It’s International Women’s Day, when we both commemorate past struggles for women’s rights and acknowledge the great deal of work still to be done for gender equality.
So what better time to celebrate some of the ladies who have made it in a man’s world? Here are ten inspirational women from our own fair city.
One of the Birmingham Suffragettes, Hilda Burkitt burned down a hotel as part of the Votes For Women campaign, and was sentenced to two years in prison. While on hunger strike in prison, Hilda was the first Suffragette to be force-fed; a gruesome process which went on for the duration of her incarceration.
Hailed as “a heroine” by none other than J.K. Rowling, MP Jess Phillips is no stranger to controversy, unafraid of calling out misogyny in the Labour party, in politics, and in society at large. Prior to entering Parliament, Jess worked for a charity protecting victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Since becoming an MP, she has ruffled feathers with speeches on homelessness and her tireless lobbying for gender equality.
Kit de Waal
Kit’s debut novel My Name Is Leon came out last year. Set in Birmingham in the 80s, it tells the story of two brothers at risk of being separated by the foster system. My Name Is Leon received widespread critical acclaim, in part because it so closely mirrors the lives and experiences of real people who rarely find themselves reflected in literature. Kit has also established a creative writing fellowship, to help working class writers gain a foothold in the literary world.
One of the most famous supermodels of the 90s and 00s, Erin O’Connor grew up in Brownhills and was spotted by a talent scout during a school trip to the Birmingham Clothes Show. In addition to her modelling work, Erin has written for British Vogue and the Sunday Times, and is an outspoken champion of healthy body image and realistic standards of beauty in the fashion industry.
Dismissed from grammar school at the age of 15 for being too much of a troublemaker, Julie trained as a nurse at Queen Elizabeth Hospital before deciding to give acting a try. And the rest, as they say, is history. Julie has starred in a number of beloved British films, including Educating Rita and Calendar Girls, but she is perhaps best-known for playing Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter series.
Science teacher turned comedian Shazia Mirza uses her stand-up to examine and take the mick out of serious subjects like sexism, racism and Islamaphobia in modern Britain. Her latest show, The Kardashians Made Me Do It, even dared to take on ISIS — and the entire tour sold out. Shazia’s approach to the truly terrible stuff in life is to turn everything into a joke. “If you laugh at them, you will reduce them to nothing,” she said in a recent interview.
Did you know that one of the 20th Century’s most beloved, top-selling authors was from Birmingham? Dame Barbara Cartland was a prolific author of wildly popular romance novels, as well as a newspaper columnist and later a campaigner in the fields of healthcare and education. She wrote more than 700 books in her life, many of which were translated into 38 different languages and continue to sell well all over the world, and to this day holds the Guinness World Record for the most novels written in a single year (23 titles in 1983).
Born in St. Kitts, Joan moved to Birmingham with her family as a child. At the age of 16, she was sacked from her first job at a factory in Hockley, after she kept bringing her guitar to work to play during tea breaks. Over the next 40 years, she released 18 studio albums and toured all around the world, playing alongside greats such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Cyndi Lauper.
Jamelia to fame with her hit single “Superstar,” and has since carved out a career as a television presenter and panellist, including a stint on Loose Women. She has also used her fame to draw attention to racism; after an ugly incident on a train involving a member of the public, she took to social media explaining that these are not isolated instances, but something that people of colour face every day.
The youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is an internationally renowned human rights activist and an indefatigable advocate for the education and empowerment of girls. In 2012, Malala was seriously injured in an assassination attempt by the Taliban after defying the ban on girls going to school in Pakistan. She now lives in Birmingham with her family, making her an honorary Brummie and someone we can be proud to call our own.