On March 8th, people come together all around the world to celebrate International Womens Day. Established by the united nations in 1972, the day is a global celebration of women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. This year’s theme, #BreakTheBias, spotlights how together, we can forge women’s equality free of bias, stereotyping and discrimination.
To celebrate, we’ve rounded up the untold stories of women who did just that. These women broke down the barriers of their time, defied expectations and showed the world why gender equality is the path to a better, more inclusive future.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War One, registered Nurse Alice Cashin joined Queen Alexandra’s’ Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) and served in Egypt. She was onboard the hospital ship, HMAS Gloucester Castle, when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. As the ship’s matron, Alice ensured all 400 passengers, injured soldiers and nurses, were safely on lifeboats before boarding the final one herself. Once safe, she continued caring for the wounded and administering pain medication despite limited tools.
Alice was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services aboard the Gloucester Castle for her ‘coolness and devotion to duty, and rendering invaluable service’ and was the first Australian nurse to receive this honour. After the war, she remained in London working at the Lichfield Hospital until 1919, when she sought passage home to care for her elderly father. Alice was required to pay as a private passenger and travelled second class, unlike her male counterparts. Despite her bravery, the details of Alice’s career with the QAIMNSER were little known until recently. Her previously unmarked grave in Woronora is now watched over by a bronze statue in her full uniform.
Shirley Colleen Smith
Better known as ‘Mum Shirl’, Wiradjuri woman Shirley Colleen Smith was a fierce activist throughout the 20th Century. Shirley had epilepsy, and with no medication for it, the illness severely impacted her access to formal education. Instead, she was taught by her grandfather and learned to speak sixteen Aboriginal languages; despite not being able to read or write.
Her activism was inspired by her regular visits to see her imprisoned brother Laurie. After Laurie’s release, Shirly continued to visit the other prisoners voluntarily. From there, Shirley never stopped giving. She helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – to name a few. Shirley helped raise over 60 children throughout her life, improved the lives of countless disadvantaged Australians, was honoured as a member of the Order of Australia, and increased awareness for the ongoing land rights struggle.
Sophia Lousia Jex-Blake
In 1848, when she was just eight years old, Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake secured a job as a mathematics tutor. Her father, appalled by the idea, would not allow her to be paid.
Years later, she published the essay ‘Medicine as a Profession for Women’, advocating for English medical schools to accept women. Joined by six other women (the Edinburgh Seven), Sophia and her peers appeared before the Edinburgh University court. Their submission was successful, making Edinburgh the first University in Britain to accept women. Four years later, despite passing their degrees, the same court decided the women (unlike their male counterparts) could not be granted medical degrees.
The following year, Sophia took her career to London, founding the London School of Medicine for Women. Enrolled as a student herself, while acting as the Schools’ secretary, the women were taught by eminent male lecturers. In 1876, her campaigning led to legislation permitting women in Britain to accept medical degrees and receive licenses to practice medicine. She practised medicine privately, founding the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children and the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. Sophia and the other Edinburgh Seven were finally allowed to graduate in 2019 on the 150th anniversary of their enrolment.