theatre in Copenhagen. After graduating she taught French and French Drama at the University of Iceland. She also worked in experimental theatre and taught French on Icelandic TV. Divorced in her mid-30s she became, at the age of 41, the first single woman in Iceland to adopt a child. During International Women’s Year in 1975 Icelandic women organized a general strike to demonstrate the importance of women’s work. 90% of Icelandic women went on strike. So at the presidential election in 1980 the women’s movement rightly focused on electing a strong woman. Vigdís ran against three male candidates and was narrowly elected. She became the world’s first woman to be elected as head of state in a democratic election. She proved very popular with Icelanders and was re-elected three times: unopposed in 1984, with 94.6% of the votes against another woman in 1988 and unopposed in 1992. Vigdís took an active role as environmental activist and fought for Icelandic language, acting as a cultural ambassador for the country. Her motto was ‘Never let the women down’ and she worked specifically to promote girls’ education. She decided not to stand for re-election in 1996 and, since 1998, has been UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Languages.

ARETHA FRANKLIN (1942-2018)

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha began singing as a child in her father’s church in Detroit. At the age of 18 she began her secular singing career but was unsuccessful until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1966. Blending her gospel roots with soul music, she recorded a string of timeless singles. Respect, Chain of Fools, Think, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), and, of course, I Say a Little Prayer. With a series of acclaimed albums released between 1967-76, Aretha quite rightly earned the title, ‘The Queen of Soul’. Appearing in the 1980 classic comedy, The Blues Brothers alongside Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, she also went on to collaborate with musical greats including George Michael, Annie Lennox and Prince. Aretha recorded 112 chart singles, becoming the most charted female artist in history. She sold 75 million records worldwide. But she had to wait until 1987 to become the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

VALENTINA TERESHKOVA (1937-)

The daughter of a tractor driver and a factory worker, Valentina was selected in 1962 to join the Soviet Space program as much for her interest in skydiving as her proletarian background. (In order to join the Cosmonaut Corps, Valentina was honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force and so she also became the first civilian to fly in space.) Her training included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, 120 parachute jumps and piloting jet fighters. Valentina was eventually chosen from more than 400 applicants and five finalists to pilot the Vostok 6 spacecraft. On the morning of 16 June 1963, Valentina – dressed in her spacesuit – was taken to the launch pad by bus. (Following the tradition set by Yuri Gagarin, she also urinated on the bus tyre, becoming the first woman to do so). After a two-hour countdown, Vostok 6 launched faultlessly, and she became the first woman in space. Valentina orbited the Earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all the American astronauts who had flown before that date. From 1966 to 1974 she was a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and from 1974 to 1989 a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. She was also the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women’s Year in 1975. To this day, she is revered as a hero and, in 2013, she offered to go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity ever arose.

That’s five strong women, chosen from a roster of millions to celebrate International Women’s Day 2019. These five women are rightly famous, but there are billions more who we celebrate today.

 

Strong Women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.

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