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Bad Gals From Notts: 8 Influential Women Who Helped Shape History

22 July 19 words: Emily Thursfield
illustrations: Liv Auckland

From writers and lawyers to suffragists and nurses, these eight women fought ruthlessly for social change and shaped history as we know it. Oh, and they all hail from our hometown, too...

Ruth Adam (née King)

Smashing gender stereotypes since the early twentieth century, Ruth Adam was a woman who refused to be confined to one particular role. Born in Arnold in 1907, Ruth King had a privileged upbringing, attending St Elphin’s Girls boarding school in Derbyshire. She became an elementary school teacher in impoverished mining areas of Nottingham and, in 1932, married Kenneth Adam, a journalist who later became the director of BBC Television. 

Not entirely fulfilled by domestic life, Ruth embarked on a writing career which would see her become a respected journalist and author of novels, comics and non-fiction feminist literature. Her writing always included fiercely independent female characters and did not shy away from difficult themes; her first novel, War on Saturday Week (1937) dealt with the political extremism in Britain during the lead up to WWII, and I’m Not Complaining (1938) depicted the life of an unmarried female teacher living during the great depression.

However, it is her work with comic strips that has earned Ruth her bad gal status. Ruth began her comic career by writing strips for Girl, a publication launched by Reverend Marcus Morris in 1951. With these stories, Ruth was determined to counteract the passiveness shown by many female heroines by creating characters who were brave, clever, resourceful and unashamedly badass – best known was Susan of St Brides (1954 - 61), a strip about a student nurse known for her resourcefulness. By the end of her career, Ruth had penned twelve novels and a number of biographies.

Alice Zimmern

Alice Zimmern is fondly remembered for fighting to improve the standard of education for women. She was raised in the Lace Market, having been born in 1855 to German immigrant parents. After receiving a private education, she was sent to Bedford College in London before being accepted to Cambridge where she read Classics. Alice became a teacher soon after and taught at several girls schools around the country. 

While teaching, Alice began to translate important European texts into ‘school editions,’ in an attempt to make learning more interesting for her pupils. In 1893, she was awarded a Gilchrist Scholarship to study the education system in the US. Although this ended her teaching career in the UK, the scholarship kickstarted her campaign for better education for women. Her book Methods of Education in America (1894) praised the articulacy of American students and their passion for classic English literature, but also highlighted the poor standard of textbooks and what she described as “ludicrously patriotic” history lessons. Alice continued to travel and document the differences in education systems around the world, with a particular focus on the education of females, and wrote several journals and books on the topic. These proved greatly valuable in the campaign for women’s suffrage, along with some historical precedents she uncovered during research for her 1909 book Women’s Suffrage in Many Lands. She completed most of her writing at the British Museum Reading Room, where she would mix with fellow suffragists Edith Nesbit, Eleanor Max and Beatrix Potter. 

Florence Paton (née Widdowson)

Florence may not have been born in Notts, but as the city’s first female MP, she worked tirelessly for the lives and wellbeing of the Rushcliffe constituency she served for five years, and definitely warrants a place on this list. 

Beginning her career as a teacher, Florence found herself particularly sympathetic to children with special education needs. Initially a Liberal, her political career began when she joined the Independent Labour Party in 1917. Under her maiden name, Florence first stood for parliament at the Cheltenham by-election in 1928, and the following year contested for the Rushcliffe constituency, which at the time included Gedling, Colwick and Carlton. It wasn’t until 1945 that she finally secured her seat, but quickly made up for lost time, becoming the first woman to be appointed to the Speaker’s Panel of Temporary Chairmen in 1946, serving as a parliamentary delegate to the United Nations and the only female MP on the UN General Assembly Social Humanitarian and Cultural Committee the year after.

During her time in office, she campaigned heavily for better working conditions in mines, and improved health services for women and children. In 1948, Florence made history once again when she became the first woman to preside over a House of Commons debate. A powerhouse in every sense of the word, Florence was honoured with a sculpture on Carlton Hill earlier this year, which serves as a constant reminder of the trail she blazed for the generations of women who followed her. 

Florence Boot (née Rowe)

Florence Boot’s numerous charitable acts for the city changed the lives of many local workers and led to her becoming Lady Trent in 1929. Born in 1863, Florence spent her childhood working in her father’s stationery shop. It’s assumed that this is where Florence fostered her ability to entice customers, something which proved extremely valuable after meeting her husband. 

Florence met Jesse Boot in 1885 in her hometown of Jersey, and the pair married the following year. Florence quickly became an integral part of the company, having a massive influence on both sales and the development of welfare initiatives for Boot’s employees. In 1889, she oversaw the introduction of paid lending libraries into Boots stores; users would pay 2d to be able to borrow a book, something considered somewhat of a luxury at the time. Florence more than deserved her status as an equal partner in the business. 

Among the first welfare initiatives she introduced was social outings, followed by sporting and social facilities for all employees. She oversaw the employment of welfare officers, implemented provisions of free breakfast for staff and introduced factory surgeries and schools for the youngest employees. When Jesse relinquished control of Boots in 1920, he and Florence became philanthropists, investing much of their wealth back into Nottingham. Together, they donated over seventy acres of land to the city, including the Highfields Estate to the University of Nottingham and, ever the campaigner for women’s rights to higher education, Florence founded the first university hall of residence specifically for women.  

Henrietta Carey

Henrietta was born in 1845, the granddaughter of Alderman George Carey, a wealthy man who resided in mansions on Heathcoat Street and Broad Street. She was one of seven children, all of which led philanthropic lives. Each of his daughter’s entered into social work later in their lives, but it was Henrietta who particularly excelled. 

In 1875, Henrietta and her sisters established the Nottingham Town and County Social Guild, which undertook numerous charitable schemes – the guild provided blanket loans, ran a girls club and cheap dinner scheme for children, established a residential hostel for women working in the city, a social club for working woman and a dining hall in Trinity Square. The object of the organisation was for the social betterment of the local people, and even offered leisure activities such as wood-carving classes. One role Henrietta took particular pride in was heading the Ladies Sanitary Association, which helped women transform many workmen’s dwellings, running competitions for the cleanest homes or the prettiest window flower box displays. Due to her involvement in these kind of inspections, some saw Henrietta as something of a snooper, going against the morals of John Ruskin, a prominent social-thinker of the time who Henrietta greatly admired – but she didn’t allow these criticisms to stop her work. 

Also heavily involved in the set up of the National Union of Women Workers in 1895, Henrietta helped provide a platform for women wanting the “social, moral and religious elevation of their own sex.” 

Tryphena Anderson

Uprooting your entire life at the age of nineteen and journeying across the world is commemorable enough, but doing so with the aim of dedicating your life’s work to helping others – plus unashamedly smashing social barriers as you do so – is the real reason that Tryphena has made it onto this list. Born in 1933 in Jamaica, Tryphena attended a Church of England school until 1952 when, just a week after completing her education, she boarded the HMS Franconia and sailed from New York to Liverpool to pursue a career in nursing. Upon arriving in the UK, Tryphena was shocked to realise that her English was better than most people already living here. 

She soon made it down to the Midlands, and completed her training at Nottingham General Hospital, where she worked as a junior nurse. In 1954, Tryphena took a break from nursing and had her first baby – something that was considered quite controversial; it was tough to find jobs in the NHS as it was, and at the time nearly all nurses were live-in staff. After stints at both Grantham Hospital and the Coppice, in the early sixties she began her postgraduate training at Nottingham City Hospital, where she later qualified as a midwife and became the first black person to receive a bursary to train as a health visitor. After more than thirty years working for the NHS, in 1988 Tryphena bought a nursing home, which she ran for fourteen years until 2002.  

Usha Sood

Many of the women on this list are known for their ruthless nature and desire for justice, but none more so than Human Rights lawyer Usha Sood, who worked tirelessly to change the lives of those around her. Born in 1952, Usha’s upbringing in Malaysia heavily focussed on religion and, after attending a convent school, she was offered an unconditional place to study English at Cambridge University. Luckily for us, her father convinced Usha to instead attend the University of Nottingham and study law. 

Usha and her family arrived in Nottingham in the late sixties and, after completing her degree at UoN, she was snapped up by Trent Polytechnic to teach law at the university. Usha was called to the bar in 1974, and continued to teach for 37 years. After completing her pupilage, Usha began to practice in 1990, and two years later took on the most defining case of her career. Lasting 22 years in total, it saw the first successful use of the Wardship in Immigration law. This was also one of the underlying cases which, in 2009, lead the government to pass legislation to make children’s welfare a priority in immigration cases. Other career highlights include her winning the first successful dowry case in England and advising the Home Office on making forced marriage illegal. 

When Cineworld in Nottingham stopped streaming Bollywood films a few years back, Usha launched a campaign and fought tooth and nail to change their minds. Unsurprisingly, she won that battle too. 

Helen Watts

Possibly the most notorious bad gal of them all was Helen Watts: suffragette, activist and female advocate. Her commitment to the fight for women’s rights might have earned her an extensive criminal record, but it also cemented her as a local hero with a lasting legacy – in 2016, a juniper tree was planted in Helen’s honour in the Arboretum. 

Born in 1881, Helen’s family moved to Nottingham when her father became the vicar at Holy Trinity Church in Lenton. In 1907, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union becoming an instrumental part in setting up the Nottingham branch of the organisation. In February 1909, Helen and the WSPU attended the Women’s Parliament at Caxton Hall, where a number of women formed a deputation to Parliament, demanding their case be taken to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Helen was one of thirty women to be arrested and charged with obstruction. The court agreed that if she could promise good behaviour they’d release her – but Helen refused, accepting a sentence of one month’s incarceration at Holloway Prison instead. No more than six months later, she was arrested again for causing trouble in Leicester, only to be released after a ninety-hour hunger strike. 

After parting ways with the WSPU in 1912 and joining the Women’s Freedom League, Helen worked as a nurse in the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath during the war, and in 1965 left for Canada, before eventually returning and settling down for a quieter life in the UK.

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