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Who run the world? The influential women putting Manchester on the map right now

Manchester women have a formidable reputation for smashing glass ceilings and changing the course of history.
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Manchester women are inspirational, strong and the pride of our city.

The city has had an established suffrage movement since 1867, and has long been a hot-bed of radical and liberal thinking in areas from political and social to economic and religious.

Our city has been home to the likes of Queen Victoria, writer Elizabeth Gaskell, the defiant first-wave feminist Emmeline Pankhurst and, author and women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes – and yet, we were surprised to discover that out of 16 statues in the city centre only two were women.

Did you know that family-planning pioneer Marie Stopes was the University of Manchester’s first female academic? Or that fellow University of Manchester alumnus and biologist Kathleen Mary-Drew Barker is celebrated as the ‘Mother of the Sea’ in Japan due to her work revolutionising the country’s seaweed industry?

In the Victorian era, when the artistic world was dominated by men, artists such as Louise Joplin, Annie Swynnerton and Susan Isabel Dacre emerged from Manchester. Many of their artworks can be found in galleries around the city today. Manchester Art Gallery was the site of protest in 1913 when a group of increasingly militant Suffragettes vandalised artworks.

In 1905, the WSPU achieved widespread publicity when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were imprisoned following a disturbance at a Liberal party meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, having disrupted speeches being made by Winston Churchill.

The Suffragettes, as they became known, became increasingly bold in their quest for equality over the years, enduring imprisonment and hunger strikes.

Many consider the birthplace of the Suffragette movement to be right here in Manchester. The relatively unassuming 62 Nelson Street, which was home to the most famous of all Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her family for eight years hosted the very first meeting of the suffrage movement in 1903.

In 1906, the greatest northerner of all time, Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, established the Suffragette movement from their home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, fighting for women’s rights and the Vote for Women.

Birthplace Of The Suffragettes

‘Deeds not words’ was adopted as a slogan by the Suffragette movement to express their frustration with politicians expressing their support for women gaining the vote but not taking legislative action.

Women over 30 gained the right to vote in 1918, (as long as they were married to or a member of Local Government Register), but it wasn’t until 1928 that women gained full suffrage equal to men and the age was lowered to 21.

After a lengthy restoration process in the 1980’s, Mrs Pankhurst’s house – and number 60 next to it – is now a museum dedicated to the Suffragette movement and the Pankhurst family. If you want to explore the history of the Suffragettes’ fight for women’s rights to vote, the Pankhurst Centre is open every Thursday from 10am-4pm.

The most influential women in Manchester right now

It’s been over 100 years since Parliament passed a law which allowed some women, and all men, to vote for the first time (it was only in 1928 that women gained the right to vote on equal grounds to men).

But a century later, women are still campaigning and marching for equal rights, and there is still work to be done.

In honour of International Women’s Day, we’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of inspiring women who are continuing to crash their way through the glass ceiling and reshape the world as we know it.

Kiera and Aimie at Feel Good Club

Founders of the Feel good club, Kiera and AImie have been spreading joy across the City for years now.

Feel Good Club is much more than another Northern Quarter coffee spot – it’s a warm and welcoming community which aims to normalise conversations around mental health, while offering a safe space for everyone, regardless of how they identify.

From plastering the streets with inspiring messages to hosting events that celebrate minority voices, Kiera and Aimie have established quite the reputation as professional peddlers of positivity.

They have written a book too, called A Guide to Feeling Good and Being Okay with it When You’re Not.

The successful entrepreneurs bring a blend of wisdom and inspiring quotes to help people get through tough times, continuing their mission of wanting to make people feel good through positivity, love and normalising the way that we share how we feel.

They want you to make yourself feel good, as well as helping you balance your feelings when you’re not at your best.

The City is very lucky to have them!


Maxine Peake

Maxine’s heartfelt socialism combined with her incredible range as an actor has not just made her beloved here in Manchester but also put her at the forefront of British acting.

Alongside her hugely successful acting career, in recent years Maxine has become a prominent activist too – speaking at the Peterloo Memorial march and the anti-Tory protest, calling for a coup in the Guardian and turning out for Oldham’s unveiling of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue.

She has been outspoken about the closure of Oldham Coliseum and is leading the charge to keep things open as a champion of local Theatre.


Figen Murray

Figen Murray has been tirelessly campaigning for peace and changes to UK Law after the horrific Manchester Arena Bombings.

She is the mother of Martyn Hett, who was tragically killed in the Manchester Arena at just 29 years old.

After relentless campaigning, she has her wish as the UK Government looks set to adopt ‘Martyn’s Law’ encouraging venues and staff to have anti terrorism training and contingency plans should the worst happen.

There has already been an impressive take up across the city of the counter-measures.

She was awarded with an OBE in last years Honours lists for her anti terrorism work.

As if this wasn’t enough, she also completed a Master’s degree in Counter Terrorism from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) too.

You can read all about Martyn’s law and Figen’s work by clicking here.


Esme Ward

Esme Ward is the curator at Manchester Museum. She is the first lady to hold the role of head curator in the Museums 128 year existence.

You can read our full interview with Esme here. 

Esme has set out with the goal of making Manchester Museum “more inclusive, more imaginative, and a more caring space”.

She had overseen the £15m transformation of the Museum, which has been met with roaring approval by Manchester residents with people queuing out of the door since it reopened.

They have also opened the South Asia Gallery, which is dedicated to the experiences and histories of South Asian diaspora communities that form a large part of modern-day Manchester.

They have just opened the South Asia Gallery, which joins a series of new galleries including the new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery and Belonging Gallery, heralding the museum’s commitment to building greater understanding between cultures, a more sustainable world, and bringing to life the lived experience of diverse communities through the museum’s historic collections and new displays.


Keisha Thompson

Keisha Thompson is a writer, performance artist and producer who has been associated with Contact as an artist and leader since she was 15.

She is the first Black woman, first Mancunian and at 32, the youngest to run Contact.

Starting work in June 2022 as Contact celebrates its 50th year, Thompson had created a ‘castle of curiosity’ and ‘place of opportunity’ for young Mancunians in their visionary and sustainable new building.


Yasmine Dar

Born in South Yorkshire but made in Manchester, Councillor Yasmine Dar is the current Lord Mayor of Manchester. Yasmine is a proud Mancunian and has lived in Manchester for over 50 years, alongside her five brothers and one sister.

In 2009, Yasmine and her brother Majid, who is also her consort, set up a charity for young people called Community on Solid Ground. It is now an award-winning service, and more than 400 young people access its activities on a weekly basis. Yasmine’s working life has included helping some of the most vulnerable and stigmatised in our communities around mental ill health, domestic abuse, and the criminal justice system.


Sally McDonald

Withington-born Sally MacDonald became director of the Science and Industry Museum in 2019, having started her career as an assistant at Manchester Art Gallery. She has also been the head  of several prestigious museums and galleries in London.

Sally has served on several museum boards and currently sits on the Arts Council England’s North Council.

She is a member of the Royal Society’s Public Engagement Committee and the General Assembly of the University of Manchester.


Rimi Thapar

Rimi Thapar is the Co-Founder and CEO at LoveRaw, an Altrincham-based start-up which sells plant based completely vegan chocolate.

Rimi has quite the story to tell, from hustling her way to Whole Foods HQ without a meeting and coming out with a 13,000 unit order, to rejecting investment in the Dragons’ Den with no regrets in 2013.

Today, LoveRaw is almost celebrating its 10th birthday, and is one of the fastest growing plant-based chocolate companies in the UK, a certified B Corp business and is stocked nationwide including its recent addition to the Tesco Meal Deal.


IAMDDB

22 year old rapper-singer Diana Debrito fuses trap, jazz and hip-hop. Recently profiled in Forbes, she launched into the mainstream in 2018 after the release of her single ‘Shade’ went viral at the end of 2017. Named BBC Sound’s Unsigned act of 2018 and Gilles Peterson’s Breakthrough Act of 2018; more recently she has expanded into fashion – appearing in campaigns for Ivy Park, Mulberry and Miu Miu. She’s currently working on her own fashion line, called Waev.

She is set to release another mixtape, volume three, later this year.


Angela Rayner

Elected as Labour MP for Ashton-Under-Lyme in 2015, Angela served in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education early on in her political career.

Under new Labour Leader Kier Starmer, she is Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work since 2021.

She is a vocal member of the opposition front bench and a champion of working class people.

Angela has championed increasing funding to schools and ending the free market in education.


Bev Craig

Bev Craig is the Leader of Manchester City Council, taking up the post after Richard Leese in December 2021.

Craig is originally from Belfast and is the city council’s first female and LGBT leader.

She grew up on a council estate just outside Belfast and moved to Manchester from Northern Ireland in 2003.

She told the BBC: “I grew up in social housing and my family still rely on it. I know the value of [what] the safety net of a good quality home can give you when times are tough.” and that she wanted “to reach a point where me being a woman and being gay is entirely uninteresting and unremarkable”

She helped lead Manchester through their Covid Health and community response, focusing on an equal recovery, and was one of the early champions of turning Manchester into a Living Wage City.

Her focus since then has been on our covid recovery, building a more inclusive and sustainable economy, children and young people, equalities, housing and zero carbon.


Helena Worthington

As well as being an expert telly watcher, Gogglebox star and Salfordian Helena Worthington is a multidisciplinary artist based at Islington Mill who has a creative practice specialising in sculpture and painting. She has also been facilitating creative school and community projects for the last seven years.

The Manchester-based artist is a graduate of The University of Salford and was awarded The University of Salford Chancellor’s Excellence award in 2018.

Helena’s work explores ephemeral themes using impasto paint application, sculpting and revealing layers, she creates a documentation of time passing. Often swapping foreground and background, the Artist challenges the viewer’s perceptions and expectations. Helena has an interest in Ancient History and Modern culture and the vessel or amphora makes a regular feature in her works.

Helena has shown work in a number of exhibitions including The Whitworth Art Gallery and The Manchester Open at Home, and her paintings are held in numerous private collections.


Dr Jessicarr Moorhouse

TRIBE founder Dr Jessicarr Moorhouse has made some serious waves in the health and fitness world.  An NHS doctor and qualified personal trainer with a background in physiotherapy; through a combination of events, group, and personal training sessions she promotes a holistic attitude to health and wellness – factoring in often-overlooked mental and social benefits.


Gemma Atkinson

Gemma Atkinson rose to fame playing Lisa Hunter in the Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks.

A finalist in Strictly Come Dancing, and former star of Emmerdale, Holby City and Casualty too, Gemma now dedicates her time to helping people improve their health and fitness.

She has released two books, The Ultimate Body Plan and The Ultimate Body Plan for Mums too.

Gemma was also co-host of the biggest Manchester awards ceremony in the city, I Love MCR Awards 2023.


DJ Paulette

A familiar face around Manchester’s bars and nightclubs, DJ Paulette is an icon of Manchester’s dance music scene with a bag full of everything from disco to techno and back.

An original Hacienda resident, nowadays you’ll find her DJing for the likes of Reform Radio, BBC 6 Music and Apple Music. You can also catch her brand new monthly show #PauletteTakeover on Reform Radio 3-5pm.

Paullette has recently released an explosive memoir on her life in the music industry.


Mary Ellen McTague

The Manchester chef behind Chorlton sensation The Creameries, Mary Ellen McTague previously has headed up city centre restaurants Aumbry, 4244, The Manchester Gallery Cafe and The Real Junk Food project.

Having worked in Michelin-starred kitchens such as Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck – she certainly knows her stuff, and is a leading light on Manchester’s foodie scene.

Mary is one of the leading lights behind charity Eat Well MCR, which is looking to tackle food inequality across Greater Manchester.

An amazing chef, and an amazing champion of Manchester.

During the Pandemic she helped to ensure restaurant food that was destined for the bin was instead delivered across the city to ensure nobody went hungry.

Since March 2020, Eat Well Manchester has provided over 50,000 meals and counting.


Risha Lancaster

Risha co-founded Manchester homelessness charity Coffee4Craig in memory of her brother Craig, who sadly died at 37 from a heroin overdose following a battle with mental health issues, addiction and homelessness.

Today Risha is instrumental in helping Manchester’s homeless population – providing clothes, food and shelter to some of our city’s most vulnerable residents.


Carol Kane

Debuting on the Sunday Times rich list in 2017, Carol Kane remains at the helm of fast fashion e-tailer Boohoo – which she co-founded in 2006 with Mahmud Kamani. She also runs boohooMAN.com, PrettyLittleThing.com, and NastyGal.com.


Fiona Devine

Head of Allicane Manchester Business School and Professor of Sociology at The University of Manchester, Fiona Devine was awarded an OBE for services to social sciences in 2010 and has spent her career championing research into the related fields os social stratification and mobility.


Julie Hesmondhalgh

Julie is an actress known for her role as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street and won loads of awards including Best Serial Drama Performance at the 2014 National Television Awards and Best Actress at the 2014 British Soap Awards.

She’s now co-founder of Take Back Theatre and continues to champion theatre.


Sandy Lindsay MBE

Sandy Lindsay MBE is a prominent Manchester entrepreneur, who was honoured by the Queen in 2015 for services to young people and businesses.

Originally from Birmingham, Sandy moved to Manchester in 1994 where she launched Tangerine, her own specialist communications consultancy – which now works with some of the biggest brands in the world.

In 2017, celebrating 15 years in business and fulfilling a launch promise, Sandy put award-winning marketing agency Tangerine into Employee Ownership, creating 60+ partners in the business.

Sandy also launched The Juice Academy in 2012, a digital apprenticeship programme which has since created almost 400 jobs for young people

Most recently Sandy has been appointed to the board of the Rugby Football League, at a time when she was looking for new exciting challenges.


Caroline Stevenson

Foodinate founder Caroline Stevenson has been instrumental in tackling food poverty across the UK. Her social enterprise brings together diners, bars, restaurants and charities and works on a simple policy – whenever you buy a meal marked with the foodinate icon, the partnering venue will gift a meal to a local person in need. Combining her business acumen with her background in psychology, Caroline is using her entrepreneurial spirit to make the world a better place – something we really admire.


Sally Penni

Barrister Sally Penni is the founder and chair of women in the law UK.

Addressing huge gender pay gaps in industries and the fact that both boards and courts don’t always represent the diversity of our society, she understands that whilst women have the right to vote and to education – there’s still a way to go to achieving true equality.

Pankhurst would definitely approve.


Professor Dame Nancy Jane Rothwell DBE DL FRS FMedSci FRSB FBPhS MAE

Dame Rothwell she has served as President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester since July 2010, chair of the Russell Group of universities since September 2020.

In February 2013, she was assessed as the 15th most powerful woman in the United Kingdom by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.

 In May 2013 she was the subject of BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific and was interviewed about her life and work by Jim Al-Khalili.

 Rothwell was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2005 Birthday Honours, Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2004, Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (FRSB) and Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci). In 2003 she won the Royal Society Pfizer Award.

She is without doubt an absolute legend.

Helen Hardy: Champion of Women’s Football and Inclusivity

Helen Hardy, a remarkable figure in women’s sports, recently earned recognition as the 6th most powerful woman in the BBC Women’s Power List 2023.

Her dedication to women’s football extends far beyond the pitch.

As the founder of foudys.com, an e-commerce platform exclusively dedicated to women’s football products, Helen has been pivotal in advancing the visibility and accessibility of women’s football.

The platform also manufactures kits for women’s and girls’ football clubs.

In Manchester, Helen initiated three significant programs: Manchester Laces, the largest women’s football club in the North West; The Alternative Football League, an inclusive football league for women, non-binary, and transgender individuals; and Ball Together Now, a summer inclusive football festival for women.

These programs collectively impact over 750 women weekly.

Helen’s commitment goes beyond sports; she’s a passionate advocate for creating safe spaces where women can thrive. She fearlessly addresses important topics like periods in women’s sports and LGBTQ+ rights on platforms like the BBC and Sky News.

Her relentless dedication to gender equality makes her an icon in the field.

Amanda Naylor OBE

Amanda Naylor is an inspiring figure who passionately supports young people, particularly those facing adversity. She ensures that Manchester Youth Zone provides equitable opportunities for all, regardless of their background.

Amanda’s work has spanned 25 years, focusing on disadvantaged children and young people whose voices often go unheard. She has championed these causes both locally and nationally.

As the leader of Manchester Youth Zone, Amanda oversees vital support for over 2,000 young people in one of the most deprived areas of the city. Her commitment to levelling the playing field and championing young people has earned her an OBE.

Lauren Irlam, Owner of Nibble NQ: Empowering Women in Business

Lauren Irlam, an independent business owner, has established a welcoming and female-led café/hub in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Her establishment is not only a place to enjoy great food but also a symbol of empowerment for women in business.

Lauren champions and empowers women in various ways, epitomised by her merch that boldly declares, “Girls can do ****ing anything.”

She creates a friendly space and offers a listening ear to all customers, making her café a vital part of Manchester.

Victoria Evans: Record-Breaking Rower and Legal Advocate for Women’s Sports

Victoria Evans embarked on an extraordinary journey in February 2022, setting out to break the world record for the fastest solo woman to row across the Atlantic.

In March 2022, she not only achieved this remarkable feat but also shattered the existing record by more than a week.

Her daring adventure was not just about personal glory; it was a mission to raise funds and awareness for the charity Women In Sport.

Victoria’s work extends to changing the regulatory framework of women’s sports as a lawyer.

Maintaining strong ties to Manchester, Victoria continues to be a beacon of inspiration for women’s achievements, both in sports and advocacy.

Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon is the founder of Girls Out Loud CIC, the North West based not-for-profit organisation which inspires and empowers teenage girls to find their voices, harness their self-belief and maximise their potential.

Jane is passionate about helping women and girls be the best version of themselves – she’s driven by the need to connect, inspire and empower women to be role models for the younger generation and has been working exclusively with women and teenage girls for the past 25 years.

In this time, Jane has been on a mission to champion and inspire women and young girls to step up and shine, firstly with the creation of her aspirational coaching brand The Well Heeled Divas in 2004, followed by the creation of Girls Out Loud in 2010. Girls Out Loud works in secondary schools, delivering several early intervention programmes for young teen girls from, two hours to 12 months in duration, focussed on building self-belief, resilience and confidence.
Jane’s Big Sister mentoring programme harnesses female role models to help empower teenage girls to believe in themselves, understand their choices and consequences, and fulfil their personal potential – with a mantra to girls to “Be Bold, Be Brave & Believe in You.”

Through the programme, a Big Sister is a mentor to a young teenage girl, aged 12-13, for 12 months. She is a trusted guide, a role model, an inspiration – a woman who is comfortable in her own skin and proud of her success. Jane recruits, trains and supports these women, who in turn support and guide a young girl for 12 months

Jane facilitates this process in schools and alongside 121 activities each programme also includes workshops for the girls on a wide range of subjects including staying safe online, body confidence, relationship development, mindfulness and more. Big Sister volunteer time is around 26 hours a year including 12 hours of training upfront. The programme literally changes the lives of both the Little and Big Sister, as mentoring a young girl empowers her to find her voice and her visibility in a parallel process.

Since founding Girls Out Loud, Jane’s work has touched the lives of 20,000+ girls in 60+ diverse schools across the North West and beyond and she’s personally coached 100+ teen girls and 1200+ female entrepreneurs. Jane has worked tirelessly to raise over £1.5M to run Girls Out Loud during this time, with little or no financial support from schools or government finance.

Vote for them here

Rhiannah Balcombe

Rhiannah is the owner and head stylist of Underfound. She is well known for her work ethic and ability to challenge herself despite having learning difficulties due to severe dyslexia.

In school she experienced bullying and if not for her mum telling her “she could achieve anything” she may not be where she is today.

Rhiannah studied hairdressing from the age of 13 and subsequently moved to barbering and is now an award-winning barber and stylist driven from years of dedication to her craft.

Alongside this, she was scouted to model which found her love of acting and as appeared in films such as: Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them, Men In Black International and Pokémon Pikachu Detective to name a few but her greatest work was opening Underfound the male grooming, fashion and Live music experience store.

Despite her challenges, Rhiannah has created something really special within Underfound as it is not only unique for Manchester but the entire UK.

Underfound has revolutionised client service within the barbering world as not only are they leading the way with male grooming but the fully-fledged fashion boutique located on the first floor, can take care of all of the client needs.

In addition, on selected days in the week live performances from upcoming artists or DJ’s perform in-store free of charge whilst the customers are seated.

Underfound selects only the most upcoming brand partners and stocks product that is not available anywhere else in the North of England (and some UK exclusive) creating an experience unlike any other when visiting the store.

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