The Most Influential Women Of All Time?

Scottish Widows, whom Brits may recall from all those adverts featuring a woman in a gorgeous black cloak, have published a the results of a poll in which the public were asked who they thought were the most influential women; called the Women of Influence list. It’s an interesting, albeit immensely skewed, list.

Topping the poll is Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister and only woman to ever hold the office. I’m a fan of Baroness Thatcher and I firmly believe that she certainly changed the world during her time as Prime Minister – but should she really be at the top of this list? It’s a tricky question. Let’s look at a few other women who deserve a place on the list, even if the public didn’t vote for them.

Ada Lovelace

This is what a computer programmer looks like. (Portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon, courtesy of the Science & Society Picture Library. Used under CC licence, via Wikipedia)
This is what a computer programmer looks like. (‘Portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace’ by Alfred Edward Chalon, courtesy of the Science & Society Picture Library. Used under CC licence, via Wikipedia)

Her full name is Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace; which is quite a mouthful so let’s keep using the name most people know her by. Ada was a British mathematician who is most famous amongst computer people these days as the world’s first computer programmer.

She worked on developing a method of getting Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (one of the earliest mechanical computers, although not the actual first given that the Antikythera mechanism was developed in Ancient Greece) to do something useful. She developed the first algorithm to be processed by a machine, and thus became the first computer programmer in history.

You might notice from your being able to read this article that computers now run the entire planet. Everything you do in life is either made easier or even made possible because of the work of Ada Lovelace.

Ada is not in the top 10 of the Women of Influence list, but she should be. In fact, she’s a contender for the Number 1 spot. The world we know now developed from this woman’s work.

Queen Elizabeth I

The sheer number of changes to England that occurred during the reign of Elizabeth I are quite staggering and it’s no wonder that such a long-reigning and steadfast monarch would develop a kind of personality cult around her.

After her father’s quite unstable reign and her sister’s tyranny, Elizabeth was a breath of fresh air that was very definitely needed. She brought in an era that saw the monarch take something of a back seat that allowed her Ministers to begin to run the country with competence; her motto being “video et taceo” (literally “I see nothing and I say nothing”). You may note this is the method all British monarchs are now expected to reign by.

She established the Church of England (anyone who thinks Henry VIII did that should note that your schools and history books simplified things too much and therefore essentially lied to you. Sorry!) and her military commanders brought such an overwhelming victory against the Spanish Armada that England was no longer seen as a cowering, small nation surrounded by stronger enemies. In essence, her rule made England a superpower and with her granting of a patent for overseas exploration, she created the First British Empire.

“First Empire?” you may ask. “What’s that?” Well, that’s the one we don’t normally talk about. It’s essentially our Colonies in North America. The Empire we hear so much about – the one where the sun never set – was the Second British Empire. That comes later.

Elizabeth’s reign stabilised England and allowed culture to flourish that we still celebrate today. She was a moderate when it came to religion and didn’t persecute like her predecessors had but this didn’t stop the Pope from declaring her illegitimate and thus sewing the seeds for religious extremists to attempt numerous assassinations. These she saw off in typical fashion, by allowing her ministers to form the first modern secret service. Her spy network was international, extensive, very competent and allowed her enough security that she died peacefully of old age, despite the numerous threats to her life.

Queen Elizabeth I is not in the top 10 of this Women of Influence list, despite the fact that she literally changed the world. Surely this is a mistake? Surely she should be a top 10 contender?

Margaret Hamilton

I’d like to think that space nerds everywhere would know who Margaret Hamilton is. During the height of the space race, she was the Director of Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. If you know your space history, you’ll know that was the lab that developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo Space Program. Apollo began in 1961, when Hamilton was only 25.

Hamilton’s team at MIT developed a highly robust set of error checking and remedy systems for the Apollo missions. Her software was able to not only recognise when a problem occurred but also to take action to solve it. That’s really advanced stuff, especially for the sixties when computers had less power than the average modern calculator.

This error-remedying software came in very useful during the Apollo 11 mission, the first mission where a man walked on the Moon. During the landing sequence, the computer become overwhelmed with information because a rendezvous radar was improperly set and began to transmit data that the computer did not need.

Without Hamilton’s team’s advanced software, the astronauts would have been forced to abort the landing in order to prevent the computer getting overloaded and crashing. Thankfully the software recognised that it was receiving unnecessary data and dumped it to concentrate on the landing. In other words, the work of Hamilton and her team made it possible to land on the Moon.

Margaret Hamilton is not in the Women of Influence list top 10 but given that she directed the team that is responsible for making the moon landings possible, surely she should be?