Recognising Female Trailblazers

Posted: 28th January 2022

female trailblazers

Most people will know the names Neil Armstrong and Albert Einstein. Fewer people will know the names Katherine Johnson and Mileva Maric – at least without specifically researching their lives. Yet those who do know these names will recognise them as female trailblazers; impressive women who contributed to advancing the world around us.

So why are these women not household names, like Armstrong and Einstein? Johnson may not have walked on the moon but she certainly helped Armstrong do so. She was an African American mathematician known as a ‘human calculator’; the chosen expert to calculate the trajectory to the moon – something she successfully did by hand. Some may argue that’s a more impressive feat than walking.

Maric is similarly overlooked. She was Einstein’s first wife, a woman described as “brilliant”, who attended the same universities and lectures as Einstein. She helped him with his studies, and achieved better marks in their classes than he did. Einstein himself credited her as having worked with him on the theory of relativity (29th March 1901). However, due to the prejudices of the era, only his name was on the article so he would receive funding. This article made Einstein a household name, yet hardly anyone knows Maric helped him every step of the way.

A family of female trailblazers

This same phenomenon of overlooking the achievements of women is true of the Rothschild family. The Rothschilds are one of Europe’s most famous banking dynasties. The men of the family have continued an unbroken line of successful business ventures. However, the women of the family are just as impressive. In Natalie Livingstone’s new book, The Women of Rothschild, we discover generations of female trailblazers: women who changed the face of science, politics, music, literature and sport.

Charlotte Rothschild, for example, was the wife of the first Jewish MP, Lionel Rothschild. She wrote his campaign speeches, and witty, insightful letters to the newspapers, as well as canvassing for her husband. Her efforts helped overturn the oath that required MPs to swear allegiance to Christianity before they could sit in the House of Commons.

In an interview about her new book, Livingstone said: “She was absolutely crucial. And the thing I find poignant is that, in all the portraits of Lionel taking his oath in the Commons, Charlotte is not beside him, which she should be.”

Charlotte was not the only Rothschild woman to influence historical moments. Lady Constance Battersea was a driving force in the late ninetieth-century women’s rights movement. Rozsika Rothschild – the Hungarian Ladies Tennis Champion – scandalised the world of women’s tennis by introducing the over-arm serve. Rozsika was also instrumental in setting up the charities Save the Children and the Hungarian Red Cross.

Miriam Rothschild: A catalyst for change

Yet possibly the most influential Rothschild woman was Miriam Rothschild, who died in 2005. She was a natural scientist and a brilliant polymath, with eight honorary doctorates. In her lifetime, she influenced many historical events.

During World War II, she was recruited to work at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing. There, she tirelessly translated codes in the name of national defence and was awarded a Defence Medal from the British Government. At this time, she also pressed the government to admit more war refugees. She personally helped forty-nine Jewish children reach safe haven, housing a number of them herself.

In later life, she influenced social change by contributing to the Wolfenden Report, which recommended decriminalising homosexuality. She was also outspoken about her own bisexuality at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Her efforts undoubtedly led the way for a more inclusive and safe society for the LGBTQ+ community.

Female trailblazers across the world

The stories of the Rothschild women are intriguing not just because of their forgotten achievements. Their stories are the stories of women throughout history. As Livingstone herself says: “It’s the stories of under-researched women, who, through wilful destruction, or careless archiving, have been forgotten.”

The examples are plentiful. In the scientific world, under-celebrated Miriam Rothschild is joined by Cecilia Payne, Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, among others. Cecilia Payne attended Cambridge University on a scholarship, even though they didn’t grant degrees to women at that time. She was the first astrophysicist to correctly determine what the stars were made of. However, her peer reviewer, Henry Norris Russell, convinced her not to publish her conclusion. He later repeated and published her work, and was given all the credit.

Similarly, Lise Meitner co-discovered Nuclear Fission, but her male colleagues intentionally published the paper without her name. They went on to win the Nobel Prize and she was forgotten. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar. Her senior colleague, Anthony Hewish, published her work under his name, received all the credit and a Nobel Prize.

Recognising modern female trailblazers

One would like to think that times have moved on. After all, different industries regularly celebrate women’s achievements. There are even specific award ceremonies to ensure it. Even the gender pay gap has declined approximately a quarter over the last decade. However, in 2021, the pay gap increased again for the majority of occupations, and more women than men were furloughed with a loss of pay [Office for National Statistics].

Despite strides towards gender equality in the workplace, only 8% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women. Only 36.2% are even in the boardrooms. These percentages are actually an improvement from the last five years, but still far too low.

Recognising the achievements of women has always been important. Real inclusion isn’t about tick box diversity initiatives or meeting obligations under equality law. It’s about creating an inclusive working environment where women feel that they can bring their whole self to work, knowing that their skills, experience and perspectives are understood and appreciated by their employer.

KTAS believes this starts with a robust leadership and management programme, where talented minds and trailblazers are given the opportunity to make a real impact.

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