Celebrating women: the incredible Welsh of the past and present

Wales is home to a number of inspiring women who redefined history across the fields of education, sport, business, science and politics.

8th of March in Cardiff means numerous events for women in every part of the city. A day to celebrate women and appreciating their existence no matter what they are in life, International Women’s day shines on women of every culture, race and socio-economic background. You would see a range of events in Cardiff, from a morning tea time, to yoga and meditation sessions to self-defense classes, exclusively for women.  

A number of Welsh women in the past and present showcased their power in a number of fields, influencing many. According to WEN Wales, they have created a huge impact in Welsh life through their stories, where many of them are still contributing in shaping Wales.

From facing gender discrimination and violence in every aspect of life, dating back to centuries never stopped them in becoming their own advocates to fight the bias. Their brave moves marked the start of the accomplishments Welsh women are making today, and will tomorrow.

This is InterCardiff’s pick of seven most influential and bold women in the Welsh past and present.

Jemima Nicholas (1750-1832), Social Reformer

Locally known as the “Welsh heroine”, this 47-year-old cobbler from Pembrokeshire is said to have single-handedly thwarted a dozen French troops using a pitchfork. According to the records, Jemima Nicholas led a band of women to confront the invaders, where they captured 12 men and locked them up in a local church. This happened during the Battle of Fishguard on 1797, known as the last invasion of Britain.

She was called “Jemima the Great” for her heroic move and being able to overcome most men during the fight. The bravery of this woman was celebrated by the locals then, and her legacy is remembered even today.

Betsi Cadwaladr (1789-1860), Nurse

Developing a lifelong passion for nursing, Elizabeth ‘Betsi’ Cadwaladr worked in cruise ships, caring for the sick and delivering babies. She used to perform one-woman Shakespeare plays. She worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Cadwaladr fought against bureaucracy to properly treat the injured soldiers.

Her rebellious persona brought about a lot of adventures in her life, when she fled to London to avoid marriage. She also introduced service improvements through new ways of working. But, when asked to work a night shift, she just left. After her return to the UK, she wrote her autobiography, shortly before she passed away. Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is named after her.

Lady Rhondda (1883-1958), Social Reformer

 Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda was a privileged woman by birth, and she used that birth right to fight for women’s rights. The Welsh peeress was also a suffragette and a leading feminist during the war times. She challenged the anti-suffrage Prime Minister, Asquith by jumping on his car. She was sent to prison for setting a postbox on fire and went on a hunger strike.

During World War I, she ensured that women played a significant role by recruiting them to women’s services. In 1915, she survived drowning in the Lusitania sinking and the trauma led her to take a leap towards radical feminism. She became the Commissioner for Wales in the Women’s National Service Department, then Chief Controller of women’s recruitment at the Ministry of National Service in London.

Laura Ashley (1925-1985), Designer

“It started with a scarf”…the Welsh fashion designer and businesswoman was known for her traditional, Victorian-style prints on natural fabrics, which she used to create women’s clothing, household furnishing and linen. For decades, Laura Ashley has been one of the world’s most influential fashion and home designers.

Laura Ashley served in the British Royal Navy during the World War II and began her design business in 1953. Her inspiring start-up story gave rise to entrepreneurial ambition, craft and creativity in many. Today, from what she started as a small textile printing business, has expanded to several countries across the globe and is one of the oldest and the most successful fashion establishments.

Betty Campbell (1934-2017), Teacher

When that little girl decided that she would become a teacher “by hook or by crook” as described by her, no one knew she would create history. Proving the prejudiced minds wrong about working-class black women could never succeed, Betty Campbell was Wales’s first black head teacher. She paved the way for black history education through activism that she used to open the eyes of young children.

She was successful in creating an innovative racially accepting education system when it became a template for schools all over the UK. In 2003, she was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Tanni Grey-Thompson (1969-present), Former wheelchair racer

Carys Davina Grey-Thompson became Tanni Grey-Thompson, shortly after her sister nicked-named her “tiny” when she was young. Being born with spina bifida didn’t stop her from loving sport. At 13, Grey-Thompson realised that wheelchair racing was her sport of choice and four years later, she became part of the British Wheelchair Racing Squad.

With her first Paralympics at the age of 19, Grey-Thompson started her victory ride when she won a bronze in the 1988 Seoul games. From then on she began creating history by winning 11 gold medals, three silvers and broke 30 world records. In 2010, she became an Independent Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords and uses her experience to talk about a range of issues including disability rights, sport and welfare reforms.

Tori James (1981-present), Adventurer

The first Welsh woman to climb the Mount Everest at 25, Tori James is a professional adventurer, motivational speaker and author. Travelling through various remote landscapes around the world led her to the endless list of physical challenges. James has set the record for the longest open sea kayak crossing in the UK waters. She was a member of the first all-female team to complete The Polar Challenge, a 360-mile race to the Magnetic North Pole. She has also cycled the length of New Zealand, a total of 2400km.

Tori James doesn’t stop herself from educating people on adventure skills through her experience where she teaches about the natural environment and engaging with the outdoors in a sustainable manner. Her adventure stories were featured in television, radio, podcasts and various magazines.