To mark Women’s History Month, we asked our female speakers attending this year’s History Festival to nominate their heroine and explain why they admire them.
I would like to nominate Elizabeth I. When she came to the throne, there was widespread unease about female rulers, thanks largely to the disastrous reign of her sister Mary. But by pretending to share the views of her misogynistic courtiers, Elizabeth established her authority in a male-dominated world. She flaunted her femininity when it suited her, flirting outrageously with her couriers and using her ‘womanly indecision’ to avoid being pressured into rash action. At others, she was more stridently authoritative, striking fear among her advisers when they overstepped the mark. But the most remarkable thing about Elizabeth was her refusal to marry. In an age when women were expected to submit themselves to the will of a husband, this was deeply shocking. But Elizabeth refused to conform to the stereotype of a ‘weak and feeble woman’, famously declaring: ‘I will have but one master here, and no master.’ This proved the key to her success, ensuring that she would go down in history as the iconic Virgin Queen.
Virginia Woolf. Not only did she use that mesmerising and witty imagination to be daringly experimental with the novel form , but she battled mental illness with admirable resilience. AND she was just so stylishly beautiful.
Isabel I of Castile is a fantastic heroine who exemplifies the challenges of being a regnant queen and is also a wonderful example of a successful female sovereign. Isabel, like many female claimants, had a very difficult path to the throne-Castile was in a state of upheaval due to the shaky reign of her brother Enrique IV and Isabel had to assert her rights against Enrique’s (disputed) daughter, Juana-this dispute between the two claimant queens escalated into the War of the Castilian Succession. Once Isabel successfully claimed her throne she had to establish herself as the ruler of the kingdom and reassert royal authority after a lengthy period of political turbulence. Isabel also had to negotiate her role vis a vis her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon-establishing an effective balance between themselves and between their respective realms, which had long been rivals, was potentially fraught with landmines. Ultimately, their successful personal and political partnership allowed them to make Castile and Aragon preeminent powers in Iberia and on the European stage, engaging in effective strategies of matrimonial diplomacy, winning victories in Granada and Italy and establishing the beginnings of Spain’s global empire.
Mary Ann Sieghart
I’d like to nominate the 19th-century mathematician, astronomer and geographer, Mary Somerville. She taught herself Latin and algebra as a child, because her parents didn’t believe that daughters needed to be educated. She went on to become an accomplished scientist, whose work led to the discovery of Neptune. She taught the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace, and was a strong supporter of women’s education and suffrage. She gave her name to Somerville College, Oxford.
My heroine would be the medieval woman Margery Kempe of Lynn, now King’s Lynn. Margery lived in East Anglia from around 1373 to after 1438. She was the author of the first female autobiography in English, she travelled to Jerusalem via Rome and to Poland and Germany. She had fourteen children and started several businesses, as well as being one of the most important mystics in late medieval England.
My ‘heroine’ would not be one, but millions: the women of Great Britain of all age groups during the Second World War who had to play such a vital role, not only in the Women’s wartime Services or stepping into the workplace shoes of the menfolk who had been called up, but simply ‘keeping the home fires burning’, simultaneously having to cope with the emotional uncertainties regarding the well-being of their loved ones overseas, and all too often the tragedy of losing them. The ‘baby-boomer’ generation, to which I belong, and the generations that followed, owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude.
I’m currently in awe with Jeanne Baret – a woman so bold and audacious that it blows my mind. In 1766 she disguised herself as a man and joined Captain Bougainville’s circumnavigation of the globe. For two years she sailed from France to South America, Tahiti, Samoa, New Guinea, Jakarta and Mauritius, working as the assistant of the expedition’s botanist (who was also her lover). She was the first woman – albeit pretending to be a man – who completed a voyage around the world.
Hilda Matheson was the first Director of Talks at the BBC. She took over the role in 1927 and transformed the way that speech was delivered on the radio. She also made sure that women’s voices were widely heard.
“Mary Delany was an English Bluestocking, artist, and letter-writer; equally famous for her “paper-mosaicks” and her lively correspondence.”
A wiki entry that reflects the gaiety and gravitas of this twice widowed Georgian but a fraction of her creative skills. At the age of 72 she turned her scissors to tissue paper and created a synapse popping botanical ‘paper library’, one of the highlights of the British Museum. She embodies hope for all creative, enquiring, aspirational blue stockings.
My heroine in dark days, and light.
Dr Julie Gammon
My historical heroine is Elizabeth Fry the English ‘angel of prisons’ from the early nineteenth century – perhaps not altogether surprising given my interests in the history of crime and punishment! Elizabeth was a remarkable woman: she received a much greater education than the majority of women in her period and from the age of 18 committed herself to improving the conditions of poor women and children. She opened a shelter for homeless in London, established a training school for nurses and was admired by Queen Victoria and Sir Robert Peel. Elizabeth is mostly remembered for her prison work, she was dedicated to visiting imprisoned women and children to improve their conditions. She established the first nationwide women organisation, the ‘British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners’ and her campaigning and writing resulted in both national and international recognition. She was the first women ever to be called to give evidence to the British Parliament and she achieved all this alongside raising 11 children! Elizabeth Fry’s contribution to prison reform was extremely significant and of course she also has the legacy of being one of the few women so far (other than Florence Nightingale and the Queen!) to have her picture on a British bank note.
Dr Jennifer Evans
Given my area of interest. I think I would like to nominate Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The first woman to become a doctor, she passed her medical exams on September 28th 1865 and opened a hospital solely for, St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children in the Marylebone area of London, women and children. In 1870 she obtained the University of Paris’s first ever MD degree for a woman.
To me she represents the culmination of all of my early modern women who practiced medicine outside of the establishment caring for friends, family and in many cases making a living as a medical practitioner. While these women are largely unrecognised by modern society. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson marks the moment when women providing medical care moved into the public sphere.
My heroine is Catherine Parr, a woman whose life I have been privileged to research in depth. Catherine is famous as the last of Henry VIII’s six wives. Although only queen of England for a short period of time, her influence was immense. She acted as regent of England during Henry’s absence at war in France, wielding real political power. She was also a formative influence in the life of the future Elizabeth I, helping to shape one of England’s greatest monarchs. Finally, Catherine is the first Englishwoman to have published under her own name, with her last work ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, an introspective Protestant theological work of some importance. Catherine Parr, as the wife of four husbands, bears the distinction of being England’s most-married queen. She rose from unpromising beginnings to become one of the most politically important Englishwomen of the sixteenth century and is famous as the wife who ‘survived’.
There are so many amazing women in so many different fields of life that finding just one was incredibly difficult. Take Elizabeth 1st or any of those trailblazing Victorian women like Beatrice Webb, Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst or Edith Cavell (I nearly decided on either Webb or Cavell). Finally, I have chosen Grace Darling because of my lifelong association with the Mission to Seafarers. You will be aware of her tremendous bravery, well documented, aged 22. It’s an inspiring story well worth rereading. During the Second World War, the Missions to Seamen (the original title of the Mission), inaugurated Lightkeeper Crews to involve schoolchildren in a war effort. I became skipper of the Lightkeeper Crew in my school at 14 and have been a local Mission to Seafarers honorary secretary all my adult life. Now mostly automated, lighthouses were manned in those days with the enormous responsibility of ensuring the light was in working order at all times to warn the shipping surrounding our shores of any hazards and to indicate the ships’ whereabouts – hence each lighthouse has a different sequence of lights. Men stationed on giant lighthouses like the Rock far out in the oceans, were often marooned for long periods of time until the seas were calm enough for the small supply boats to deliver goods or take the men off. People sometimes forget that over 90 per cent of food and things we all require and depend on having still come by sea and brave men and women (nameless and faceless to us) often face great danger.
Journalist Dorothy Lawrence set out for northern France in June 1915, with the aim of providing ‘a woman’s perspective on the war’ (Lawrence 1919). Her ambition and curiosity took her beyond what was considered acceptable for a female writer, and into an experience that was reserved exclusively for men. Her courage and ingenuity were dismissed as ‘lack of balance’ and ‘myopic fixity of purpose’ (Hargreaves 1930); but in spite of the heavy criticism of her actions Dorothy published an account of her experiences in 1919. This woman who refused to keep quiet was condemned to a 40-year silence in north London psychiatric institutions. This International Women’s Day I want to speak up and tell her story because I can – and because 100 years on we can give her innovative and unusual voice a second hearing.