The weekend debate: Who are the five most influential women of all time?

Here’s your starter for ten in our weekend slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

Borrowing from Lynne Featherstone’s blog:

It’s International Women’s Day on Thursday – and my local paper, The Journal,  have asked me to name my top 5 influential women of all time.

I know who mine are but who would be yours?

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • George Potter 3rd Mar '12 - 4:31pm

    I just want to point out that it says something about the historical marginalisation of women in society that it’s possible to ask this question, while asking who are the most influential men of all time would be nigh on impossible to even attempt to answer.

  • Lee Chalmers 3rd Mar '12 - 4:42pm

    Here are my starter five:

    Mitochondrial Eve: Literally the most influential women ever to grace the planet. Through the transmission of mDNA, passed from generation to generation unchanged, we can all trace our lineage back to her.

    Rosalind Franklin: discoverer of the DNA double helix. Though Watson and Crick got the Nobel prize it is widely believed that they used her work. This is not unusual throughout history, as it generally wasn’t seemly for women to be involved in anything other than childbirth so they should not be encouraged.

    Betty Frieden: author of the Feminine Mystique, the book that first named the despair and hopelessness felt by housewives across the USA. She is credited with sparking the second wave of feminism.

    Mary Wollstonecraft: 18th century philosopher and author, most famous for ‘the Vindication of the rights of women’, she was one of the influences on first wave feminism. Also the mother of Mary Shelley.

    Marie Curie: Nobel prize winning physicist and chemist, first female professor of the university of Paris, coined the term radioactivity.

  • 1) Mary Whitehouse
    2)Anne Widicombe
    3)Janet Street Porter
    4) Edwina Curry
    5) Elisabeth Murdoch

  • Ruth Bright 3rd Mar '12 - 5:02pm

    Mary Magdalene for services to God.
    Queen Victoria for services to pain relief in childbirth.
    Madonna for services to music.
    Margaret Thatcher for (good or ill) services to politics.
    Cleopatra for services to eyeliner.

  • @George Potter
    “I just want to point out that it says something about the historical marginalisation of women in society that it’s possible to ask this question, while asking who are the most influential men of all time would be nigh on impossible to even attempt to answer.”

    I think that statement may be somewhat wrong, I’m sat here wondering “where do you even start the attempt”. As an e.g., there have been 55 female astronauts, all of them may have been influential in persuading kids to follow them (no doubt, some of the later astronauts were inspired by the former), do they count or is that not classed as political enough?

    It would be a lot easier if some time limit was put on the question, but it’ll be interesting to see the answer that MP gives as it’ll probably say more about him than them (no pressure Mark) 😀

  • Patrick Smith 3rd Mar '12 - 9:00pm

    I would nominate :

    1.Aung San Suu Kyi- held captive in own home/civil rights and Democracy reformer in Burma.

    2.Jane Addams-(1860-1935) first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of human rights campaigns for women/homeless families/peace campaigner.

    3.Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845) devoted christian Quaker and tireless worker for prison reform and founder of first womens organisation in Britain/strong Liberal convictions/born Earlham House in Norwich where U.E.A was built in 1963.

    4.Anne Frank-teenage Jewish diarist-kept detailed account of mass human persecution and personal experience of Holocaust ,until own death, aged only 14 years.

    5.Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603) spoke 6 languages and ruled her troubled Tudor kingdom with fearsome sense of survival and loyalty.

  • Richard Swales 3rd Mar '12 - 10:25pm

    @Lee – to be fair, the Nobel prize is never awarded posthumously*, so Franklin (died 1958) not getting it in 1962 has nothing to do with any kind of idea that a woman’s place is in the home not the lab.

    *notwithstanding the rather odd situation this year where they awarded to someone they didn’t know had died a couple of days earlier, and decided to allow it to stand.

  • Jennie Rigg 4th Mar '12 - 12:00am

    Going backwards in time:

    Mary Shelley, for inventing science fiction
    Millicent Fawcett, for actually winning women the vote instead of grandstanding like the Pankhursts
    Boudicca, for sticking it to the Romans
    Cleopatra, also for sticking it to the Romans.
    and agreed with Lee on mitochondrial Eve.

  • OK – Influence only, in no particular order:

    Rosa Parks – say no more, don’t know if I would have had her courage.

    Amelia Earhart – daring do that must have influenced huge numbers of youngsters (well, 1 maybe – me).

    Valentina Tereshkova (or any of the other 54 astronauts tbh – but that’s probably cheating), encouraging the young to aim for the stars

    Queen Isabella of Spain (someone other than Columbus would have discovered the place eventually, but would the outcome have been the same?).

    Florence Nightingale – services to the health profession.

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '12 - 3:42am

    MOTHERS are the most influential women of all time. Without them, no-one would exist! I don’t think Mitochondrial Eve existed though. Aren’t we descended from apes? In which case, why should the ape lineage narrow down to a single mother of the human race? Isn’t more likely that there were many Ape mothers who created many ape-humans at various stages of transition, who then created more at further stages, etc?

    WIVES AND DAUGHTERS are the next most influential women of all time. Mine tell me what to do and I cannot refuse – the first will hit me with a pan and the second with a demands for cash! By the way, isn’t this whole concept of “most” and “influential” a rather male chauvinistic way of looking at how society is ordered and develops? Not to mention Western, industrial? Here in the mountains of Zig, we don’t really see individuals as separate from the society they form part of. Like Bobby Dylan said all those years ago, Open your eyes and you’re influenced!

    Time does not exist, of course, only the moment, and MRS.BONE is the most influential woman of the moment. Through her homely habits, stodge-filled Beeton-esq menus, bathroom arias, and wandering pheromones, she seems to determine the very course of history here on this tiny island that steadfastly refuses to recognize the passing of Empire, the existence of Europe, or the separate identities of its constituent parts.

    After Mrs.Bone, one is at a complete loss, her effect is so devastating. The word TONGE floats into view, as do images of erstwhile FILMSTARS … but wait ,,, my own little tornado is calling … my hands are losing hold … the shapes are changing … the ground is moving … Ah! I am gone …. ??!?!?!*&!*

  • Lee Chalmers 4th Mar '12 - 7:47am

    @Richard Dean, funnily enough I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘fathers’ or ‘husbands and sons’ show up in a list of the most influential men. Why do you suppose that is?

  • @Lee
    Perhaps because it’s cheating as you’re supposed to name names? 😀 Although I also cheated with my 54 I suppose so I can’t complain.

  • some of those named above I would have put in the ‘most damaging of all time’.. I could have guessed that some geezer would put that damn woman forward! well done to Chris Sh and Patrick Smith for giving the most cogent answers to the question. A most difficult one to answer, the very question almost suggests that there were not that many… though no-one thought to mention the likes of Hannah More, Maria Montessori and Froebel, who were so influential in the evolution of education, and whose impact was international.

  • Just MO

    1. Emily Pankhurst
    2. Amelia Earhart
    3. Cleopatra
    4. Queen Victoria
    5. Queen Elizabeth I.

    Not to do down our Queen, but she’s lived through a period in history when Parliament is more powerful than the monarchy. Margaret Thatcher should be close to them, but as far her reach…. we’ll have to see – and I’m not a fan either.

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '12 - 11:44am

    No politician should be constrained by the limitations of the question! 🙂

  • @jedibeeftrix
    “Lol, and your all having such ‘fun’ delicately tip toeing around admitting her existence and the sum of her achievements.”

    Not really 😀 She was obviously very influential in the UK, but was her influence long term and of enough importance outside these shores to warrant inclusion yet (no, I don’t know the answer and yes I did admire her for doing something that many doubted would happen).

    Like I said, the answers probably say more about the person making the choice than the women concerned – but what the heck, it’s only a party game 😀

  • Keith Browning 4th Mar '12 - 12:45pm

    Women as rulers tend to stand out, and they almost always made a difference.

    Its also very likely you would have difficulty naming the man the proceeded or succeeded them.

    I give you three in a row that certainly shaped the Britain we have today.

    Lady Jane Grey (cleverest person in England at the time)
    Queen Mary
    Queen Elizabeth

    add to those three

    Queen Victoria and the present Queen Elizabeth and you have getting close to 200 years of female rule in England in the last 450 years. Who says women dont get their fair share of power.

  • Ada Lovelace – the “World’s First Computer Programmer” – probably deserves a mention –

    @Richard, not to get bogged down in a human genetics lecture, but the idea of a Mitochondrial Eve is not really a matter of belief. It’s quite a difficult concept to understand but hopefully Wikipedia or similar can explain it. You and I will have a most recent common ancestor – some presumably British great great great … grandparent we share. Eve is similar but is the most recent common *matrilineal* ancestor – only going back through mum’s mum’s mum’s etc… – of *everyone* alive. So there absolutely were other mothers at the same time as M. Eve, and we’re probably all descendents of most of them too, but M. Eve is the only to whom we’re all descended by an *unbroken chain* of mothers (as men don’t pass on mitochondrial DNA). Also, humans are a kind of ape.

  • For the sake of argument, as no list could ever be a) definitive or b) avoid an element of personal judgement: Harriet Taylor, Milicent Fawcett, Queen Elizabeth, Qudsia Begum (and her successors), Iris Murdoch… ?

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '12 - 1:22pm

    @Adam – Your name is so revealing – perhaps you have special knowledge?! 🙂 No, I still think that an M.Eve is neither necessary nor likely. And Wikipedia? I had to give them a real kick up the backside when I found articles on my speciality that were so totally wrong they were dangerous!

  • Keith Browning 4th Mar '12 - 1:36pm

    This might be nearer the mark than my first effort.

    Miss Moneypenny
    Mandy Rice-Davies
    Sandie Shaw
    Emma Hamilton
    Mary Poppins

  • Jennie Rigg 4th Mar '12 - 5:17pm

    Richard Dean: “I still think that an M.Eve is neither necessary nor likely” – that’s nice, dear. Are you suggesting that we all trust your gut feeling, rather than all those scientists who have actually looked into esoteric things like evidence and likelihood?

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '12 - 5:46pm

    Hi Jennie, “Dear”,

    The latest theory being tested at CERN is called “supersymmetry”, which relies on the existence of the “God particle” – also called the “Higgs”. As far as I can make out, they say the universe is the result of a initial tiny “imperfection” in the supersymmetry of everything, and that this “imperfection” grew to create the universe we live in – the place that is changing so fast except that we are all so transient it seems static. The similarity to the religious idea of “original sin” was striking, Yes, I think science and scientists are just as prone to self-deception as everyone else!

    The name “Mitochondrial Eve” seems like an attempt to explain science in a way that people understand from religion. As such I found it is doubtful whether it is actual hard science. Even if we all do have a common ancestor, there is no reason to suppose she was human – the lines of linkages back into the past might converge somewhere, yes, but the place they converge might be an ape, or whatever came before them (a fish?). Life did not necessarily start in a single place, it may instead have started in many places more or less at the same geological time.

    But anyway, I was just making a passing remark, in the spirit of good humoured skeptiscism. I apologize if it was felt offensive, but that’s my heritage for you. I do not expect anyone to trust my gut feeling – it is my gut after all, no-one else has the same intimate relationship with it that I have! But I do hope to be able to decribe its feelings to others, and to hear them describe theirs to me. That is a nice, helpful, and human thing to do, I hope.

    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Hi Richard Dear (sorry – just couldn’t resist 😉 )

    ” As such I found it is doubtful whether it is actual hard science”

    How much of science is actually “hard” though. Like everything else ideas evolve as new evidence becomes available. Short of DNA testing everyone on the planet, what they have done is probably the best idea.

    “Life did not necessarily start in a single place”

    I think that has been found already hasn’t it (or the theory based on a set of evidence has been put forward)? The query is whether any of that life survived, or if this particular bit of DNA demonstrates that the other forms of like were extinguished (perhaps by this branch of life as some seem to believe). That could explain why humans still kill each other, perhaps it’s hardcoded in that small bit of genetic material?

  • Patrick Smith 4th Mar '12 - 9:32pm

    I nominate list (2):

    1.Angela Burnett-Coutts (1814-1906) -wealthy aristocratic heiress/gave almost £3M to `good causes’/founded NSPCC/Charles Dickens admired her.

    2.Violette Szabo GC (1921-1945) heroic SOE WW2 agent pre Normandy landings support for Marquis/wife/and mother of Tania/shot 5/2/1945 having been tortured.

    3.Octavia Hill (1838-1912) social housing reformer/co-founder of National Trust/pioneer of green space and fresh air for poorest urban families.

    4.Mary Jane Seacole (1815-1885) Jamaican/Scottish Crimean nurse/treated and spared suffering of battlefield wounded Allied soldiers in Crimea/forgotten for 100 years as reward.

    5. Josephine Butler (1828-1906) life-time campaigner to abolish Contagious Diseases Act to help women/fought against child prostitution/helped prevent contagious disease in military services.

  • @Oranjepan
    sexist? I don’t know actually, surely it’ll only be sexist if LDV doesn’t find a way to ask the same question on International Men’s Day? 😀

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