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International Women's History Month: Trailblazers and icons who shaped history

International Women's History Month: Trailblazers and icons who shaped history

As we celebrate Women's History Month, now is a perfect time to delve deeper into the lives of remarkable women from St Mary’s and the wider Cambridge community, who have shaped our world across the ages. From trailblazers in science and literature to leaders in politics and activism, their stories inspire and empower young girls and women across the globe.  Read on to explore the lives and legacies of some of these extraordinary women, shedding light on their accomplishments, challenges, and enduring impact.   

Rosalind Franklin  

Rosalind Franklin was a scientist who made significant contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Born in 1920, Franklin's work on DNA structure was instrumental in the discovery of its double helix shape. Her famous "Photo 51," an X-ray diffraction image of DNA, provided key insights into its helical structure. Despite her pivotal contributions to the field, Franklin's work on DNA was not recognised at the time. Originally to recognise and commemorate the moment when Francis Crick and James Watson announced their breakthrough a blue plaque was erected at The Eagle, but it omitted recognition of Franklin's pivotal role in the discovery.  A new blue plaque was installed at The Eagle pub in Cambridge, replacing the original one erected in 2003. The updated plaque now acknowledges the significant contributions of Rosalind Franklin and other scientists to the discovery of the structure of DNA.  Franklin's work thus indirectly contributed to the scientific environment and advancements in Cambridge, as her findings helped shape the direction of research in molecular biology and genetics and continue to assist scientists and researchers at Cambridge University and beyond. Despite facing numerous challenges and obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated field, her persistence and resilience allowed her to remain dedicated to her research and pursue her scientific interests with passion and determination. Her resilience in the face of adversity serves as a powerful example for women striving to succeed in any field, demonstrating the importance of perseverance and self-confidence. 


Maud Darwin 

Today we take for granted some of the safety and the work of policemen and women in and around Cambridge, however, it was not always like this. Maud Darwin was the woman who ensured that Cambridge was able to get some of the first women police officers. Maud Darwin, also known as Lady Maud Darwin, was the daughter-in-law of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Her advocacy and social reform work led to the establishment of the Women Police Volunteers in Cambridge in 1914, which later evolved into the Cambridge Women Police Patrols. These were among the earliest initiatives in England to employ women in law enforcement roles. The women police officers focused on issues such as domestic violence, child welfare, and the welfare of women and girls in the community. Throughout her life, she has left her legacy of community impact and female empowerment as an inspiration to the young women of today. Through her determination, she has shown us that we as women hold an almighty power to make a meaningful impact on the world around us. 


Eglantyne Jebb 

Eglantyne Jebb's work exemplifies the power of compassion, dedication, and activism in making a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children around the world. She is best known for founding the charity ‘Save the Children’. Following on from this her charity work in Cambridge made her responsible for producing the first register of charities in this area in 1905. In addition to her charity work here in Cambridge, she was also a liberal campaigner with a key eye for politics and wrote an article in 1914 which made a case for a cooperative economy. Today she remains a revered figure in the history of humanitarianism and a source of inspiration for those committed to promoting children's rights and well-being. The courage and vision that she brought with her have truly impacted the lives of those in Cambridgeshire and the wider area and still today she inspires young women everywhere. 


Leah Manning 

Leah Manning's life and work in Cambridgeshire reflect her dedication to education, politics, and social justice. Her impact on the Cambridgeshire community started when she became a student at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. During her time there, she became involved in political activism, particularly through her association with the University Fabian Society. Manning's early engagement in progressive politics laid the foundation for her future contributions to social reform. Her involvement in the Cambridgeshire Labour Party made history, as she was the first woman president of the Party, breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations of women in political leadership roles within the city. Her parliamentary career reached new heights when she became one of the first women to serve as a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1931, representing Islington East. Leah’s remarkable journey in Cambridge from student activist to parliamentarian and community leader exemplifies the transformative power of individual commitment and collective action in shaping a more just and equitable society. She is a local hero and inspiration to many young women, proving that her work can be possible, especially women wanting to pursue a career in politics. 


Catherine Tillyard  

Catherine Tillyard, known by her pen name "Pertilote," was a significant figure in Cambridge during the early 20th century, particularly known for her work as a local journalist and diarist. Her weekly column in the Cambridge Independent provided valuable insights into the political and campaigning activities of women during a pivotal period in history, particularly leading up to World War I and the Votes for Women campaigns. By chronicling the activities of women campaigners, she captured the spirit of activism and the struggles faced by those advocating for gender equality and suffrage rights and made this available to us today to allow young women to be inspired and learn about this history. Her passion to inform and engage readers on issues related to women's rights and suffrage, in her columns may have helped galvanize support for the suffragist cause and contributed to a more informed and active citizenry in Cambridge. This inspires young journalists and female writers educating us and allowing us to understand and commemorate the struggles and achievements of women in the fight for equality and social justice. 


Sister Mary Ward  

Mary Ward lived in an age of religious intolerance in which deviation from whichever faith tradition was in the ascendant was savagely persecuted. At that time, women were considered to be weak and fickle creatures, capable only of the married state, or a strictly cloistered religious life. However, Mary felt that there was no difference between what women and men might achieve if they were given equal opportunities for education. She set up communities and schools in many cities in Europe, and her members were sent under cover on the English Mission to support the Catholic priests. With a few companions, she walked the 1500 miles from Flanders to Rome to present her plans for her Institute personally to three different Popes, and she appeared several times before the Cardinals to plead her cause. Mary Ward’s Institute did not receive the definitive approval of the Church until 1877, or the acknowledgement of Mary Ward as Foundress until 1909. In the four centuries following her death, girls’ schools which follow Mary Ward’s vision have confidently sprung up worldwide. She continues to be an empowering inspiration to all young women.