International Women’s Day offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the amazing women who have shaped the world we inhabit today. In particular, the great number of pioneering and extraordinary women from Suffolk whose contributions should not be forgotten.
Immortalised on screen by the actress Carey Mulligan in the 2021 film ‘The Dig’, the real Edith Pretty played a vital role in Suffolk history. In 1939, perhaps spurred by her keen interest in history she generously allowed a team of archaeologists to embark upon a landmark excavation on her estate at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. It was here on her land that Basil Brown and his team uncovered the hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasures and a previously undisturbed Anglo Saxon king’s burial ship
Although the discoveries legally belonged to Edith, she donated them to the British Museum where you can still see them today, whilst the site is now open to the public as a fascinating museum and National Trust estate. Without her permission, this incredibly important archaeological discovery may never have come to light.
Dame Millicent Fawcett
Whilst many people may know Millicent Fawcett for her vital work in the Suffrage movement, fewer may be aware that she was born and raised in Aldeburgh. A determined woman, she was a leading Suffragist and her peaceful campaigning spanned fifty years as she fought tirelessly to ensure women gained the right to vote. She even became the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and was later made a Dame.
In 2018, a statue was created by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, and was the first of a woman to be unveiled on the square.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was in fact the older sister of Millicent Fawcett. Not only was she the first female doctor in Britain, she was also the very first woman to be Mayor, being unanimously elected Mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908. In this influential position she swiftly set about installing public lavatories and electric street lighting, as well as planting trees to improve the town.
Instantly recognisable on the pebbly stretch of Aldeburgh beach, the four metre high stainless steel sculpture depicting a Scallop shell is a popular sight with locals and visitors alike. The maverick artist behind this iconic feature is Maggi Hambling. Born in Sudbury, she is a prolific painter and sculptor whose work comprises bold portraits, whirling seascapes and public sculptures. In 2003 Maggi Hambling was commissioned to create a sculpture celebrating the words of local composer Benjamin Britten and this resulted in the creation of the famous Scallop sculpture. She now splits her time between her Saxmundham home and her studio in Clapham.
Award winning crime fiction author Ruth Rendall introduced many readers to the beauty of Suffolk through her novels. Living in Polstead for a number of years with her husband, she took inspiration from local settings for her acclaimed books. Writing under the pseudonym, Barbara Vine, her novels ‘No Night is Too Long’, ‘The Brimstone Wedding’, ‘Gallowglass’ and ‘A Fatal Inversion’ include references to Southwold, Lavenham, Walberswick, Orford and Aldeburgh.
Biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin is an impressive scientist who studied at Sir John Leman School in Beccles. It was there that her love of science grew and she was one of only two girls permitted to study chemistry. Dorothy went on to study and teach at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and through her X-Ray crystallography research made many significant scientific discoveries. In particular, her research on penicillin and insulin led to the development of tools to determine the atomic structure of molecules, and to this day she is the only British woman to have been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for Chemistry.
On of the most iconic historic women associated with the area is Queen Boudica who flew the flag for the East of England, waging war on the Romans in 60 CE. Boudica was the leader of the Iceni tribe who inhabited Norfolk and northern Suffolk. As the Queen of the Iceni tribe she found herself threatened by the Roman empire who did not recognise her as the rightful leader due to her being a woman. Leading a revolt against Roman invasion, her strong leadership led to the death of an estimated 70,000 Roman soldiers. Ultimately, she was defeated, but her legendary resistance has gone down in history.
Arguably the most well known of all Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn was born at Blickling Hall, Norfolk and was part of a large East Anglian family. She was of course mother to the formidable Queen Elizabeth I and is remembered for her rebellious independence. In addition, in order to marry Anne Henry had to deny Catholicism and the Vatican causing a significant shift in culture as well as the birth of Protestantism.
After Elizabeth’s birth Anne had a series of tragic miscarriages and eventually was committed to the Tower of London accused of various counts of adultery. Given Henry’s record of adultery and future relationships, many are doubtful over the validity of these charges against her. In 1536 Henry ordered the brutal beheading of Anne. It is reported that prior to her death the happiest days of her life were spent at Erwarton Hall near Ipswich. This is perhaps why local legend claims that the heart of Anne Boleyn was removed and buried in Erwarton.