International Women's Day 2021 - Meet Leeds's own pioneers of girl power

Today we celebrate Leeds's own pioneers of girl power.

Monday, 8th March 2021, 6:00 am
Pictured, clockwise, Leonara Cohen, Ellen Heaton, Betty Beecroft and Ivy Benson.
Pictured, clockwise, Leonara Cohen, Ellen Heaton, Betty Beecroft and Ivy Benson.

The city's story is filled with inspiring women who helped shape Leeds and in some cases even changed the course of history.

From scientists and entrepreneurs to women’s rights campaigners and musicians, each played their part in forging the city we know and love today.

And to mark International Women’s Day, here are just some of the incredible women who left their mark on history and who are still celebrated in the city’s museums.

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Priya Subramanian.


A famously direct and passionate campaigner, Leonora Cohen was a force to be reckoned with in the fight for women’s rights.

One of the leading lights of the Suffrage movement to secure the vote, Leonora was arrested and jailed in 1911 when she threw a rock at the window of a government building.

Undeterred, she continued with her direct action and in 1913 she was again arrested and jailed, this time for hurling an iron bar through a showcase at the Tower of London in front

The Mel B doll is on display as part of the museum’s Sounds of Our City exhibition.

of a crowd of startled schoolchildren.

The label attached to the bar read: “Jewel House, Tower of London. My protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women but continues to torture women

prisoners- Deeds Not Words. Leonora Cohen.”

Leonora was eventually appointed OBE and lived to the age of 105. She remained a force for women’s rights right up until her death in 1978.

A collection of objects illustrating her life and struggles are on permanent display at Leeds City Museum.


Award-winning scientist Priya Subramanian was a research fellow at the University of Leeds School of Mathematics from 2015 to 2019.

Her research has included looking at the highly advanced field of quasicrystalline structures, which looks at complex mathematical patterns.

She has also since appeared at the Leeds Masterclass series where she spoke to 13 and 14 year old maths students.

Priya has praised Leeds and the University as “fertile grounds for budding early career researchers like me and curious-minded people.”

She features in Leeds to Innovation, an exhibition looking at great minds and inventions from Leeds’s past and present.


A passionate and devoted advocate for both the arts and women’s rights Ellen Heaton’s portrait hangs in Leeds City Museum.

The daughter of a bookseller, Ellen was discouraged from pursuing an education and instead joined Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

She became an influential Pre-Raphaelite art patron and an active campaigner for women's rights, education, health, environmental issues and anti-vivisection.

In her account of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy describes her as "a wealthy, well-travelled, forthright maiden lady."

Ellen’s former home is now The Swarthmore Centre, a community arts centre, in a fitting tribute to her role in the arts.


Betty Beecroft’s steely determination and shrewd head for business helped forge a legacy which lasted centuries.

Along with her husband George, she took over the running of the historic Kirkstall Forge in 1778.

The couple initially faced ridicule because of the forge’s dilapidated state, but Betty quickly proved the doubters wrong.

She took sole charge of the run down forge and set about bringing in new equipment and an astute new business model. Selling finished products including buckets, shovels and screws

saw profits skyrocket from £172 in 1780 to the handsome sum of £952 in 1784.

After six years of hard work, which saw extensive improvements to the forge, Betty decided to step down, leaving behind a successful business which went on to become a cornerstone

of the early industrialisation of Leeds, supplying the iron used for boiler, engine and machine making.

Betty also features in Leeds to Innovation, which you can see online at: .


A trailblazing musician, Holbeck’s Ivy Benson shot to stardom in the world of wartime big bands.

During the Second World War, many male musicians were enlisted, so opportunities for female musicians opened up.

Her All Girls Orchestra became the BBC's resident dance band in 1943 and, after the liberation of Europe in 1945, they were specially requested by General Montgomery to play

to the troops.

The same year on Christmas Day they performed for a live BBC Radio broadcast from Hamburg immediately after the King's speech also touring Europe and the Middle East

and performing at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London

Ivy led the band for 40 years appearing in many summer seasons on the Isle of Man. She retired to Clacton, Essex, where she died in 1993.

A ceramic of Ivy was specially-commissioned by Leeds Museums and Galleries as part of a tribute to the city’s unsung heroines.


One fifth of one of British pop’s most iconic combos, Mel B will forever be part of music history.

Originally formed in 1994, the Spice Girls, made up of Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Adams had nine UK number one singles and the

biggest-selling album of all time by a girl group, with sales of 28 million copies worldwide.

A doll of Leeds’s very own Scary Spice Mel B is on display as part of an exhibition looking back at some of the city’s most amazing musical memories.

The Mel B doll is on display as part of the museum’s Sounds of Our City exhibition which includes other exhibits exploring how we first encounter music at home and school, Leeds-

made instruments and sound equipment and some of the different venues associated with music in the city over the past 200 years.


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Laura Collins