And the Woman of the Year 2005 is ...

... one of these extraordinary achievers gathering in London this week for the 50th annual award. Now who are men calling crap?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Those vying to be crowned Britain's woman of the year at a glittering awards ceremony include Barbara Harmer, who moved from the world of hairdressing to flying Concorde and is now a British Airways captain, and Eliza Burnett, who has shattered male dominance at the poker table.

Others battling for the prize are Pauline Clare, Britain's first police chief constable who is now a motivational coach, and Kate McAlpine, who runs a ground-breaking children's charity in Tanzania.

Among others tipped for success are Annabelle Bond - the climber who scaled seven peaks in seven continents in less than a year - and Irene Khan of the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

The winner will be joining exalted company: last year the participants included Kelly Holmes, a double Olympic gold medallist, Jane Tomlinson, a terminal cancer sufferer who has raised nearly £1m for charity, and Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, who founded the Rwandan Genocide Survivors Fund.

And while the organisers insist "everyone is a winner", there is already speculation about who will walk away with the coveted awards for lifetime achievements and outstanding performances.

A judging panel of 57 women from 40 different professions - and which includes Floella Benjamin, Glenys Kinnock, Doreen Lawrence and Maureen Lipman - is keeping this year's results a closely guarded secret.

Hobnobbing over the canapés will be Kirsty Wark, Carol Vorderman and Joan Armatrading, current president of the event. They will be joined by the actress Sheila Hancock; the historian and broadcaster Professor Lisa Jardine; the broadcaster and Woman of Today author Sue MacGregor; Doris Lessing, who was once nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature (and once criticised for being "unfeminine" in her writing); and fellow author Marian Keyes.

"It is the noisiest event of the year," admitted Eleanor Angel, chairman of the organisation set up to oversee the lunch. "The point of this is to recognise women's achievements. That can mean success in business or doing something to stop violence on estates. It's about recognising and celebrating these people."

Master of ceremonies will be Sandi Toksvig, the stand-up comedian who presents radio programmes and writes books in her spare time (apparently without ever crashing her car or burning the toast). Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who herself broke through barriers in the legal profession, is to give the keynote speech.

They are all following in esteemed footsteps. The Women of the Year event was founded in 1955 by Lady Antonia Lothian OBE to honour and encourage women who had been successful in any walk of life. It was a pivotal year for women. Rosa Parks, who died last week, stunned the United States by sitting in the "whites only" section of a bus, and explorer Louise Boyd shocked men by flying across the North Pole.

"Tony Lothian had the unique vision of bringing together and honouring women of achievement," said Joan Armatrading last week. "I see my role as allowing Tony's vision for Women of the Year to continue and to bring even more attention to the successes of women."

In the light of recent comments from Gordon Ramsay, it seems that women's successes are still passing some people by, but the awards are more important than ever, according to Ms Angel.

"These women are amazing, she said. "They are not doing what they are doing to get at men; they are simply doing a job and doing it well. This year is a way of saying look how far we have come."

Fortunately, she added, most men had come out of the dark ages and were perfectly aware of what women brought to society. "The difference is that now we know much more about what these people do than we once did. In 1955 women were very quietly getting on with things in the background. They weren't getting any recognition. Now we are more aware of what women are achieving."

And those being seen as possible award winners were also keen to ridicule womankind's latest detractors. Trades Union Congress president Gloria Mills said: "It is important that we show those who people who should know better but still make disparaging remarks about women in the workplace that we are achieving despite the obstacles and barriers in front of us."

Mountaineer Annabelle Bond was also keen to slay the ghost of chauvinism. "Look at what is going on in society: women are more than equal to men. The idea that we are supposed to be behind the kitchen sink is so old-fashioned. We are far superior cooks to men."

1 Annabelle Bond MOUNTAINEER

Annabelle Bond climbed the highest peaks on seven continents within a year, which put her in the record books. "Women are capable of achieving a lot more than they know," said Ms Bond, who raised more than £850,000 in the process. "I felt a bit patriotic to be put forward as one of the women of the year in the UK, especially after I had spent a year on my own in the mountains."

2 Kate McAlpine FOUNDER, MKOMBOZI CHARITY

Kate McAlpine has devoted her life to the people of Tanzania since she went trekking in Africa 10 years ago and stayed. Her Mkombozi charity provides care, health services and shelter for more than 1,000 children. "When working with development projects and children, the female ability to run with your instinct pays off," said Ms McAlpine, 34. "Having been in Africa for 10 years, I am no stranger to chauvinism. It is institutionalised in every way."

3 Irene Khan SECRETARY GENERAL, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

During the past year, Irene Khan became the first woman, the first Asian and the first Muslim to lead the world's largest human rights organisation. "I have experienced personal and systemic discrimination," she said. " I come from Bangladesh and have a Muslim family background. Boys and girls were not equally treated. I overcame it because both my parents believed in equality."

4 Barbara Harmer BRITISH AIRWAYS CAPTAIN

Within 20 years Barbara Harmer went from being a hairdresser to flying Concorde across the Atlantic, after entering aviation through air-traffic control. Soon she had gained a pilot's licence and was training to fly airliners. She is now flying Boeing 777s. "The cockpit is run by me. I set the tone. There is no ego as far as I am concerned. You have to get the most out of all on board to make the flight smooth."

5 Eliza Burnett POKER PLAYER

Ms Burnett's passion for cards has led to her editing the poker pages of a sports newspaper. She has also set up a website (pokergirluk. com) for women. "Being a woman poker player in a male environment was difficult as first," said Ms Burnett, 28. "It can be aggressive, and men think the women are easy to bully." Determination and an appearance on 'Late Night Poker' on television helped her to gain acceptance.

6 Jekka McVicar HERB GARDENER

Jekka McVicar provides greenery training for chefs starting out in Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant in London. An operation that began in her back garden is now an award-winning organic business. "Women make great bosses because they are kinder and commercially more holistic," she said. "They look at the whole picture and are great multi-taskers."

7 Pauline Clare EXECUTIVE COACH

Formerly the first female chief constable of a British police force, Pauline Clare is now helping others to find success in their careers. When with the Lancashire force she noticed that women were less likely to push for promotion. "It takes them longer to believe they have the experience to move on." When she was in the force, she added, there was a lack of role models for a young woman moving up through the ranks.

8 Gloria Mills PRESIDENT OF THE TUC

Last month Gloria Mills became the first black woman president of the Trades Union Congress. "When I started in the TUC movement it was easier to say you had a problem with your car than with your child," she said. "We have come a long way since then, but women are still undervalued. For every 80p they earn a man in a similar position earns £1." Ms Mills is regarded as a pioneer for her work on race and equality issues.

HALL OF FAME: Fifty years of winners

The inaugural lunch was held in 1955 by Lady Antonia Lothian OBE. The guests included Odette Hallowes, a spy for the Special Operations Executive who had been awarded the George Cross. Ms Hallowes famously declared: "They are all our mothers and sisters. You would not be able to either learn or play in freedom today, yes, you may not even have been born, if such women had not stood their soft, slender bodies before you and your future like protective steel shields throughout the fascist terrors."

Lady Georgina Coleridge, former editor of Homes & Gardens, was also honoured that year. Since 1955, speakers have included Margaret Thatcher (1960), Mary Quant (1963), Thora Hird (1966), Mary Whitehouse (1971), Angela Lansbury (1973), Germaine Greer (1975) and Queen Noor of Jordan (1997). Guests of honour have included Virginia McKenna (1959), Joan Bakewell (1968), Vera Lynn (1969), Jilly Cooper (1971), Esther Rantzen (1977) and Kate Adie (1981).

Comments