Inspiring Women of the Tees Valley

To celebrate the centenary of the passing into law of Representation of the People Act on 6 February 1918, which gave women the right to vote for the first time, we are dedicating February 2018 to celebrating the inspirational women who have been born and lived in the Tees Valley.

The passing of the law came about as a result of many years of passionate campaigning by women’s rights groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). With this project, we honour their memory and their struggles.

From groundbreaking politicians to actresses and from award-winning authors to sporting superstars, Stockton-on-Tees and the surrounding regions of the Tees Valley have produced women who have changed the world. This project is dedicated to bringing their achievements more into the public eye and hopefully serving to inspire the next generation of girls and young women.

We’ll be sharing our inspiring women in a series of posts on our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout February. Why not share with us your own important individuals and join in the conversation by using the hashtag #inspiringteesvalleywomen.



Kat Copeland: Historic Gold Medal Winner

Katherine “Kat” Copeland MBE (born 1 December 1990) is an Olympic gold medal-winning rower, who shot to national prominence at the 2012 London Olympics.

Born in Ashington, Northumberland, Kat began to row at Yarm School at the age of 14. A member of Tees Rowing Club, she quickly established herself as one of the rising stars of British Rowing, breaking into the senior team in 2010 and being crowned World Under-23 Champion in 2011.

She and partner Sophie Hosking beat out other, more experienced rowers, to be selected as the British representatives for the Lightweight Women’s Double Scull at London 2012. In a stunning performance, they won their final by more than 2 seconds, making it the first title ever won by the lightweight women’s squad.

Kat’s look of disbelief, followed by overwhelming joy, on realising that she had won, became one of the defining moments of the 2012 Olympics.

Since then, Kat, who is currently studying for a degree in English, has continued to row successfully, winning the 2015 European Championships, silver at the 2015 World Championships and bronze at the Euros in 2014 and 2017.



Pat Barker: Booker Prize-winning Author

Pat Barker CBE (born 8 May 1943) is novelist, whose work is famed for being direct, blunt and outspoken. Dealing with themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery, her works have won a number of awards and, in 2012, The Observer named her Regeneration Trilogy as one of “The Ten Best Historical Novels”.

Born in Thornaby during World War II, Pat had to suffer the heavy stigma of the time towards illegitimate children, her mother having become pregnant to an unknown father. Brought up by her grandparents, who were, in her own words, “poor as church mice, we were living on National Assistance – ‘on the pancrack’ as my grandmother called it”.

Despite this challenging upbringing, Barker gained a place at grammar school and then continued to university, reading international history at the London School of Economics from 1962-65. In her mid-twenties, she began to write fiction.

Her first novel, Union Street, tells seven interlocking stories of working-class women, whose lives are shaped by poverty and violence. Rejected by publishers for 10 years, it was finally published by feminist publisher Virago in 1982. It was a hit, being described in The New Statesman as a “long overdue working class masterpiece” and remains one of Virago’s top sellers.

Following two more novels focused on working-class northern women (Blow Your House Down and Liza’s England), Barker consciously decided to write from the male perspective. The result was her Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which explore the history of the First World War by focusing on the aftermath of trauma. These books were all well-received by critics, culminating in The Ghost Road being awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1995.

Barker has also received the Fawcett Society prize for fiction for Union Street and was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000. She continues to write and her most recent work, Noonday, was published in 2015.



Gertrude Bell: The Great Adventurer

Gertrude Bell CBE (13 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was a pioneer. A writer, traveller, political officer, administrator and archaeologist, she explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making in the Middle East. Her achievements were almost unique for a woman at the time.

Born into a wealthy Northern family, Bell’s extraordinary talents soon became clear. Her precocious intelligence was demonstrated at university, where she became the first woman in history to gain a First Class Honours Degree in Modern History from Oxford University. A feat she achieved after only two years of study.

From there, she travelled widely, developing a passion for archaeology and languages. Bell conquered some of the highest peaks in Europe and travelled widely across the Middle East, where she quickly developed an unusually deep knowledge of the area and oversaw a number of archaeological digs.

Her experiences and intelligence meant that, come World War I, she was soon asked by British Intelligence to support the war effort in the Middle East. Here, she had unique powers for a woman of the time, holding political power and shaping British foreign policy. Through the war, she worked alongside the famous T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

By the end of the war, Bell was the only female British political officer and held great influence. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French took it upon themselves to reshape the Middle East (something which continues to have repercussions to this day). Bell was instrumental in the creation of Iraq and the installation of Faisal I as King of Iraq in 1921.

Tragically, she died aged only 57, after an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving behind her an incredible legacy of achievement. Highly esteemed by British officials and members of the local Arab populations alike, she was a complex woman who led a multi-faceted and truly fascinating life.



Preeti Desai: The Middlesbrough-born Miss Great Britain who became a Bollywood Superstar

Preeti Desai was born and raised in Middlesbrough. In 2007, she broke new ground by becoming the first woman of Indian origin to win the Miss Great Britain title. Since then, she has become a highly-success model and actress.

Following her success in becoming Miss Great Britain, Preeti moved to Mumbai in India, quickly becoming one of the most sought-after supermodels in the Indian fashion industry. Within two years, she had been on numerous magazine covers, including Cosmopolitan in October 2008.

In 2011, she made her film debut in Shor in the City, a successful thriller drama. Her performance received rave reviews, leading to her being nominated for Best Lead Actress at the South Asian Rising Star Film Awards in 2012.

In 2014, she starred in the Hindi romantic comedy One By Two and currently has four films in post-production, including her first Hollywood film Gods and Secrets, which explores the darker side of a world filled with superheroes.



Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson: From legendary Paralympian to Member of the House of Lords

Carys Davina “Tanni” Grey-Thompson, Baroness Grey-Thompson, of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham, DBE, DL (born 26 July 1969) is a wheelchair racer, parliamentarian, television presenter and public figure. In 2013, she was identified by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK.

A six-time London Marathon winner, Baroness Grey-Thompson appeared at five Paralympics from 1988-2004, winning 16 medals, including 11 golds. She also won 13 medals at World Championships, including six golds, making her one of the most successful athletes in history.

During her career, she had been an active campaigner for sports and disabled rights, sitting on the boards of organisations such as the National Disability Council and UK Sport. After retirement from competitive sports, she continued this, sitting on many boards and chairing ukacitve. She is also frequently seen as a TV presenter and sports commentator.

On 23 March 2010, she was appointed a Life Peer, taking on the title of her home in Eaglescliffe. She now sits as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, a role that she plays together with being on numerous boards, supporting charities and being, since 2015, the Chancellor of Northumbria University.

Baroness Grey-Thompson has become a legendary figure, combining outstanding sporting success with years of dedicated public service.



Mary Butterwick: Hospice Pioneer

Mary Butterwick OBE (1924 – 30 September 2015) was one of the pioneering figures of the hospice movement and is a beloved local figure.

She was an ordinary mother of four, who suffered the devastating loss of her husband John to a brain tumour in 1979. She was told that there was nothing she could do and was offered no support or advice. This appalling experience left Mary convinced that there had to be a better and more caring way to support the patients and loved ones of those suffering serious illness and eventual loss of life.

In 1984, inspired by Dame Cicely Saunders’ fledgling hospice movement, she sold the family home and, supported by volunteers, opened the first day Hospice in Stockton. The Hospice now operates from several sites, including an adult inpatient unit and day Hospice at Stockton, Butterwick House Children’s Hospice and a Hospice at Bishop Auckland with further day care units within community hospitals across County Durham.

In 1999, Mary was awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Stockton. Three years later, she received the OBE for her tireless service to those suffering terminal illness.

Mary passed away aged 91 in 2015, at one of her own Hospices. The legacy of her vision and hard work is a highly-respected and greatly-loved local Charity, which remains at the forefront of providing life-changing hospice care for people of all ages.




Ellen Wilkinson and Mo Mowlam MPs: Trailblazing Government Ministers

Ellen Wilkinson MP (8 October 1911 – 6 February 1947) and Mo Mowlam MP (18 September 1949

 – 19 August 2005) were Labour Members of Parliament for Middlesbrough East and Redcar respectively. Divided by 40 years, they were united by their feminism and impact on British politics.


Ellen Wilkinson was a passionate socialist and was dedicated to achieving reforms for women, workers and those in education. She was elected MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, serving in the 1929-31 Labour government. Losing her seat in 1931, she turned to journalism, before returning as MP for Jarrow in 1935. Serving in the Coalition Government in World War II, Wilkinson was eventually appointed Minister of Education in Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government.

Tragically, by this time her health was poor, a legacy of years of overwork, and she died in 1947 from complications of a bronchial disease. However, before her death, she worked tirelessly to implement the 1944 Education Act, widely reforming schooling across the country.


Mo Mowlam was MP for Redcar from 1987-2001. Famous for her honesty and ready wit, she was one of the most popular politicians of the Labour Party of the 1990s. After years in opposition, she was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the 1997 Labour government, the first woman in this role.

She was instrumental in negotiating a truce with the IRA and worked hard to arrange multi-party peace talks. These eventually resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which continues to serve to this day as the basis for the devolved power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.

However, Mowlam’s popularity and a deteriorating relationship with the Unionist parties led to Prime Minister Tony Blair replacing her in October 1999, relegating her to the role of Cabinet Office Minister. She continued in this role until 2001, when she left politics and became a journalist, campaigner and charity worker.

Mowlam was diagnosed in 1997 with a brain tumour, a fact that she worked to conceal from other politicians and the wider public. Sadly, her cancer returned and, during treatment in 2005, she fell, causing head injuries that she never awoke from. She died at a Canterbury Hospice and, after cremation, half of her ashes were scattered in Redcar.



Ivy Close: Actress, Beauty Queen and Film Producer

Ivy Close (15 June 1890 – 4 December 1968) was born in Stockton and has been called the first ever Miss World. But she was more than just this, becoming a star on stage and screen.

In 1908, Ivy entered the World’s Most Beautiful Woman competition, which was run by the Daily Telegraph newspaper and beat out 1,500 other women to win the title. She’s generally recognised now as the first British beauty queen.

Following on from this achievement, she became a successful model and actress. She was in 44 films between 1912 and 1929, as well as often appearing on music hall stages, where her singing was particularly noted.

She and her husband Elwin Neame established Ivy Close Films in 1914, one of the very first film production companies founded by a film star. She was a trailblazer for woman in the film industry and was, for a time, one of the most famous women in the world.