The 21 most extraordinary women of 2021

From the bright new tennis star who lit up Wimbledon (and the world) to medical geniuses, charity pioneers and fearless campaigners, we celebrate the women who have brought joy, hope and empowerment to our lives over the past 12 months.

2021’s golden girl: Emma Raducanu

Emma Raducanu

It’s been a phenomenal year for new tennis superstar Emma. After making her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon, the 19-year-old British number one went on to win the US Open in an unforgettable match that had 9.2 million viewers in the UK cheering her on to victory.

Not only did the teenager win the title without dropping a set, Emma became the first British woman to win a Grand Slam in 44 years. After her triumph, she was personally congratulated by the Queen, rubbed shoulders with the A-List at New York’s Met Gala, and sponsorship deals with Tiffany and Dior followed.

Most significantly, a new generation of young tennis players discovered a role model. ‘It’s been an amazing year for women’s sport and I hope many young girls are inspired to participate more,’ says Emma.

As an ambassador for LTA Youth – an initiative to encourage children to get involved with tennis – she’s an inspiration for future champions: ‘It’s giving children great opportunities to get playing,’ she says. ‘It’s a really positive time for the sport.’ Thanks to the Raducanu effect, the government has announced a £22 million funding package to repair and improve public tennis courts in parks across the country.

Now ranked world number 19, and tipped to be the next Serena Williams, Emma will compete in next month’s Australian Open – with the entire nation behind her.

The voice for unsung heroes of the pandemic: Kate Garraway

Kate Garraway

The honesty and courage that Good Morning Britain presenter Kate Garraway has shown as her husband Derek continues to battle the devastating effects of Covid has moved many of us and has given a voice to the thousands of families coping with the long-term impact of the virus on a loved one’s health.

In her heartbreaking documentary Finding Derek and her bestselling memoir The Power of Hope, Kate bravely chronicled the emotional rollercoaster her family has endured since Derek contracted Covid in March 2020, leaving him in hospital for a year, including several terrifying months in a medically induced coma. ‘Covid continues to be isolating for a lot of people and I would love to think that sharing my experiences helps someone out there,’ says Kate.

Derek is now at home but requires round-the-clock care and his road to recovery will be long. Throughout their ordeal, Kate has remained a rock for her and Derek’s children, Darcey, 15, and Billy, 12. ‘My kids have been so strong; I’m immensely proud of them. They’re a driving force that keeps me going.’

Kate’s resilience has been an inspiration to the thousands who watch her every day, and she says the messages of support have been a comfort. ‘I’m so lucky to have the job that I do and it feels as though I know viewers as friends,’ she says.

Looking ahead, Kate remains positive. ‘My hope is that Derek can start to live his life more fully. We’re lucky to have him with us and have hope for the future.’

Britain’s literal shot in the arm: Catherine Johnstone

Catherine Johnstone

More than 12.4 million people have volunteered in some capacity since the pandemic began – and we have Catherine Johnstone, the chief executive of the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) to thank for it.

Under her leadership the RVS launched NHS Volunteer Responders, with 750,000 individuals stepping forward to assist with over two million requests for help from vulnerable people. In the past 12 months, working in partnership with St John Ambulance, the RVS recruited 98,000 volunteers – aka Jabs Army – to assist in the rollout of the Covid vaccine.

‘Volunteers are an integral part of the vaccination programme,’ says Catherine. ‘With the existing NHS capacity there was no way we were going to vaccinate at the pace that scientists said we needed.’

Elsewhere, the RVS also established the Virtual Village Hall, providing online activities for 44,000 people isolated at home; and deployed staff and volunteers to make hundreds of thousands of welfare calls, distribute emergency food packs and assist the NHS with patient transport. The organisation’s response to the pandemic has been its largest since it was founded in 1938.

Mobilising volunteer armies is a huge logistical feat. ‘You have to work calmly, logically and with purpose,’ says Catherine. Her job now is to keep volunteers motivated – ‘I’m in it for the long haul’ – but she continues to be amazed by the response of the British ‘It truly is a volunteer revolution.’

The clean-air crusader: Rosamund KissiDebrah

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah

For years, Rosamund – co-founder of the Ella Roberta Foundation – fought to keep her daughter Ella alive as she suffered extreme asthma attacks. ‘She could be playing football one day, then on another, could collapse on the street,’ says Rosamund, from Lewisham, South London. Ella was hospitalised 27 times in her last two years of life – Rosamund resuscitated her on countless occasions– and died in 2013, aged just nine. Rosamund says, ‘I could have cried for ever but I forced myself to stop.’

She was determined to uncover what had caused Ella’s death – and prevent more like it. Learning that Ella’s final fatal attack had coincided with a big spike in Lewisham’s air pollution, Rosamund began tracking Ella’s past episodes with data from local pollution-monitoring stations. Last December, after years of campaigning by Rosamund, an inquest ruled that air pollution had contributed to Ella’s death. Although it’s believed to be behind 40,000 deaths a year in the UK alone, Ella became the first person to have this cause recognised on her death certificate. In April the coroner from Ella’s inquest issued a report urging the government to reduce air pollution limits in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

At the recent COP26 summit, Rosamund was made an ambassador for the WHO BreatheLife clean air campaign. Her 14-year-old twins looked on as she received a standing ovation, a ‘massive moment’, she says. ‘But my goal now is to get “clean air” listed as a children’s right.’

The food-waste revolutionaries: Tessa Clarke and Saasha CelestialOne

Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One

If things go as planned for business partners Tessa (right) and Saasha, household food waste will soon become consigned to the past.

‘Every year a landmass larger than China is used to grow food that is never eaten,’ says Tessa, who co-founded food-sharing app Olio with Saasha in 2015. ‘The global food industry accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions – and yet we throw away a third of all the food we produce.’

Today Olio – which connects people on a hyper-local level to share their unwanted food, instead of throwing it straight in the bin – has grown to five million users in 60 countries, and so far 34 million portions of food have been shared.

‘You might think, “Who wants two lemons, or a bunch of bananas?” But half of all the food listed  on Olio is requested by someone nearby within 21 minutes,’ says Tessa.

What’s more, during the pandemic, sharing on Olio increased fivefold. ‘Olio’s beating heart is the community that doorstep Over 40 per cent of our users say they have made friends through using the app.’

This year Tessa and Saasha raised just over £31 million in funding to accelerate the app’s growth, launched their first TV advertising campaign, and added a new section to the app for users to lend and borrow everyday household items.

‘We want to try and encourage people to stop wasting any of the world’s precious resources, whether it be food or non-food,’ says Tessa. ‘We have an unashamedly bold ambition: one billion Olio-ers by 2030.’

The record-breaking Paralympian: Dame Sarah Storey

Dame Sarah Storey

When Paralympic cyclist Dame Sarah Storey powered past the finish line of the C4-5 road race at the Tokyo Paralympics in September, the history-making moment hadn’t quite hit home. ‘It took some time for the enormity to sink in. This was the fabled medal – the crucial one that’s the jewel in the crown!’

That medal – her 17th Paralympic gold – made her the most successful Paralympian in British history, having competed in eight consecutive Paralympics, winning a total of 28 medals. Sarah went to Tokyo to defend three titles – the Individual Pursuit, Time Trial and Road Race – and won them all.

‘My medals are all kept in a secret location to get out only on special occasions,’ she says.

In a career that spans 30 years and two different sports (Sarah started out as a Paralympic swimmer, winning six medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games), her achievements are nothing short of legendary, with 40 World Championship titles and 77 – yes, 77 – world records to her name.

Her longevity, she says, is down to the fact that she loves what she does. ‘Some athletes talk about the sacrifices they’ve had to make. I haven’t had to sacrifice anything.’

And she has no intention of retiring anytime soon. As well as mentoring young female riders with her husband, cyclist Barney Storey, she is busy training for her next event, the Track and Road World Championships – and hopefully the Paris 2024 Paralympics. ‘There is one other athlete who could possibly break the 17 gold medals record at Paris,’ she says. ‘But I hope to be on the start line to add to the record myself.’

The conductor lowering the ladder for women in music: Alice Farnham

Alice Farnham

World-renowned conductor Alice Farnham is on a mission: to empower more women to join her in a conducting career. ‘This idea that it has to be a man on the podium has been so ingrained that women just couldn’t see themselves in that position. I thought: let’s change that,’ she says.

As artistic director of the Women Conductors programme at the Royal Philharmonic Society, Alice has worked with over 500 female musicians, giving them the chance to try their hand at conducting.

‘My main focus is to give them the confidence to stand in front of people and be a bigger version of themselves,’ says Alice, who has worked with the Royal Opera House, English National Ballet and the BBC Concert Orchestra. ‘The programme has had a big effect – many of them have become conductors, or are training to become one.’

Alice’s work has been so successful that, this year, the Royal Philharmonic Society launched the next chapter of the Women Conductors programme: a groundbreaking new mentoring project dedicated to nurturing female conductors at the start of their career.

‘There is a huge amount of pressure on new conductors. We’re giving them a platform to work with a professional orchestra, in a space where they can try new things and not feel judged,’ says Alice.

Her ultimate ambition is that one day as many women will conduct orchestras as men. ‘I think we’ve got a way to go. Until then, I will be championing these women and making sure their careers blossom.’

The anti-plastic pioneer: Celia Pool

Celia Pool

We all know the importance of reducing our plastic usage – but Celia Pool is already hard at work tackling the problem.

On discovering the huge environmental impact of plastic period products (each year 1.3 billion tampon applicators end up in landfill or in our oceans), Celia was inspired to create Dame, a sustainable period-care brand featuring reusable and plastic-free period products.

Since its launch in 2019, Dame has saved 130 million pieces of single-use plastic from going to waste, and its award-winning ranges are now stocked at Boots, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. This year, online retail giant Asos started stocking Dame products – a natural fit for Asos’s eco-conscious Generation Z customer base – and Celia won a government Women in Innovation Award, receiving a £50,000 grant to launch Damechanges, a project mto mentor the female innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

‘It’s really exciting that we’re actually changing an industry,’ says Celia. ‘We’re going up against some of the biggest brands that have been on the shelves for 30 years. We’re thrilled that we are taking market share from them.’

What’s more, for 2022, Dame has another gamechanging product in the pipeline – period-proof pants that are 3D-knitted to reduce fabric waste.

Bringing equality to the menopause: Nimco Ali and Mika Simmons

British women will be healthier if activist Nimco Ali (right) and actress Mika Simmons have their way. In March, they launched the Ginsburg Women’s Health Board (GWHB), which aims to revolutionise British women’s healthcare. ‘Women’s health issues are often sidelined,’ says Mika. ‘We want all women to be taken seriously.’ Female life expectancy is higher than men in the UK, but women are more likely to wait longer for a health diagnosis, and research into conditions that only affect women are typically underfunded. This inequality – known as the gender health gap – is what the GWHB is fighting to eliminate. ‘Behind the health gap is the idea that women’s bodies can withstand more pain. That is wrong and needs to change,’ says Nimco.

Both women are already passionate campaigners for women’s health: Mika is the founder of the Lady Garden Foundation, the charity she set up following the death of her mother from ovarian cancer, while Nimco is the CEO of The Five Foundation, which works to end female genital mutilation. ‘As an activist I’ve learnt that it’s better to work with the government,’ says Nimco. ‘I don’t complain, I campaign to change things.’

Their strategy is already working. In September GWHB launched the #FreeHRT campaign, supporting MP Carolyn Harris’s bill to axe unfair hormone replacement therapy prescription costs. In November, the government announced women would only have to pay for the prescription once a year.

With the support of Professor Geeta Nargund, Nimco and Mika have outlined three policies the GWHB wants to tackle next: fast-tracking gynaecological referrals, ending the IVF postcode lottery and introducing fertility education to the secondary school curriculum. ‘We believe these are achievable,’ says Mika.

The pop star speaking up for the planet: Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding

In a passionate address to world leaders at last month’s COP26 climate conference, singer and UN Environment Ambassador Ellie Goulding urged decision makers to start taking real action on climate change: ‘We’ve heard the promises and the pledges… we are done with hearing words and seeing no action’. She’s determined to clean up her own industry too. In October, her groundbreaking Brightest Blue tour set a new standard for the music industry: all venues used renewable energy sources to power the lights and sound, plastic use was eliminated backstage, and all merchandise was made from organic cotton and had biodegradable packaging. It paves the way for other artists to demand promoters and venues address the carbon footprint of the live music industry.

Since joining forces with the UN Environment Programme in 2017, Ellie has used her global platform to amplify the voices of other climate activists, shining a light on key issues – from deforestation to glacier erosion in the Arctic – and calling on her 14 million Instagram followers to play their part in fighting climate change and become ‘patrons of this planet’.

‘We know we must act now to secure a liveable planet for our future, otherwise it will be too late,’ says Ellie. ‘I need every woman to know that she can play a part. Women are the best engineers of positive change. They bring it. If you want proof, look at my fellow Extraordinary Women. Between them they have changed attitudes, they have changed laws and they are changing the outcomes for millions of us and future generations. I’m deeply honoured to be alongside them.’

The warrior curing Alzheimer’s: Professor Zoe Kourtzi

Professor Zoe Kourtzi

Currently a dementia diagnosis can take years – but the work of Professor Kourtzi and her team aims to slash that to a day. As scientific director of the EDoN initiative, Prof Kourtzi is leading an ambitious project spearheaded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. This summer, they announced the development of an artificial- intelligence system that can diagnose dementia from a single brain scan. A powerful algorithm compares the scan with those from thousands of existing dementia patients. The system can detect patterns and match them to patient outcomes, indicating whether a patient is likely to remain stable, slowly deteriorate or will need immediate treatment.

‘When I realised the potential of our work, I knew we had a responsibility to use these tools to transform healthcare,’ she says. The team is now working with doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital memory clinic in Cambridge, testing the AI approach in a real-world setting.

As an estimated one million people in the UK will be living with dementia by 2025, these findings are crucial. Prof Kourtzi’s ambition is that eventually AI technology will be able to predict dementia earlier, using data collected by wearable devices. ‘Diseases that cause dementia start in the brain years before symptoms start; research suggests 40 per cent of cases could be avoided or delayed by lifestyle changes.

So if we can detect it before people even start experiencing symptoms, that will be an incredible breakthrough.’

The one-woman financial genius: Anne Boden

Anne Boden

As the only woman in the UK to found a bank, Anne Boden is used to bucking industry trends. Few believed she would succeed when she set out to launch Starling, a new digital bank, in 2014 – despite her decades of experience in the industry. ‘When it comes to financial tech, the 30-year-old guy with the beard gets the funding, not a middle-aged Welsh woman,’ says Anne, 61.

She proved the naysayers wrong, got the funding and, in 2021, Starling is now the first digital bank to become profitable. It has 2.5 million personal customers (a new account is opened every 38 seconds), and while other digital banks have struggled due to the pandemic, Starling’s revenue rose by nearly 600 per cent – it now holds £8 billion of the nation’s deposits.

Starling’s smart responses to unprecedented challenges providing £2 billion in loans to help small and medium businesses survive, issuing debit cards capped for security for people isolating at home who needed others to buy their essentials – helps explain why it won Best British Bank for the fourth year running (one of 11 industry accolades it has scooped this year). Anne is now planning to expand Starling into Europe.

‘It is so difficult for women entrepreneurs to get past the first stage, to win the funding, to find the backing, that when we do, we’re so well tested and so well prepared, we go so fast. Our businesses fly.’

The original sustainable fashion trailblazer: Anya Hindmarch

Anya Hindmarch

Ever since creating her iconic ‘I’m Not a Plastic Bag’ bag in 2007, designer Anya has been at the forefront of sustainable fashion.

And this year, she’s taken things to another level with her Return to Nature project, a groundbreaking collection of bags made from an innovative leather that is fully compostable and biodegradable. ‘There’s no waste in nature. If an apple falls off a tree it breaks down and nourishes the soil. I thought, could I make a bag like that?’

Anya has also tackled a bigger and more immediate issue: despite the plastic bag ban, nearly half a billion single-use plastic bags were sold last year. Anya’s solution? The Universal shopper, a ‘next-generation’ bag for life, which is more practical– and stylish– than the usual paper or plastic alternatives. Made from recycled plastic, the oversized tote launched in Sainsbury’s this month and will be available in Waitrose in January. Each £10 bag is guaranteed for ten years and there’s even a built-in returns pouch so at the end of its life you can pop it in the post and it will be recycled locally.

‘Working with supermarkets, I knew we could have a bigger impact,’ says Anya, who is in talks to roll out the shopper globally. ‘We have made a product that solves an everyday problem. It’s all about small wins. Collectively they can be gamechanging.’

The gamechanger for working women: Anna Whitehouse

The way we work could be revolutionised for ever thanks to Anna Whitehouse. After her request for flexible working hours was rejected in 2015, Anna – aka Mother Pukka, the parenting blogger, author and presenter launched Flex Appeal, the campaign to improve flexible working opportunities for ‘It’s not a maternal campaign,’ says Anna. ‘We need to break free of it being seen as “Mummy wanting to see more of her Weetabix-spattered child”.’ As such, she teamed up with other organisations including the Trades Union Congress and Sir Robert McAlpine, the UK’s leading construction company, to form the Flex For All coalition.

This year saw its first major win: in June the Flexible Working Bill was introduced, giving employees the right to request flexible hours from day one. ‘The coalition had a huge hand in that,’ says Anna. ‘It’s progress. Now we want to introduce a default right to flexible working, not just the right to request it, in next year’s Employment Bill.’

To convince employers, Flex Appeal and Sir Robert McAlpine commissioned a landmark study, unveiled in November, into the economic impact of flexible working. It found that a 50 per cent increase in flexible working could unlock £55 billion in benefits to the UK economy. ‘To put a number on it is important, there has to be a fiscal argument for flexible working, too,’ says Anna, who has formulated a 30-year plan to transform the working landscape. ‘I’m not stopping until things change.’

The campaigner tackling the taboo of miscarriage: Myleene Klass

In her powerful documentary Miscarriage and Me, the musician and presenter bravely opened up about her experience of suffering four devastating miscarriages – first revealed in a YOU cover story – in the hope that it might help other women affected by miscarriage.

When the documentary aired in October it was ‘like opening the floodgates’, she says. On social media, there was an outpouring of women sharing their experiences. ‘So many women – and people in the public eye – have come forward to say, “It’s happened to me, too”. It feels like there is a movement,’ says Myleene. ‘One in four women will experience miscarriage; it’s not something we should feel we have to keep secret any more.’

As well as busting this taboo, Myleene’s documentary shone a light on the urgent need for better miscarriage care. ‘Women shouldn’t have to suffer three miscarriages before receiving medical help. That’s barbaric,’ says Myleene, who has worked closely with MP Olivia Blake and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to ask the government to implement new guidelines to better support women.

‘We’re not there yet but the fact we are being heard in parliament – and changes to legislation could be passed early next year – is incredible,’ she says. ‘Change is happening and our voices are being heard. Filming the documentary was very difficult for me, because it’s so painful. But now I feel like I’ve turned that pain into power.’

The small idea giving millions their dignity back: Sali Hughes and Jo Jones

Powered by the belief that being clean is a human right, beauty journalist Sali Hughes (left) and beauty PR Jo Jones had the idea to leverage their contacts in the industry in order to provide essential hygiene products to people who can’t afford them.

The charity they launched in 2018, Beauty Banks, now supplies hundreds of food banks, women’s refuges and homeless shelters with the kind of personal care and hygiene products that most of us take for granted: toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo.

‘It’s not just about soap. It’s providing people with dignity, self-respect and confidence. When Covid hit, it became a matter of safety, too,’ says Jo. ‘Our focus this year has been on servicing the demand, which has increased fourfold.’

The charity now delivers roughly 300 boxes of hygiene essentials each week, made up from corporate donations, and items people buy via Beauty Banks’ online wish list or add to ‘Beauty Spot’ donation bins in Superdrug stores. What’s donated locally, stays local. ‘We want to build a community of people who feel as passionate about this project as we do.’

Breaking down the boys’ club door: Alex Scott

Tipped to be the next Gary Lineker, sports presenter Alex Scott has made her mark this year, co-presenting the BBC’s Olympic coverage and joining Football Focus as its first female host in the show’s 47-year history.

‘I have absolutely loved putting my stamp on the iconic programme this year,’ says Alex, a former professional footballer who played for Arsenal. Last month she won Pundit of the Year at the Football Supporters’ Association awards. ‘It means so much to me because it was voted for by the fans, and I was the first woman in history to win this category.’

Broadcasting live to millions during the Tokyo Olympics, Alex more than held her own next to veteran Clare Balding, with viewers loving the duo’s banter during the daily highlights show. ‘I thrive under pressure, and live TV is what I love most about my job,’ she says. ‘I think to be in the nation’s living rooms every single evening for such a long period of time was really special; I loved coming off-air and seeing so many messages from the public enjoying the show’. This evening (Sunday 19 December) she’s back on our screens, co-presenting Sports Personality of the Year on BBC1, another ‘pinch-me’ moment to add to her career-changing year. ‘I remember watching the awards as a little girl, so to be on stage presenting is just mind-blowing.’

The saviour of theatre: Shriti Vadera

The first ever female chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Baroness Shriti Vadera joined the organisation this year, determined to see the RSC survive and thrive in the wake of the pandemic.

‘In these challenging circumstances we continue to produce brilliant creative work, deliver our education programmes to improve literacy in schools and keep training the next generation of theatre makers,’ she says.

Innovation is key to her vision for the RSC. ‘Our recently launched 37 Plays is a nationwide invitation to create a new collected works inspired by Shakespeare, representing all the communities we serve,’ she says. ‘While rooted in our history, we also strive to be a living, dynamic organisation that is innovative and unafraid to experiment.’ If anyone can steer the RSC through its next chapter, it’s her. With decades of experience leading institutes to success, Shriti’s career has seen her smash through one glass ceiling after another, holding senior positions in the government and UK banking industry (she is currently chair of Prudential). Now she brings her formidable talents to fly the flag for British arts.

‘We have a claim on the greatest playwright and the best-known plays in the history of world literature. The RSC is based in Stratford-upon-Avon but the brand is global,’ she says. ‘We want to touch, inspire and transform as many lives as we can through our work.’

The art innovator: Maria Balshaw

This year, director of the Tate Maria Balshaw led a triumphant return for the institution and its four world-renowned art galleries.

One of the UK’s most important cultural establishments, welcoming millions of visitors every year, it has been a critical 12 months for the Tate. Against the odds, Maria has overseen a powerful programme of exhibitions in 2021, including the sellout Yayoi Kusama show at London’s Tate Modern and retrospectives of Paula Rego and Hogarth’s genre-defining work.

‘Art and culture play vital roles in our lives, and many of us have been craving that irreplaceable feeling of being face-to-face with a great work of art,’ she says.

Maria became the first female director of the Tate in 2017, and she is committed to making a career in the arts more accessible to all. In July she unveiled a pioneering new scheme for young people, creating 50 paid apprenticeships with the Tate over the next three years. With an incredible line-up for 2022 announced – including the much anticipated Cézanne exhibition – the Tate’s future under Maria’s expert leadership is looking bright