8 March 2021
On this International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, and in Women’s History Month this March, we are celebrating influential women. Women who have contributed to society, the arts, business, science, politics and philanthropy. Women who have led the way, taken risks, challenged cultural norms and spoken up to create positive social change in their times.
In our new Sixth Form Centre – The 6 – we’ve chosen to name the boarding bedrooms after such inspirational women. The girls, staff and alumnae proposed which women we might honour. There was hot debate as to who should be included. With 44 twin boarding bedrooms to name the girls brought their critical skills to bear, keen to represent women who had contributed and who may inspire and influence the next generation.
St Catherine’s girls are exposed to role-models throughout their School careers – alumnae return once a term for the great honour of delivering the ‘End of Term Lecture’ to share their career path stories. Careers events prompt them to consider a myriad of avenues and our public lecture series St Catherine’s Presents raises their aspirations with speakers from across the globe. We consider such inspiration an essential balance to the media fuelled ‘stars’ of Instagram and Love Island as a means of measuring ‘success’ or ‘influence’.
The ‘influencers’ that our girls chose were women such as Dr Marie Stopes 1880 – 1958, paleobotanist and campaigner for Women’s Rights, whose work in birth control transformed women’s choices. Yet, her work is not without controversy. Zoe Williams wrote recently in The Guardian that she was “a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control.” We may question her opinions on eugenics – should we ‘cancel’ her and remove her from our honoured ‘influential women’? The Sixth Form Common Room and Boarding House was alive with debate on this issue. Much discussion was rightly had about the social and historical context in which she lived but the importance of acknowledging the social impact of her birth control clinics won. A room will be named after Dr Marie Stopes and her biography posted on the wall just inside the room will include a ‘Talking Point’ asking girls to consider ‘Do you think it is important to maintain a sense of the historical context when considering actions which now seem controversial?’
Alongside women such as Lady Hale, Michelle Obama, Tu YouYou and Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell are St Catherine’s influencers: some of our own famous alumnae. Girls who have been shaped by their School, encouraged to believe in themselves and supported by their teachers and peers to find their interests and passions. Their St Cat’s spirit has driven them to achieve, succeed and make their mark on history: Professor Carys Bannister, alumna of 1953 a neurosurgeon and medical researcher, Anne Garrels, alumna of 1969 and Foreign and War Correspondent, and Professor Beverley McKeon Reynolds, alumna of 1992, a Professor of Aeronautics were all chosen by our girls as women of substance, women who have changed history, recorded history and are changing our future.
Critically important are role-models that are ‘real’ and ‘accessible’, hence why we prioritise bringing our alumnae back to St Catherine’s allowing our girls to believe in the potential of their own contribution to society and to history. Nikki Henderson, alumna of 2011, award winning yachtswoman, recently took our girls through a terrifying visual journey of what it was like to sail through 40 foot waves in the Clipper Round the World Race at just 25. She shared how the competitive House sports matches of her school days gave her the grit, determination and belief she needed to achieve her goal. Whilst she is honoured as an influential woman, her Talking Point is ‘What is more important in sport: winning or taking part?’
At St Catherine’s, our girls take part. Not just whilst at School but as they move into their careers and progress to the next stage of their lives. There is no question that they will take their part in history and society. As educationalists, there is no greater joy for their teachers than in watching how they shape and change our world.
Alice Phillips. Headmistress, St Catherine’s School Bramley