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These are the women who won 2019

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Chloe Gray
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As we look back on 2019, these are the women who did us all proud, as chosen by Stylist’s very own woman of the year, Caroline Criado Perez.

We realised we’d found our woman of the year just three months into 2019 when a book authored by journalist and activist Caroline Criado Perez landed on desks at the Stylist office and changed our outlook on the world.

Sound dramatic? If you’ve not read Invisible Women yet then you maybe won’t know why. The frightening exposé of the gender data gap shows how scientific research has ignored women and our bodies, along with the effect that has on our happiness, health and lives. Cue shock from the team as we turned page after page of evidence highlighting our biased world.

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Findings included how women still live with (often unbearable) period cramps because, during trials for pain relief medication, the team found the drugs had a more important effect – and went on to develop them into Viagra. Perhaps even more shocking was the news that crash test dummies are designed in the image of men, meaning women are more likely to be the fatalities of road traffic accidents. “Women are dying. I cannot stress this enough,” Perez tells Stylist. “Things have to change, it’s unacceptable. And it’s so easy – all we have to do is start collecting data on women. There’s nothing stopping us, other than [the science community] not wanting to spend money on it.” 

Caroline Criado Perez's book exposed the gender data gap.

But Perez isn’t our woman of the year just because she’s held patriarchal standards to account. She’s also sparked real change: “I’ve had researchers getting in touch with me to say that they have changed the way they are approaching particular subjects. One Alzheimer’s researcher told me that he re-did 260 pages of code because he realised, after having read the book, that all clinical data he was being sent used male as the default.”

The moment she realised the true importance of Invisible Women was in September, when she won the Royal Society Science Books Prize. And last week, she won the FT & McKinsey Award, and she’s also involved in a research project with the Scottish government to fix the country’s data gap because “we need governments to step in. There needs to be regulation.” 

But Perez wasn’t expecting 2019 to be her year. “I was really concerned that people would dismiss what I was saying,” she says. “I worried that I would be painted as a sort of irrational hysterical woman, particularly since I don’t have a science background.” Is that because of impostor syndrome, we asked. “Maybe, but I think also it’s realistic. It’s not that women lack confidence, it’s that we are very realistic about how we are going to be treated and we therefore tailor our behaviours accordingly.” So when she’s felt doubtful, who has she spent the year looking to for inspiration, to keep going, to keep changing the world? Stylist asked her to talk us through her own women of the year. 

Amika George

Aged just 17, George got 200,000 signatures on her petition to get the government to provide free menstrual products to girls from low-income families. Two years later, in 2019, the #FreePeriods founder is making further change. 

Amika is leading a period revolution.

“Amika is an incredibly impressive young woman who has been campaigning for years to end period poverty. This year she managed to get Philip Hammond to announce that English schools would provide free sanitary products for girls. She’s also currently taking the government to court to try and make free period products a legal requirement. That’s such a huge achievement and it’s incredibly impressive that she’s fought so hard for so long, and at such a young age.

The fact that a young girl with no structural power can convince a Tory minister to take action – that’s about as big a power imbalance as you can imagine. It proves that there’s really no limit on what anyone can do if they approach things in the right way.

Amika is what I would class as a very positive campaigner. She makes the case, uses the power of persuasion and argues her corner but doesn’t spend her time complaining about how terrible everyone and everything is. That’s very easy to slip into as a campaigner because you get disheartened, angry and upset but negativity doesn’t bring people along with you. It’s a really important lesson for anyone who wants to emulate her: stay focused on what you want, rather than what you don’t have. 

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Do I think the campaign to end period poverty will be finished soon? Well, because of the way that women’s issues are seen as niche and not part of a general development plan it makes it a lot harder. Actually, it’s a thing that affects everyone. What Amika is doing is incredibly important and she has achieved great things. I think that if anyone’s going to make it happen, it will be her. I suppose it gives me hope that in the UK we have a champion who will be able to make change.” 

Megan Rapinoe

The 34-year-old midfielder and co-captain of the United States women’s football team caught the world’s attention during the 2019 World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe shows us what being a proud woman looks like.

“Megan Rapinoe is just fucking awesome. I don’t know a single woman that doesn’t adore her. And the thing that was so brilliant about watching her was how unapologetic her celebration was. She’s another example of women being proud of their achievements. It’s not unseemly or unbecoming. It’s not something that we have to be sweet and modest about. We can say, ‘I scored a goal and I’m fucking proud of it!’ I think that’s such an amazing statement to make on the world stage. 

 To show women what being proud as a woman looks like because we don’t have many role models for that. Until now we’ve been taught to be very self-effacing and that’s why women went crazy for her. It was so refreshing to see. If women don’t say, ‘Yes I did that and I’m proud of it’, they’ll likely have their achievements assigned to a man. That’s what history teaches us. There are so many men who have taken credit for women’s work throughout history, throughout the arts, throughout science. It’s much harder for them to do that if you step up and say it was you and you’re proud.” 

Stella Creasy

Although Creasy is an MP for Walthamstow, her biggest campaign of the year has focused on changing the law in Northern Ireland.

Stella Creasy has fought for a change in abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

“Illegal abortion in Northern Ireland has been a huge stain on the United Kingdom. It was just outrageous that women didn’t have the same rights to health services across this country. Lack of access to abortion is a health issue and a really serious one that women can die as a result of.

What Stella did, pushing through the Northern Ireland bill, was brilliant because she spotted a chance. While everyone else was arguing about Brexit she realised that there was a great opportunity to force Northern Ireland to move the legislature into the 21st century. In a way I wonder if the fact that no one was really paying attention is what managed to help her get it done: she sneakily got women’s rights through the back door. That’s something women have had to do a lot through history.

We have had to take our chances and – given the way that change worked, which wasn’t with a vote or fanfare – women know not to expect praise for everything they do. Most women who we look back on now as heroes of feminism were absolutely reviled and hated during their lifetime because they were arguing for things that went against the social morals of the time.

It’s only now that we look back and think what amazing women they were, and it’s tragic that only after they’re dead do we think they are great. But we need to remember that if you’re fighting for your rights, people are not going to like you. And, if you’re doing it because you’re hoping people are going to say, ‘Wow you’re so wonderful’, you will not get very far. You have to be prepared for people to be really horrible. And I think that Stella is.” 

Ellie Pell

Pell was a little-known 27-year-old runner from New York, until a surprising win made her headline news this year.

Ellie Pell teaches us that women can be tough as hell.

“Ellie is an endurance runner. In August, she ran the 50K Green Lakes Endurance Run, where they had a female-only race and an overall race. It never occurred to the organisers to have a male-only race because they assumed that a man would win overall. In fact, Ellie won the first-place female and first-place overall in three hours, 58 minutes and 37 seconds. Ellie was also breastfeeding at the time.

It meant that the men missed out on winning a trophy. It serves them right. What does that teach us? Basically the lesson is that women are incredible and tough as hell. But it also really highlighted the way that men are seen as the default. We need to stop assuming that women are their own niche subcategory. That is incredibly damaging and can cause serious harm to their health, but also it can bite men on the bum. If you don’t care about women’s health, then at least care about men not being able to win prizes.” 

Samira Ahmed and the Glasgow City Council campaigners

2019 has brought pay disparity into the limelight. These are some of the trailblazing women who have been fighting for, and winning, their rights.

"Time is running out for people who treat women unfairly."

 “The female workers at Glasgow Council have been fighting for over 10 years to be paid the same as men who are doing comparable jobs. This year, they finally won their case. I imagine Glasgow City Council admitted defeat because with the #MeToo movement there is a sense that time is running out for people who want to treat women unfairly.

We have had enough. We are not going to put up with it any more and we are not going to just smile sweetly and keep quiet. You can’t expect to trample all over us and get away with it. That’s not to say that women don’t get trampled on and that people never get away with it because it absolutely does still happen, but it is trickier and riskier than it used to be.

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At the same time, Samira Ahmed (pictured), the Newswatch presenter, has taken her employer, the BBC, to court and has been so brave about it. She’s making a big deal about it publicly which I think a lot of women would find quite difficult. There’s this concern that we’ll be seen as grasping and too demanding, but I love how Samira just does not give a fuck. She just says no, I am worth just as much as my male colleagues and you’re going to pay me that.

I think that is such an amazing example to set. Both these examples are incredibly inspiring and they come from both ends of the spectrum; from women in low-paid jobs to one who has more of a middle-class salary. It shows the power of fighting together even when fighting separately. Remember that when we stand together we are so much stronger.” 

GRETA THUNBERG

The 16-year-old campaigner from Sweden is probably the most famous teenager in the world – for good reason.

Greta has achieved so much so young.

“Obviously, I have to talk about Greta. What she’s achieved as a very young girl, putting the huge topic of climate change into the global debate in a way no one else has managed to, is quite incredible really.

 I think the other thing that has been important is that we haven’t really thought about children in the same way since. It’s them that are going to have to be living with this world. But the thing I really love about her is how a certain type of middle-age commentator just loses his shit around her. They just cannot cope with a woman who is not trying to be coy or sexy or appeal to them. She’s just an ordinary girl and they cannot handle it. I think that is inspiring. To have achieved so much and to not be in any way catering to what men want is a very important lesson. None of us have to do that any more!” 

WOMEN OF THE FUTURE

Caroline predicts these women will change the narrative next year. We believe her. Keep your eyes peeled for them in 2020.

HELEN LEWIS

Journalist

Helen's book Difficult Women is out next year.

“Not exactly unknown, but she has her first book, Difficult Women: A History Of Feminism In 11 Fights [£16.99, Jonathan Cape], out next year and it’s brilliant – not least because it addresses the tyranny of niceness for women. The truth is that most women who achieved major change were, well, difficult women.”

AMNA SALEEM

Screenwriter and comedian.

Amna's sitcom is about how women from ethnic minorities navigate the world.

“An extremely funny Glaswegian writer who had her first BBC Radio 4 sitcom, Beta Female, about young women from ethnic minorities navigating the world, out this year. Her memoir is out next year, along with several TV projects as a writer and actor. Watch this space!”

RENAY RICHARDSON

Podcast producer.

Renay produces the About Race podcast.

“Renay founded Broccoli Content, a podcast production company, in response to the lack of opportunities both in front of and behind the mic for minority talent. You’ve probably already listened to a podcast produced by her [including About Race with Reni Eddo- Lodge], but 2020 is going to be her year.”

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (£16.99, Chatto & Windus) is out now. 

Images: Getty Images, Rex Features, Rachel Louise Brown

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