On 7 March, nearly 400 people attended Cathy Newman’s Rosalind Franklin Lecture for Humanists UK on the eve of International Women’s Day. It was Humanists UK’s largest Rosalind Franklin Lecture to date. Her talk, titled ‘Bloody Brilliant Women’ after her book of the same name, was chaired by Humanists UK’s patron, the journalist Joan Smith. It told the story of women whose lives changed the course of British history and yet whose stories remained largely untold. She also paid homage to Rosalind Franklin, whose own career was blighted by sexism during her life and even after her death.
In beginning her talk, Cathy explained her desire to uncover the untold histories of women had come about simply because 20th century women’s stories, with only a few notable exceptions, were so hard to find. Her research quickly uncovered a treasure trove of unsung heroes. ‘The more I looked,’ Cathy said, ‘the more I found that women had exerted a much greater influence on society than they were given credit for. Not just in the arts, but also in traditional “male” fields like science and engineering.’ These women included the RAF engineer Beatrice Shilling, whose quick-thinking inventions helped to win the Battle of Britain; Dorothy Lawrence, who overcame sexism to become a leading World War I war reporter, in disguise as a man; Anne McLaren, whose research helped bring about modern in vitro fertilisation; and a whole catalogue of women in technology who helped pave the way to many of the modern conveniences we enjoy today.
Broadening out, she turned to the more explicit misogyny that still permeates our culture. Drawing parallels with the vitriol faced by Barbara Castle when she introduced speed limits and breathalyser tests, Cathy pieced together a breathtaking continuity of gendered abuse, tying together the experiences of high-profile women from the early 20th century to the present day. Today this phenomenon, she argued, was even more evident in the constant abuse hurled at women MPs and journalists on social media.
The lecture also touched on the ‘#MeToo’ social movement, in the advent of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest, which encouraged speak up about sexual harassment and abuse. Cathy noted that the backlash to #MeToo had become a significant cultural force in itself, and clearly demonstrated that the movement ‘had only just begun’, and that there was much work to do to challenge ingrained sexism in society.
Asked what supportive men could do to combat sexism, she made one clear, unapologetic ask: ‘call out bad behaviour and inequality wherever you find it.’
In recognition of her history of fearless investigative journalism and her recent work to highlight the untold histories of women in Britain through Bloody Brilliant Women, Cathy was awarded the inaugural Rosalind Franklin Medal, as presented by Joan Smith. Humanists UK intends that the medal will be awarded each year to its appointed Rosalind Franklin Lecturer.
The Rosalind Franklin Lecture, part of the Humanists UK Annual Lecture Series, explores and celebrates the contribution of women towards the promotion and advancement of humanism in the UK and around the world. It is a part of the Humanists UK annual lecture series, along the Darwin Day Lecture, the Voltaire Lecture, the Holyoake Lecture, and the Blackham Lecture.
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.