By Ade Blackburn
Liverpool has produced a great number of inspiring female icons, from anti-racist campaigners to acclaimed novelists and all-female bands. Here we celebrate the contributions of these extraordinary women, both old and new, who have left their mark on the city and beyond.
1. Dorothy Kuya
Dorothy Kuya was a Liverpool-born black anti-racist campaigner and active feminist who fought all her adult life for social justice, women and children’s rights.
During the 1950s, Dorothy became an early member of the National Assembly of Women (NAW), and would go on to become vice-chair of the organisation during the 1980s. She also led a successful campaign to establish Liverpool’s Inernational Slavery Museum, which opened in 2007.
In 2021, a University of Liverpool residence hall, formerly known as Gladstone Hall, was renamed after her. Gladstone Hall was originally named after former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, whose family became rich through the slave trade. More than 4,465 students of the University of Liverpool voted on a historical figure they believed would be a suitable replacement, and the winner was Dorothy Kuya.
2. Eleanor Rathbone
An outstanding philanthropist dedicated to social reform, Eleanor Rathbone, was the daughter of William Rathbone VI. Among other achievements, she established a District Nursing system in Liverpool which was adopted nationwide.
Eleanor was the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council and represented Granby ward from 1909 to 1934. In 1929 she was elected as an independent MP and continued in this position until her death in 1946. She was associated with many campaigns for social reform, particularly on issues affecting women.
She is most often associated with the campaign to introduce Family Allowances, finally won in 1945, which has developed into Child Benefit.
3. Leanne Campbell
Starting her radio career 20 years ago at Juice FM, Leanne Campbell now co-hosts Radio City Breakfast, for which she received a prestigious Radio Sony Academy award. A trained actor, she began her theatre life playing Annie at the Liverpool Playhouse aged just ten, alongside appearing in panto at the Royal Court.
She is known the city over for her instantly recognisable scouse warmth and character. In addition to being queen of the airwaves, panto star and charity host, Leanne also launched Ladies of Liverpool in 2017, an internet resource dedicated to shouting about the best women in the city.
She can also currently be heard as the voice of Liverpool virtual tour for The Liverpool Heritage Site.
4. The Liverbirds
The Liverbirds were an English all-female rock band from Liverpool, active between 1963-1968. They were one of the very few female bands on the Merseybeat scene, as well as one of the first all-female bands in the world.
John Lennon infamously told the group that ‘girls’ were unable to play guitars. This remark motivated the band, and they proved him wrong, as The Liverbirds became one of the top attractions at Hamburg’s Star-Club and released two albums and several singles on the club’s own label.
One of those singles, a cover of Bo Diddley’s Diddley Daddy, reached number five on the German charts.
5. Beryl Bainbridge
Born in Allerton, Beryl Bainbridge was acknowledged as one of the best novelists of her generation, she was made a dame in 2000, but lost none of her black humour or rebellious image with her new literary status. Earlier in life, she had actually been expelled from Crosby’s Merchant Taylors’ Girls’ School, as she was caught with explicit poems in her pocket.
Beryl Bainbridge‘s prolific output included eighteen novels, three of which were filmed, several plays for stage and television, and many columns and reviews. She won The Guardian fiction prize and two Whitbread awards, but although five of her novels reached the Booker prize shortlist, including The Dressmaker (1973), none of them won the prize.
She bore the disappointment with a wit and detachment honed by a lifetime’s practice.
6. Stealing Sheep
The all-female Stealing Sheep have consistently been one of the city’s most inventive pop bands. They formed in 2010 and their much acclaimed debut studio album, Into the Diamond Sun, was released in 2012 by Heavenly Recordings. Their sound cleverly mixes electronic pop, disco, Italo, and 80’s synths, combined with ethereal vocal lines and obscure three-part harmonies.
The band’s live show explores audio-visual sequences, costume, movement and special effects. They are still based in Liverpool, where they collaborate with artists in their resident art-space, the Invisible Wind Factory. The band members are Rebecca Hawley (vocals/keys), Luciana Mercer (vocals/drums) and multi-instrumental vocalist Emily Lansley.
In 2019, they performed at UK festivals with a fifteen strong all-female procession, to celebrate the centenary of Suffrage, with the band seeing being female become more of a theme in their work. Stealing Sheep are currently writing their fourth album.
7. Carla Lane
Carla Lane was born in 1928 in West Derby, Liverpool. She was a writer and producer, best known for the classic Liverpool-based TV shows Bread and The Liver Birds. Both shows broke new ground, with Bread being a satirical take on 80’s dole culture in Liverpool and The Liver Birds covering the alternative lives of single women in the late 60s.
Lane was described as ‘the television writer who dared to make women funny’ and much of her work focused on strong women characters.
She was also a vegetarian dedicated to the care and welfare of animals since 1965 and established the Animal Line trust in 1990, with her friends Rita Tushingham and Linda McCartney. In 2002, Lane returned her OBE to then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in protest against animal cruelty.
8. Jodie Comer
Actor Jodie Comer is known for her many stage, television and film appearances. Her role as the protagonist of the BBC television hit series, Killing Eve, propelled her from a national treasure to international stardom.
Jodie hails from Childwall, the daughter of Merseyrail employee Donna Comer and Everton FC physiotherapist James Comer. She started acting at a local weekend drama school called CALS in the Belle Vale area of Liverpool when she was just 11 years old.
Jodie has since made appearances in series such as Waterloo Road, Holby City and Silent Witness.
9. Melanie Chisholm
The multi-talented Melanie Chisholm, more often known as ‘Mel C’, or ‘Sporty Spice’ to her fans, hit the global stage as one of the five members of the Spice Girls.
She has since become a media personality and one that people have taken to their hearts. Mel C hails from Whiston in the Borough of Knowlsey and and has been singing in bands and music projects since she was 14.
Melanie has also worked as an actress, she was nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance in Blood Brothers in the West End and starred as Mary Magdalene in a touring show of Jesus Christ Superstar.
10/ Cilla Black
Vauxhall singer, Cilla Black, conquered the world of entertainment in the 1960s and later became a much-loved media personality, hosting legendary hit shows such as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise.
Her celebrity friendships stretched far and wide, including strong links to The Beatles and Paul O’Grady. In her later years, Cilla became a regular part of the British public’s life again, when she regularly joined the Loose Women panel at lunchtimes.
She had 11 top 10 hits on the UK Singles Chart between 1963 and 1971 and her version of Anyone Who Had a Heart was the UK’s biggest-selling single by a female artist in the 1960s.
11/ Emma Rodgers
Merseyside’s Emma Rodgers is a globally acclaimed artist who has created numerous works of art that grace not only our city museums and galleries, but also our streets and public spaces.
Emma created the Cilla Black artwork on Mathew Street and the Meccano Liver Bird at Liverpool Shopping Park, Edge Lane. She was awarded the Arts & Culture Award at the Merseyside Women in Business Awards 2017.
Educated in Wirral, Emma has shown her work internationally and has also worked with Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers to create inspiring and much sought after sculptures.
12/ Kim Johnson
British Labour politician, Kim Johnson, made history by being Liverpool’s first ever black MP. She sits on the Women and Equalities Committee, Education Committee and Speaker’s Advisories Committee and has constantly fought for what is right since she took on the position back in 2019.
Prior to becoming an MP, Johnson was a Unison Shop Steward. She also held a role of creative diversity manager in the Capital of Culture bid team, representing the longest established black community in the country.
Since 2015, Johnson has been the Chairperson of Squash Liverpool, a community interest company committed to positive social change and in 2020, she became a patron of Toxteth charity organisation Mandela8.