The decades around the middle of the 20th century were truly groundbreaking. The first Polaroid camera was invented, the ‘Big Bang’ theory was formed, and (vitally) the TV remote was invented. But perhaps the biggest ground-breaking achievement of this time was the leap forward in gender equality, thanks to the achievements of countless women and girls who refused to accept the status quo.
To inspire you on this International Women’s Day, we’ve curated a list of our top 4 mould-breaking women of the mid-century.
Hedy Lamarr is often attributed with being a Hollywood actress and famously “the most beautiful woman in the world”. But in addition to her starlet life, she was also the woman who invented a radio guidance system for torpedoes and the technology we now use in wireless technologies. It certainly was one heck of a side hobby.
She quickly achieved global fame in the 1940s movie biz, but acting didn’t satisfy Lamarr’s craving to invent. In her trailer on set, she would stay up all night, toying with science. She eventually developed a frequency-hopping device that prevented transmissions from being jammed or intercepted, and donated it to the US Navy.
Whilst the Navy didn’t end up using the invention, the concept was revived a little later in the ’50s. It eventually became the platform for the three things we couldn’t live without – GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Rose Heilbron QC
The Guardian famously said, “Almost everything in the notable career of Dame Rose Heilbron was as a first”. Heilbron was made Britain’s first ever female judge in 1957, where an entire crowd of women came to see her installed. Instantly, Heilbron became one of the many faces of the fight for women’s rights.
A remarkable defence lawyer, Heilbron repeatedly saved defendants from death row and made unwinnable cases winnable. The public adored her, marvelling at her humble roots, celebrating her successes and looking up to her as a model for what could be achieved.
Rosalind Franklin is perhaps most famous for achieving a great many things, but facing a huge amount of hardship along the way. She knew science was her calling at age 15, but was discouraged by those around her, as it wasn’t an “easy field” for a woman. Thankfully, she pursued science anyway, much to the gratefulness of the modern science community.
Franklin graduated from Cambridge, with a love of science and a great deal of potential. She took interest in DNA, and set up a lab where she took increasingly clear pictures using X-ray diffraction to discover the shape of DNA. A year of mathematical analysis followed, and she inched toward the conclusion that DNA had a double-helix shape.
What followed has become known as one of the biggest snubs in science. Without her permission, Franklin’s fellow researcher showed her photos to two scientists – James Watson and Francis Crick – who were trying to also determine DNA shape. The two men published papers about the discovery, only mentioning Franklin in a minor footnote as ‘inspiration’. After her passing from cancer, Watson and Crick received a Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA structure.
Despite not getting official credit for her achievements, the world knows exactly how much Franklin contributed to science, and that the important discovery of DNA shape would’ve taken far longer to make without her efforts.
An activist for civil and women’s rights in the U.S., Dorothy Height played a vital role in improving opportunities for African-American women. As a child she proved to be highly intelligent and an excellent public speaker, eventually winning a scholarship to go to Barnard College. Ironically however, just prior to admission she was told the college had now “met their quota” for black students. Undeterred, she studied at New York University instead, where she earned two degrees and started a long career in fighting for equality.
Height’s organisation skills were unparalleled, leading her to become a key organiser for countless rallys, events and protests. She coordinated “Wednesdays in Mississippi”, where women throughout the nation met to discuss racial justice issues. She personally encouraged the government to appoint black women to positions of power, and to desegregate schools.
And perhaps most notably, Height helped organise the famous March on Washington in 1963. It was the largest protest in the history of the United States, and where Dr. Martin Luther Kind, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Her fighting for justice, so often behind the scenes, eventually earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.