London -- Monday August 21, 2006
Simply the best
It's not easy to change the world but in June we asked you to nominate women who are doing just that. We received an avalanche of replies. Here, Lucy Clouting profiles the most inspiring, creative, dynamic women in Britain
There are some decisions that, while initially made with confidence, soon prompt a lip-quiver of concern. Back in June, inspired by an American project called the Real Hot 100 (an antidote to the men's magazine hotlists that rate women primarily on their pouts), Guardian Women asked readers to nominate Britain's most exciting unsung heroines. The American project had uncovered hundreds of brilliant women, all doing creative, vital, groundbreaking work, from setting up a rock camp for girls to organising a major disaster relief project during hurricane Katrina.
And while we knew that there must be plenty of world-changing British women, we were still a trifle nervous. What if only a handful were nominated? What if most of them were "my mum - 'cos she's always inspired me" (nice reasoning, but no cigar)? We'd suggested that people could nominate themselves - what if no one but the occasional egomaniac wrote in, explaining that they'd done nothing particularly impressive, but had always suspected they were fabulous anyway?
Thankfully, our worries were for naught. Within days, we had hundreds of nominations for women so exciting, dynamic and - yes - world changing, that we were able to wipe our brows, heave a long sigh of relief and dive happily into their stories. Reading through the nominations was awe inspiring - from the woman who created a major project for Rwandan street children to another who has just started a glossy feminist magazine, to another who works as a peace activist by day and a political cartoonist by night. To a one the stories were compelling.
For reasons of space, time and sanity, unfortunately, we can't highlight them all, and so, after long deliberation and head-scratching, we've come up with a cross-section of 15 outstanding women. Whether through art, charity, or political protest, all are working ardently to make the world that much better for all of us. We personally find them hugely inspiring. We hope that you do too.
Kira Cochrane, women's editor
Errollyn Wallen - Composer and performer
So far: Belize-born Wallen has "passionately wanted to share music with other people" since she was a girl. "Composing takes over your mind," she says. She has written for Radio 3, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet, amongst others and regularly puts on music workshops in schools. Wallen studied composition at London and Cambridge universities after a spell at the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York. Her work, Spirit Symphony - Speed-Dating for Two Orchestras, won her the BBC Radio 3 Listeners' award at last year's British Composer Awards.
What's next? The Errollyn Wallen Songbook, a blend of pop, jazz and classical music, will be released in September. She's also writing a new orchestral work to mark the forthcoming bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, which will be performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2007. The Schubert Ensemble commissioned her to write a piano quintet for them, Music for Tigers, and this is due to be premiered in October.
Chair of the Ramblers' Association and the Council for National Parks, Chief Executive of the Open Spaces Society
So far: To say Ashbrook is committed to protecting our rambling rights would be an understatement: at 23 she dodged gunfire on Dartmoor National Park while asserting the right to roam. At the time, the Ministry of Defence held a licence allowing the army to fire high-explosive shells. A career of campaigning has followed: she "loves the wilderness and can't bear the thought of anyone impeding people's right to engage with it."
What's next? The explosions at Dartmoor stopped in 1998, but Ashbrook wants the military out of the park and is already working to prevent the Duchy of Cornwall renewing the MoD's licence in 2012. She's also keen to improve coastal access and wants local rambling groups to fight for their rights - "I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from my successes, be it saving an urban path or restoring an obstructed rural one."
Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan
Lesbian couple fighting for their marriage to be recognised in Ireland
So far: Zappone and Gilligan met while graduate students at Boston College in the US in the early 1980s and subsequently got married in Canada. When they moved to Ireland (Gilligan had grown up there and they are both Irish nationals now), they wanted to secure parity with heterosexual married couples and for the authorities to recognise their entitlements to "privacy and family life" as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Gilligan says "the case is the evolution of a whole life of social activism". Together with Zappone, she founded a community-based education project in 1986, which is now known as An Cosán: "We wanted to address the endemic poverty in west Dublin and to empower people through education."
Zappone is a philosopher and member of the Irish Human Rights Commission. Gilligan lectures at St Patrick's Teacher Training College in Dublin and is Chair of the National Educational Welfare Board in Ireland.
What's next? "We're looking for justice for ourselves as well as those who share our sexual identity." The case will reach the High Court in October.
Organiser of the Birds Eye View Film Festival
Juliet Stevenson [L] and Rachel Millward [R] at the Bird's Eye View Film Festival, Launch Party January 2005
So far: With women worldwide accounting for only 7% of film directors, and 12% of screenwriters, in 2003 Millward decided to start a festival that would showcase women's voices and get "diverse perspectives on screen. The films we show aren't necessarily about women's issues," she says, "but each presents the world through a woman's eyes."
Millward is most proud of the educational programmes she runs. "It really excites me to see young people have their first critical epiphany about the media/film - that it doesn't come from some neutral place of authority."
What's next? The festival looks set to grow even larger, with training programmes planned for women film-makers. Having run an event earlier this year where an early silent film was accompanied by live music, Millward is also looking forward to organising many more multimedia events.
Campaigns to improve conditions for women in prison
So far: After her 18-year-old daughter Sarah died in Styal prison in 2003, Pauline Campbell was galvanised to champion the rights of vulnerable women in custody. Since Sarah's death, she has taken part in 18 prison demonstrations and been arrested 12 times.
In memory of her late daughter, she speaks out for women who are disempowered: "Maternal grief can be transformed from a cause for pity into a political force, and that's what I'm doing. No one can stop me."
What's next? She has three main aims: "To put an end to women dying in prison. To stop mentally ill people being sent to places of punishment. To stop women being sent to prison for non-violent crimes. It's a moral outrage that in our so-called civilised society women are suffering and dying in the 'care' of the state."
Co-founder of children's charity, Tyger Tyger
So far: In 2003, after going to drama school, Thornton (who describes herself as an "artistic facilitator") co-founded the charity Tyger Tyger which helps young people, particularly in areas of conflict, to "creatively communicate with their community and the wider world". In 2004, Tyger Tyger's Child of Bethlehem project gave Palestinian youngsters a chance to film their stories, and won the prestigious Real to Reel documentary award.
At Contacting the World, for which she is a project coordinator, she sets up multinational theatre exchange programmes through the Contact theatre in Manchester. Her work there has taken her to the townships of South Africa and Rwanda.
She is also a "clown doctor", with the Scottish charity, Hearts and Minds. As Doctor Wallop, she entertains sick children in hospital who are "disempowered, scared and bored".
What's next? Thornton wants to develop more sustainable theatre projects and to "raise the bar artistically" with her work. She's also working to set up a Scottish-Palestinian theatre exchange.
Helps south Asian women escape domestic violence and forced marriages.
So far: At almost 16, Sanghera ran away from home after being presented with the photograph of the man her parents expected her to marry. Subsequently, her younger sister, Robina, was coerced into a marriage which ultimately led to divorce. Robina then married for love, but, after suffering horrific physical abuse within this relationship (and having been told by her family that honour demanded she stay with her husband) she killed herself, aged 24.
Following her sister's death, Sanghera returned to Derby, nine years after she had fled, determined to help women in similar predicaments.
"In the UK, thousands of Asian girls are going through this and it is kept hidden by the concept of 'honour'. They are too embarrassed to discuss things with their teachers and many don't even realise that forced marriages are illegal."
What's next? Sanghera's autobiography, Shame, will be published in January. She is working on a PhD on honour killings and victims' experiences of honour-based violence.
Working for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Also has a burgeoning comedy career
So far: In her day job for the MFCVT Burdess writes reports that help ensure continued UN and EU funding for holistic care for victims of torture. She has also provided evidence for the UN Committee Against Torture and the International Criminal Court, most notably for the Pinochet case. In the evenings, she does character-based stand-up (one of her characters resembles "a Welsh transsexual Gwyneth Paltrow") and also performs with Cicely Giddings. The pair's play, Equal Opps, was broadcast on Radio 4 earlier this year and last year they took their sketch show to the Edinburgh festival.
What's next? There are plans for a benefit gig for the MFCVT in December and Burdess is also involved in efforts to establish an archive of torture victims' testimonies. A tour with Mitchell and Webb [the duo behind Peep Show] is imminent, and Burdess also features in their forthcoming BBC TV series, due out this autumn.
Raises awareness of the issues affecting women in prostitution
So far: For 11 years, until 1995, Broadfoot worked as a prostitute in Bradford. Her young cousin Maureen Stepan, who had also been working on the streets in Bradford, was murdered, an event that drove Broadfoot to give up prostitution. Looking for an outlet for her anger, she set up a support group for prostituted women, as well as one for their parents, and, in November 1996, helped arrange a huge memorial service in Bradford to commemorate all women murdered in prostitution.
Since then, Broadfoot has trained police forces on how to approach issues surrounding prostitution ("it's amazing how much their outlook can change in a single afternoon"); she has undertaken a major research project for the Home Office (which involved speaking to 50 prostituted women); and she's addressed politicians in Brussels.
What's next? Broadfoot is hoping to set up a refuge for women who are leaving prostitution and will continue to speak out vociferously against legalisation of a trade that she says strips women of their essential human rights.
Sara Wingate Gray
Poet, blogger and poetry archivist
So far: Aware that, in 2006, being a poet was increasingly anachronistic, Wingate decided to launch a major project to find out what keeps fellow poets committed to their art. She has spent this summer travelling across Europe, collating interviews with poets and collecting copies of their work to distribute. Having amassed a large poetry archive she has been taking this around the continent's libraries as a travelling resource.
What's next? In October, Wingate hopes to go to San Francisco State University Poetry Center to do a poetry apprenticeship. The American Poetry Archives are housed there, with original recordings from famous poets dating back to the 1950s; Wingate plans to research a way to create a permanent library for the material she amassed during her travels, which is currently residing in her mother's loft.
Co-director of Inquest, the free legal and advice service for families and friends of people who have died in custody
So far: Coles has worked for Inquest over the past 15 years and continues to be inspired by the need for state accountability and the selflessness of bereaved families: "They are devastated - they have lost a close relative but their sole motivation is to stop others suffering in the same way."
Since 1990, there have been 29 deaths of 14- to 17-year-olds in penal custody in England and Wales and Coles is currently pressing for a public inquiry which would "take a holistic look at all the issues regarding the treatment of children by the criminal justice system".
What's next? Families' Experiences Following Contentious Deaths, a report that Coles has written with Helen Shaw (her co-director at Inquest) will be published later this year.
Runs Cinderford Artspace, a community arts project in Gloucestershire
So far: "Everyone is creative and if people aren't allowed to express that, their humanity is being denied". This philosophy drove Florence, a single mother of twins, to set up a community arts project in 1988. The centre she runs is open to adults and children, including those with mental health issues, learning difficulties, disabilities and behavioural problems: "We put on a big circus project for young people a while back and we had to look for somewhere to put the trapeze."
What's next? "In five years or so," says Florence, "I would like to go back to my first love, poetry, and get a collection of my work published."
Founder of the
and domestic violence prevention officer
So far: In 2004, Mackay established the London Feminist Network to "make London a leading light of the women's liberation movement".
She campaigns against prostitution and has written several articles on the subject, as well as delivering speeches on it, most recently at the Andrea Dworkin commemorative conference at Oxford University. In her day job, as a domestic violence prevention officer, she trains teachers in domestic violence awareness.
What's next? With others, Mackay has "rejuvenated the fine tradition of women-only Reclaim the Night marches". The next women-only march will take place on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and will culminate in a rally for men and women in central London.
Founding member of networking group Thinking Women and designer of the 'Oneless' ethically sound, reusable shopping bag
So far: During her time at the think-tank Demos, Symons co-founded the influential women's networking group, Thinking Women, "empowering women concerned about the world". Monthly meetings with invited speakers give members an "open forum to learn and discuss important issues".
Since having children and leaving Demos Symons' concern surrounding environmental issues has grown and she has spent her time designing a reusable shopping bag, made of recycled sari fabric, which folds up into a zippable pouch. Symons also ran as a Green Party candidate at the last round of council elections.
What's next? Symons is currently planning a marketing strategy for her environmentally friendly bag and would one day like to serve in the House of Lords.