Belfast Telegraph

From politics to outer space, here are my ladies of the year

By Jane Graham

Yes, it's that time again, when Northern Ireland puts the kettle on and settles round the fire, face radiant in the glow of fairy lights and Jo Malone pomegranate candles, to find out which esteemed ladies have made this column's Women of the Year list.

I think we all agree that in an ever-changing, often frightening world, it's more comforting than ever to hold on to established rituals, like this list I've been doing for at least three years now, which always attracts hearty feedback.

I reserve special affection for the tweet I got last year telling me I didn't have a single good woman on the list and it had betrayed a repugnant bias for blasphemers and criminals. Let's hope I can summon such spirited chutzpah among readers this year.

Nicola Sturgeon

Thanks mainly to the general election opposition leaders' debates - so-called due to the brave decision of David Cameron to weasel out of them - 2015 was like the year female politicians really came to the fore.

While Ed and Nigel opted for the usual adversarial cliche-swap shop, the Green's Natalie Bennett, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon spoke with passion and compassion, displaying balance and common sense.

And it struck us all that politics might be more palatable if it could be about something more noble than belittling rivals and second-guessing the electorate.

Sturgeon, in particular, stole headlines around the UK, championed as an inspiring example of what a truly gender-balanced parliament might sound like.

As it was, only the Scots could vote for her - and they did, in spectacular numbers. An unprecedented 56 out of a possible 59 SNP MPs filed into the Commons after the final count.

Amy Poehler

To know her is to love her. For all those unenlightened souls not yet alert to the joys of her sitcom, Parks and Recreation, 2015 was the year many were introduced to American actress/comedienne Amy Poehler when she provided perhaps the most perfectly cast Pixar voice ever, as Joy in the wondrous Inside Out.

Along with her great friend Tina Fey, with whom she has performed some of the funniest sketches and Golden Globes-hosting of the last decade, Poehler is convincing hordes of hitherto sceptics that women really are as funny as men.

Goretti Horgan

The Derry-based human rights campaigner has fought tirelessly for the extension of the 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland, using her enviable tenacity to draw attention to the injustice of a law uniquely pugnacious in this part of the UK.

She grabbed the spotlight for her cause in July when she challenged the PSNI to arrest her for obtaining abortion pills, and last month celebrated the court decision that the current, inhumane Northern Ireland law was a breach of human rights (funny that).

This just months after Alistair Ross' attempt to tighten the Northern Ireland law even further was beaten by just two votes in Stormont. Power on Goretti.

Helen Sharman

There was much excitement this week when Major Tim Peake became, in many headlines, "the first Brit" to launch into outer space. Except he wasn't. He was the first British astronaut employed by the European Space Agency, but Helen Sharman was the first Brit - she visited the Mir space station a mere 24 years ago.

Which may be why, of all this week's talking heads, her commentary, both uniquely empathetic and thrilling, stood out. And sent thousands of us on to Wikipedia to read of the exploits of an exceptional, near-forgotten 27-year-old woman from Sheffield who boldly went where no Brit had ever gone before.

Saudi's first step to true democracy

As a bastion of democracy, the first ever election in Saudi Arabia open to female candidates and voters didn't quite make the grade.

Only 900 of the 6,440 candidates were women and due to suffocating swathes of red tape and a lack of transport (women are still banned from driving), only 10% of registered voters were female.

Oh, yeah. And female candidates weren't allowed to meet any male voters.

But the historical election of Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi to the council of Madrakah in Mecca is to be celebrated; a crack of light and hope in a country where democracy still has a mountain to climb.

Genuine hero AP to raise the roof

It's tough choosing the most exciting event in Northern Ireland this week - the coronation of Arlene Foster as DUP leader, or BBC Sports Personality of the Year. After much soul-searching, I'm going for SPOTY.

The stage is set for a big deal in Belfast on Sunday; not just the most controversial SPOTY ever, thanks to the chatter of hilarious homophobic misogynist Tyson Fury, but, when Tony McCoy goes up to pick up his lifetime achievement award, one of the most emotional.

My guess is that Belfast audience will send the decibels through the roof when AP goes to the stage and reminds us what a true sporting hero looks like.

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