12 women who blazed trails or took a stand in 2020

·16-min read

From politics to science to culture and sports, many women smashed glass ceilings or became the symbols of a movement in 2020. FRANCE 24 takes a look at 12 women who overcame the odds, blazed trails or took a stand.

The year 2020 was marked by the coronavirus pandemic and by many women who distinguished themselves during the global health crisis. A comparative analysis of 194 countries by the World Economic Forum and Centre for Economic Policy Research found that “responses to the Covid-19 crisis were systematically better in countries led by women”.

In a year largely overshadowed by the deadly virus, females made breakthroughs in many sectors and emerged as leading figures in protest movements that erupted from Belarus to Hong Kong.

Kamala Harris: the first female US vice president

Democrat Joe Biden's running mate Kamala Harris made history in November when she became the first US female vice president-elect after winning the race for the White House. Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, is also the first Black woman and the first Asian-American to be elected to the office, which will make her the highest-ranking woman in US government history.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris proclaimed in a victory speech at the Delaware Chase Convention Center days after the November 3 election to roars from the crowd.

Harris, along with Biden, was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2020 for “changing the American story”. In his interview with the magazine, Biden hailed the vice president-elect’s mix of strength and empathy. “She is straight as an arrow. She is really, really bright. She is tough. But yet she has a heart that understands what it’s like to be on the other side of prejudice,” he explained.

Born in Oakland, California, Harris began her career at the local district attorney’s office before she was elected attorney general of her home state. As California’s “top cop”, Harris had to negotiate tricky crosscurrents to meet her self-proclaimed “progressive prosecutor” goal, displaying political agility that saw her rising up Democratic Party ranks.

The toughness was on display on the 2020 campaign trail when Harris emerged unscathed by President Donald Trump’s barbs. Her presence on the Democrat ticket was viewed as a repudiation of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and his predatory track record with women, including several sexual abuse allegations.

Harris’s rise represents the progress women, especially women of colour, have made in America. It’s a legacy the US vice president-elect acknowledged in her victory speech when she noted, “I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision ... I stand on their shoulders.”

Katalin Kariko: the scientist behind the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine

The development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first vaccine approved in the West, is the crowning achievement of decades of work for Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko.

Born in January 1955 in a Christian family in the town of Szolnok in central Hungary, Kariko began her career at 23 at the University of Szeged’s Biological Research Centre, where she obtained her PhD. It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA.

Communist Hungary’s laboratories lacked resources and in 1985 she was sacked. Kariko looked for work internationally, getting a job at Temple University in Philadelphia. Hungarians were forbidden from taking money abroad, so she sold the family car and hid the proceeds in her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear. “It was a one-way ticket,” she told Business Insider.

>> Read more: Katalin Kariko, the scientist behind the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine

It was a serendipitous meeting in front of a photocopier in 1997 that turbocharged Kariko’s career. She met immunologist Drew Weissman, who was working on an HIV vaccine, and they decided to collaborate on developing a way of making synthetic RNA go unrecognised by the body’s immune system – an endeavour that succeeded to widespread acclaim in 2005. The duo continued their research and were able to place RNA in lipid nanoparticles, a coating that prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into cells.

Researchers at Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna used these techniques to develop their vaccines. Both use the same strategy of introducing genetic instructions into the body to trigger the production of a protein identical to that of the coronavirus, thereby eliciting the desired immune response.

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman are now favourites to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's PM conquers the coronavirus

As governments across the world scrambled to respond to the pandemic this year, New Zealand's prime minister proved once again to be an excellent manager in times of crisis.

The Ardern administration’s quick and tough pandemic response, by announcing a closure of national borders in March and seven weeks of strict lockdown, proved decisive in New Zealand’s confinement of the viral spread. The country of 5 million people recorded only 25 deaths due to Covid-19, earning praise from the World Health Organization (WHO) and a top spot on business confidence indices.

Rising from the opposition Labour parliamentary backbench, Ardern was elected prime minister in 2017 just weeks after becoming party leader following a last-minute resignation. The young prime minister’s strength of character was tested in March 2019 when a white supremacist shot dead 51 worshippers in two Christchurch mosques in the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand's history. Ardern’s mix of compassion for the victims and swift response on gun control and online hate speech won her admirers across the world.

Her brand of efficient, compassionate governance won her party a landslide win in the October general election, handing Labour its best result in half a century and congratulations for her “outstanding result” from her opponent, Judith Collins.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: the unlikely face of opposition in Belarus

In the 2020 Belarus presidential election, Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator”, faced an unexpected young opponent. Svetlana Tikhanovskya was called the “unlikely candidate” when she threw her hat in the political ring following the arrest of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovskaya, a well-known blogger and opposition activist. The former English teacher and mother of two managed to mobilise the country, galvanising supporters who took to the streets after Lukashenko was declared the winner in poll results discredited by the international community.

The re-election triggered mass protests, leading to thousands of arrests and forcing the 37-year-old opposition candidate to flee to Lithuania, citing threats from the authorities. Supported by Moscow, Lukashenko refused to step down from power and launched a vicious campaign against the opposition, cracking down on protesters and arresting members of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign team.

From exile, Tikhanovskaya kept up the calls for democratic change in her home country, earning the Belarusian opposition the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Receiving the prize on December 16 on behalf of the opposition, Tikhanovskaya and fellow opposition activist, Veronika Tsepkalo, hailed “each and every Belarusian” who participated in the bid to bring democratic change to Belarus.

“Without a free Belarus,” she noted, “Europe is not fully free either."

Ursula von der Leyen: leading the EU through Brexit

As the first woman to lead the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen oversaw Britain’s official exit from the bloc on January 31 as well as months of fraught negotiations before a post-Brexit bilateral trade deal was finally clinched on December 24.

Von der Leyen took over from Jean-Claude Juncker, who had long headed the bloc’s executive branch, in the EU's top post on December 1, 2019.

Born in Brussels as one of eight children, when she was 13 the family moved to Germany, where von der Leyen studied economics at the University of Göttingen. In 1978 she was forced to spend more than a year in hiding in London after her family learned that a far-left militant group, the Baader-Meinhof gang, planned to kidnap her to extort her father. While in London, von der Leyen studied at the London School of Economics.

She returned to Germany in 1979, where she trained as a doctor and went on to work in a women’s clinic in Hanover until she and her husband started a family. Throughout much of the 1990s she stayed at home to care for the couple’s seven children, with the family also spending four years in Stanford, California.

After returning to Germany, von der Leyen got involved in local politics. In the early 2000s she joined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany party. When Merkel took office in 2005, von der Leyen joined the cabinet as family affairs minister and, between 2009 and 2013, she worked as labour and social affairs minister before being appointed Germany’s first female defence minister. Von der Leyen is the only cabinet member to have served continuously in Merkel’s government and was long seen as the likely successor to the chancellor.

>> Read more: Ursula von der Leyen: controversial at home, lauded abroad

Agnes Chow: Hong Kong’s ‘goddess of democracy’

In Hong Kong, China continued its muscular takeover of the former autonomous territory with the adoption in June of a contentious new National Security Law against ambiguously worded offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries.

Under the law, pro-democracy parliament members have been dismissed while dozens of activists have been arrested, charged or are under investigation. In early December, three of the most prominent activists, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, were sentenced to prison.

Chow, 24, began her political career as a teenager when she joined the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 and emerged as a leading activist figure. In 2018, she was the first candidate to be banned from running for a seat in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on the grounds that her party advocated "self-determination".

Fluent in Cantonese, English and Japanese, Chow was instrumental in drawing international attention to Hong Kong’s democracy movement. In Japan, where the young activist in her trademark skirt and collared shirt is a household figure, Chow is known as a “the goddess of democracy” while her Chinese supporters have nicknamed her “Mulan”, a reference to the legendary Chinese heroine who fought to save her family and country.

In early December, Chow, Wong and Lam, were arrested and sentenced to 10 months in prison for participating in a banned anti-government rally in June 2019.

Breonna Taylor: a catalyst for tackling police violence

In 2020, the US saw its largest anti-racism mobilisations since the 1960s civil rights movement following the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Weeks earlier, another African-American, Breonna Taylor was shot dead in the middle of the night in her Kentucky home during a botched police raid. The killing of the Black 26-year-old medical worker occurred when three police officers forced entry into her apartment under a "no knock" warrant during a drug investigation. The suspect they were looking for did not live at Taylor's address.

Breonna Taylor’s name was soon chanted during Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country under the #SayHerName movement, which seeks to raise awareness of the many Black female victims of police brutality.

In September, public anger mounted after it was announced that two of the three White police officers involved in Taylor’s death would not be prosecuted. Actors George Clooney and Viola Davis joined several other cinema and sports stars in voicing frustration over the decision.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna: the first 100% female Nobel Prize in sciences

French geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on gene editing technology, marking the first time a Nobel scientific prize has gone to an exclusively female duo.

Announcing the award, the Nobel Committee hailed the duo’s CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors for its “revolutionary impact on the life sciences” which, the citation noted, “is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true”.

The genetic scissors are easy to use, inexpensive, and allow scientists to cut DNA exactly where they want, for example to create or correct a genetic mutation and treat rare diseases.

The 51-year-old French woman and the 56-year-old American became the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry since 1901. The other five women who have won the award are Marie Curie with her husband, Pierre Curie (1911), their daughter Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964), Ada Yonath (2009) and Frances Arnold (2018).

Loujain al-Hathloul: Saudi rights activist sentenced by terrorism court

Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women's rights activist, was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison (with two years and 10 months suspended) on December 28, just weeks after her case was transferred to a terrorism court. Hathloul, 31, who has been in jail since May 2018 when she was arrested with other female activists, first garnered public attention for their activism in demanding that Saudi women be allowed to drive. She was arrested in 2014 for trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates and again in June of 2017.

UN experts have called the charges against her "spurious". Rights campaigners say the anti-terrorism Specialised Criminal Court is known for being used to silence those critical of the Saudi regime by issuing long prison sentences.

On Christmas Eve, a Saudi criminal court rejected a lawsuit brought by Hathloul over the alleged torture she has suffered while in prison. Saudi Arabia's "Sabq" newspaper reported that the court in Riyadh dismissed Hathloul's case after a review of medical reports, surveillance cameras and witness testimonies concluded her claims were "invalid".

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Brussels, Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister urged Western leaders to pressure the Saudi regime to free the female activists. Alia al-Hathloul said her sister had started a hunger strike in late October to protest not being allowed to have regular contact with her parents. She said the family was "very worried" about the deterioration of her health, stressing that their repeated requests to Saudi authorities for an update had gone unanswered.

>> Watch: The Interview: 'Now is the time to release my sister'

In a statement in mid-December, the chairwoman of the UN’s working group on discrimination against women and girls called on Saudi authorities to release Hathloul. "We are extremely alarmed to hear that Al-Hathloul, who has been in detention for more than two years on spurious charges, is now being tried by a specialised terrorism court," chairwoman Elizabeth Broderick said.

"We call once again on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Al-Hathloul, a woman human rights defender who has greatly contributed to advancing women's rights.”

Stéphanie Frappart: French referee breaks FIFA's glass ceiling

French referee Stéphanie Frappart made history on December 2 when she became the first female to referee a men’s UEFA Champions League match.

Frappart, 36, had already made history as the first woman to referee in Ligue 1, and took charge of the 2019 UEFA Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea. She also made her Europa League debut in October.

The former Herblay-sur-Seine player in the Paris region, who began refereeing at the age of 13, has broken several glass ceilings in a field dominated by men. "We have to prove physically, technically and tactically that we are the same as the men. I'm not afraid of that,” she said in August 2019 on the eve of the European Super Cup match between Liverpool and Chelsea.

Saba Sahar: Afghan policewoman, film director and actor is shot in Kabul

Colonel Saba Sahar, 45, is a senior female police officer and one of Afghanistan's most famous actors as well as a director. On August 25 she was leaving for work with her 4-year-old daughter, her driver and a bodyguard when her car came under fire. All three of the adults were hit by bullets.

“It took me another moment to realise I’d been shot too,” she told the Guardian in an interview published December 24. “They were five or six metres away, and they were moving closer to the car, still firing. They would have killed my child.”

Sahar grabbed the gun from her wounded bodyguard and began returning fire. Her husband, Emal Zaki, had heard the gunshots and called his wife. By the time he reached her car the gunmen were gone.

After getting the wounded bodyguard and driver into the car, they headed for the hospital. “My wife stayed conscious until she was sure our daughter was safe and then she passed out,” Zaki told the Guardian.

Sahar was only one of the Afghan policewoman targeted this year. Fatima Faizi, 23, an officer with the anti-narcotics squad, was kidnapped and killed in July. Another was dragged her out of her house and killed in Kunduz province. Ghazni policewoman Khatera, 33, was attacked and blinded with a knife by three men on a motorcycle.

Responding to the news of Sahar’s shooting, Amnesty International said there had been an "extremely worrying" rise in attacks in Afghanistan.

Djaïli Amadou Amal: A voice for women in the Sahel

The Fulani writer from northern Cameroon, who is a celebrity in her home country, won France’s prestigious Goncourt des Lycéens literary award in early December for her book, "Les Impatientes", a poignant novel about the status of women in the southern Sahel region.

"The writing is simple and touching and sounds right, without superfluous lyricism. It is a subtle book that allows us to observe the issue of forced marriage through the prism of this moving testimony," said jury president Clémence Nominé.

Born in northern Cameroon to an Egyptian mother and a Cameroonian father, Amadou Amal was married at 17 to a 50-year-old man she did not know. After divorcing her first husband, she remarried 10 years later but was a victim of domestic violence. When she managed to escape her abusive husband, he kidnapped her two daughters in a bid to force her to return. Undaunted, Amal enrolled in a business management school, earning a degree while taking up writing as a hobby.

Inspired by her own experience, Amal weaves the narrative in "Les Impatientes" around three young women from wealthy families in Marouna in northern Cameroon and their struggles to live up to society’s expectations. The novel deals openly with polygamy, rape and forced marriage, which all too many women in the Sahel still face in 2020.