Rediscovering a lost Harrogate legend for International Women’s Day

Across the world this week, thousands of Soroptimists marked International Women’s Day with hundreds of activities and events. For Harrogate members, the day was more special than most as they celebrated the life of a Harrogate woman whose achievements globally won her the MBE.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 9:06 am
The founder of Harrogate Soroptimists, Dr Kathleen Rutherford MBE, has been remembered for her role in promoting women with a new brown plaque. (Picture supplied by Hugo Wharton)
The founder of Harrogate Soroptimists, Dr Kathleen Rutherford MBE, has been remembered for her role in promoting women with a new brown plaque. (Picture supplied by Hugo Wharton)

The fanfare may not have been quite the same thanks to the pandemic but the recent unveiling of a brown plaque on a quiet Harrogate street represented a big moment in the history of recognising the achievements of women.

Timed to mark International Women’s Day, the understated sign on the stone gateway at the driveway of a house on York Road commemorates the life of Dr Kathleen Rutherford who was at the forefront of women taking on leading roles to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged for nearly 50 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s.

This remarkable figure was the founding president of the Soroptimists in Harrogate but her work also transformed lives across the globe, working in the slums of Naples and in leper colonies in Africa, as well as helping refugees in Europe and Palestine

A life-long pacifist, such was her international stature, Dr Rutherford was invited by Hitler to a Nuremberg Rally in her bid for peace before the Second World War.

Despite receiving recognition in her own lifetime for her work in under-developed countries - she was awarded the MBE in 1970 - her legend had somewhat faded since her death in 1975.

That was until the present Soroptimists International in the town linked up with a journalist, an historian and the Harrogate Civic Society to blow away the cobwebs of her story and dust off her reputation for a new generation.

Valerie Hills of the modern day Soroptimists in Harrogate, said: “We know there are others out there, lost in time, who also deserve to be remembered but Dr Kathleen’s memory deserves to live on. She was an unashamed idealist, internationalist and committed Quaker striving to make a difference through raising advocacy and action.”

The road to the new commemoration in Harrogate of Dr Rutherford was almost as complex as her life story.

In 2019 Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District Club received an email from journalist Nicky Harley, whose mission is to increase the number of women recognised on plaques by bringing attention to the ‘Forgotten Women’.

After initial research by club member Rachel Richardson, the Harrogate Soroptimists approached the Harrogate Civic Society. Encouraged and guided by local historian, Malcolm Neesam, the club held an International Women’s Day event just before last year’s first lockdown, attended by Soroptimists from across Yorkshire to showcase Dr Rutherford’s amazing life and achievements.

The end result is the new plaque, timed to mark not only International Women’s Day but the 100th anniversary of Soroptimist International.

Valerie Hills said: “Dr Katheleen’s was a name well known to the club as one of the founding members in 1933 but there was little known about the person.It emerged that she was made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Harrogate and there was a Calendar programme made about her life on Yorkshire Television in 1970. Her’s was a life of extraordinary achievement.

"Our members continue to follow in the footsteps of those who went before them, actively supporting women and children throughout the world.”

Dr Kathleen Rutherford: Looking back on an extraordinary life

There are notable women in history, then there is Dr Kathleen Rutherford MBE.

Born in 1896 at time before women had the vote and very few became medical practitioners, nonetheless Kathleen went on to work in medical practice with her father and brothers at their home in Harrogate.

In 1933, she became one of the founding members and first president of Harrogate’s Soroptimists Club.

Later that same decade, she helped organise the relocation of Basque children fleeing the Spanish Civil War.

Dr Kathleen offered her medical expertise and knowledge to those in need across the world including Italy, Uganda, Biafra and Palestine.

In 1962 Dr Rutherford was left a legacy of £42,000 (£750,000 in today’s money) but gave most of it away to Famine Relief, War on Want, Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Save the Children fund, Leprosy and Harold Styan Boys Club in Harrogate.

She also joined the first official party of British doctors invited to China, paving the way for advances in medicine and global understanding.

Factfile: What is International Women’s Day?

This year’s events for International Women’s Day highlighted the economic, political and social achievements of women, while raising awareness of the work still to be done to build a better world for women and girls.

Held annually on March 8, the first such event took place in 1911.

The campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose To Challenge’ with the hashtag #ChooseToChallenge.

Organisers say a challenged world is an alert world - and from challenge comes change.

The different ways groups and individuals can take part include hosting an event, running a campaign, launching an initiative, reporting on achievement and/or donating to a female-focused charity.

No one government, NGO, charity, corporation, academic institution, women’s network, or media hub is solely responsible for International Women’s Day.

The day belongs to all groups collectively everywhere.

For more information on International Women’s Day, go to:

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