Remarkable women of Mayfair and Belgravia

As people around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, we tell the stories of six female residents of Mayfair and Belgravia who not only broke free of the gender stereotypes of their day, but whose work has influenced society or culture.

Florence Nightingale

10 South Street, Mayfair
 
The founder of modern nursing was born in 1820 to a middle-class family who expected her to marry and raise a family. But the young Nightingale had other ideas. With an academic mind and a powerful desire to help the poor, she was to revolutionise nursing, making it a respectable profession for women. It was her work in the army hospitals of the Crimean War, where she transformed sanitation, nutrition and hospital design, that earned her fame, and the nickname ‘The Lady with the Lamp’. Upon her return to the UK, she founded the first secular nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital, and later a school of midwifery at King’s College, both of which became blueprints for future institutions.

Margaret Thatcher

73 Chester Square, Belgravia
 
The path from grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister is hardly well trodden, but Thatcher was not someone to be constrained by precedent. Even to become an MP was no straightforward task for a woman in the 1950s, particularly one with children; in 1954, she was rejected as a Conservative candidate because it was felt a young mother couldn’t do the job. But 20 years later she was challenging Edward Heath for leadership of the party; to the surprise of many, she won. Her era-defining politics are divisive to this day, but her impact on the nation is incontestable.

Mary Shelley

24 Chester Square, Belgravia
 
The daughter of women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin was never going to be a wallflower, but to become a serious writer in the early 19th century, as Shelley did at a young age, was beyond the reach of most women, regardless of their intellectual abilities. During her lifetime she was respected as a novelist, short story writer, essayist, biographer and travel writer, but today she is largely known only for her gothic novel Frankenstein.

The Queen

17 Bruton Street, Mayfair
 
Queen Elizabeth II was born just off Berkeley Square in her childhood home on Bruton Street. Although she is prevented from taking an active part in politics by her role as head of state, she has epitomised the powerful woman since she inherited the throne in 1952. From her weekly meetings with every prime minister since Winston Churchill, to addressing the United Nations, she has been a constant female presence in the corridors of power.

Vivien Leigh

54 Eaton Square, Belgravia
 
During her 30-year career, Vivien Leigh won two Academy Awards, for her performances as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. However, most of her acting happened on stage, where she played Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet, Lady Macbeth and many more famous parts. A consummate professional, Leigh played as many roles as possible to perfect her craft. But all too often, reviewers saw her beauty before her abilities as an actor.

Vita Sackville-West

182 Ebury Street, Belgravia
 
A successful novelist, poet, journalist and member of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, Sackville-West was twice awarded the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature. Her convention-busting novels The Edwardians and All Passions Spent are her best-known works today, but she was also a biographer, most famously of Joan of Arc. She was awarded the Companion of Honour in 1947 for services to literature.