City of London’s Women: Work and Power Season Celebrates Unsung Heroines

Coinciding with the launch of ‘Women: Work and Power’, a six-month long season of 70 events in the Square Mile to celebrate women’s outstanding achievements, the City of London Corporation has announced its top 10 unsung heroines from the programme. 

From London’s first black Director of Nursing and the first woman Peer in the House of Lords to influential artists, musicians, academics, businesswomen and the first computer programmer, history is strewn with incredible women whose contributions and achievements have often been overlooked.

Putting a spotlight on these women and their accomplishments, the Women: Work and Power programme features exhibitions, talks, tours, live entertainment, music, and theatre shows. Women: Work and Power takes its inspiration from the Mayor of London’s ‘#BehindEveryGreatCity’ campaign and also ties in to significant events and anniversaries taking place in 2018, including the 70th anniversary of the NHS.

Here are ten profiles of unsung heroines featured in the Women: Work and Power programme:

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) – the ‘mother of English fiction’

Often overlooked and forgotten today, Fanny Burney was a hugely popular satirical novelist, diarist and playwright. Described by Virginia Woolf as the ‘mother of English fiction’ for her influence on other great writers, Burney was propelled into the limelight with the publication of her first novel, Evelina (1778). Other works, including Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796), consolidated her reputation as a literary legend. Admirers included Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and even the young Jane Austen, who is believed to have paid close attention to the phrase ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at the close of Cecilia (1782).

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) – radical Victorian artist

Although best-known today as the wife of ceramicist William De Morgan, Evelyn De Morgan was, in fact, one of the most significant and influential female artists of the Victorian era. Her work was radical and depicted strong, vibrant women – a significant departure from the male-dominated Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the time which often showed women as ephemeral and dream-like. Among the first women to gain access to professional tuition at the prestigious Slade School of Art in 1873, Evelyn won many awards for her drawing skills, triumphing ahead of many of her male peers.

Sarah Gavron (1970-present) – star behind the camera

History has recognised very few women behind the camera, let alone, at the helm of ground-breaking feature films. British film director Sarah Gavron, who directed Brick Lane (2007) and more recently, Suffragette (2015), the first major feature film to focus on women’s suffrage, is committed to telling the stories of real, everyday women. Inspired by the scarcity of British female film-makers, Gavron believes that the women’s suffrage movement is still unfolding and intended Suffragette to resonate with present day audiences as much as those interested in the movement’s history.

Dr Nola Ishmael OBE (born 1943) – healthcare heroine

Just like the thousands of Caribbean nurses before her who came to Britain to aid the NHS in the 1940s, Dr Nola Ishmael left her native Barbados in 1963 to start a career in healthcare at a hospital in Bishops Stortford. Having worked her way up the career ladder, Ishmael became London’s first ever black or ethnic minority Director of Nursing, receiving an OBE in 2000 for her services to the NHS and an Honorary Doctorate degree for services to nursing from Birmingham City University. Now a leader in her field and an inspiration to BME nurses across the UK, Dr Ishmael has been recognised by Nursing Times Magazine as one of the most influential nursing professionals of the past century.

Miss La La (1858-1919) – star of the circus

2018 marks 250 years since the first circus performance on an abandoned patch of land near Waterloo. Over a century later, it was the great French artist, Edgar Degas, who painted one of history’s most talented female and mixed raced performers, ‘Miss La La’, as she hung from her teeth in Paris’s Cirque Fernando. Although small in stature, Miss La La possessed incredible strength, performing as atrapeze artist, hand balancer, wire walker and an ‘iron jaw performer’ (which saw her suspended in mid-air by her teeth and holding a weight). As a member of both the Folies Bergère and Keziah Sisters troupes, she toured circuses and music halls across Europe,including the Central Hall at London’s Royal Aquarium.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) – ground-breaking photographer

A survivor of polio and the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for photography, Dorothea Lange used her camera as a political tool to capture injustice, inequality and displacement during the Great Depression. One of her most famous photographs, “Migrant Mother” (1936), is perhaps the single most iconic image of the Great Depression. Respected and recognised within her industry, she is nevertheless relatively unknown by the general public.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) – ‘the Countess of numbers’

History often celebrates male mathematicians, but it was Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithm for a computer programme in the mid-1800s. While translating a paper on mathematician Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’, Lovelace recognised that general-purpose machines had a function beyond calculation. Working with Babbage, Lovelace wrote what is considered to be the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer. While the Engine was never completed, her algorithm gained attention when it was republished nearly a century after her death, and is today widely regarded as an early model for a computer. Despite this huge contribution to modern technology, she is largely omitted from the mathematical history books.

Hester Pinney (1658-1740) – 18th century businesswoman

Persistent, hardworking and plain-speaking, Hester Pinney was a remarkable businesswoman who broke the glass ceiling well ahead of her time. Superb at negotiating, she used her family lace-making business to create her own fortune. Although Pinney received little formal education and was initially submissive to her father and brother, she gained independence when they died. In a move that went against the societal values of the time, Pinney conducted her business in male-dominated taverns and coffee houses. A formidably skilled investor in the newly emerging financial markets, she built up a considerable client base, becoming one of wealthiest women in Britain before her death at the age of 82.

Viscountess Rhondda (1883-1958) – political heroine

Paving the way for women Peers in the House of Lords, Viscountess Rhondda inherited her title from her Liberal politician father in 1918. However, Rhondda had to fiercely petition against a rule prohibiting women who wanted to claim their seats in the House. A committee initially ruled in her favour but, after further consideration, her appeal was denied until the passing of the Life Peerages Act in 1958. Tragically, Rhondda died just a few months before she could take her seat, but she should be regarded as a key player in the Suffrage movement. Having organised the first Women’s Social and Political Union meeting, Rhondda campaigned for the right to vote by speaking on public platforms, attempting to blow up a post box, and even jumping on the running-board of Prime Minister Asquith’s car.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) – Suffrage composer

Ethel Smyth was, arguably, one of the best composers of her generation and wrote “The March of the Women”, the official anthem of the Suffrage movement. Despite her father’s opposition to her career in music, Smyth studied with a private tutor and later, at the renowned Leipzig Conservatory. The first female composer to be made a Dame, Smyth was also a political activist, and was once arrested for breaking a politician’s window whilst protesting for women’s rights. When conductor Sir Thomas Beecham visited her in prison, he found Smyth leaning out of a window using a toothbrush to conduct a group of singing suffragettes.

Charlotte Giver

Charlotte is the founder and editor-in-chief at Your Coffee Break magazine. With a background in PR working in Los Angeles and Barcelona, Charlotte has been running Your Coffee Break from the YCB HQ in London’s Covent Garden for the past 8 years. She is a mother, an avid reader, runner and puts a little too much time into her morning brew.

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