It’s not easy being the first. These brave and daring women stepped into a men-only world and said, I can do this too!
Not that long ago, men did almost everything. All the doctors were men, all the police officers were men, all the shop keepers were men. Some girls didn’t get to go to school, and even those who did were only allowed to learn to cook, sew and clean. It wasn’t worth teaching them more, as all they could be were maids or mothers.
Being a woman back then was definitely a bit boring. Some got on with it, but some felt sad. A bit like in lockdown, when all you could do was stay at home and all fun and exciting things were off limits. Except this wasn’t a few weeks or months. This was your whole life. Some women got so sad they became ill.
Many realised it couldn’t go on like this. They got talking, and writing, and saying things had to change. But who would be the first? It would have to be a brave woman, because the men liked it their way, and they weren’t about to move over easily.
Take Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She was the first woman in this country to qualify as doctor. She wasn’t allowed in the classes with the men, so she had to sneak in. When the men found out they had her thrown out. Imagine how embarrassing that must have felt. Frustrating too, because she could do everything the men did.
Another woman who made history by becoming the first, was Mary Anning. She was a woman palaeontologist (that’s a big word for someone who studies dinosaurs). Mary came from a poor family, and like most girls, was never taught science. However, she had an incredible gift for finding fossils. She became the first person to discover the complete skeleton of plesiosaur, which is a type of dinosaur who swam in the sea.
In 1930, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly, by herself, from London to Australia. Flying wasn’t like it is today. It took her a month to get there, and she did the whole thing in a little one-seater, open roof plane she called Jason. Imagine spending a whole month sitting in that cramped seat, being blown about in the wind and rain. Although there were other women pilots, nobody was as daring as Amy.
Karpal Kaur Sandhu was the world’s first Asian Woman police officer. Born in a country called Zanzibar, she came to Britain in 1962. At first she worked as a nurse, but her big dream was to be a police officer. Her husband was dead against it, and thought she should stay at home and look after the children. Karpal wanted more. So she applied and was accepted in the London Metropolitan Police Force, working right here in Walthamstow. The police chiefs said she was a great member of the team. She provided a link between different communities, as she spoke languages the other police officers didn’t.
Karpal’s husband was not happy. When he found out, he packed his bags and left, taking their children with him. When Karpal refused to quit the job she loved, he came back with a knife and stabbed her.
Despite the sad end to the story, Karpal was an inspiration to many. She opened doors, and today there are thousands of women serving as police officers, all thanks to Karpal.
In 1976, Mary Joy Langdon became the first woman firefighter, and in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first women Prime Minister. In 1987, Diane Abbott became the first black woman MP, and in 1991, Helen Sharman became the first British women in space. How far women have come, from sitting at home and sewing to going into actual space!
It is now accepted that woman can and will do almost anything, but there are still some fighting for their turn. In 2015, Claire Birkenshaw became the first transgender woman to become a Head teacher. A transgender woman is someone who was born a man, but felt they were in the wrong body, so became a woman. A few years later, Laverne Cox was the first transgender woman on the cover of a British magazine.
There are so many pioneering women to celebrate. Have a look in your activity pack to explore some more. If you don’t have a pack yet, you can download one online.