What we can learn from women over 100 years ago on International Women’s Day 2023

What we can learn from women over 100 years ago on International Women’s Day 2023

International Women’s Day acts as a bold and loud reminder to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about discrimination and to drive gender parity. 

#Embrace Equity – is this year’s theme.

When writing Wonder Women, Giles and I set out three objectives:

  • To create awareness of and celebrate the women’s success
  • To inspire others (both women and men) with the stories and thoughts of successful women and encourage the adoption of more ‘feminine’ aspects of thinking and doing
  • To encourage all women to recognise, have confidence in and grow their talents

To date we’ve shared stories of the successes of women in the fields of marketing and business, but for this IWD we’re going a bit left field, back in time to the Suffragettes and WW1 to tell you the story of two remarkable women in medicine – and highlight what we can learn from them today.

A good friend of mine, Alison Bailey, a historian at the Amersham Museum, wrote a book entitled Women at War – A celebration of our local suffrage campaigners and their contribution to WW1.  It’s full of inspiring stories of women who pioneered for and embraced equity over 100 years ago. 

The story we have chosen is about an extraordinary partnership of two women


Louisa Garrett Anderson and her life partner, Flora Murray, both qualified doctors. They trained at the London School of Medicine for Women, founded by Louisa’s mother, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. They were militant suffragettes in the years leading up to the war with Louisa spending six weeks in Holloway Prison for taking part in a mass window smashing campaign in 1912.

When war was declared in 1914, they laid down their banners and sought to help the Allied war effort. They founded the Women’s Hospital Corps and undeterred by the rebuttal of the Royal Medical Corps they offered their services to the French who were desperate for medical and surgical aid. They had just 12 days to raise the funds, find the staff and purchase the equipment and all the stores which were needed for a military hospital. They then travelled to Paris to open their first unit in the Hôtel Claridge.

Flora Murray wrote in her memoir Women as Army Surgeons, “The long years of struggle for the Enfranchisement of Women which had preceded the outbreak of war had done much to educate women in citizenship and in public duty. The militant movement had taught them discipline and organisation: it had shown them new possibilities in themselves and had inspired them with confidence in each other”.

They designed their own practical uniforms and wore the purple, white and green badge of the Women’s Social and Political Union with pride. Despite never having had the opportunity to work with men’s bodies before, as women doctors were only permitted to treat women and children, the Women’s Hospital Corps was an immediate success, and the British Army quickly realised their mistake. In 1915 they were asked to establish the Endell Street Military Hospital for the Royal Medical Corps in a former workhouse in Convent Garden. The St Giles Workhouse, as it was known, was supposedly the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Like the hospital in Paris and a later hospital in Wimereux, the Endell Street Military Hospital was staffed entirely by women, from chief surgeon to orderlies. The hospital became a specialist centre for head injuries and fractures and even published clinical research. It closed in August 1919 having treated 24,000 patients and carried out more than 7,000 operations. It was widely considered the best run hospital of the war and the all-female staff proved what many had before doubted, that women could manage the medical and administrative needs of a hospital just as well as men. Mostly funded by suffrage campaigners, the hospital adopted the suffragette motto ‘Deeds not Words’. When the 1918 Representation of the People Act was passed, giving limited suffrage to women, a purple, white and green flag was raised.

Flora Murray was never recognised as a lieutenant-colonel by the British Army, the rank she was due as Doctor-in-Charge of a military hospital. Nor did chief surgeon Louisa Garrett Anderson achieve any rank. However, they were both made Commanders of the British Empire in 1917.

So, what are our key takes outs from this story?

Militancy can be a force for good

Like the Suffragettes, sometimes you need to get angry for people to listen.

Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: Women responding to racism tells us, “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional. Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”

Never be deterred by a rebuttal

Be creative and think of another way through.  When Louisa and Flora were turned down by the British Royal Medical Corps they were not deterred and successfully offered their services to the French.  This is an early example of how to ‘pivot’  (which has become very popular in our contemporary culture).  Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis talk about this in their book Squiggly Career.

The Power of Two

In our interview with Edwina Dunn for the Wonder Women book, she talked about the Power of Two in generating success.  Having someone you can rely on and trust, but also who will give you a different perspective.  Working in pairs helps you survive the tough bits, to grow, and enables you to have fun along the way. 

When you marry an opposite and work together, you have someone you can rely on and trust, but you also get a different perspective. You stick together through thick and thin, you survive the tough bits, you have fun when it’s great, you enjoy the spoils when everything works out, but it does have to be equally involving and fulfilling for both of you.

We use this idea of sending people in pairs for jobs – they were not best buddies, and more likely to be people with different skills. The either survived, thrived or killed each other! Fortunately most thrived.

I’m a huge believers in not working alone. When you work with someone who’s exactly the opposite, then you never have to worry about all the things you’re bad at.

Edwina Dunn

Prove the doubters wrong

When Louisa and Flora set up the Endell Street Military Hospital staffed entirely by women, from chief surgeon to orderlies, many questioned how successful they would be. However, it was widely considered the best run hospital of the war and the all-female staff proved what many had before doubted, that women could manage the medical and administrative needs of a hospital just as well as men. Mostly funded by suffrage campaigners, the hospital adopted the suffragette motto ‘Deeds not Words’.

Proving the doubters wrong was also a common theme that emerged from the Wonder Women interviews. 

Everyone told us it won’t work, you’re going to fail in America – everyone fails in America – but we didn’t fail.  We built a business from scratch and it grew to be hugely profitable.

Edwina Dunn

I’ve never felt that being a woman has held me back because of the kind of mentality I have.  I relish a challenge and the harder it is, the more I like it.  Being told I couldn’t do something would definitely spur me on.

Pat Tayor

It was the 1980s – an era when seomen were few and far between in leadership positions.  The Managing Director said, “I can’t find anybody decent to do the job, so I’ll give you the role.”  Those were his exact words!  When I asked him what he meant, he said, “You don’t look like a salesperson in my organisation.”  At the time, a salesperson was tall, slim and blonde. 

He was smart because he knew that would motivate me to prove him wrong. I thought, ”Why should I not be successful because I didn’t look or conform in a certain way.  I focused on what I could do well and was incredibly successful there.

Elaine Barnes

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