In 1866, local officials started erecting commemorative plaques marking London sites’ connections to notable historic figures. Today, the city is home to some 950 “blue plaques”—so-called for their color—but just 14 percent of these memorials honor women. Hoping to bolster the representation of important female figures with ties to London history, English Heritage has announced plans to unveil six blue plaques honoring pioneering women—among them two spies, a military leader and a famed sculptor.
English Heritage, the charity that took over the blue plaque project in 1986, launched its “Plaques for Women” campaign in 2016. Since then, more than half of the individuals honored with plaques have been female. But as of 2018, women still made up just one-third of public nominations for blue plaque candidates, prompting the organization to put out a renewed call for female nominees.
“[T]he scheme is driven by public nomination,” Anna Eavis, curatorial director of English Heritage, told the Guardian’s Mark Brown at the time. “Although over the past two years we have managed to secure a higher percentage of proposals for women, there still aren’t enough.”
Fast forward to 2020, and “we are well on our way to receiving equal number of public nominations for men and women,” according to Eavis. “There are now more women shortlisted than men, and 2020 will see more plaques to women than we have unveiled in 20 years.”
The first woman set to be honored with a plaque is botanist and military commandant Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, who, in 1917, became chief controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, formed that same year to help bolster a shortage of manpower driven by high casualties on the Western Front.
Sent to France, the corps worked not only as cooks and servers, but also as typists, drivers, mechanics and telegraphers. To many, the idea of women performing even basic military tasks was absurd, even laughable, so Gwynne-Vaughan insisted her staff adhere to many of the trappings of male soldiers: They practiced drills, stood to attention, wore badges and used rank titles.
In 1918, Gwynne-Vaughan, credited with shaping her charges into “the best disciplined and best turned-out women’s organization in the country,” was appointed head of the Women’s Royal Air Force. Her plaque will hang on the London building where she lived for nearly 50 years.
Among the other honorees are two secret agents active during World War II. Christine Granville, who was born in Poland but relocated to England, became the first female agent of the Special Operations Executive, an underground army that sought to cripple the enemy through sabotage and subversion. Among her many feats were skiing out of Nazi-occupied Poland with evidence of plans for Operation Barbarossa—code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union—hidden in her gloves. Granville’s blue plaque will be affixed to the London hotel where she lived before her untimely death; a spurned lover murdered her in 1952.
Noor Inayat Khan, known as “Britain’s first Muslim war heroine,” also worked for the Special Operations Executive. She served as a radio operator for a resistance network in Paris but was later captured and executed by the Gestapo. She and her family once lived in a house in London’s Bloomsbury’s district, where her plaque will now hang.
Yet another plaque will mark the home of Barbara Hepworth, an artist who produced some of England’s earliest abstract sculptures beginning in the 1920s. She is known for exploring relationships not only between forms, but between people; the motif of mother and child appears frequently in her works. Operating within the largely male-dominated art world, Hepworth became a leading international sculptor, showcasing her works around the globe.
The final two plaques pay tribute not to specific people, but to organizations. One will be erected at the former headquarters of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was founded in 1897 and played a pivotal role in organizing the campaign for women’s right to vote. The second plaque will mark the London headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union, formed in 1903 by suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst. In contrast to the NUWSS’ more moderate tactics, the Social and Political Union used militant measures—including stone-throwing, window-breaking and hunger-striking—to force officials to pay attention to their cause.
There is still “a long road” to fully addressing the gender imbalances in the blue plaque initiative, says Eavis in the announcement. But with the six new memorials, reminders of women’s history are well on their way to becoming a visible fixture on London’s streets.