Is Margot Fonteyn a better woman than Vivien Leigh?

Stamp of disapproval: Royal Mail runs into storm in choice of century's women of achievement
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It was bound to be a sticking point. The Royal Mail's decision to choose five women for a set of stamps called 20th-century Women of Achievement was destined to provoke an impassioned debate over who was left out.

Yesterday, as the special issue went on sale, battle raged over the merits of the five women chosen above the likes of Virginia Woolf, Marie Stopes, Laura Ashley and Vivien Leigh.

Those featured are Dame Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for her work as a biologist; Dame Marea Hartman, a tireless promoter of women in sport; ballerina Margot Fonteyn, novelist Daphne Du Maurier and sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink.

They were picked from a list of 100 notable women, including politicians, social reformers and actresses by a committee of Post Office representatives and appointees. Living women were excluded, as only members of the Royal Family can feature on stamps while still alive.

Rosena Robson, the Royal Mail's special stamps manager, said the committee had looked at each woman's personal details, professional achievement reputation and influence, and whether she had been honoured or had won international awards.

"There were so many women who could have qualified," she said. "We wanted to show women's achievements in different fields and although they aren't all everyday names, we think we've got a good balance between people everyone will have heard of and women who achieved just as much but aren't as well-known. They are women who helped shape the century."

However, yesterday there was disappointment among arts bodies and women's campaigning groups at some of the notable omissions. Adrian Wootton of the British Film Institute, said he was amazed at the absence of some of the acting world's great names.

"It's not that the people chosen aren't worthy of that honour, but the committee doesn't seem to have thought about including the particularly important women from film, theatre or television," he said. "This has been a lost opportunity to highlight the achievements of people like Vivien Leigh, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft and Margaret Rutherford, especially given the contribution made to cinema worldwide by British acting."

Mary-Ann Stephenson of the equal rights campaign group, The Fawcett Society, said the Royal Mail should have recognised the achievements of Millicent Fawcett who fought to win the vote for women. "For women, voting allowed them to have a say in how they were to be governed. Until then they weren't considered citizens. I think it's unfortunate that such a major achievement as winning the vote isn't represented."

Ms Stephenson was also critical of the fact that women's personal lives were taken into account when the shortlist was being compiled.

"A male scientist's achievements wouldn't be measured in terms of how he looked after his children, but when women exist in public roles they have to be all-round flawless people," she said.

There was also a plea for the inclusion of Dr Marie Stopes. Franca Tranza of Marie Stopes International, said: "She was the first woman to say women should be able to enjoy sex as much as men, and she pioneered birth control. We would love to see her included in the top five because her achievements were so great."

Karen Fielder, from the organisation Women, Heritage and Museums, said that she was surprised by the absence of Virginia Woolf or suffragettes, such as Emmeline Pankhurst. "I'm fond of Du Maurier, but Woolf had a more dramatic effect on women's literature, and she challenged the traditional image of a woman author."

Juliet Warkentin, editor of Marie Claire magazine, said: "All the choices are high achievers, but I wish they had broadened the selection instead of having three women from the arts. There should have been a recognition of the role of women in business, and Laura Ashley would be an obvious candidate, or of women in medicine."

Who they could have chosen

A selection of the names considered by the advisory committee. Those previously featured on stamps are enclosed in square brackets.


Nancy Astor (1879-1964): first woman MP to take up a seat in the Commons

Boudicca (died AD 61): warrior queen who defied Roman conquerors

Margaret Brent (1600-1670): America's "first feminist"


Isabella Beeton (1836-1865): cookery writer

Annie Besant (1847-1933): birth-control reformer

Josephine Butler (1828- 1906): champion of rights of fallen women

Emma Cons (1837-1912): housing reform and founder of the Old Vic theatre

Emily Davies (1830-1921): pioneer of higher education for women

[Octavia Hill (1838-1912):founder of National Trust]

Hannah More (1745-1833): influential teacher and writer

Louisa Twining (1820-1911): hospital, workhouse reformer

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759- 1797): author, feminist pioneer


Catherine Booth (1829- 1890): co-founder of Salvation Army

St Hilda of Whitby (614-680): nun who founded monestery at Whitby


Julian of Norwich (1342- 1414): first British woman of letters

Mary Astell (1668-1731): first woman in England to suggest women should be educated

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Aphra Behn (1640-1689): first British woman to make a living by the pen

[Enid Blyton (1897-1968)]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61): in her time more famous poet that her husband, Robert Browning

[The Bronte sisters, Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily, (1818-1848) featured in 1980 issue]

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924): author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, one of the most popular children's books ever written

Fanny Burney (1752-1840): first Englishwoman to write a novel, Evelina

Angela Carter (1940-1992): author/screenwriter/journalist

Agatha Christie (1890- 1976)

[George Eliot (1819-1880) featured in 1980 issue]

[Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) Peter Rabbit in 1979 issue]

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823): helped to start literary fashion of Gothic novel

Christina Rossetti (1830- 1894): one of greatest poets of pre-Raphaelite era

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)

Rebecca West (1892-1983)

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771- 1855)


Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1990): leading actress of her generation

Lilian Baylis (1874-1937): theatrical impressario

Margot Fonteyn (1919-1990): leading ballerina

[Vivien Leigh (1913- 67): featured in 1985 issue]

Marie Lloyd (1870-1922): music hall artist

Anna Neagle (1904-1986): actress and theatrical producer

Jacqueline du Pre (1945- 87): premier cellist of her generation

Marie Rambert (1888- 1982): founded Ballet Rambert in 1926

Sarah Siddons (1755-1831): leading actress

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944): leading female composer and suffragette

Sybil Thorndike (1882- 1976): leading actress


Hester Bateman (1709-1794): one of greatest silversmiths of 18th century

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879): most famous Victorian portrait photographer

Elisabeth Frink (1930-93): contemporary sculptor

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901): children's illustrator

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975): sculptress

Gwen John (1876-1939): painter, some rate as better than her brother, Augustus


Elizabeth Garret Anderson (1836-1917): first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain

Edith Cavell (1865-1915)

Rosalid Franklin (1920-1958): distinguished crystallographer

Anna Freud (1895-1982): psychoanalyst

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994): one of Britain's greatest scientists

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852): daughter of Byron, gifted mathematician who foresaw digital computer

[Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): featured in 1970 stamp]

Mary Somerville (1780-1872): mathematician and astronomer

Marie Stopes (1880-1958): pioneer for family planning


Laura Ashley (1925-85)

Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906): Victorian benefactor


Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): explorer

Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819): balloonist

Lottie Dod (1871-1960): youngest winner of ladies singles at Wimbledon 1887, 88, 91, 92, 93,

Amy Johnson (1903-41): pioneering aviator

. . . and contenders for the future

Which contemporary women of achievement would you want to stick on to your postcards, bills and love letters?

The arts world throws up plenty of high-calibre candidates, with people such as Dame Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Dame Judi Dench vying for selection.

Another possibility is Glenda Jackson, now taking her place on the political stage in the House of Commons following her career in theatre and film.

Other politicians deserving of recognition include Baronesses Castle and Thatcher, worlds apart in outlook but each breaking new ground during their careers. Betty Boothroyd, former dance troupe member turned first woman speaker of the House of Commons is another strong contender.

Clear favourites among sportswomen are javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson, who appeared in a record sixth Olympics at Atlanta, and Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell. The fashion industry would doubtless suggest acclaimed designer Vivienne Westwood.

Booker prize-winning authors AS Byatt, Anita Brookner and Pat Barker are among literary notables while in television Lynda La Plante, Verity Lambert and Janet Street Porter are among the best-known figures.

And while it is still early days for talents like actress Jane Horrocks and Turner prize-winner Rachel Whiteread, who knows - they could find themselves gracing envelopes in the next millennium.

Who would you suggest?

The Stamp Advisory Committee's shortlist of 100 eminent British women could no doubt have been longer. If you were free to name the top five women of the century, each achieving the heights in a different discipline, who would you have chosen? Please send your list, with brief reasons, to Independent Top Women, Editor's Office, The Independent, 1 Canada Tower, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.