Choose to challenge: Tempus looks at eight trailblazing women ahead of International Women's Day

By Lysanne Currie | 18 Feb 2021 | Culture, Leaders

From nurses and squash players to poets and models, these are the women shaking things up in 2021

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Women are increasingly breaking stereotypes and making a difference on the global stage with their resilience, humanity and extraordinary gifts. Here, we mark International Women’s Day on 8 March by celebrating eight brilliant individuals who exemplify this year’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge, and embody an extraordinary new spirit echoed within our communities

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In 1993, writer and activist Maya Angelou read one of her poems, On the Pulse of Morning, at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. “Give birth again to the dream,” she read. At that point, Angelou was only the second poet in history to read a poem at a US president’s inauguration. Now there is a third.

At President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, moving in so many ways, a standout moment was America’s Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman – a self-described “skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” – reciting The Hill We Climb.

This isn’t the only thing the 22-year-old has in common with her predecessor. Angelou was temporarily struck mute by trauma in childhood; Gorman used her own speech impediment to her advantage: “If couldn’t use my voice, then I would author my voice on the page, so [poetry] has really been a godsend and a lifeline for me,” she told CBS News.

A talent marked by courage and resilience and a beacon in a gloomy world. In her own spine-tingling words: “There is always light if only we are brave enough to see it; if only we are brave enough to be it.”

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British model, and the face of a Gucci Beauty campaign, Ellie Goldstein was 15 when she joined her first modelling agency. She has since had a ball, in the kind of life millions dream of.

Nevertheless, Goldstein, now 18 and whose dream is to be on the cover of Vogue, is a little different from most models: she was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome at birth – and hasn’t let it deter her one bit.

“Representation is very important to me,” she says. “Let the world see that anyone can model and act with a disability.” The first person with Down’s syndrome to appear on a Glamour UK cover, she says simply: “Be yourself and don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

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As a professional photographer, Hannah Grace Deller was used to seeing life through a lens. After retraining as a nurse – clad in PPE on the Covid frontline – she’s now seeing it as close up as one could bear. But she never stopped taking photos.

Influenced by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Martin Parr, the 47-year-old’s photos capture “the unsung heroes” of the NHS: “Intensely private moments, anguish in colleagues’ eyes, or exhaustion in their faces”.

She has featured on Grayson Perry’s Art Club and featured in his lockdown exhibition. One of her photos won Martin Parr’s Exercise in Lockdown competition and her work has even inspired Song Club, an album of music compiled by Chris “Squeeze” Difford.

“I love taking pictures,” the London-born photographer told The Guardian, “but how can you not love being part of saving lives? It feels like the two parts of me have finally merged.” A humane eye, coupled with compassion.

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She’s been called everything from the Iron Butterfly to the Smoky Mountain Songbird and the Backwoods Barbie. To millions of children she’s even known simply as ‘The Book Lady,’ thanks to her Imagination Library, which mails books to kids up to the age of five completely free of charge.

However, as a new biography, She Come By It Natural, by Sarah Smarsh, details, the septuagenarian has also made the leap from being the butt of punchlines about her looks, to an unimpeachable icon strutting her stuff on a stage “where women of a certain age historically have gone unseen”.

This is the ultra-hard-working proto- feminist who disallowed Elvis to record I Will Always Love You after he demanded 50% of the publishing rights.

In November 2020, she donated $1m towards the development of the 95%-effective Moderna vaccine. (Cue instant choruses of “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacc-iiiiiiiine...” to the tune of her hit Jolene.) What. A. Woman.

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Incredibly, Greta Thunberg has just turned 18: in the world’s imagination the pigtailed eco-warrior will always be, as The Times put it, “a 15-year-old prophet of doom telling world leaders they were stealing her future”.

Yet Greta, who calls her Asperger’s syndrome a “superpower”, has always seemed an ancient soul, plugged into something wise and vast.

She was still at school when she began a strike to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Since then she has inspired a movement of millions.

She has spoken at the UN, been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, had run-ins with US President Donald Trump (of course), and was Time’s 2019 person of the year. We can’t wait to see where her incredible journey takes her next.

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* Photo credit: John Cairns


As a PhD student, British vaccinologist Professor Sarah Gilbert once considered packing in science – luckily for the world, she gave it another go. Now, at a time when fewer than 30% of the world’s medical researchers are female, she is an inspiration.

Because of Gilbert and her team at Oxford University, we now have a vaccine that affords as much as 90% protection against Covid-19.

She has been described as the one “person in the room who does not want to be in the limelight”. But if the world is to have any kind of superhero in the wake of the pandemic, this quietly determined, 58-year-old mother of triplets, who says: “You just get on with it”, fits the brief.

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As she details in her memoir, A Different Kind of Daughter, growing up in a Taliban-held tribal region of Pakistan, where women don’t have a right to be educated let alone play sports, Maria Toorpakai passed herself off as a boy to play squash. When she was found out, death threats followed.

She fled to Canada and trained with Canadian former world No.1 Jonathon Power, before joining the professional circuit. She’s now 105th in world standings and the top- ranked player in Pakistan – even though she’s banned from playing there.

Now 30, she hopes one day to teach girls and boys there how to play. “I want to tell girls, fear is taught; that you are born free and you are born brave,” she says in new documentary Girl Unbound. “Sport changed my life and I believe it is one of the things that connect us. Even over different continents and different nations.”

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“Perhaps because of our school experiences, none of us frames science or technology as creative or altruistic,” London-born Dr Anne- Marie Imafidon told the Evening Standard of the shortfall of women in tech.

But the former child prodigy, now 31, insists that’s exactly what technology is. Founded by Imafidon in 2013, STEMettes helps women under 21 access jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Despite women making up half of the UK workforce, only 14% of those in such careers are female. The initiative aims to scotch the myth that tech is more for boys.

Her Women Tech Charge podcast features chats with women from across the tech industry, such as Louise Broni-Mensah, founder of ticketing website Shoobs, and Michelle Kennedy, founder of a social network for mothers called Peanut. As she told the Standard, “It’s a call to take charge, a call to action.”

Read more in Tempus Magazine issue 72, available to download now