Who are the New Female Icons?

From authors to activists, our academics name the women who inspire them

Professor Mary Beard

"Mary Beard is a woman I admire very much. As Professor of Classics at Cambridge University she’s a very visible sign that women can make it to the top in academia, an environment which is still riddled with gender bias.

I love the fact that in a world where women over a certain age are supposed to put up and shut up, she’s not afraid to be outspoken, is unashamedly a feminist and doesn’t dye her hair.

She gave a wonderful lecture at the British Museum titled Oh Do Shut Up Dear! on language and misogyny. It was an incisive and inspiring analysis of the multiple ways in which women have been silenced over centuries and was bravely honest about the kinds of abuse she’s received herself."  

Diana Wallace is Professor of English Literature and the co-director of the Centre for Gender Studies Research.

Aung San Suu Kyi

"Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most impressive and iconic women of our time.  A Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma, she has been the subject of intimidation and detention in Burma for her pro-democracy politics and spent nearly twenty years under house arrest.

Even though she is free from the physical barriers of house arrest, she is still a woman whose freedom continues to be curtailed. The Burmese Constitution prevents her from even standing for president in the coming election because her two children have married ‘foreigners’, a provision inserted to specifically marginalise her.

Her fight for freedom from oppression is second to none. She embodies an unfailing determination, inner strength and an unshakeable commitment to democratic reform.  Aung San Suu Kyi constantly reminds us that freedom is a precious and powerful tool that should not be taken for granted. She has encouraged people around the world to join the struggle for freedom in Burma, saying: "Please use your liberty to promote ours."

Dr Bela Arora is a political commentator and senior lecturer in Global Governance at University of South Wales.
Picture: Claude TRUONG-NGOC via Wikimedia Commons

Karen dell'Armi

"The jewellery designer and silversmith Karen dell’Armi is a Role Model for the Welsh Assembly Government's Dynamo youth entrepreneurship programme and UK Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadorgiving presentations to inspire school children, college students and women in the business community to consider business ownership themselves.

An intrepid explorer of wild places - her Spirit Collection draws upon the glacial landscapes she observed on a trek to Everest Base Camp - she is also an innovator in her field, for it was through experimenting with 3D printing that Karen was able to produce her unique sculptural statement pieces.  In addition to running her own award-winning business and managing her household and family, Karen also finds the time to encourage others to follow their own entrepreneurial dreams. This extends to helping newly qualified jewellers to develop their own successful businesses and to running workshops for those who would like to get started in jewellery making."  

Christine Atkinson is Head of Women's Entrepreneurship Hub: Centre for Enterprise.

Menna Elfyn

Poet, children’s author and dramatist Menna Elfyn, one of the best-known Welsh writers on the international stage, travels the world reading her work and championing Welsh and other minority languages. 

A leading language-rights campaigner in 1960s and 1970s, this lively articulate woman remains a tireless ambassador for her native country, its language and culture today. A compelling performer of her own work, Menna has dedicated herself to promoting the Welsh language across the globe: ‘audiences get to know that I write primarily in Welsh but my perspective is wider than that’. Over the last 30 years this poet has committed her considerable energies to ‘numerous’ political causes, not least in opposing apartheid. Her broad-mindedness perhaps explains why so committed a feminist rarely addresses feminism explicitly, although she confirms that her acclaimed recent collection Murmur is haunted by the figure of Catrin Glyndwr, wife of the warrior, incarcerated in the Tower of London with her children (AmeriCymru). 

Menna Elfyn’s strenuous cherishing of many kinds of cultural affiliation is founded on her unswerving faith in words, and the power of language, spoken or written, to undo prejudice and catalyse cultural-political change. Hence her support of writers like the Africaans Antje Krog; hence, too, her election in January 2015 as the first President of the newly inaugurated PEN Cymru. Almost a century old, PEN International campaigns on behalf of writers around the world who are persecuted and imprisoned for what they have written. Even so, for this poet, the art must hold sway: ‘standing up against unfairness has always been the work of poets, but when you write, the work calls for you to be faithful to the craft’. Welsh-speaking poets call the compositional process ‘singing’ (AmeriCymru). Does this one ‘sing’ on the road? Rarely, it seems. Perhaps not so surprisingly, she prefers to write at home (Dorothy Wordsworth Newsletter, April 2014).

Dr Alice Entwistle specialises in twentieth and twenty-first literatures in English, especially regional and innovative poetry, normally by women. 

Professor Charlotte Williams

Charlotte Williams stands alone as being a great source of inspiration to me. She is Professor of Social Work and Deputy Dean at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and has recently been awarded a visiting professorship at USW.

In 2007, she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to ethnic minorities and equal opportunities in Wales. Her research interests focus on issues of contemporary multiculturalisms, ethnicities and ‘race’ within welfare and professional practice, but more broadly incorporate issues of equality and social justice.  

Charlotte has extensively theorised issues of place, locality and nationhood as they impact on welfare practices, particularly in relation to the racialisation or exclusion of minoritised groups and is a frequent essayist on Welsh multiculturalism. She has always been very generous to me and to others in terms of sharing her time, her intellect, and her insights. She encourages me to take bold steps and to “lean in”, to use a phrase by Sandberg (2013).

Watching and listening to her, I have developed skills on how to develop as a Black female academic and researcher. And yes, these matters of gender and racialisation still matter. On the few occasions things have become really hard for me, I have always asked myself: “What would Charlotte do?"

Dr Roiyah Saltus is a Sociologist whose research incorporates critical race theory, feminism, community development theory.

Arundhati Roy

"My icon is Arundhati Roy, the Indian author best known for her 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction-winning novel The God of Small Things.

She is now also known as a political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes. She has not been frightened to voice her opinions, nor stand up for what she believe is right. She is also not always popular and not always in line with others views.

Her quote, both provoking and disconcerting, considers how we need to be constantly aware of our surroundings and never become complacent.

"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget."

Amanda Kirby, Professor of Development Disorders and founder of the Dyscovery Centre.
Picture: Vikramjit Kakati/Wikimedia Commons

Jo Fong

"Jo Fong is a director, choreographer and performer whose work spans a quarter of a century. She draws on a wide range of practices to create her work, from film and theatre to the visual arts.  She is an inspiration for artists from all fields of creative practice for her continual commitment to defining and redefining her language as a dance artist, pushing at the boundaries of what dance might look like and what it is capable of communicating about us as individuals and as social groups. 

Fong’s work can be witty and unsettling. When you experience a Fong-directed performance, you sense she is telling you something very wise, very precise, about aspects of being. Her abiding theme of honesty makes her work brave and accessible without compromise; she is a role model for all artists, whatever medium they work in themselves. 

Dance artist Laura Lee Greenhalgh, who has worked with Jo on a number of occasions, said about Jo as a director: "We get to experience a process that allows you to draw on every part of yourself and is unlike anything I have experienced in my life."

Inga Burrows is an artist and film-maker who specialises in teaching fiction filmmaking and experimental approaches to moving image production.