International Women’s Day: 23 female changemakers to know in London in 2023
A teenage campaigner for children in care. A north London mother who’s created the UK’s first online ante and neonatal clinic. The UK’s first female vascular surgeon, now in her eighties.
These are just some of the inspiring London women who have dedicated their lives to making a difference to the lives of other women.
To mark International Women’s Day, here are 23 of the most inspiring.
Emma Dennis-Edwards, 35
Actor and writer of landmark new Channel 4 show, Consent
When writing her new TV drama, Dennis-Edwards, 35, turned to the anonymous, real-life testimonies of young women on the Everyone’s Invited website. Their reports of sexual harassment and toxic masculinity became the catalyst for Consent. This was set in a fictional private school and follows newcomer Natalie, who’s from a working-class background, as she makes an accusation against a classmate.
Dennis-Edwards, who was born and raised in Hackney, fought to make sure the controversial sexual slurs used in WhatsApp messages and ‘lads’ banter’ stayed in her film. It’s that culture that she wants to help change and says that it was important for her to tell the story through the experience of a black, working-class pupil facing a system in which she isn’t believed. “There are so many interesting and nuanced stories which I want to share,” she says. “That will change the narrative of what it is to be a black British woman navigating this world.”
Consent is available to watch on All4
Dame Melinda Simmons, 57
The UK’s Ambassador to Ukraine
The 57-year-old, who was born in London’s East End and raised in Ilford, is currently living in Kyiv as Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine. It’s a war she couldn’t have imagined when she took up her post in 2019, after working in the Department for International Development and Foreign Office. With both Ukrainian and Lithuanian roots on her mother’s side of the family, the diplomat had spent a year learning the language to prepare for the job she says she “loves” — even though it means living without her husband and children, who remain in the UK.
She is dedicated to helping the women of Ukraine, many of whom have been left alone with their husbands at war. “More women than ever before are fighting in Ukraine’s army but it’s a patriarchal country and the majority of women are left having to find ways to earn money, keep their families together and, in most cases, step in and run community efforts, too,” she says. “They’re at risk not only from [Vladimir] Putin’s forces but also from sexual violence. I’ve heard stories from survivors which will stay with me forever.”
Seren Jones, 27
Co-founder of the Black Swimming Association (BSA)
After hanging up her goggles aged 22, elite swimmer Seren Jones turned to journalism. In 2019, while working for the BBC World Service, the London-born and Cardiff-raised former sportswoman — who lives in Hackney — made a radio documentary called Black Girls Don’t Swim about the lack of diversity in competitive swimming.
In March 2020, alongside Danielle Obe, Britain’s first black Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing, and filmmaker Ed Accura, she co-founded the BSA. This was to break down the barriers that ethnic minorities face in swimming and encourage more people into the pool (statistics from Sport England show that 95 per cent of black adults and 80 per cent of children in England don’t swim).
Malene Hegenberger, 48
Midwife, entrepreneur and inventor of the Hegenberger Retractor
With 85 per cent of women who give birth receiving a tear, midwife Malene Hegenberger, 48, wondered if there was a way to make it easier to repair them — using an instrument fit for the 21st century. In 2015, she tried to come up with one herself and, 88 prototypes later, in 2019 the Hegenberger Retractor became the first innovation in the field of obstetric practice by a midwife for more than 150 years.
Her invention has already improved the experience of millions of women around the world. “As clinicians, we do as much as we possibly can to avoid and minimise the tear, but the fact is this happens to many millions of women, and it is not the women’s fault,” she says. Her wider goal is to inspire women to innovate, ask questions, think big thoughts and come up with different solutions.
Chloe Ryan, 17
Campaigner for children in care
The 17-year-old from south-east London, who is in the care system herself, is a member of Greenwich's Children in Care Council. This means that, despite her age, she works tirelessly to help other children in care, acting as a spokesperson and engaging with key decision-makers to ensure that young people in her borough are heard.
She has organised workshops and developed corporate parenting training for Royal Greenwich staff. She is a consultant for Participation People — a youth engagement organisation that works within organisations and communities across London and the UK. Through her work, she hopes to “educate and inspire young girls so they can do anything and achieve anything, no matter what stereotypes people label them with”.
Anahita Harding, 30
In January, Anahita Harding became the first recorded wheelchair user to make it to the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London. She used her upper body to climb the 311-step spiral staircase, starting at 9.45am and finishing by 12.29pm.
This made a powerful statement about the difficulties of disabled people when leaving buildings in the event of a fire. Evacuation plans often state that they must stay put, while everyone else leaves (something Harding has experienced herself, being abandoned for up to two hours during fire alarms and carried downstairs by friends, while having to walk on her hands).
The Lewisham-based British Iranian artist wants to change how women’s bodies are perceived. Her performance piece at the Tate Modern, “Are You Comfortable Yet?”, encouraged people to reflect on the legacy of the London Paralympics and the visibility of disabled people.
Kate Isaacs, 30, and Elena Michael, 28
Co-founders of #NotYourPorn
When Kate Isaacs’s friend had her iCloud account hacked and a video of her having sex was uploaded to Pornhub, the 30-year-old was horrified. It took weeks for them to get it taken down and made Isaacs realise how little protection was out there for women.
Teaming up with her friend, Elena Michael, 28, the London pair co-founded #NotYourPorn.
It calls on the Government to put in place stricter laws about the uploading of explicit videos and images, and for the UK porn industry to become accountable for the distribution and commercialisation of non-consensual content.
In November, Isaacs and Michael were part of a group of organisations that successfully persuaded the Government to make amendments to the Online Safety Bill — making deepfake porn a criminal offence.
Fern Brady, 36
Comedian and author of Strong Female Character
Brady’s autism diagnosis came in 2021, after a lifetime of meltdowns and debilitating anxiety. She can control these in public but, behind closed doors, they involve her smashing furniture, destroying trinkets and punching walls.
The 36-year-old describes these episodes and her long journey to understanding them in her new book, Strong Female Character. The raw emotion and honesty with which she writes has been praised as a groundbreaking memoir of neurodiversity — one in which she is determined to take off the mask and present a nuanced depiction of autism. The Catford-based comic hopes that people who read her story will “make things better for the next autistic or misfit girl you meet”.
Natalia Middleton, 31
Head of Food Education at Food Behind Bars
“This is my dream job. I will get this job” wrote Natalia Middleton, 31, when she applied to Food Behind Bars in 2021. Needless to say, she succeeded.
The charity works to improve food in prisons. Middleton’s life revolves around planning lessons, teaching and motivating prisoners, and helping them find employment in the industry when they’re released. While she is dedicated to upskilling female prisoners, there is another side to her work that involves “giving them a safe space to open up, relax, share stories and feel like, even for a couple of hours, they aren’t in prison”.
Payzee Mahmod, 35
Child marriage survivor and campaigner
Payzee Mahmod was 16 when she was married to a man twice her age. She had just left school and was looking forward to starting college, when she was forced to wed a stranger in an Islamic ceremony in which she couldn’t understand a word.
Her elder sister, Banaz, had already been forced to wed a stranger in the same way. Tragically, it was only a few years later that the sisters made headlines, when in 2006 Banaz was brutally raped and murdered in a so-called “honour” killing.
Payzee, now 35, was able to escape from her own abusive marriage only after the publicity surrounding Banaz’s death and got a divorce under British law in 2007.
Since then, she has worked tirelessly as a campaigner against child marriage; this year her work led to a new law increasing the legal age of marriage to 18 coming into force throughout England and Wales. Currently a campaign Manager at IKWRO (the Iranian & Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation), Payzee is also dedicated to ending harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), virginity testing and hymenoplasty, the temporary surgical restoration of the hymen.
Natalee Barnett, 23
CEO of The Girls Spot Gym
An incident in which a man attempted to slide a mat underneath her backside as she was sitting doing exercises, prompted the fitness influencer, 23, to found The Girls Spot, dedicated to starting women-only gyms. Searches for ‘women-only gyms’ have increased by 69 per cent in the last year, with 71 per cent of women saying they are harassed in the gym on a regular basis.
On TikTok, the hashtags #GymCreep and #GymWeirdo have had more than 100 million views. Barnett is currently raising pre-seed funding for the venture and hopes to build her own gym, which will also offer boxing and self-defence classes.
Leila Thabet, 42
Founder & CEO, Naytal
Leila Thabet’s own overwhelming experience of becoming a mother in 2019 made her realise how little accessible postpartum support there is for women. Consequently, the north Londoner, 42, created the UK’s first online ante and neonatal clinic, Naytal.
The digital healthcare platform is specifically designed around women's needs, which harnesses technology to make quality, specialist women's healthcare accessible and affordable.
Sofia Akel, 28
Founder of the Free Books Campaign
The 28-year-old had grown up an avid reader and visitor to the library on the doorstep of her east London estate, but realised that not everyone was able to get their hands on books as easily as she had. So Akel started a fundraiser, raising £10,000.
Other publishers noticed she was organising giveaways and wanted to be a part of the project. The result? Free Books Campaign, a non-profit community organisation that donates books by authors of colour to those who can’t afford to buy them. Anyone can request a book they’d like to read and if there’s enough money in the donation pot, the campaign will buy it and send it over.
Since its launch, it has given away more than 6,000 books, partnered with the Marcus Rashford Book Club, Macmillan Children’s and Vintage, and hosted a day-long book festival in Peckham.
Averil Mansfield, 85
The UK’s first female vascular surgeon
When Averil Mansfield qualified as a general surgeon in the 1970s, she was still seen as an oddity in a world where only two per cent of her colleagues were female. In 1993, she was made professor of surgery, becoming the first woman in the UK to hold the title.
She also became the first elected Chairman of the Court of Examiners at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and as President of the British Medical Association. The pioneering medic, now 85, recently published her memoir, Life in Her Hands. This includes bracing anecdotes about treating sailors on rat-infested ships and the difficulties of performing medical procedures while in 1960s miniskirts.
Lucia Blayke, 26
Transgender rights activist and producer
Growing up in Liverpool, Lucia Blayke struggled with gender dysphoria. Today, the 26-year-old is a leading voice in the UK’s trans rights movement, using her social media platforms to campaign for equality and call out discrimination.
She is also the brains behind Harpies: the UK’s first LGBTQI+ strip club, which opened in London in 2019. It aims to “revolutionise the industry by changing the patriarchal structures of stripping and exotic dancing.” In 2019, the Hackney resident and DJ made headlines for founding Trans Pride London amid rising hatred and political confusion. In 2022, the march involved more than 20,000 trans people and their allies marching from Hyde Park to Soho Square in the capital.
Alexia Baron, 32
Co-founder of Porto&Bello
During chemotherapy for breast cancer, Alexia Baron, 32, came up with the idea for her clothing range designed to help those undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) or Port-a-cath, a small medical device inserted on the chest. “As someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer in my 20s, I understand the importance of feeling comfortable and confident,” she says.
“By offering clothing options specifically designed for individuals going through cancer treatment, I hope to help them feel more supported during this challenging time.” Baron’s cosy tracksuits (the cold cap patients can wear during chemo can make them feel freezing), feature pockets, holes and zips designed to accommodate ports, without needing to remove any clothing.
Hannah Karpel, 23
Fashion and documentary journalist
When Hannah Karpel was working at her dad’s mobile phone shop in Finchley, a stranger told her she would never achieve her dream: to study at Central Saint Martins. Now a graduate of its BA fashion journalism course, the 23-year-old has made waves with her documentary film Breaking the Class Ceiling, which she wrote, directed and starred in. This involved her travelling around the UK to uncover the barriers facing young working-class people from entering the creative industries.
Since its release last year, her documentary has been shortlisted for a Mullen Lowe Nova Award that recognises boundary-pushing creative work. Karpel herself has been chosen for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and Women at Dior mentorship programme and sponsored by Barbie to deliver a mentoring scheme in English secondary schools.
She’s currently directing her next film and looking at creative opportunities for young people in the north-east of England.
Susie McDonald, 54
CEO of Tender Education and Arts
When Holloway-based charity Tender was founded in 2003, there were only five schools interested in its drama workshops aimed at ending domestic abuse and sexual violence. Today, with McDonald at the helm, it is currently working in 150 — across every London borough and further afield — and reaches more than half a million children each year.
The organisation runs role-playing sessions to teach young people about healthy relationships and what positive interactions look like. McDonald, 54, is working with London Mayor Sadiq Khan to deliver an “allyship training” programme. This gives secondary school pupils classes on how to call out misogyny and give them an anti-sexism “toolkit”.
Dr Faiza Shaheen, 41
Professor, author and Labour candidate
Faiza Shaheen, 41, is a self-confessed geek. The Woodford Green resident studied PPE at the University of Oxford and is a leading statistician and visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics.
She went to Chingford Foundation School (alumni include David Beckham and Harry Kane) but it was her parents — a car mechanic and a lab technician — who taught her about politics and race at home. Her book, out in June, called Know Your Place: how society sets us up to fail — is part memoir, part polemic, seeking to change how we see the concept of “opportunity” in modern Britain — and suggests what we can do to fix it.
Lucy King, 61, and Lucy Hilton, 48
Founders of the Lucy badge for those living with incurable cancer
King, 61, and Hilton, 48, became friends through the very thing they're hoping to improve for others: talking about what it's actually like to be living with incurable cancer — a condition which, though life-changing, often has no outward sign. The pair met through through Lloyds Pharmacy Clinical Homecare team in October last year and quickly realised they had a lot in common: they shared the same name, they’d had their initial diagnosis of colo-rectal cancer within the same fortnight, and both have the same incurable prognosis.
It was Hilton, a mother-of-two, who first had the idea for a badge. She was on holiday with her husband in November and though outwardly she looked perfectly healthy, she spent most of the trip trying to hold back tears at the thought that this could be their last holiday. “I felt very isolated and wished there was a bridge to connect me to anyone else in the room in the same situation,” she remembers.
Hilton discussed this with King on her return and they hatched the idea for what they now call the Lucy badge: a simple but distincitve enamel pin badge to be worn by those living with incurable cancer who would welcome a friendly hello from others on the same journey. Together, they have come up with a design — the L not only reflecting their names, but also the loneliness they know can come with an incurable cancer diagnosis. The sun on the badge is to reflect the warmth that comes from connecting with others.
The badges will be produced and distributed free of charge through Macmillan Cancer Support and should be available by the end of March.