Women’s History Month: Unsung Heroines

Authored by

Kelly Young

Chief Executive Officer

March is Women’s History Month, when we particularly seek to celebrate the achievements of women and their contribution to society. I am kicking this off by highlighting the lives two extraordinary and inspirational women. I could have chosen at Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria, Rosa Parks or any of the usual suspects. But there are also far too many women whose contribution is largely unknown.

So instead, I have chosen two amazing women who are not widely known, yet who led inspirational lives.  Like all of us they had human frailties but are women who stand out to me as having made significant impacts. As a citizen of the UK living in my adopted home of the U.S., I thought I would go for an American and a Brit.

The first is Josephine Baker. A Black American, she was a musician, philanthropist, civil rights campaigner…and a secret agent. She was born in 1906 in abject poverty, the daughter of two formerly enslaved people.  She had little or no schooling, and from age 8 she was already working to support the family. A talented singer and dancer, she found her way onto the stage.

Josephine came to France in 1925 and it was here that her career really took off. She was a huge hit at the Folies Bergère in Paris. She became the most celebrated performer in Paris, painted by Picasso and feted by Hemingway. Hers are some of the finest cabaret songs of the age (check them out on YouTube!). Her celebrity was unprecedented for a Black performer in that era, particularly a Black woman, and she is often described as the first Black superstar.

When World War 2 came, and France was occupied by the Germans, Josephine carried on performing. She was famous and charming and was allowed to travel largely unhindered around the country—highly unusual for the time. All the while, though, she was working for the French Resistance, transporting messages between agents using invisible ink applied to her musical scores. Had she been discovered, she would have been shot. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur.

After the war, Josephine stayed in France, opening her vast house up to orphaned children of a variety of nationalities. She still found time to campaign in the civil rights movement, on one occasion giving a speech alongside Martin Luther King. Josephine Baker died in 1975, age 68, and is commemorated in the Pantheon in Paris. This remarkable women’s artistic accomplishments and, perhaps more importantly, her heroism in the face of wartime crisis, and compassion for the most vulnerable in society are not celebrated nearly enough and I’m very happy, in however small a way, to help shine a light on her achievements and contributions.

Not to overplay my passion for quant investing, my second choice is an English mathematician and early computer pioneer. History is awash with computer pioneers, many of whom were fellow Brits, who led the way in the development of computing and computer science from Alan Turing, to Charles Babbage, often referred to as ‘the father of the computing’ and a contemporary of my second inspirational woman, Ada Lovelace. Ada was working in the mid-1800s.

Ada’s background, like Josephine’s, provided no clue as to her calling—but for very different reasons. She was the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet and author of Don Juan among other works. Byron was hugely famous as a poet, and also as an adventurer and a dissolute.

The poet had had been educated at some of the country’s finest establishments. As a girl, Ada had no such advantage. She was taught the basics by private tutors, but there were no academic expectations. Social graces were more important than education.

Ironically, Ada’s biggest stroke of fortune was perhaps at aged 10, when her father died while fighting for Greek independence from Turkey. Ada’s mother now had the authority to encourage her develop to her mathematical talent – partly motivated by the desire to prevent Ada from falling into her father’s debauched ways.  Still in her teens, she started working with Babbage on his prototype computer. She was quick to identify that it was more than a mere calculating machine and that it had the potential to solve much more complex problems. Her writings contain what amounts to the first published algorithm written for a computer. Consequently, Ada Lovelace is often described as the first computer programmer (in 1843!).

Ada died in 1852, aged 36. As focus on women in STEM industries continues to gain momentum, Ada is slowly having her place in history recognised, with 'Ada Lovelace Day' being celebrated every October 13 since 2009. She is, however, still woefully undercelebrated versus her more famous male counterparts. As with Josephine Baker, I’m happy if this helps in any small way to highlight the outstanding contribution this remarkable woman has made to computing in the modern world.

Ada Lovelace and Josephine Baker. Two women to be celebrated this Women’s History Month.