Women who changed history

Who would you choose to be the 50 Women who Changed the World? Lynne Mortimer talked to East Anglian writers Ros Horton and Sally Simmons who had to make that decision.

Who would you choose to be the 50 Women who Changed the World? Lynne Mortimer talked to East Anglian writers Ros Horton and Sally Simmons who had to make that decision.

WHILE men jostle for the chance to change the world often electing to use force rather than persuasion, women's place in history has tended to keep a lower profile.

With a few exceptions - some of whom feature in Ros Horton and Sally Simmons book Women Who Changed the World - the female of the species does not seek to change things through headline-grabbing battles.

In compiling this set of extraordinary women, the writers have had to sift again to reach the final 50 (or so - they have managed to sneak a few extras in.)

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Both based in Cambridge Ros and Sally have collaborated on a number of books, notably the bestseller Speeches that Changed the World.

But what a task they were faced with - just 50 women from all of history - where do you start? Where do you finish.

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Having said that, it is probably a simpler task to identify women than men - so much more has been written of men. While there are thousands of women who have changed the course of events over the millennia there are not so many whose names we know.

On the one hand, what a great job it must have been researching the lives and achievements of women who, one way and another, have changed the course of history.

On the other hand, is it a poisoned chalice? What about the ones who have been left out? And are all of these 50 or so actually deserving of their place?

The two writers assure me they didn't disagree much in arriving at their final selection. So how did they set about choosing?

Sally says: “It might have appeared an impossible choice but actually made easier by the constraints of the project (like the length of the book) and publisher's brief, which was (to provide) a historic spread with emphasis on 20th century; recognisable names - we didn't want people to say, “Who's she?” but are happy for them to ask “What's she doing there?” then reading on to find out; and a geographic spread to reflect market.

As for disagreements: “I've never managed to argue with Ros about anything in more than 25 years. “There was a certain amount of negotiation with the publisher when we found ourselves at odds with his preferences but sometimes it was a relief to be able to leave the final choice to him, and save ourselves agonising. Some entries stayed contentious throughout although there is only one that I still have trouble reconciling myself to, and that's Madonna.

“Including her in the book feels (to me) a bit like inviting Jade Goody into the International Women's Hall of Fame. It should be said, however, that Madonna was on all our advisers' lists of contents - except ours.”

Ros says the publisher's help was invaluable in getting the balance right.

“Although we had a few run-ins… Looking back at it he's always right…

She explains that it was often tempting to load up too much information and this was where a few words from the publisher were useful.

“For example, with Joan of Arc he said, 'Too many wars'; Billie Jean King, 'Too much tennis'; chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, 'Too much science'.” The writers were urged to add interest between the battles and tennis.

Asked to choose a woman who was left out but they would like to have seen in the final cut, Sally and Ros demonstrate how difficult the job of whittling the numbers down must have been.

“We had a long shortlist of over 80 names that we then had to whittle down to 50, so we could name more than one,” says Sally. “If I were really pressed on the point, I would probably choose The Queen (Elizabeth II). Not many people are born into a role for life and not many would be able to sustain it in such a dedicated and professional way.

She quickly qualifies that The Queen was, strictly speaking not 'born' to be monarch because she became heir upon the abdication of Edward VIII, when she was aged 10.

Ros says: “I was looking again at the long list, and I got rather wistful.”

Top of her reinstatement list would be the pioneer of birth control Maries Stopes and, “more frivolously”, she admits, American born actress and dancer Josephine Baker, who spent much of her career in France.

“She worked for the Resistance during the war and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. After the war, she adopted a whole tribe of children and set up a trust that looked after orphans around the world,” says Ros, in testimony.

She is pleased, however, that they managed to actually sneak a total of 58 women into the book.

“When we did Florence Nightingale we felt we couldn't not mention Mary Seacole (a Jamaican nurse who tended the wounded in the Crimea) so she has a half a page and we did the same thing with Amy Johnson.”

Amy Johnson appears alongside aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane in 1928. Johnson flew solo from England to Australia in 1930.

The numbers are also bumped up by the “famous five” women in Canada. In the 1920s these women campaigned for women to be legally considered 'persons' because they weren't under Canadian law, Ros explains. Until then they had been “lumped into a category with children, idiots and criminals. They managed to put an end to that in their country.”

In the 21st century, are great women sufficiently celebrated - that's 'great' as opposed to 'famous'?

Sally, smiles: “Let's hope the book sells many hundreds of thousands of copies and does the job.”

More seriously, she continues: “Women's history has been part of UK school curriculum for 20 years and there is far more awareness now of women in history.

“As we point out in the introduction to the book, a lot of what we know about some of the earliest women we feature is speculative and based on documents of variable reliability - all written by men. And many women struggled to be heard in times when their opinions were derided just because they were women. The social and political changes after the First World War marked a real turning point for women and facilitated enormous progress in what could loosely be called women's issues.

“I think women in the developed world are now making the most of their place in the sun. A few years ago, girls overtook boys in performance at GCSE, then at A level and last year, for the first time, it was reported that women graduates entering the world of work are earning more than their male peers. But for that up side, there's a down side to balance it.

“Women and children make up an overwhelming majority of people throughout the world who live in poverty. In the undeveloped world, education and basic human rights are still major issues for women.”

Ros adds that across the centuries, there were different grounds to be broken at different stages and, perhaps, in the 21st century the physical challenges - such as that taken on by solo yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur - are the only ones left.

In the past, she points out, “women's lives (careers) very often came to a close when they got married.

“When they married they were not expected to carry on as a concert pianist or an artist. This is why these women (in the book) are so remarkable, because they did carry on, despite everything.”

“They made life easier and possible for the rest of us.”

Ros acknowledges that the title of the book is asking a lot of the women in it when it comes to “actually changing the world - because it's a very grand claim, isn't it? Maybe a subtitle 'women who changed history' might be a little closer to the truth.”

“Someone who really did change the world was (American civil rights campaigner) Rosa Parks, by her single act of rebellion,” says Ros. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955 and became a figurehead to generations of black Americans.

“But someone who really touched me was (jazz singer) Billie Holliday,” Ros adds, thoughtfully.

The next project for Ros and Sally is two other titles for Quercus, The Greatest American Speeches and Great American Documents, both aimed at the US market.

“We're currently working hard to build our business, a large part of which involves helping other writers to get their books published. We will always be pleased to hear from anyone with a book project that they would like to develop.”

Ros expands: “The first one we did was a little book on floristry. It was an excellent little book. (Ther author) had very good ideas about business and lots of anecdotes about things that went wrong and we printed it and about three times its been Amazon's best-selling book on floristry.”

n Women Who Changed the World by Ros Horton and Sally Simmons is published in hardback by Quercus, price £15.

Reader poll to find the greatest of the female British world changers?

Log on to www.eadt.co.uk to vote for your choice from this list compiled from Women Who Changed the World. (This is the full British contingent from the book)

a) Boudicca (first century): warrior chieftain; resistance fighter

b) Elizabeth I (1533-1603): Queen of England

c) Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797): Author and radical political feminist

d) Jane Austen (1775-1817): Author

e) Queen Victoria (1819-1901): Longest reigning British monarch

f) Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): Pioneer of nursing

g) Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928): Social reformer; campaigner for women's suffrage

h) Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): Author and feminist

i) Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994): Chemist and pioneer of crystallography; campaigner for disarmament

j) Margaret Thatcher (1925-): First British female Prime Minister

k) Mary Quant (1934-): Fashion designer

l) Mairead Corrigan (1944-) and Betty Williams (1943-): Peace campaigners

m) Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997): Princess of Wales

n) Ellen MacArthur (1976-): Long-distance yachtswoman

n Sally Simmons, who is married with two teenage sons, studied English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 1976. She was something of a pioneer as one of the first 25 girls to attend a college that had been exclusively male since 1596.

After a career in publishing, first at Cambridge University Press and then Pearson in Harlow, Sally moved to Paris and worked as a research associate at INSEAD, the international business school. She moved back to the UK in 1999 and worked as a freelance editor before setting up the Cambridge Editorial Partnership with Ros Horton in 2004.

n Ros, who is married to artist James Horton with two sons aged 16 and 20, studied in London and Paris, graduating from the London School of Economics in 1976. At Cambridge University Press she ran the marketing department for several years. In 1994 she left to go freelance, and spent several years as a writer and editor before teaming up with Sally.


Abbess, author and composer Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) “With nature's help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.”

Catherine the Great (1729-1796): “I leave to posterity to judge impartially what I have done.”

American anti-slavery campaigner and suffragist Susan B Anthony (1820- 1906): “There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”

Chemist Marie Curie (1867-1034): “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

Cosmetics creator and benefactor Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965): “I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind.”

Actor Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003): “Of you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Feminist Betty Friedan (1921-2006): “We're only beginning to know what we're capable of.”

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-): “In politics if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Film star Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962): “Hollywood's a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997): “Don't call me an icon. I'm just a mother trying to help.”

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