The woman I most admire from history is…Mary, Duchess of Bedford. My husband’s great-great-grandmother, Duchess Mary, ‘the Flying Duchess’ has inspired me ever since I first came to Woburn. Her remarkable life is truly inspiring. She was a woman ahead of her time, passionately devoted to conservation, education, and nursing.
Mary was born in 1865, and married Herbrand, the future 11th Duke of Bedford, in 1888. The Duke and Duchess were both members of the Royal Zoological Society, of which Herbrand was President for many years, and set up a haven for endangered species at Woburn. These included the Pere David deer from China, a species which would eventually become extinct in the wild. Their population was revitalised, and reintroduced to China in the twentieth century, from the Woburn herd established by Herbrand and Mary.
Mary was also an advocate of women’s suffrage, and girl’s education and welfare was one of her chief concerns. She was a governor of the Harpur trust, heavily involved with Bedford High School for Girls, as well as working with the girls of the Aylesbury Borstal Institute and the Flower Girls of Bloomsbury.
Yet Mary’s most enduring commitment was to healthcare. She founded a Cottage Hospital in Woburn, which opened during 1903, and she worked year-round, as a theatre sister and even as a radiologist there for many years.
During World War One, under her direction, large sections of Woburn Abbey became a war hospital. By 1917, Mary was acting as a surgeon’s assistant here, helping with multiple operations, as well as maintaining her role at the Cottage Hospital.
After the war, Mary continued to work in the Cottage Hospital, but with more time to spare, began to pursue her interest in flying. In 1926, aged 60, she took her first flight. By1934, she had passed the 100-hour mark in the air.
Mary’s plane tragically went missing during a flight over East Anglia in March 1937. She was then 71.
Mary was, and is, an extraordinary role model. At a time when women were not often at the forefront of public life, armed with her great strength, determination and empathy, she achieved an enormous amount, in a variety of roles.
The woman I most admire today is…Andria Zafirakou. I read about Andria in the news earlier this year - her story perfectly encapsulates the work the many unsung heroes, who work tirelessly, often without recognition for their efforts.
Zafirakou won the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, for which over 30,000 teachers are nominated, in 173 countries. She teaches Arts and Textiles at Alperton Community School in Brent.
What was so striking about Andria’s story was the depth of her involvement with the school and community. Not only is she a passionate advocate for the importance of arts and creative subjects in schools, but also deeply concerned with the welfare of her students outside of the school walls. Andria learned basic Tamil, Gujarati and Hindi to communicate with the families of her pupils, visiting parents and carers to build links with the school. She worked with the police to ensure students were safe coming to and from Alperton.
In her acceptance speech for the award, Andria spoke of the deprivation many of her pupils faced, and the difficulties of overcrowded homes with multiple families sharing one house. Her pupils told her they sometimes did their homework in the bathroom, just to get some peace and time to themselves. In response, Andria organised extra lessons, both during the week and at the weekend, including quiet time for the children to concentrate and work.
The women’s issue I am most concerned about today is…Education. Despite enormous strides made in the last decades, 62 million girls worldwide are still denied access to education. Across the world, girls face huge barriers to getting an education, from early marriage, poor funding and sanitation, to child labour, dangerous journeys to school and human trafficking.
To break the cycle of poverty, and empower women, we need to focus more resources on breaking down these barriers. Charities such as Action Aid and Let Girls Learn already do wonderful work, but there is so much more that we can do.
I hope the next generation of women will be able to…have more opportunities and the confidence to pursue any path they choose, either in industry, the arts, finance or to stay home and raise a family. I also hope that they are able to move fluidly between those multiple roles and identities. Women are not unidimensional they are multidimensional.