~ Posted by Isabel Lloyd, September 10th 2012

In spring 2011, when we first discussed creating a supplement for Intelligent Life about inspiring women, I'd just returned from a conference in New York celebrating female leadership of all kinds and was brimming with enthusiasm for what I'd seen: intelligent, thoughtful, engaged women, working with other women in communities across the globe to improve their lives, their education, their work and their environment. For someone who'd grown up with (and keenly supported) the dungarees-and-don't-shave-your-armpits feminism of the 1970s and early 1980s, it was eye-opening—these women were just as passionate and committed, but they seemed more at home with themselves, less distracted by raging against the machine. And to a woman, wherever they came from, they were beautifully dressed.

Before you hit the comment button in a rage, this matters. Not because being well turned out is more admirable than finding a vaccine for malaria, or defeating the child sex trade, but because these women clearly felt they could operate at a high level, in a man's world, without having to pretend to be men. They had a clear pride in being themselves, and if that meant being beautiful, fine. To me, it seemed feminism had grown up, and spreading the word about this new kind of grounded, confident, difference-making woman felt particularly timely.

Tim de Lisle, the editor of Intelligent Life, had the idea of asking eminent women to nominate the woman who had most inspired them, with the proviso that they too should have been in the public eye. This would avoid too many answers nominating a wonderful teacher, or a particularly supportive granny—we wanted readers to be able to go away and learn more about the women nominated, so they could themselves be inspired. Other than that, we would give our interviewees a free hand. Their nominees could be living or dead, someone known to them personally, or someone they'd only ever seen on screen or met in the pages of a history book.  

We approached admirable women from many different walks of life—sportswomen, businesswomen, politicians, scientists, artists, philosophers, spiritual leaders and carers. Nearly all of them immediately understood what we were trying to do and were generous with their time in helping us achieve it. Their answers were fascinating, and held at least one surprise: quite a few of our interviewees nominated a peer, someone who might have been seen, by more status-conscious eyes, as competition. The baton of hope, ambition and self-belief was not just passing down from older generations of high-achieving women—sometimes it was handed to the person at the next desk. 

So with that in mind, one year on from the original supplement, and after turning it into an online series, we'd like to ask our female readers the same question: which woman who is, or was, in the public eye most inspires you? We hope to run some pieces following up on the best suggestions. It will be intriguing to see how many of us admire women of our own generation—and how many of us still look for leadership from the past.

Isabel Lloyd is deputy editor of Intelligent Life. Her posts for the Editors' Blog include The Meryl/Maggie dilemma and A Stroganoff resurgence

The Inspiring Women series: 

Camila Batmanghelidjh on Sister Frances Dominica Ritchie

Dawn Dixon on the Ford machinists 

Jo Glanville on Mai Ghoussoub

Hilary Mantel on Anita Brookner

Jude Kelly on Lilian Baylis

Helen Clark on Gro Harlem Brundtland

Helen Bamber on Frau Mamechka