A century of distinction: 100 women who changed the world

On the eve of the 100th of International Women's Day, the IoS brings you its guide to the 100 British women who, arguably, have done most to shape the world we live in today

Tomorrow is designated International Women's Day, and it is a particularly significant milestone this year: the campaign to improve the rights of women was founded a century ago.

To celebrate the occasion, The Independent on Sunday today salutes 100 women who have changed the world for ever and for the better, and who are drawn from all walks of life.

The IoS's top female minds came together to make their selections; the only restriction facing them was that the candidates should be British and have made their lasting contribution during the past 100 years.

But, though the rules were minimal, debate was long – and heated – as thousands of deserving candidates were whittled away to arrive at this magnificent roll of honour: undeniably subjective, but unquestionably fascinating.

We would, of course, welcome your thoughts about those who are on the list – and about those we did not, but should have, featured.

Diane Abbott

Politician

Born 1953

Well-known for late-night political punditry on BBC1's This Week, and for wading into controversy, she nevertheless inspired thousands of black girls when she became the first female black MP in 1987. Her opposition, as a backbencher, to the Iraq war contributed to her being overlooked for ministerial office.

Humayra Abedin

Campaigner

Born 1976

The NHS doctor abducted and forced into marriage in Bangladesh by her family in 2008. She has campaigned for better awareness and openness among professionals and Asian communities about forced marriage since her release. Her case, first highlighted in the IoS, led to more victims coming forward.

Valerie Amos

Politician

Born 1954

Former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, she was made a life peer in 1997 and a year later became a minister under Tony Blair. In May 2003, she succeeded Clare Short as International Development Secretary, becoming the first female black Cabinet minister. Remained in Cabinet for four years.

Julie Andrews

Entertainer

Born 1935

Star of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, Andrews was the youngest ever performer at The Royal Variety Performance when she appeared at the London Palladium when aged 13. She won the first of two Oscars in 1964 for Mary Poppins and her crystal-clear voice is one of the most memorable of the past century.

Nancy Astor

Politician, 1879-1964

Born in the United States, but deserves a place on our list because in 1919 she became the first woman to take up a seat in House of Commons. Renowned for her acerbic wit and right-wing views, she was, however, criticised for refusing to join the suffragette movement.

Joan Bakewell

Journalist

Born 1933

Dubbed the "thinking man's crumpet" when she was the only female journalist and TV presenter on BBC2's Late Night Line Up – a discussion programme which ran until 1972. She has championed gay rights and, in 2008, was appointed by the Government to act as the voice for older people.

Helen Bamber

Campaigner

Born 1925

Aged 20, at the end of the Second World War, she entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to help victims. After the war, she worked with child survivors of the Holocaust. Her life has been dedicated to human rights and opposing torture. She was the first chairman of Amnesty International in Britain.

Camila Batmanghelidjh

Charity worker

Born 1963

Since coming to the UK from Iran as an asylum-seeker when she was seven, Batmanghelidjh has tried to improve the lives of British children marginalised by society. She set up Kids Company, a London-based charity that helps children through psychotherapy, and The Place To Be, which offers children counselling.

Lilian Baylis

Theatrical pioneer, 1874-1937

Baylis produced a cycle of Shakespeare plays at the Old Vic between 1913 and 1924, a theatre she managed until her death, as well as campaigning to reopen the derelict Sadler's Wells theatre. She also founded the forerunners to English National Opera, National Theatre and National Ballet.

Angela Berners-Wilson

Priest

Born 1955

After devoting almost two decades to the Church of England as a deacon, Berners-Wilson had already proved she was more than capable of full ministry. In 1994, when the Synod finally allowed women to join the priesthood, she was the first to be ordained, and paved the way for hundreds of other women to do the same.

Betty Boothroyd

Politician

Born 1929

A Labour MP for 27 years, she became the first and, so far, only female Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992. During her eight-year tenure, the former Tiller girl was highly-regarded for her no-nonsense style and wit. In her earlier career, she was an anti-apartheid campaigner.

Barbara Castle

Politician, 1910-2002

A Labour MP from 1945 until 1979, the "Red Queen" of British politics held two Cabinet jobs in Harold Wilson's government. Her white paper on union reform, In Place of Strife, foundered, yet she was admired across the Labour movement, fighting, for example, Gordon Brown over pensions until she died.

Shami Chakrabarti

Civil libertarian

Born 1969

The former Home Office barrister has been director of the civil liberties and human rights organisation Liberty since 2003, and is a prominent campaigner against terrorism laws and the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. She Is now a household name, and is chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

Agatha Christie

Writer, 1890-1976

Best known for her 80 detective novels featuring French detective Hercule Poirot and the very English Miss Jane Marple, which gave her recognition as one of the most important writers in the development of the crime genre. She is still the most translated and best-selling female author in the world.

Caryl Churchill

Playwright

Born 1938

Experimental dramatist who started writing while studying at Oxford University, she has written more than 40 plays for theatre, TV and radio. Her work has explored feminist and political themes throughout her career, using a variety of techniques such as dance-theatre, satire and surrealism.

Jackie Collins

Writer

Born 1937

From B-movie actress to best-selling novelist, the founder of Hollywood chick lit has sold more than 400 million of her racy books which have been translated into more than in 40 languages. All of her 27 novels have reached the New York Times best-sellers list. She resides in Beverly Hills, California.

Shirley Conran

Writer

Born 1932

A successful novelist, Conran is best known for her polemical non-fiction from which the 1975 Superwoman remains her most influential work. Superwoman gave women advice on how to avoid unnecessary work in the home, and included the famous line: "Life is too short to stuff a mushroom."

Dany Cotton

Fire fighter

Born 1969

England's highest ranking operational fire fighter and the first (and only) woman to get the Queen's Fire Service medal. Just five months after finishing her training, she was integral to the team that responded to the Clapham rail crash in 1988 and she also helped to put out the fire on the Cutty Sark in 2007.

Elizabeth David

Cookery writer, 1913-1992

David is credited with bringing French and Italian cooking into our homes, by celebrating simple Mediterranean dishes in a post-war Britain worn down by rationing. Her book, and magazine articles, won respect among chefs and brought such ingredients as the aubergine, olive oil and pasta into British shops.

Margaret Damer Dawson

Police officer, 1875-1920

Founded the Women's Police Service with a group of volunteers in London in 1915 after being shocked at witnessing British men recruit Belgian refugees as prostitutes. Her network soon spread nationwide and established the groundwork for integrating women into policing. She was also an animal welfare activist.

Brenda Dean

Trade unionist

Born 1943

First female general secretary of a British trade union. Dean took on Rupert Murdoch as head of the Sogat print union when the News International owner moved the operation to Wapping, as detailed in her autobiography Hot Mettle. Now a Labour peer she sits on the Lords' appointments commission.

Judi Dench

Actress

Born 1934

Her accolades include 10 Baftas, seven Laurence Olivier awards and one Oscar, won over more than 50 years, making her one of the greatest actresses of the post-war period. Her first love is theatre but her film work has burgeoned more recently since being cast as M in the James Bond films since 1995.

Diana

Princess of Wales, 1961-1997

Along with Marilyn Monroe, the most iconic female face of the past century. She campaigned on issues including Aids, homelessness and civilian injuries from landmines. She forced a reluctant Royal Family to modernise, especially as a result of her death in a Paris road crash – an event which sparked an outpouring of public grief which still startles.

Carol Ann Duffy

Poet

Born 1955

She is the first woman, first Scot and first openly bisexual person to be poet laureate. A prolific writer of poetry and prose, her first poem as Laureate tackled the MPs' expenses scandal; her second commemorated the deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham – the last British survivors of the First World War.

Elizabeth II

Queen

Born 1926

She has a husband with a dubious line in small talk and rather feckless children, but has managed to rise above all this to bring stability to the monarchy during her 57-year reign. She has also highlighted her concerns about the environment and the recession, so at least she tries to show she's in touch.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Suffragist, 1847-1929

A leader of the constitutional faction of the British women's suffrage movement, Fawcett advocated a more peaceful means of winning the vote than some of her contemporaries. She also fought for women's access to higher education, co-establishing Newnham College, Cambridge.

Gracie Fields

Entertainer, 1898-1979

Born above a chip shop in Rochdale, she became one of the biggest stars of film and music halls. Fields gave up her job in the cotton mills at 13 to tour the music halls with her mother, performing up to four times a night. She was already a huge star when the talkies arrived and easily made the switch to cinema.

Margot Fonteyn

Ballerina, 1919-1991

One of the greatest classical ballerinas of all time, she was appointed Prima Ballerina Assoluta – the principal ballet dancer – of the Royal Ballet, with whom she spent her entire career. Her greatest partnership was with the Russian Rudolf Nureyev. They danced together from 1961 until her retirement at the age of 60.

Rosalind Franklin

Scientist, 1920-1958

The unsung hero of DNA, Franklin's X-ray images of the double helix provided the data that Francis Crick and James Watson used to make their hypothesis on its structure. She died of ovarian cancer at 37, just four years before the Nobel prize was claimed by her contemporaries.

Clara Furse

Businesswoman

Born 1957

The first woman to be appointed chief executive of the London Stock Exchange in 2001, a position she held for eight years. Dame Clara has had a highly successful career in global financial markets and was voted one of the world's 100 most powerful people by Time magazine in 2007.

Jane Goodall

Primatologist

Born 1934

Best known for her pioneering work with Tanzania's chimpanzees, which she started at the age of 20. This is the longest study of wild animals ever and it has revolutionised how we think about chimpanzees. Her Institute's work has expanded to other areas in Africa, focusing on education and sustainability.

Joyce Grenfell

Entertainer, 1910-1979

She performed her signature song, "I'm Going to See you Today" as she toured India, North Africa and the Middle East during the Second World War entertaining the troops. A great satirical writer and comic actress during the 1950s, Grenfell is now best remembered for her one-woman shows and monologues.

Jane Haining

Missionary, 1897-1944

Church of Scotland missionary who in the 1930s worked at a girls' school in Budapest. When war broke out she refused to leave the mostly Jewish children in her care and died with many of them at Auschwitz. One of a handful of Britons to be honoured in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Alison Hargreaves

Mountaineer, 1963-1995

The first woman to climb Everest alone and without oxygen, Hargreaves was killed attempting to climb K2, one of the world's most inhospitable mountains. By facing down criticism from those who said a mother should not put herself in danger, she made it easier for the next generation of women explorers.

Brenda Hale

Judge

Born 1945

The Supreme Court judge became the first female Law Lord in 2004, Baroness Hale of Richmond. In 1984, she was the first woman appointed to the Law Commission and, in 1994, became the first High Court judge to come from an academic and public service background rather than being a practising barrister.

Caroline Harriet Haslett

Electrical engineer, 1895-1957

A pioneer of electricity in the home, Haslett helped to free women from household drudgery. An electrical engineer and campaigner, she was the first Secretary of the Women's Engineering Society as well as first Director of the Electrical Association for Women. Her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.

Lorraine Heggessey

Television executive

Born 1956

Talkback Thames's CEO became the first woman Controller of BBC1 in 2000 and was responsible for recommissioning Doctor Who during her five-year reign. While head of Children's BBC in 1998, she went on Blue Peter to explain the sacking of Richard Bacon after press stories that he snorted cocaine.

Audrey Hepburn

Actress, 1929-1993

Women still love to replicate the Hollywood star's glamour, but the Academy Award-winning actress and model was much more than a style icon. She worked with Unicef from the 1950s on and became a goodwill ambassador for the charity after her last role. She then devoted herself to helping children in the world's poorest countries.

Barbara Hepworth

Sculptor, 1903-1975

The influential sculptor, who studied alongside Henry Moore at Leeds School of Art, helped develop modern art. Her work is on display in more than 100 collections across the globe, with her house in Cornwall containing the largest group of her works.

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint

Cricketer

Born 1939

Captaining the England team when they won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1973 was just the first contribution Heyhoe-Flint made to cricket. Since then she has dedicated her time to raising women's participation, even ending 212 years of male exclusivity at Lord's stuffy Marylebone Cricket Club.

Thora Hird

Actress, 1911-2003

The Bafta-winning actress who starred in the BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine, appeared in more than 100 films and was, memorably, one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. A committed Christian, who presented religious programme Praise Be, she worked for charities including Help the Aged.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Chemist, 1910-1994

A Nobel prize-winning chemist, Hodgkin's research into the molecular structure of insulin has helped save millions of lives. As one of the first people to use X-rays to determine the structure of molecules, she also confirmed the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12 and helped pave the way for DNA research.

Kelly Holmes

Athlete

Born 1970

The retired double Olympic gold-winning athlete is helping get children active as the National School Sports champion. The ex-Army woman, who has spoken of her self-harm in the past, is president of Commonwealth Games England and founded the DKH Legacy Trust to help youngsters fulfil their potential.

Agnes Hunt

Nurse, 1867-1948

Recognised as the first orthopaedic nurse, Hunt pioneered disability care when she opened a convalescent home for children in Shropshire in 1900. She received the Royal Red Cross for her nursing of soldiers during the First World War. Her project developed into what is now The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital.

Daphne Jackson

Physicist, 1936-1991

Britain's first female physics professor. Had a distinguished career in nuclear, medical and radiation physics at the University of Surrey. Later she worked to promote science careers to women and set up a scheme to help women return to science after childbirth.

Gertrude Jekyll

Garden designer, 1843-1932

Vita Sackville-West may be the better known, but before her there was Jekyll. She probably had the most significant impact on British gardening of the past 100 years. The colourful mixed flower borders in a million English gardens are derived from her style.

Amy Johnson

Aviator, 1903-1941

After becoming the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930, the pioneering aviator went on to set a slew of long-distance flying records. She died after going off-course in bad weather while transporting RAF aircraft around the country for the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War.

Sheila Kitzinger

Childbirth activist

Born 1929

A promoter of natural childbirth, she campaigns for women to have the information to make choices, and advocates the benefits of home birth to women who are classed as low risk. She lectures to midwives, has researched the social anthropology of birth and breastfeeding and works to give a voice to expectant and new mothers in prison.

Janet Lane-Claypon

Epidemiologist, 1877-1967

One of the founders of the science of epidemiology, Lane-Claypon pioneered the use of control studies to make public health decisions. She completed the first study of up to 500 women with breast cancer, the findings from which still inform treatments today. She also proved the health benefits of breast milk.

Martha Lane Fox

Businesswoman

Born 1973

The internet entrepreneur revolutionised the travel and leisure market in 1997 when she co-founded Lastminute.com. The government's champion for digital inclusion launched grant-giving foundation Antigone in 2007, chairs Lucky Voice karaoke company and is on the board at M&S, Channel 4 and MyDeco.

Dorothy Lawrence

Reporter, 1896-1964

Few correspondents have gone to the lengths Lawrence did to report from a frontline. In the First World War she shaved off her hair, bound her chest, tanned her skin with furniture polish and borrowed a uniform to pose as a soldier. Unfortunately she was arrested as a spy and sent back to Britain.

Jennie Lee

Politician, 1904-1988

MP for the socialist Independent Labour Party, and later the Labour Party, she was a fearless parliamentarian who was praised by Winston Churchill after she took him on in the Commons over his Budget. The wife of Aneurin Bevan, her legacy as a minister in Harold Wilson's government included the setting up of the Open University.

Doris Lessing

Writer

Born 1919

The author who grew up in Rhodesia and left school at 13 was described by the award committee as "that epicist of the female experience" when she became the oldest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 and the 11th woman to collect the prize. The Golden Notebook helped make her an icon for feminists around the world.

Joan Littlewood

Theatre director, 1914-2002

In 1945 the outspoken theatre director helped develop the left-wing Theatre Workshop. Eight years later it set up at the Theatre Royal Stratford, London, and took its pioneering productions into the West End. She rejected establishment-backed acting to indulge a flair for improvisation. Had great success in the 1950s and 1960s.

Marie Lloyd

Singer, 1870-1922

The first great working-class popular heroine, this music hall performer was so loved that 100,000 attended her funeral in London in 1922. Many mourners wept. The controversial singer's love of the double entendre, along with winks and gestures, landed her in hot water with moralists. But she was immensely popular all her life.

Caroline Lucas

Politician

Born 1960

As leader of the Green Party, who could become Britain's first Green MP in this year's general election, Lucas has given the party a mainstream image in the "Others" backwater of British politics. Formerly active in CND and Oxfam, she is also the vice-president of the RSPCA and the Stop the War Coalition.

Vera Lynn

Singer

Born 1917

The original "Forces Sweetheart" sent messages to British troops and performed song requests on her radio programme Sincerely Yours during the Second World War, as well as touring overseas to perform for soldiers. Last year, the "We'll Meet Again" singer was the oldest living artist to top the UK album chart.

Ellen MacArthur

Yachtswoman

Born 1976

When she broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 she was not just the best woman but the best. Her achievements helped quash prejudices about women's inferiority in sport. She has helped young people with serious illnessnes experience sailing with the Ellen MacArthur Trust.

Averil Mansfield

Vascular surgeon

Born 1937

A leader in her field, there is no doubt she has saved thousands of lives pioneering stroke-preventing arterial surgery. But as the UK's first female professor of surgery and president of the British Medical Association, she is a role model to women trying to succeed in a career dominated at senior levels by men.

Helen Mirren

Actor

Born 1945

Gunning for a second Oscar tonight for The Last Station, The Queen actor and Bafta-winning star of Prime Suspect has achieved both cinematic and TV success. Born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov in London, in 2006 she became only the third actress to win a Golden Globe, Emmy and Oscar in the same year.

Nancy Mitford

Novelist, 1904-1973

A "Bright Young Thing", Mitford penned novels about upper-class life in England and France, including Love in a Cold Climate, and popular biographies such as the life of Madame de Pompadour. One of six controversial, stylish Mitford sisters, she spied on her siblings for MI5 because of their Nazi sympathies.

Iris Murdoch

Novelist & philosopher, 1919-1999

Particularly admired in the Sixties and Seventies, the philosopher and novelist is considered one of the greatest post-war writers. She won the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, with several of her other works adapted for the screen. She originally attributed her decline from Alzheimer's to writer's block.

Thea Musgrave

composer

Born 1928

The Scottish creator of more than a dozen operas and also classical orchestral works, she sometimes conducts her own pieces. Her best known works include The Seasons, Mary Queen of Scots and Harriet: The Woman Called 'Moses'. She won respect at a time when there were few female classical composers/ conductors.

E (Edith) Nesbitt

Children's author, 1858-1924

The writer penned about 40 books for children, including perennial favourites The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and is credited by some as inventing the children's adventure story. In 1884, the political activist was among co-founders of the Fabian Society, the precursor to the Labour Party.

Susie Orbach

Psychotherapist

Born 1946

Princess Diana's therapist has written widely on women's psychology and the construction of gender. She published the revolutionary tome Fat is a Feminist Issue nearly 30 years ago. More recently, she was involved in the Dove Campaign for Real Women: advertising that featured "normal" women of all shapes and sizes.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Suffragette, 1858-1928

The pioneer of women's rights founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1898 and led the British suffragette movement, which in 1918 won the vote for women over the age of 30. Although the political activist came under fire for her militant tactics, she supported the government during the First World War.

Marguerite Patten

Chef

Born 1915

The original queen of "waste not, want not", her tips for helping a generation to survive Second World War rationing still resonate in today's kitchens. She is renowned, rightly, as the original celebrity chef and anyone in search of some culinary inspiration could do worse than dust off one of her 170 recipe books.

Gareth Peirce

Lawyer

Born 1940

It was helping the Guildford Four to go free in 1989 that defined Peirce as one of Britain's premier civil rights lawyers. Ever since, her name has been synonymous with some of the biggest human rights cases, from the Birmingham Six to representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Mary Peters

Athlete

Born 1939

Few athletes achieve the ultimate in their field, but Mary Peters did just that at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich for her performance in the pentathlon. The accompanying world record was a bonus. Her contribution to the community life in Northern Ireland has been incalculable.

Penney Poyzer

Environmentalist

DOB unknown

What the self-styled eco-dominatrix doesn't know about saving the planet arguably isn't worth knowing. Her "recycled home", in West Bridgford, Nottingham, is Britain's greenest and when she gave birth she even composted her placenta. Triumphs include a hit BBC show No Waste Like Home and advising the Government on all matters green.

Jacqueline du Pré

Cellist, 1945-1987

She had a tragically brief career and short life, and died after contracting multiple sclerosis. Her rendition of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor is immortal and she is acknowledged as one of the greatest players of the instrument. The disease forced her retirement at the age of 28, 16 years after she made her debut.

Debbie Purdy

Campaigner

Born 1963

The assisted suicide campaigner with MS forced the DPP to draw up new guidelines on when people who help terminally ill friends or relatives to kill themselves should escape prosecution. Those motivated purely by compassion should now avoid being charged. She said the rules have "given me back my life".

Mary Quant

Designer

Born 1934

The Sixties designer is among those to claim credit for the miniskirt, the revolutionary Sixties garment that liberated women from the constraints of restrictive fashions that hampered even their attempts to run for a bus. Her other credits include hotpants in the Seventies and, she maintains, the duvet cover.

Mary Rand

Athlete

Born 1940

A remarkable athlete, Rand was the first British woman to win an Olympic gold in a track and field event. She won the gold for a record-breaking long jump of 6.76m in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but was such an all-rounder that she also took home a silver and a bronze for the pentathlon and 100m relay.

Bridget Riley

Artist

Born 1931

An artist who has developed into one of the leaders of the Op-art movement which makes use of optical illusions, she was the first woman to be awarded the International Prize in painting at the Venice Biennale. She said: "Nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces."

Stella Rimington

Head of MI5

Born 1935

As well as being a "first woman", serving as director-general of the Security Service (MI5) between 1992 and 1996, she was also the first head whose name was made public. As deputy director-general in 1991, after the collapse of communism in Russia, she made the first friendly contact between British intelligence and the KGB.

Anita Roddick

Entrepreneur, 1942-2007

Her Body Shop cosmetics chain pioneered ethical consumerism long before it was remotely fashionable and was among the first to ban the use of ingredients tested on animals and to promote fair trade with Third World countries. She died of liver cirrhosis caused by long-standing hepatitis C.

Miriam Rothschild

Scientist, 1908-2005

Zoologist, entomologist and heiress, she spent half her life on a six-volume catalogue of fleas and was the first to understand their jumping mechanism. A world expert on chemicals odours released by insects, she helped decode Enigma during the Second World War. She was made Fellow of the Royal Society in 1985.

J K Rowling

Author

Born 1965

Getting a generation of young boys to read books is impressive enough, but her Harry Potter books also provide social, moral and political inspiration to their fans, which number in the hundreds of millions. Rowling – or Jo Murray, as she is known outside the Potter pages – is also a notable philanthropist.

Sue Ryder

Charity worker, 1923-2000

The Sue Ryder Foundation (now Sue Ryder Care) which she set up in 1953 with a nursing home for the elderly and disabled now has more than 80 homes worldwide for the elderly and terminally ill. During the Second World War, she worked with SOE's Polish section and later set up a home in Germany for displaced Poles.

Jo Salter

Pilot

Born 1968

The world of jet fighter pilots is a particularly testosterone fuelled affair, which is why Britain's first female top gun is so highly revered. As a Flight Lieutenant, she was the first women to fly the Tornado strike jet operationally. She had to give it all up because the RAF failed to help her combine flying and motherhood.

Mary Selway

Casting director, 1936-2004

Arguably Britain's most influential casting director of all time, Selway cast more than 100 films including Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Working with directors as diverse as Spielberg, Polanski and Clint Eastwood, she was much sought after for her keen eye for talent and reputation for fairness.

Helen Sharman

Engineer and chemist

Born 1963

Sharman was chosen as the first Briton to go into space after beating 13,000 rivals who responded to a radio advert looking for astronauts. She had previously worked as a chemist experimenting with chocolate for Mars confectionery, her work on the Mir space station included medical and agricultural tests.

Delia Smith

Chef

Born 1941

The prolific TV chef is not known as Saint Delia for nothing. Her foolproof recipes, which have helped her become Britain's bestselling food writer, have liberated millions of men and women from a lifetime of takeaways and supermarket ready meals. She famously taught the nation to boil an egg.

Janet Smith

Lawyer

Born 1940

A lawyer specialising in medical negligence, she rose to be a High Court judge and became only the fourth woman promoted to the Court of Appeal. She chaired the inquiry into Harold Shipman, which identified failings by the medical profession, and concluded that he had killed more than 200 patients.

Dusty Springfield

Singer, 1939-1999

The owner one of the most plaintive voices in recent decades, her sometimes tortured life did not prevent her from becoming one of the classiest female solo acts Britain has produced. From 1963 to 1969 she had 10 UK top-10 hits, and is a member of the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Much-missed legend.

Marie Stopes

Family planner, 1880-1958

Started as a paleobotanist but best known as a sex education campaigner who, in 1921, opened the first family planning clinic. Her 1918 book, Married Love, advocated equality in marriage and gave detailed information on sex. Her work led to Marie Stopes International, which helps millions every year.

Edith Summerskill

Politician, 1901-1980

Labour politician and women's rights campaigner who trained as a doctor, and under Clement Atlee became Minister for Social and National Insurance. For 12 years she was on Labour's National Executive Committee and was chair of the party in 1954-1955. Was among Labour's first life peers when she was made a baroness in 1961.

Violette Szabo

Spy, 1921-1945

Code named "Louise", Szabo was a secret agent in the Second World War, leading a French resistance network to sabotage bridges and communication lines ahead of the D-Day landings. She was caught, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, and executed. Posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Margaret Thatcher

Politician

Born 1925

A controversial entry on a list of women who made our lives better. But she was the first woman to lead the country and took the UK economy from basketcase to world leader. Yes, there was the poll tax and lack of investment in public services, but she defined British politics long after she left office.

Dianne Thompson

Company chief

Born 1950

Businesswoman with a background in marketing who for a decade has been chief executive of Camelot, the UK lottery operator, leading it in 2009 to annual sales of more than £5bn. In 2006, she was awarded a CBE for services to business and is described as "the iron fist in a kid glove". She has also raised £1m for the ChildLine charity.

Sybil Thorndike

Actress, 1882-1976

Best loved for her stage performances. In 1930 she was made a dame. George Bernard Shaw wrote St Joan with her in mind and she played the title role. Her interests were also political. She supported the 1926 General Strike, opposed racial segregation and was pro-Republican in the Spanish Civil War.

Twiggy

Model

Born 1949

Still going strong at 60. She was born Lesley Hornby but, as Twiggy, she was a byword for the Swinging Sixties. No other model has left such a lasting image: huge mascara-framed eyes, coltish limbs and short hair. Currently in a career renaissance as a face of Marks & Spencer, helping to improve its fortunes.

Natasha Walter

Writer

Born 1967

The former Independent columnist is a feminist thinker, broadcaster and writer whose book, The New Feminism, published in 1998, repositioned feminism by optimistically looking at its future against the backdrop of its achievements. Her latest book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, argues that sexism is making a comeback.

Beatrice Webb

Social Reformer, 1858-1943

Sowing the seeds for what would become the welfare state, Webb's minority report – an economic and social study of the nation's poor – struck a powerful blow against the idea that people in poverty were to blame for their fate. Her research was the template 30 years later for the creation of the Welfare State.

Vivienne Westwood

Fashion designer

Born 1941

The fairy godmother of the British fashion industry, three times awarded British Designer of the Year, her designs were at the heart of the punk movement with historical references. Also known for her political activism with CND and environmental campaigns. She was made a Dame in 2006.

Joyce Wethered

Golfer, 1901-1997

Unassuming woman golfer and winner of nine major championships. Legendary grand slam winner Bobby Jones said of her: "I've not played golf with anyone, man or woman, amateur or pro, who made me feel so utterly outclassed." Her style and demeanour are still commended to golfers of both sexes to this day.

Anna Wintour

Journalist

Born 1949

One of the most influential people in fashion for the past three decades, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue is as much of a fashion icon as the designers she supports. Her ability to spot trends and promote new designers still makes her appearance in the front row of any catwalk show as coveted as ever.

Victoria Wood

Performer

Born 1953

Wood paved the way for a new generation of female comedians and writers to appear on television during the 1980s breaking into a male-domain. She was one of the country's most popular stand-ups, performing her observational sketches at her piano, before she moved on to sitcom and drama.

Virginia Woolf

Writer, 1882-1941

One of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, Woolf's modernist style in books such as Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves continues to influence fiction today. She was a member of the so-called Bloomsbury Group of literary London and her feminist essays were also highly influential.

The fight for the right to vote

The suffragette movement came of age as the 20th century dawned. The Women's Social and Political Union – founded by Emmeline Pankhurst – held its inaugural meeting in 1903 and began a campaign of civil disobedience to force government to grant women the right to vote.

What began with women chaining themselves to railings escalated to smashing windows, arson and hunger strikes. Like many suffragettes, Pankhurst was arrested many times and went on hunger strike herself during which she was subjected to violent force-feeding.

Women fought, and died, for the cause. In 1913, suffragette Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the King's horse at the Derby in protest at the government's refusal to enfranchise women.

The First World War proved to be a turning point. The campaign of civil disobedience was put on hold while women worked on farms and in armaments factories. Lloyd George's government finally gave in in 1918 and allowed women aged over 30 to vote. But it took another decade to put male and female voters on an equal footing.

Men who helped the drive for equality

George Lansbury, one of the leading figures in the Labour Party in 1910, along with James Keir Hardie, led the campaign in Parliament for votes for women. Lansbury later decided to draw attention to the plight of the Women's Social and Political Union prisoners by resigning from his seat in the Commons and fighting a by-election in favour of votes for women.

Alfred Frankland, an office worker of the Dick, Kerr factory in Preston, was inspired by the young female workers who played football during their dinner breaks while their husbands were fighting in the trenches during the First World War. It was Mr Frankland who suggested to the women that they form a team and he later went on to manage them, inspiring legions of women to take up the game.

Also during the Great War, the British Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was formed thanks to the recommendation of Lieutenant-General H Lawson, who said it should be used in France in 1917.

Playwright and ardent socialist George Bernard Shaw furthered many causes including gaining equal rights for men and women.

Now a standard feature on hospital wards, the ultrasound scan, pioneered by Professor Ian Donald, has for years made pregnancy and labour safer and allowed for the detection and treatment of foetal abnormality.

David Steel's Private Member's Bill, which was backed by government, led to the creation of the 1967 Abortion Act. Lord Steel wanted the act because of the many women who died during illegal back-street abortions.

Willie Hamilton sponsored the Equal Pay for Equal Work Bill in the early 1970s, which stated that women must receive the same pay and conditions of work as their male counterparts.

The legislation introduced in 1988 that led to the ordination of women to the Church of England was moved by Professor David McClean, who was chair of the House of Laity at the time.

When Tony Blair first came to power in 1997, there were 101 women Labour MPs in Parliament. At that point in time there had never been so many women in the House, let alone from one party, and there hasn't been since.

Have your say

Which British woman do you think has contributed most to make the world a better place, and why? Let us know your views below, by email at sundayletters@independent.co.uk or write to: The Editor, The Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF.

We will publish the best replies in next week

Judging panel Lisa Markwell, Jane Merrick, Sophie Batterbury, Claudia Pritchard, Emily Dugan.

Reporting team Emily Dugan, Andrew Johnson, Nina Lakhani, Jane Merrick, Susie Mesure, David Randall, Lewis Smith, Kate Youde, Paul Bignell, Jonathan Owen.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas