BBC's 20th Century Icon Shortlist Doesn't Feature Any Women & It's A Major Problem

by Lauren Sharkey
BBC/72 Films

If you're looking for an example to prove that the patriarchy is still alive and well, look to how the public voted on a recent BBC show. On Feb. 5, BBC Two aired a live show called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century. The programme was a culmination of a month-long search for the greatest individual of that era. While a number of women were included in the longlist, precisely zero women made the BBC's 20th century icon shortlist.

Instead, they were cast aside for an all-male line-up. World War II codebreaker Alan Turing was voted the overall winner, beating Martin Luther King, Ernest Shackleton, David Bowie, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, and Muhammad Ali.

Turing did of course deserve to be celebrated. His wartime efforts likely saved a number of lives and the story of how society viewed his sexuality at the time should never be forgotten. But neither should the achievements of 20th century women be forgotten either. With feminism being such a "hot topic" right now, I can't be the only one to think it's odd that the UK public dismissed so many notable women.

The BBC longlist was split into several categories. The leaders category included Margaret Thatcher while the scientists section featured women such as Marie Curie and Tu YouYou (who discovered a new malaria treatment).

BBC/72 Films

Then there were entertainers like Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe, activists including Helen Keller and Emmeline Pankhurst, and explorers Jane Goodall and Gertrude Bell (the first Western woman to map out and travel Arabia). The final two categories were sports, featuring women like tennis player Billie Jean King and wheelchair racer Tanni-Grey Thompson, and artists and writers which saw the inclusion of Virgina Woolf.

All of these women were disregarded in one way or another during their career, so it's unbelievably disappointing to see a repeat pattern all these years later. During the programme, Clare Balding — who was there supporting boxer Ali's nomination — was asked about the lack of female finalists.

"I'm a bit disappointed, but not surprised," she replied. "I think you can't be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight. I think the 20th century largely was the history of men told by men." She went on to say that women have now "started to find their voice and started to find their feet" and that a similar programme airing in 50 years' time would likely include Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, and more.

The response on social media to Balding's statement was mixed. Many people agreed with it, and I do too. Partially. The 20th century was dominated by men. Women's achievements during that period were either ignored, co-opted by male colleagues, or even demonised in some cases. But that doesn't mean it's right that a vote cast in 2019 should showcase the same sexist attitudes.

The accolades of most of the women included in the BBC longlist are known to the majority of modern day people. Voters made a choice to ignore these women once again. They cannot say they did not know about the individuals included in each category. BBC Two has aired several programmes in recent weeks to explain why each person deserved a nomination. Alternatively, a quick Google search would have told them everything they needed to know.

BBC/72 Films

But blaming the average person isn't the solution. Society is still clearly receiving the message that women's achievements are nothing in comparison to men's. Although a select group of people recognise this isn't true, it's the unconverted that need to be preached to. The people who still say female sports players aren't as good as men. The young people who still grow up unable to name five prominent historical women off the top of their heads. The people who display everyday sexism without even realising.

The BBC's programme may have started out with the best intentions, but the outcome was a sad reflection of society's views. Changing those views isn't going to be a quick process. It's going to take months, maybe years, of government-funded campaigns, of media organisations bringing women to the forefront, and of average people pushing back against inequality.

Let's hope that this list is the last to ever feature such a gender imbalance. New £50 note, I'm looking at you to set an example.