Women who changed the world: 'There's always room for one more woman...'

Our list last week of the 100 most influential women from the past 100 years marked the 100th International Women's Day. But it was never going to please everyone. Katy Guest sifts through the many readers' suggestions
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The Independent Online

If there were ever any debate about the passion and engagement of Independent on Sunday readers, your response to last week's feature for the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day settled it once and for all. At the end of our list of 100 British women who have shaped the past century, we invited you to offer your comments and criticisms, and to point out any omissions. That you did – and some.

Some were inspired by the feature. "I could not fail to be deeply moved," Elaine Friedlander wrote. "Their achievements, bravery and determination are truly inspirational." Others were less impressed. "I always enjoy reading your newspaper. The owner of the local pub lays it on for free..." wrote Ian Weir. He didn't suggest any additions to our 100, but did complain: "Most of your list would provide ample material for anyone advancing the proposition that women haven't really made much of an impact in the last 100 years."

Many of your suggestions revealed how limiting our parameters had been. Some of them we had reluctantly excluded for not being British. Peter Ostle, for instance, suggested the Anglo-Irish Countess Markievicz, a London-born Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail politician who must surely have a borderline case for inclusion (although whether she would approve of being included is debatable). And you may prefer Mary Robinson to Margaret Thatcher, Christina Carr of Croydon, but she, too, is Irish. Likewise excluded were the environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai (Kenyan), Irene Khan, the first woman secretary general of Amnesty International (Bangladeshi) and the Second World War spy Odette, who, although she was a heroine of the British war effort, was French-born.

Others were disqualified for reasons of timing. Florence Nightingale died in 1910. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had her name entered on the medical register in 1865 and – just missing out – was made mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908. Liz Davies is correct in pointing out that Mary Wollstonecraft and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman paved the way for women's education, emancipation and suffrage – but that was in the 18th century. The prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was also too early, and as for Elizabeth I and Boudicca ...

Admittedly, the "British" and "past 100 years" criteria were pretty arbitrary – but you have to draw lines somewhere. We did love Elaine Friedlander's suggestions, however: "International Women's Day is not just about celebrating a select group of 100 women, it's about recognising the contribution all women make to society, be it is as wives, mothers or sisters, teachers or doctors, as engineers, entrepreneurs, or scientists. Often the most outstanding women and achievements are the ones that go unrecognised... I am in awe of my Dutch grandmother (in-law) who hid the persecuted under her floorboards in Amsterdam. And last but no way least (to me), my own mum, sisters and best friend make me extremely proud every day. Here's to all the ladies out there."

In that spirit, here are some more suggestions:

"Surely from 100 women you could have chosen more than two artists?!" wrote michaelwi on our online forum. He suggests: "Sandra Blow, Leonora Carrington, Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread".

Enid Blyton was a notable omission spotted by several readers, among them Sean McGrath and John Nightingale. "A list of 100 influential British women that does not contain Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter cannot be called complete," wrote Mr Nightingale, from Redbridge in Essex. A tricky one, Potter – her best work was written just over 100 years ago (compare the tales of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin, 1902 and 1903, with, er, The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes and others from 1910 onwards). But our panel had maybe failed to give her sufficient credit for her work as a conservationist, and on her death in 1943 she left most of her estate and farms in the Lake District to the National Trust. So in she goes. Mr McGrath also nominated the philosopher Baroness Warnock and the childcare expert Penelope Leach.

Other names were mentioned more than once. "[The list] really should include Erin Pizzey," wrote Liz Finlay, from Cardiff. "Not for her more recent absurd rantings, but for her work and energy at the very beginning of the campaign to get a women's centre, which became the first refuge in Chiswick. I was involved in that campaign and the woman was tireless."

Pizzey was also lauded by Liz Davies in London, who added: "Your [list] includes a woman born to her job (the Queen) and another famous for her arranged marriage (Diana, Princess of Wales). No mention of the British pioneers of second-wave feminism: Juliet Mitchell and Sheila Rowbotham are two who could have been included." Another fan of Pizzey's was Basu Bose, who emailed from Toronto with a fine and comprehensive list of British and international nominees. Those we can accept include the trades unionist Jayaben Desai, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Baroness Scotland, Baroness Noakes, Joanna Lumley, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), Cherie Booth, Shirley Bassey, Laura Ashley and Naomi Campbell. "I have observed their extraordinariness while still a permanent resident of the UK," the email added.

The debate about what makes a feminist heroine is still raging, meanwhile. "Where is Ann Pettitt, who led the first march to Greenham Common in 1981?" asked Peter Ostle. "As to the suffragettes, if you have Emmeline then you have to have Sylvia [Pankhurst]. Lastly, many women served in the munitions industry and suffered. They were not given the vote in 1918 because they were not 30."

Meanwhile, Peter Street, of Middle Rasen, Lincs, was furious. "Is the ability of your researchers really so poor that Annie Kenney was omitted from the list? She was arguably the prime mover and shaker in the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century."

In the world of politics, several names were popular additions. "Bessie Braddock did much for working women and Shirley Williams along with her mother Vera Brittain stand higher for the achievements of women than half the others," Keith Evans wrote. "Margaret Bondfield was the first woman cabinet minister – as remarkable as Lady Astor being the first female MP." Brittain's name was also put forward by Mrs A Davies, by email, while Baroness Williams was a favourite of Basu Bose, Sean McGrath and Michael Dempsey from London, who was "astounded" by her omission: "To me, she is one of the wisest women of my lifetime." From the world of the arts, Mr Evans also insists that we include Dame Edith Sitwell – poet, writer, publisher, social critic and sponsor of talents such as Dylan Thomas. And "Margaret Rutherford and Gladys Cooper have a greater claim to achievements in screen acting" than some on our list.

Particularly welcome were the suggestions from readers who offered a refreshing mix of the obscure and the populist. Jill Sutcliffe's list of Alice Mary Stewart, a leading epidemiologist who took on the nuclear industry over safety concerns, the newsreader Angela Rippon, Angela Phillips and Jill Rakusen, editors of the British edition of the classic health book Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the folk singers Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy was a fine example. Likewise, a thoughtful list from Christina Carr: Helena Kennedy QC, Susan Greenfield and Emily Cummins, the young inventor of the solar fridge. Thanks also to Katie Devereux, who would like to add Diana Lamplugh, the founder of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

And for her campaigning work against the size-zero culture one more name stands out: Ruby, the curvy doll created by Anita Roddick. "Ruby continues to personify self-esteem and project positivity and works tirelessly as an activist," Robin Smith wrote.

Mr Smith likes round women, but not round numbers. "A top 100 is a bit male. There's always room for one more among women, don't you think?" On that note, let's allow a suggestion from Dave Bishop, aka Lord Biro, who writes: "I recommend Susan Boyle, for cheering up lonely fat people all over the world." Heavens! Ms Wollstonecraft would surely have been proud.