Girls Can Do Anything: five inspirational women

In celebration of the publication of Girls Can Do Anything on 2nd August, award-winning author Caryl Hart discusses the lives and achievements of five women who have inspired her.

Claudia Gordon – Lawyer (Jamaica/US)

First deaf African-American attorney in the US

Speaking out for others in difficult times is a challenging and brave thing for anyone to do, not least if you are a child. Who dares to face up to bullies, or tell an adult when someone is being badly treated? Who is brave enough to offer friendship to someone who is marginalised or despised by the rest of their community?

In the adult world, this is the job of a lawyer – someone like Claudia Gordon. But Claudia Gordon is not just any lawyer. She was the first deaf African-American attorney in the United States, which means she has had to work harder than most to achieve her ambitions. She now uses her position, skills and knowledge to support others, including deaf and disabled people.

I chose Claudia Gordon to feature in the Girls Can Do Anything gallery of inspirational women because I want to show children that women can succeed in any chosen career and that the country you were born in, the colour of your skin or your ability to hear sounds need not stand in your way.

Marin Alsop – Conductor (USA)

First female conductor at the Last Night of the Proms 2013

The classical music industry has a long history of excluding women. Pick any well-known composer and I can pretty much guarantee he’s male. This includes performers, composers and conductors. In 2014 Bachtrack reported that of the world’s 150 top conductors, only five were women.

I chose Marin Alsop to feature in the Girls Can Do Anything gallery of inspirational women because she was the first woman to ever conduct a major US symphony orchestra. That was in 2007 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Then, in 2013, she became the first woman to conduct the infamous Last Night of the Proms, the iconic concluding performance in the eight week long Proms concerts held every year at The Royal Albert Hall in London. The significance of the last night is that the music is generally lighter-hearted and includes more popular classics that encourage audience participation. It is, essentially, the people’s concert and is usually broadcast on national television.

Anyway, the Proms have been around for over 120 years, yet it took until 2013 for organisers to choose a female conductor. In her speech at the event, Marin said:

“I’m shocked that [in] 2013 there still can be firsts for women …I want to say to all the young women out there … believe in yourselves … because you will create a future filled with possibility.”

I want to show children that women can succeed in any chosen career, including classical music. Marin Alsop is proof.

Jane Goodall (UK)

Ethlogist, Anthropologist, UN Messenger of Peace

As a child, I was very interested in wildlife conservation and, in fact, went on to study it at university. I was an avid watcher of Planet Earth and other nature programmes and wanted to be David Attenborough – or someone like him. There were two other people who came close in my esteem to Sir David. One was Joy Adamson, the naturalist and film-maker who raised a lion cub at her home in Kenya, and the other was Jane Goodall.

Growing up, I had very few female role models, but Jane Goodall was one of them. She is a primatologist who spent years of her life studying chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National park in Tanzania and went on to become an advocate for non-human rights and a UN messenger of peace.

She discovered that animals can have personalities, a notion that has informed the animal rights movement across the globe. She showed that not only could chimpanzees demonstrate affection, they were also ruthless hunters and inventive users of tools.

I chose Jane Goodall to feature in the Girls Can Do Anything gallery of inspirational women, because she dedicated her life to the thing she loved most and, more importantly, shared her knowledge and experience with ordinary people across the world. In doing so, her work has helped us to understand, appreciate and care for one of the most fascinating species on our planet.‏

Maryam Mirzakhani – Mathematician (Iran)

Fields Medal winner for Mathematics, 2014

Have you heard of many female mathematicians? OK, you may not have heard of many mathematicians at all, but I’m fairly sure the ones you have heard of are male. Come on, let’s do a quick google search and see…OK, we have Archimedes, Newton, Einstein, Pythagoras, Fibonacci… you get the picture. Amazingly, a couple of women do come up in the search. I’ve found Ada Lovelace, arguably the first person to realise the potential of algorithms in computing in the 1850s and the world’s first computer programmer. Then there’s Sophie Germain, who did some pioneering work on Fermat’s last theorem. But they’re both historic figures and for the Girls Can Do Anything gallery of inspirational women, I wanted to find someone who represents mathematics today. Someone young and funky that children could identify with and look up to.

I first heard about Maryam Mirzakhani just after her death from cancer in 2017. She was only 40 which struck me as a terrible waste. Of course, any death, especially at a young age, is a waste, but she stuck in my mind. Maryam Mirzakhani was a brilliant Iranian mathematician who worked at Stanford University in the USA. The photograph that accompanied the article was of a confident, bright woman who looked…well… normal. It was her normality that struck me, I think. She wasn’t a fusty old relic from the past, or a socially-inept academic. She was a normal human being who happened to be brilliant at maths. So brilliant that she was the first woman to win the Fields medal in maths for her work on super-whizzy things like hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and other brain boggling stuff that only the super-mathsy clever people will understand. I am not one of those people, but I did like maths at school and perhaps I’d have had more confidence that maths was a great thing to enjoy, if I’d had someone like Miryam to look up to.

Nicola Adams – Boxer (UK)

First female and openly LGBTQ person to win a boxing gold at the Olympics

Boxing is a men’s sport, right? Err, nope. Just like football, tennis, basketball, wrestling, tae-kwan-do, fencing, swimming, athletics and any other sport you can name, women do it too! And women like Nicola Adams do it rather well. She was the first woman to win an Olympic boxing title and won gold in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

I wanted to include her in our Girls Can Do Anything gallery of inspirational women because she is proof that nothing is out of reach because of your gender – or your ethnic background or sexuality. Nicola Adams is walking proof that you can be yourself and achieve your dreams. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal integrity and identity to do well in a world that is not traditionally yours. You just have to be committed and work hard.

Girls Can Do Anything is a picture book for everyone with a dream. With Caryl’s heartwarming message of empowerment and award-winning illustrator Ali Pye’s vivid and beautiful illustrations, it is the perfect picture book to read with your little ones this summer. Check out some fantastic free activity sheets to accompany the book, and pre-order your copy here.

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