Be Inspired By Fascinating Stories Of Female Pioneers, Past And Present
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Be Inspired By Fascinating Stories Of Female Pioneers, Past And Present

In paid partnership with BMW i, AllBright led an exclusive tour of London’s blue plaques dedicated to British female pioneers, complete with inspiring interviews with modern-day trailblazers tipped to be the blue plaque recipients of the future.

Have you ever stopped to look at a blue plaque? Scattered throughout the country, these small ceramic plaques are a dedication to some of the most famous and well-loved figures that have lived in Britain.

To celebrate BMW i’s commitment to innovation and cutting-edge technology, coupled with the brand’s mission to create a more sustainable form of all-electric driving, AllBright led a small group tour through the winding streets of London to discover some of the city’s blue plaques dedicated to female pioneers. Travelling in a small convoy of luxurious BMW i3 vehicles, we visited five blue plaques and heard the incredible stories of 6 formidable women from our passionate tour guide, Rachel Kolsky, a historian and founder of Go London Tours.

We were also joined on our expedition by some of the best female pioneers and changemakers in Britain today, who have walked in the footsteps of history’s trailblazers to achieve innovative work and accomplishments.

Here’s what we learned on our informative morning tour…

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Hertha Ayrton (1854 –1923)

Our first stop on the tour is Hertha Ayrton’s blue plaque, which is easy to miss from the pavement – hidden halfway up a four-storey terraced house, the small blue plaque would be almost invisible if you didn’t know where to look.

Hertha moved to the spot we’re currently standing on, 41 Norfolk Square, in 1903 with her husband, William Ayrton, who sadly died just five years later. After his death, Hertha made the drawing room into a laboratory, where she is believed to have created the Ayrton fan. As Rachel explains to us, this is one of the inventions she is remembered for, with over 100,000 of the hand operated devices being used to disperse poisonous gases from the trenches in World War One.

As well as being a renowned physicist, as she is described on her plaque, Hertha was a feminist and pioneer for women’s rights. After being refused election to the Royal Society on the basis of her gender in 1902, despite writing a pioneering text called The Electric Arc, Hertha went on to prove that women are just as powerful as men, by becoming the first woman to win the society’s Hughes Medal in 1906. Sadly, it took another 102 years before another woman would win the prize.

Rachel also tells us about another feat of feminism from Hertha, when she wrote a letter to The Times and asked them to correct an article in which they had named Marie Curie’s husband as the sole discoverer of radium – with no mention for Marie at all. Hertha is also remembered as being a supporter of the suffragettes, having hidden a number of imprisoned women on hunger strike in her house while they recuperated, before being smuggled back into prison.

Emmeline (1858-1928) & Dame Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958)

Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel are household names in the UK, having famously led the militant campaign for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. They share a joint blue plaque at 50 Clarendon Road in Holland Park, which is the house they lived in during the first world war - and the next stop on our tour.

Rachel tells us that the Pankhursts were “very divisive and not a happy family”. Emmeline was 20 when she met her husband Richard Pankhurst, who at the time was 44 years old and working as a barrister, advocating for women’s rights. The pair went on to have 5 children, with Christabel and Silvia (who has her own blue plaque in Chelsea) both being involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

Rachel explains that Emmeline and Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester in 1903, after becoming frustrated by the “nicely nicely” approach of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The WSPU motto was “deeds not words”, and the suffragette’s “deeds” ranged from tying themselves to railings, to destroying property (the Prime Minister’s windows were smashed), as well as arson and bombs. Emmeline was imprisoned as punishment for these “deeds” for three years but served only 30 days after repeatedly being released due to refusing to eat, sleep or drink.

Going back to her earlier statement that the family was not a happy one, Rachel tells us that, despite taking in war babies born to unmarried mothers during her time in Holland Park, Emmeline refused to speak to Silvia after she became pregnant out of wedlock.

Having lived at Holland Park since 1916, Emmeline moved to Canada in 1919, after a few women were victoriously given the right to vote in 1918. Considered a hero, she was selected as a potential Conservative candidate on her return to England in 1926, but sadly died before the election.

Christina Okorocha and Rumbi Mupindu, two of the co-founders of , have joined us at the plaque to be interviewed by Rachel. With a star-studded list of clients including Disney, Universal Pictures, the BBC and Warner Brothers, VAMP is an innovative digital talent and entertainment PR agency that works with brands to help them authentically diversify their content and maximise their reach.

When asked to pick the modern-day activists they admire, they name YouTuber Patricia Bright and founder and CEO of Black Girl Fest, Nicole Crentsil. “A lot of us young black women look up to Patricia – she’s built a platform educating women on finances and how to be more in control of their money. She teaches women who might not have the resources how to build their future,” they say. “Nicole invests in black female businesses, providing a platform and putting her money where her mouth is,” they add.

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Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

The next stop on our tour is Rosalind Franklin’s blue plaque, which sits outside her former flat, number 22 Donovan Court in South Kensington.

Rachel tells us that Rosalind, a crystallographer, spent a lot of time travelling abroad, especially in Paris. “Two key words that pop up time and time again in people’s memories of her are patience and kindness,” she says. Despite being recognised for her numerous scientific achievements by her peers, Rosalind was refused public recognition during her lifetime. She pioneered the study of molecular structures, discovering that DNA molecules had two forms, leading her to believe that DNA was created in a helix-like structure. Her images were passed onto two male researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick, and were instrumental to their eventual discovery of the structure of DNA.

Despite this, Rosalind received no mention or recognition when Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for their work in 1962, alongside Maurice Wilkins. She had sadly died from cancer 4 years previously, at the age of just 38. Her lack of mention has remained controversial ever since, although the presence of her blue plaque is starting to help her story become more public.

Listening to the fascinating story of Rosalind Franklin with us is , an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor of theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. As well as being a scientist, Sunetra is an acclaimed novelist and essayist, who won the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award in 2009 for her scientific achievements and work to promote women in STEM.

When asked about winning the award, Sunetra tells us: “Awards serve a purpose and give visibility for women, but we need all stories to be told. We need to celebrate failures as much as we celebrate successes – Rosalind encountered a lot of failures, but she also loved cooking, wine, walking and travelling.

“That’s the big message to send to young female scientists – sometimes it’s really worth it to buck the trend and be true to yourself, rather than climbing the ladder and playing the game. Live a rich, full, meaningful and interesting life.”

Eleanor Rathbone (1872 –1946)

Next up, we travel through the streets of Westminster to arrive at Eleanor Rathbone’s blue plaque, situated outside her former ground floor flat in Tufton Court.

Rachel begins her speech by telling us that blue plaques only tell us a “tiny part of the story” of a person’s life, with Eleanor Rathbone being one of the lesser-known women in English history – despite achieving a huge amount in her lifetime. Rachel tells us that Eleanor was brought up in a wealthy family with the ethos that if you have money and time, you should use it to make society better. Which Eleanor certainly did.

Remembered as a significant social reformer and feminist thinker, Eleanor pioneered family allowances, giving state support to mothers and children. She also worked as president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), a suffragist organisation, pioneering policies including pensions for widows in 1925 and the right for women to vote on equal terms with men in 1928. Summing up her personality in one word, Rachel describes her as a “humanitarian”.

Standing with us at Tufton Court is Frances Scott, a modern-day pioneer and the founder and director of , a campaign for an inclusive and gender-balanced parliament. It’s started to rain, but that doesn’t dampen Frances’ clear passion for her cause.

“It will currently take until 2050 for women to have equal seats in parliament – and that’s far too long to wait,” she tells us. “The system is skewed in favour of men!

“We want women to have equal seats, and equal say, because our experiences are relevant when it comes to making decisions in the future.”

Countess of Lovelace, Ada Byron (1815 –1852)

Our fifth and final stop on our blue plaque tour brings us to St James’s Square, to Ada Countess of Lovelace’s former house.

Ada was a mathematician and computing pioneer, and the only legitimate child of the poet, Lord Byron. Rachel tells us that he called her “the princess of parallelograms” although he left their home when she was only one month old, and she never saw him again. She was brought up by her mother, Annabelle, who is believed to have strongly encouraged Ada’s fascination with maths and science, as she was anxious that she wouldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps and become a poet.

Annabelle’s encouragement certainly paid off, as Ada went on to write an algorithm that has since become regarded as the world’s first piece of computer code. She met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first computer, when she was 17, and worked with him on numerous analytics for at least a decade. Her pioneering work in computers is now so widely recognised that the United States Department of Defence even named a piece of software after her in 1979. “She was a real pioneer of computing,” Rachel tells us – and listening to her story, we all agree.

AllBright teamed up with BMW i, innovators in sustainable mobility, for a paid partnership to bring to life the stories of incredible pioneering females, both past and present.

Are you interested in driving more sustainably and experiencing an all-electric drive? Test drives are subject to status and availability. You can find out more about BMW i3 electric car .

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