Mrs._Despard_(suffragette) Sheroes of History

Charlotte Despard

Charlotte Despard was a woman of many passions, she fought for the vote, for Irish freedom, for peace & for animal welfare. She formed, or was part of, many political groups & movements paving the way for others committed to these freedoms.

Born in 1844 Charlotte’s upbringing wasn’t easy. Her father died when she was young and her mother was mentally ill and hospitalised. Charlotte was sent to London to live with relatives.

In 1870 Charlotte married. She started a career as a romantic novellist, publishing titles including the very Victorian sounding Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow. Sadly her husband died just a few years later. His death seems to have been the event which set Charlotte on a different course as she threw herself into supporting local charities. She entered some of the poorest communities in London and what she saw broke her heart. She set her mind to assisting those in greatest need, leaving the comfort of her well-to-do background to live in Wandsworth amongst the people she wanted to help. She was soon made the Poor Law Guardian for Lambeth.

Her paths soon crossed with fellow sheroes Eleanor Marx & Margaret Bondfield who helped shape her political beliefs; towards workers rights, peace & equality.

She first acted on her pacifist beliefs when she spoke out against the Boer War, calling it a “wicked war of this capitalist government”. By the time the First World War had begun she was even more outspoken and helped found the Women’s Peace Crusade. This further distanced her from the mainstream suffragette movement with whom she had previously been involved.

In 1906 she had joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, but left when she began to feel that they weren’t radical enough. She then moved to the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) – led by the Pankhursts who were decidedly more radical. However she soon became disillusioned with them too. She felt that the group was too hierarchical and not democratic enough. She also believed that they should be campaigning for equal voting rights for everyone – which would extend the franchise to all men & women (not just those over 30 who owned property, which excluded many working class people.)

Ever the self-starter Charlotte left the WSPU and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) with Teresa Billington-GreigEdith How-Martyn and others who felt the same way. One way in which the WFL differed to many of the more ‘main-stream’ suffragettes was in their adherence to total non-violent action. Instead they championed passive resistance, chaining themselves to railings and refusing to pay tax as acts of civil disobedience.

Charlotte realised the close link between economical & polictical freedoms saying “Fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages, the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job… A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband. It is indeed deplorable that the work of the wife and mother is not rewarded. I hope that the time will come when it is illegal for this strenuous form of industry to be unremunerated.”

When the war started and the WSPU agreed to stop their protesting and support the recruitment drive Charlotte fiercely opposed it. Throught the First World War she used the Women’s Peace Crusade to campaign for peace while establishing aid for the families of wounded soldiers. In one instance she used her own finances to order 200 pairs of children’s boots and milk for those affected. She also arranged for food for these families who were strugging to make ends meet (all vegetarian in accordance with her own beliefs.)

Charlotte’s various political activities overlapped. As well as being involved in the struggle for the vote and the anti-war movement she had become involved in the Labour Party, even running (unsuccessfully) for a seat in 1918.

Another core part of her political activism during this time was in her father’s homeland of Ireland. She had helped form the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 and later became involved with the fight for an independant Ireland. In 1909 she met Mahatma Gandhi who greatly inspired her and cemented her belief in a non-violent approach to political activism. It was this approach that she brought to her involvement in Ireland. She helped formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support those who were imprisoned during the Irish War of Independence and supported the workers during the Dublin ‘Lock-out‘.

Ireland was very close to her heart and when the First World War ended she permanently relocated there. She formed a close friendship with fellow freedom-fighter Maude Gonne and they became house-mates.

Although she was growing older in years, Charlottes passions didn’t wane. Later in her life (well into her 90s) she became involved with the Communist Party, which led to her home in Dublin being set on fire by an anti-communist mob. She also continued to espouse her vegetarianism & love for animals, becoming the vice president of the London Vegetarian Society and supporting the National Canine Defence League.

Find out more…

The National Portrait Gallery have paintings & photos of Charlotte in their collection, which you can see online here.

Find out more about the details of Charlotte’s life in this biography.

You can actually download and read Charlotte’s novel Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow to read here!



Hatshepsut – The Shero King

From Queen to King: The Story of King Hatshepsut

In Ancient Egypt, a young girl did something unprecedented: she declared herself Pharaoh, King of Egypt. This young girl is King Hatshepsut.  Her architectural and economic achievements are prolific, but were nearly lost in the annals of history.

Hatshepsut was born circa 1508 BCE; she was the daughter of King Thutmose I and his Great Royal Wife, Queen Ahmose.  Hatshepsut grew up in a world of privilege and held great power and influence.  She held the religious title of God’s Wife, which meant she was a link between the people and Amen-Re, the chief god in Egyptian theology.

Disease and pestilence were rampant in Ancient Egypt and King Thutmose I succumbed to an untimely death.  As the inheritance for the throne was patrilineal (which meant only sons could become the pharoah), Hatshepsut did not qualify to become King.  Instead her half-brother, Thutmose II, the sickly son of Thutmose I and Mutnofret (a minor wife), was declared King.  Thutmose II’s claim to the throne was strengthened by a marriage to Hatshepsut.  With this marriage, Hatshepsut became the most powerful woman in Egypt: her blood was of pure Thutmoside lineage, she was God’s Wife and the King’s Great Wife.  All that was left to secure her power as Queen was to produce a male heir to the throne.

Although Hatshepsut did not produce a male heir, she and Thutmose II’s union did produce a daughter: Neferure.  Thutmose II died fifteen years into the marriage, leaving Hatshepsut a young widow.  The closest male heir was Thutmose III, the son of Thutmose II and Isis, his wife who was part of his harem.  Thutmose III was a small boy when he ascended to the throne.  After Thutmose II’s death, Queen Hatshepsut took on the role of managing Egypt.

Around Year 7 of Thutmose III’s reign, Queen Hatshepsut declared herself King and Thutmose III’s co-regent.  Exactly why and how this declaration occurred is unclear.  In a world dominated by men, Hatshepsut was able to make a political power play and align her father’s prior advisors to support her position.   She even wore the trappings of the King and is depicted with the traditional false beard worn by all of the pharaohs.

Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard, a symbol of her pharaonic power—Metropolitan Museum of Art

Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard, a symbol of her pharaonic power—Metropolitan Museum of Art

King Hatshepsut’s regency as pharaoh was one of the most successful reigns in Egyptian history.  Her policies favored peace and the expansion of the Egyptian empire by building temples and monuments in lieu of war and conquest.  Her greatest architectural achievements include the temple Djeser-djeseru and a pair of obelisks at Karnak Temple.

After King Hatshepsut passed away in 1458 BCE her legacy was almost eradicated by someone who defaced and destroyed her monuments and inscriptions.  Some hypothesize that this may have been a political maneuver concocted by Thutmose III, but there is no clear evidence to solidify this position.

Written for Sheroes of History by Aspen B. Mock who is an English teacher and writer. Please visit her website and blog “An Aleatory Imaginarium” at or follow her on twitter @AB_Mock.

Year 7 is a one-act play written by Aspen for the 365 Women a Year Project about Hatshpsut. The compelling play resurrects an Ancient world in which oracles made predictions that influenced nations, life was harsh, and political power plays changed the course of history.  Most importantly, the play writes Hatshepsut, a heroic and preeminent leader, back into our cultural consciousness.

Find out more:

There is a biography about Hatshepsut called The Woman Who Would be King by Cara Cooney

Find out more about Hatshepsut & other ancient Egyptian rulers on the Mummies2Pyramids page!

There are lots of videos about Hatshepsut that you can watch online, here is just one of them which is quite good!

Nancy_Wake_(1945) Sheroes of History

Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake was a New Zealand born journalist turned spy for the British in France during WWII.

Born the youngest of six children, she was majorly affected when her father abandoned the family. At the age of sixteen, she ran away from home and made her way as a nurse. After receiving an unexpected windfall, a bequest left by an aunt, she traveled to London and received training in journalism. She became a European correspondent for a newspaper and situated herself in France.  In this role, she had the opportunity to travel to Vienna and see firsthand the ill treatment of Jewish people, and “saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets”.

She met and married a rich industrialist, Henry Fiocca, with whom she was madly in love. She wanted to participate in the war effort, so she convinced Henry to purchase an ambulance for her so she could act as a nurse. She then began a courier service to get missives carried between enemy lines through her ambulance. Her network became so successful that the Gestapo gave her the code name White Mouse and put a five million franc price on her head. She was the Gestapo’s most wanted person. When her network was betrayed, she had to flee France and leave Henry behind.

She became a prominent leader of the French Resistance, and was known for her easy way of getting through enemy lines. She described her tactics as such: “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

She led many operations, most notably an attack on a gestapo headquarter in Montlucon, France. Once, after a breach in codes, she herself rode more than 300 miles across borders by bicycle in order to make sure an important missive was received in time. She was also tough in other aspects of her character. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands, using a “judo chop” to the neck and another time, after discovering her men did not want to kill a German girl they had captured, who was a spy, she did it herself with no qualms.

When the war ended, she discovered that Henry had been taken by the Gestapo and tortured in an attempt to learn more about her and her whereabouts. He gave nothing away and was executed. Wake was heartbroken.  Wake was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre on three separate occasions. She continued working for the British Ministry’s Intelligence Department.

Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Wirsansky who is a WWII history buff and Theatre/Creative Writing student at Florida State University.

Find our more…

Nancy wrote her own autobiography, “The White Mouse” which you can read to find out more about her (although it is quite hard to get hold of today.) There is also a book written about her life by Russell Braddon, called Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine

Find out more about the women of the Special Operative Executive (SOE) in this post.

Nancy lived to be 98 years old and was interviewed on camera several times. You can see more about her life, including actual interviews with her in this YouTube clip:



Sheroes of History Marie_Maynard_Daly

Marie M Daly

Marie Maynard Daly overcame racial & gender barriers to become the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry before embarking on a career in medical science that changed the way we understand the human body.

Marie was born in 1921 in Queens, New York. She was the oldest child and only girl in her family. She got her love of science from her dad. When he was a young man he wanted to be a scientist and had earned a scholarship to study science at Cornell University. Despite the scholarship he couldn’t afford his room & board and so sadly he was forced to drop out. Marie later said, “My father wanted to become a scientist but there weren’t opportunities for him as a black man at that time.” Instead he became a postal worker and worked hard to provide for his family.

His passion for science never left him and he passed this on to his daughter. Both her father and mother encouraged Marie’s interest in chemistry. She loved to read and devoured science books. Her favourite was a book called The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which was a story about some of the real life scientists Marie wanted to be like.

Marie went to an all girls school called Hunter College High School where, needless to say, her favourite subject was science! Her teachers encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist when she graduated. From there she went to study for her degree at Queens College, she loved learning and decided to stay on and complete her masters. She took on a job as a lab assistant so that she could pay for her studies and managed to complete her masters within a year!

Ever hungry for knowledge she enrolled at Columbia University to study chemistry. Whilst there she was tutored by Dr Mary L Caldwell, another scientific shero who really encouraged other female chemists. Marie completed her PhD in Chemistry in 1947, becoming the first African American woman do ever do so!

The area of chemistry that most fascinated Marie was looking at the chemicals in our body. She studied how chemicals in our digestive system help break down food and what happens in our cells. After she completed her PhD she became a research assistant at the Rockerfeller Institute of Medicine (now Rockerfeller University) where she worked with top scientists investigating how our bodies work. She was the first and only black scientist working there at the time.

By now she was becoming an expert in her field and in 1955 she took a job at Columbia University, where she would stay for the next seven years. She began researching what causes heart attacks and how our health is linked to what we eat. She made some really important discoveries which have helped doctors understand and treat heart attacks today. From 1958-63 she also gave her time to the American Heart Association, contributing to their research. By 1960 she had been made Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Columbia University. Ten years later she had moved on to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University where she was made Associate Professor.

Throughout her career Marie made great discoveries about how our bodies work and how food and lifestyle can affect us. As well as her research into the heart and digestive system she also showed clear links between smoking and lung disease. Her findings helped us understand our health better and informed modern medicine.

In 1988, after Marie had retired, she founded a science scholarship for African American students at Queens College in her father’s name. She wanted to pass on the passion her father had given her and open up the opportunity he had never had to others.

Find out more….

Do you want to be a scientist like Marie? Marie studied Biochemistry (the chemistry of living things, like us!) You can find out more about biochemistry and learn about some of Marie’s research on the Chem4Kids website.

The book African American Women Chemists by Jeanette Brown, tells the stories of pioneering black female scientists like Marie.


West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford, finding number 78D86/6/3/6/1 and is part of the Florence White, family papers, miscellaneous, notes and photographs collection.

Florence White – Activist for the Single Woman

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford, finding number 78D86/6/3/6/1 and is part of the Florence White, family papers, miscellaneous, notes and photographs collection.

Florence White. (Used with permission of the West Yorkshire Archive Service),

Born in Bradford in 1886, the daughter of an illiterate millworker and a colourful but absentee father, Florence White knew, at first hand, the hardships working women faced. A clever child, her limited time at school provided a solid education but no immediate escape from her hardships. At the age of 12 she too was working a 12 hour day in Tankard’s Mill. By the age of 18 Florence suffered a nervous breakdown and had left the Mills behind her. She moved away from the back-to-backs to better housing with the support of her extended family and was able to start a small dressmaking business with her sister.

In 1916 Florence became engaged, but her fiancée died in France a year later from pneumonia. Millions of other women experienced the same fate. Florence, deprived of a married life, threw herself into local politics and joined the Liberal Party. Her new interest opened up a different world where her talents flourished.  She became a forceful political activist and a champion of women’s causes.  Other Yorkshire women had also become active, such as trade unionist Anne Loughlin in Leeds, fighting for the rights of women workers but Florence chose a different method to reach her goal.

Keenly aware of the plight of the working single woman in society Florence founded The National Spinsters’ Pensions Association in 1935. It was a campaign that was supported across the social spectrum and by married as well as single woman. Florence wanted pensions to start at 55 and began a national movement that met with great success. Branches were formed across the country. Huge rallies, marches, petitions to Parliament as well as presenting the case to parliamentary committees all increased the pressure for change.

Florence had a keen eye for using the media to spread her message. Publicity gimmicks, such as every spinster sending a Christmas card to the Minister of Health and presenting Neville Chamberlain with an umbrella to protect spinsters for a “rainy day”, created a momentum in the popular press that could not be ignored. This is was a foretaste of techniques still used by pressure groups in modern political campaigning. In January 1940 there was a partial victory. The age at which single women could retire was lowered from 65 to 60.

When the Association was disbanded in 1958 Florence White had spent over 20 years of her life fighting for the fair treatment of single women in a world that seemed fixated on marriage and a domestic role for women.  Florence died in 1961. Although she did not obtain all that she had hoped for, she had led to changes that made a real contribution to the lives of millions of women.

Written for Sheroes of History by Jennie Kiff

Find out more…

The History to Herstory project have some great resources about Yorkshire Women, including this source sheet & worksheet about Florence White.

If you’re in the area why not do Herstoria’s Women’s History Walk around Bradford, which features Florence White and several other local sheroes!

You can search the West Yorkshire Archives to find items relating to Florence White, like this National Spinsters’ Pension Association leaflet.

You can see a brief history of the pensions movement, including Florence’s National Spinsters’ Pension Association here.


Captain Dorothy C Stratton – Don’t be a spare, be a SPAR!

Few know of SPARs, the World War II Women’s Reserve of the United States Coast Guard, and their brilliant director—Captain Dorothy C. Stratton. Dorothy ingeniously named the organization after she was selected as director by a room full of admirals.

In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a coast guard cutter in honor of Dorothy Stratton. It was the first time in history that a Legend-class National Security Cutter was named after a woman, and the first time that a first lady sponsored a coast guard or navy ship. Today, the Cutter Stratton protects America’s shoreline.

First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton

First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton

Before the war, Dorothy was Purdue University’s first full-time Dean of Women. In the 1941 yearbook, Dorothy, age forty-one, was quoted, “To be interesting, do interesting things.” Dorothy lived to be 107, wholly living out her mantra.

For several nights after Dorothy was made director in 1942, she lay awake trying to think of a name for her coast guard women. Suddenly, it came to her from the motto of the coast guard—“Semper Paratus” (Latin for “Always Ready”)—SPAR.

The nautical meaning of “SPAR” means a supporting beam of a ship. That was the women’s reserve—a support. The women took over the men’s stateside military jobs, so the men were free to go overseas for combat duty. When the war ended in 1945, 11,000 SPARs had served.

115. Stratton boarding Clipper to Hawaii

Captain Stratton boarding a clipper to Hawaii


Dorothy assisted in selecting the Biltmore Hotel, known as the “Pink Palace”, in Palm Beach, Florida, as the training base for SPARs. Reputed as the most expensive building constructed in Florida, opulent features were replaced with functional, and walls were knocked out to accommodate six women per room. Graduates became storekeepers, yeomen, cooks, bakers, commissary stewards, dental or pharmacist mates, or recruiters.

The musical show Tars and Spars was performed at the training hotel featuring Sid Caesar in his first major gig as a comedian. A film version was made in 1946.

Recruitment posters displayed attractive SPARs and catchy phrases: “Your Duty Ashore . . . His Afloat”; “The Girl of the Year is a Spar”; “Make a Date with Uncle Sam”; and “Don’t Be a Spare . . . Be a SPAR.”


The black-and-white recruitment film “Coast Guard Spars” showed coast guard women filing papers, typing on Underwood typewriters, and chauffeuring high-ranking men as peppy marching-band music plays. An announcer stated, “There are many jobs the coast guard needs you for! The skills learned today could mean better jobs tomorrow. You won’t get to be an admiral, but you may be the admiral’s secretary!”

When the war ended, Dorothy became the director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund. Through the 1950s, she was the Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America. She then served as the representative for the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) at the United Nations. Captain Dorothy C. Stratton passed away in 2006.

In Three Years Behind the Mast: The Story of the United States Coast Guard SPARS, Dorothy wrote a message titled “The Skipper Speaks”: “We shall always think of the Coast Guard with loyalty and affection. Our ‘Three Years Behind the Mast’ have been a never-to-be-forgotten experience, which we shall always cherish. A hearty wish for smooth sailing goes with our final salute and our ‘By Your Leave, Sirs’ as we bow out of your gallant company.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Angie Klink, who has written a book about Dorothy Stratton The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality.

Find out more….

Angie’s book featuring Dorothy is available here. You can watch a trailer for the book here and there is even an online exhibition about the five women here.

You can see an online copy of Dorothy’s book Three Years Behind the Mast…” target=”_blank”>here.

Watch the Coast Guard SPARS 1943 film in this YouTube clip:

Sheroes of History is a weekly women’s history blog, telling the stories of inspiring women from history.

Awilda, Alfhild, Sheroes of History

Alfhild – Goth Pirate Princess

Yes you read that right, this week’s post is about a Shero who was not only a princess, but also a pirate and, just for good measure, an actual goth! If you don’t love Princess Alfhild (also known as Awilda or Alvilda) already, you soon will.

The story of this awesome pirate princess was recorded by a chap called Saxo Grammaticus in his 12th Century book, ‘Gesta Danorum’ (Deeds of the Danes).

Princess Alfhild was the daughter of Siward, King of the Goths, who lived during the 5th Century in what is now Sweden. In true princess style,  her parents kept her locked in her room guarded by two vicious snakes. Any potential suitors would have to first defeat her reptilian body guards.

While many men came and failed, eventually one cunning Danish prince named Alf managed to slay the vipers (supposedly by covering himself “with a blood-stained hide” to confuse them!) Many assumed, including Alf it would seem, that this meant he would swiftly be wed to the young princess Alfhild, however things didn’t pan out quite like that.

Demonstrating the type of progressive attitude for which the Swedes are well known, Alfhild’s dad declared that if she was to marry it would have to be her own “free & decided choice”, which, as it turned out, it very much wasn’t.

Aghast at the thought of marrying the bloodied snake-slayer Alf, she instead took flight, leaving the palace disguised as a man. The obvious thing to do of course was to gather a band of disgruntled women also keen to stay single, commandeer a ship and set sail for a life of piracy; so that’s what she did. Together Alfhild & her female crew learned to weild axes and swords, quickly establishing a fearsome reputation across the Scandinavian seas.

When they came across another ship, full of male pirates whose captain had just died, she managed to convince them all to follow her as their new captain!

Word had spread of this growing band of pirates and, unsettled by the havoc she was wreaking, the Danes sent their own ships to try and capture her. By this time Alfhild commanded a large fleet, when her old flame Alf led an expedition to hunt her down, he found himself outnumbered. However, displaying the same courage & wit as he had when defeating the snakes, he managed to put ship after ship out of action until he finally made it to the lead ship where Alfhild was waiting, sword in hand.

He didn’t know that it was Alfhild he was hunting at this point, the realisation only coming when, in the midst of a swashbuckling swordfight he knocked the helmet clean off her head and recognised the girl he had risked life & limb for all those years before!

According to Saxo, “Seeing the smoothness of her chin, [Alf] saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings”.

Perhaps she was impressed by his sword skills or his willingness to stand down, perhaps she just had a change of heart or realised how perfect their names would sound together, either way she decided that Alf wasn’t too bad after all and that she would take him as her husband. In true fairy tale style they lived happily ever after as Queen & King of Denmark.

Today some historians question how much of this story is fact & how much fiction, it certainly does seem a little too perfect. We must remember that like many stories handed down to us, it wasn’t until hundreds of years after the events happened that they were actually written down. However we do know that some of the characters from this tale were real, and it’s likely that even if this wasn’t exactly how things happened, there is probably at least a grain of the truth in the story. In my opinion, which ever way you look at it, it’s a story far too good not to be told!


Find out more…..

If you like female pirates there are plenty more you can find out about. Have a look at this list and this list for many more swashbuckling sheroes! Also you can download our free factsheet about fellow girl-pirates Anne Bonny & Mary Read.

Alfhild and many other female pirates also feature in this book: She Captains: Heroines & Hellions of the Sea