Hooligans, Rebels and Astronauts: Celebrating 10 Northern Women this International Women’s Day

We all know phenomenal Northern women in our lives. They are in each and every corner of our lives, from our own mothers and relatives, to the doctors, teachers and activists in our society. International Women’s Day was created in order to celebrate the achievements of women around the world and to continue the fight against gender oppression. This years theme is Choose to Challenge. so I had the lovely, albeit arduous, task of narrowing down the list to ten remarkable women from the North, all of whom challenged societal norms:

Emmeline Pankhurst

Where in the North is she from: Manchester

What’s her story: In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester with her daughters and became an integral part of the Suffragette movement. Differing from their pacifist Suffragist counterparts, Pankhurst’s Suffragettes rallying behind the motto ‘Deeds Not Words’. Their tactics included disrupting public meetings, destroying public property and chaining themselves to railings. Emmeline Pankhurst famously once said ‘I am what you call a hooligan.’ Their campaigning also consisted of selling their newspaper,Votes for Women, which sold over 200,000 copies every week. Not only did this movement grow to represent women from all over Britain, they also included more women from working-class backgrounds, unlike the Suffragists which predominantly consisted of upper- and middle-class women. Their campaigning efforts continued until the beginning of the First World War, when suffragettes and suffragists alike halted their campaign until the War’s end. After this, the rights for a select group of women to vote were instated. The astonishing efforts of Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU changed the face of Britain forever and are a perfect example of our political activist history in the North radiated out into the worldwide.

Lillian Blocca

Where in the North is she from: Hull

What’s her story: Lillian Bilocca campaigned for improved work safety in the fishing industry after the Hull Triple Trawler Tragedy of 1968. Three Hull trawlers, the St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland, all sank with a total of 58 crew members dying and only one survivor. Incensed by the continued loss of men, the lack of radio operators and other safety equipment The Headscarf Revolutionaries were formed. These a group of trawlermen’s families, led by Lillian Bilocca, who spearheaded the campaign for improved safety conditions for fishermen. Lillian Bilocca became their spokesperson and led the women to London to discuss the issue with ministers. The same day, trawler owners were instructed to implement improved safety measures with immediate effect. The subsequent inquiries led to stricter regulation on the design and constructions of trawlers, more and improved safety equipment, as well as greater training, employment and working practises. Lillian Bilocca’s story is testimony to the power of community in protecting each other and how the human spirit can overcome the most traumatic of adversities.

Nicola Adams OBE

Where in the North is she from: Leeds

What’s her story: Nicola Adams is a retired boxer who’s enviable record is yet to be defeated, making her Britain’s most successful female boxer of all time. Her enviable record includes World Amateur Champion, Olympic Gold Medals, World and European and Commonwealth titles, for many of whom she was the first British female boxer to achieve them. A journey which began when she was 13, she went on to win two Olympic gold medals and to be the first British boxer since 1924 to retain her Olympic title. Not only is she a historic sportsperson with a legion of awards, but she is also a proud ambassador of the Fight for Peace NGO and an absolute inspiration to young sportswomen across Britain and the world. Frequently cited on lists of most influential black and LGBTQ+ people in the country, we simply couldn’t be prouder that this pioneer of British sport is a Northerner.

Helen Sharman OBE

Where in the North is she from: Sheffield

What’s her story: Helen Sharman is an incredibly decorated chemist, astronaut and cosmonaut. She became the first British astronaut, first Western European Woman in space and the first British cosmonaut (the first British astronaut to be trained by the Soviet Space Agency for Project Juno). Of her view from space she remarked: ‘There’s no greater beauty than seeing the Earth from up high.’ Her pioneering work did not stop in space, as she worked as a s science communicator and continues to work with outreach programmes relating to chemistry and space travel.

Shahnaz Ali OBE

Where in the North is she from?: Bradford

What’s her story?: Shahnaz Ali is renowned for her strategic leadership in equality, inclusion and human rights within the NHS Service and local government. Born in Pakistan and emigrating to Bradford aged 3, she grew up experiencing the race hostilities within her community and the lack of police action in order to prevent violence. Her work began as a young anti-racism activist within the United Black Youth League of Bradford, a group dedicated to the remedying the lack of police response to racist attacks and campaigned to the right to live without victimisation. She has received national acclaim for her work in equality and inclusion, including for her Narrowing the Gaps strategy which developed the UK’s first performance measurement and improvement framework for equality in the NHS. Her incredible work also includes establishing a regional Equality and Diversity Leadership Forum and creating the Health Equality Library Portal, the most successful resource it’s kind in the UK. For her revolutionary work in this field, Ali has received several awards, including a HR in the NHS Conference Award, the Homo Heroes Award from The Lesbian and Gay Foundation and in 2013, received an OBE as part of the New Years Honours.

Dame Rose Heilbron

Where in the North is she from?: Liverpool

What’s her story?: Rose Helibron was a revolutionary figure in UK Law and was the first woman to hold many significant positions within this field. Born to Jewish hotelier, Max Helibron, he assisted Jews wanting to emigrate by managing a lodging house for refugees and immigrants. In 1935 Rose Helibron began her career of ‘firsts’ early, being one of the first two women to gain a first class honours degree in law. After being awarded the Lord Justice Holder Scholarship to study at Gray’s Inn, she became one of only two women to hold a Masters of Law degree within the UK. Her litany of success did not stop with education however, as she proceeded to become the second woman appointed to King’s Counsel, became the first female judge appointed to the Old Bailey and then became the nation’s second female High Court judge. In addition to all of this, she was also the first woman to ever lead in a murder case and in 1975, Helibron chaired a committee on reforming rape laws. As a result of this committee’s report, it was recommended that the identity of rape complainants remain a secret and that the defence’s cross-examination should be limited in it’s ability to discuss the complainants prior sexual history.

Shelly Woods

Where in the North is she from?: Blackpool

What’s her story?: Shelly Woods is a Paralympic athlete, best known for her marathon and 1500 metre races. In 2007 she won the London Marathon Women’s wheelchair race in record time. After this incredible success, she also competed in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympic games, earning two silver and one bronze medal at the events. In addition to her athletic work she is also an advocate and campaigner for sport and health for all, including her work with the Blackpool School Games. Her return to sport after having her child was delayed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, however we cannot wait to see her back in the sport she loves later this year.

Josephine Butler

Where in the North is she from?: Mifield

What’s her story?: Josephine Butler was a social reformer in the Victorian era, campaigning for a variety of issues. These included women’s suffrage and improved women’s education, the abolition of human trafficking and prostitution of children and young women and the end of coverture. Butler began her reform work by opening her own home to women in need, frequently prostitutes who were terminal from contracting venereal disease. After the family moved to Liverpool, it soon became apparent that the amount of women in need were too much for their family home and so Butler built a hostel to house these women, opening a second in her career.

With suffragist Anne Clough, she founded the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in 1867. The Council’s work included planning series of lectures, publishing pamphlets and pressuring the Senate of the University of Cambridge to allow women to take examinations, who acquiesced the following year. Butler was also integral to the implementation of the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, repealing the Contagious Diseases Act (which allowed sex workers to be detained without evidence, purely on the police officer’s word) and campaigning to expose the child prostitution trade within Britain. Needless to say Josephine Butler radically transformed the landscape of Britain through her determined and persistent activism.

Baroness Joan Bakewell (DBE)

Where in the North is she from?: Stockport

What’s her story?: Joan Bakewell is an acclaimed author, journalist and humanitarian. Her career began as a studio manager in 1954 with her first television broadcast as a contributor in 1962. Her prolific career spans decades and led her to produce provocative content, including the before-it’s-time series, Taboo, a series which explored the notions of decency and censorship. This led to controversial scenes of frequent swearing, talking frankly about sex, nudity and pornography and reading erotic pieces of poetry and literature. One such rebellious scene, wherein Bakewell recited an extract of Kirkup’s ‘The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name’ (a homoerotic poem discussing a Roman centurion’s affection for Jesus) landed her complaints and a possible (but subsequently dismissed) prosecution for blasphemous libel. The Broadcasting Standards Commission later rejected the complaints and Bakewell went on to receive the Journalist of the Year Award from Stonewall the following year. Bakewell’s writing has a tendency to focus upon social life, culture and politics and she continues to advocate and challenge societal norms such as discussing the ageism surrounding women in the media. As a result of her persistent work, she was awarded a life peerage of the Labour Party and in 2017, she was awarded the Humanist of the Year Award from Humanists UK.

Grace Darling

Where in the North is she from?: Bamburgh

What’s her story?: Grace Darling was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter celebrated heroine of the Victorian Era. Both Darling and her father set out on the life-threatening rescue of shipwrecked survivors of the SS Forfarshire in 1838. Realising a lifeboat alone would not be enough to save survivors, Darling and her father rowed in torrential waves and weather in order to rescue those who were shipwrecked. It became apparent that one trip would not be enough to save the stranded, so they performed two trips to save the entire group. Her heroic efforts shot her & her father to fame, making front page news and bringing them to the attention of Queen Victoria. As awards for their bravery, Darling received several awards including a Gold Medal of Bravery from the Royal Humane Society and a Silver Medal for Gallantry from the RNLI. To this day, Darling is immortalised in poetry, songs, art and the RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh.

It has been such a delight to celebrate these incredible women, all of whom made the world a better place through their actions. Who would you add onto our list of incredible Northern women? Who are the women in your life who have made the North and the world, a better place?

Written by J. V. Bates

Bio: Jocelyn Bates hails from Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire. She is an English teacher turned poet, writer and podcast host, taking a break from teaching after a mental health breakdown. She is the founder of the Torn Pages Project, a social media platform specialising in allowing participants to anonymously tell their story and is the researcher, writer and host of the Torn Pages Podcast, a podcast specialising in mental health discussions. You can find J.V. Bates on instagram at @jvbateswrites and the Torn Pages Project at @tornpagesproject.