Women's GB hockey team, Issa Rae, the cast of Ghostbusters, Gina Miller and Polish abortion rights protesters
Women's GB hockey team, Issa Rae, the cast of Ghostbusters, Gina Miller and Polish abortion rights protesters


The women who gave us hope in 2016

Rebecca Schiller rounds up the most powerful and influential women of the past year, the ones who really made a difference in their chosen field

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By Rebecca Schiller on

2016 was a grim one for all of us, but it was also the year that women brought it like never before. Here we are, world: powerful, restless, determined, kind, brilliant and never giving up. 


The women of Poland went out into the streets this October to protest a near-total ban on abortion, later forcing parliament to vote down the bill. In the same month, Icelandic women left work early in a mass protest against the 14 per cent gender pay gap.

It’s hard to find any good news amongst the rubble of Aleppo, yet Bana Alabed, the voice reverberating via Twitter around the world, represents a history of girls reaching out from inside war zones to tell stories that open the eyes of the world.

In every corner of the world, women are doing things to challenge, protect and care: the women of Standing Rock (not moving from their land even when in labour), volunteers like Lindsey Middlemiss (helping new mothers and babies in the camps of Dunkirk and Calais) and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (the Pakistani filmmaker who won an Oscar for her documentary about honour killings). 

Arts & culture

In the face of fierce criticism, the all-female cast of Ghostbusters brought the house down while challenging misogyny. Meanwhile, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag hit a spot that no one had even tried to find before. US comedian Issa Rae proved it is possible to pass the Bechdel and DuVernay test and please the critics, with her 2016 series, Insecure.

The visual arts have done much to shrug off their male-dominated history. London’s new contemporary art festival, Art Night, exclusively showcased female artists and was organised and curated by an all-woman team. The Turner Prize went to 31-year old sculptor Helen Marten, who chose to share the £55,000 she’s won in art prizes this year with her fellow nominees, while in literature, the Costa book award list was dominated by female writers.


Of course, Hillary did not win and Theresa May becoming prime minister was too linked to Brexit to feel like a straightforward triumph, but there were moments of hope. 

Gina Miller, the unstoppable force challenging Brexit (and facing a barrage of rape and death threats along the way) is no stranger to bold action. All around her, women are daring to do what has never been done before in and around the political playing field. Caroline Lucas has bucked the prevailing political trend by campaigning with humanity and demonstrating, as she jobshares the Green Party leadership, how the choices we’ve been told we have to make between work and family life may finally be becoming outdated. 

MPs courageously used their platform to speak up for women’s issues this year. Jess Phillips read out the names of 120 women killed by men to the House of Commons. Michelle Thompson moved the House to tears as she bravely spoke about her rape as a 14-year-old girl and Vicky Foxcroft once again reminded those in seats of power of their basic compassion, with a heartbreaking account of her newborn baby’s death.

There is much to worry about in the fight for reproductive justice, but 2016 was the year that women fought back. Some of them even won


The Olympic Games provided some of the best news stories for women this year. There was medal-winning Jessica Ennis-Hill, who defied the smug sceptics certain that motherhood would put an end to her career. The GB women’s hockey team not only won gold, but played host to the first same-sex couple (Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh) to win medals in an Olympic final. Swimmer and cyclist Dame Sarah Storey became Britain's most successful female Paralympian.

Apart from Team GB, Simone Manuel was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold for swimming, while bronze-winning fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first US Olympic athlete to compete wearing a hijab. Simone Biles broke new ground in gymnastics, winning four gold medals and displaying the kind of talent that led some to call her the greatest gymnast ever.


Let’s not forget that 2016 was the year of Jet, the five-year-old feminist challenging gender stereotypes from the playground. Jet might grow up to be Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca. Duca’s spot-on coverage of Trump’s election speaks to the interests of the teenagers of today – topping the site’s most-read list for the year – alongside pieces on abortion, LGBTQ rights and glitter nail polish. 

In the less real world, Helen Archer triumphed against abusive Rob, winning her court case and speaking up about marital rape and coercive control in court, while raising a very real £200,000 for domestic-abuse charity Refuge. 

Human rights

There is much to worry about in the fight for reproductive justice, but 2016 was the year that women fought back. Some of them even won. The UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists elected its first female president in 64 years.

An all-female trio of judges, Joyce Aluoch, Sylvia Steiner and Kuniko Ozaki, made the first-ever rape conviction at the International Criminal Court, finding former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba guilty of murder and rape during the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic.

Caroline Malatesta took a US hospital, who held her down against her will while she gave birth, to court and won, in a landmark case that saw the judge award $16m to the family. Purvi Patel, whose miscarriage led to a 20-year prison sentence for “feticide”, was finally released after three years in prison, after one of her convictions was overturned. 

The last words must go to the anonymous survivor of the Brock Turner rape, who faced the court and her attacker, reading a powerful letter that ended with a direct address to the girls of the world. Whatever 2017 has in store, Turner’s victim reminds us that we already have what we need to face it and overcome: “I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”


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Women's GB hockey team, Issa Rae, the cast of Ghostbusters, Gina Miller and Polish abortion rights protesters
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