When people learn that I’ve written a book about 100 women from history, I’m often asked which of those women are my favourite, who inspired me the most. Occasionally the names ring a bell, but more often than not I am met with a dropped jaw as I recount the courageous acts of these women whose histories are simply not taught or are too rarely discussed.
Yet, something tells me that if I sat down in the pub and waxed lyrical about men from history, nobody would be surprised by my responses. In fact, they would likely be well-versed on each of them.
So why is it, then, 100 years after women secured the right for their voices to count in the political sphere - four waves of feminism deep – that we still don’t know the names of many of our foresisters?
Girls and women need female role models to live up to, so that when they are told they are lesser, when they are not paid an equal wage or they are treated as objects of male desire; when they are underestimated, they know they shall overcome. These women are mine:
Artemisia Gentileschi, Painter
(8 July 1593– c. 1656, Italy)
It was during my third year reading art history at Manchester University that I was introduced to Artemisia Gentileschi. Studying the baroque painter, Caravaggio, we were told of his contemporary: a young woman inspired by his work, doing something entirely her own. Caravaggio brought dark biblical scenes terrifyingly to life, but Gentileschi brought her own experiences onto the canvas in raw brutality.
Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders (1610), adapts the allegorical tale to reflect her own experience of unwanted sexual advances as two old men leer over a woman bearing uncanny resemblance to the artist.
In 1612 Gentileschi took her rapist to court. Despite a conviction, he walked free. Where Caravaggio’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1598–1599) depicts a young woman unsure of her actions, Gentileschi’s depiction of the same scene (1614–20) shows two self-assured women actively mount and decapitate Holofernes: a painterly takedown of her attacker. These paintings were her Time’s Up moment.
Ida B. Wells, Journalist
(16 July 1862– 25 March 1931, USA)
We all know the story of the defiant Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man sparked the pivotal Montgomery Bus Boycott. But few realise that some 71 years before, Ida B. Wells had laid the ground for that moment when she refused to give up her seat on a train, was fined for her protest, and summarily took the state to court.
Born into slavery, Wells proves the old idiom that the pen is mightier than the sword. Tired of the senseless and indiscriminate killing of black people, she investigated and uncovered the horrifying truth of lynching and published it in the pages of the anti-racism newspaper she herself founded, Free Speech. Wells’ words were so powerful that white mobs attempted to silence her but, nevertheless, she persisted and earned her place as one of the world’s first investigative journalists. Her voice was loud and defiant, stating: Black Lives Matter.
Amelia Bloomer, Dress reformer
(27 May 1818– 30 December 1894, USA)
It wasn’t until the 1980s that women wearing trousers were truly accepted. Yet it was in the 1800s that Amelia Bloomer first saw their benefit and campaigned for them to be embraced by society.
As well as being discouraged to play sports by societal convention, women in the 1800s were often physically unable to participate in them due to the constricting, heavy clothing of the time. When Bloomer promoted the wearing of loose, Turkish-style trousers in her newspaper, The Lily, she was mercilessly mocked and belittled by those who couldn’t bear the sight of a woman stepping outside of their prescribed boundaries. Yet, in the 1850s, increasing numbers of women took up cycling and, when they did, they discovered ‘bloomers’ were the perfect garb in which to retain their modesty.
It might seem like a small triumph in the grand scheme of adversities women have faced throughout history, but women’s sartorial emancipation goes hand-in-hand with their social liberation and Bloomer’s contribution was one almighty drop in the ocean.
Violette Szabo, Spy
(26 June 1921– c. 5 February 1945, France/UK)
It was during World War II when the widowed Violette Szabo accepted, without hesitation, a job as Special Operations Executive for the British forces, determined to avenge her husband’s death. Sent behind enemy lines on a series of daring missions, she carried with her a heartbreaking poem The Life That I Have, given to her by Leo Marks who had written it for his girlfriend killed in action. It was to be Szabo’s secret code, a way of identifying herself to Allies should she be captured.
During one fateful mission, Szabo and her team were intercepted by Nazi fire. Instead of running, she provided cover fire for her comrades, only to be captured and interrogated by the Nazi’s. She revealed nothing and was sent to Ravensbruck. Here, Szabo is reported to have comforted the other female prisoners and, when lined up in a Nazi firing squad, squeezed the hands of the women beside her, taking sisterhood to the grave. She became the second ever female recipient of the George Cross and one of the most decorated women of the war at just 23 years old. Hers is a tale of utmost female strength through great adversity
Hedy Lamarr, Actor & Inventor
(9 November 1914– 19 January 2000, Austria)
At one time referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world, Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood star whose looks belied her intelligence. As women know all too well, their appearances – whatever those may be – are often used as weaponry against them, and Lamarr is an exemplar of this.
Holding court at their marital home, Lamarr’s Nazi-sympathising husband openly discussed munitions deals in front of her. Rejecting his influence, Lamarr fled to Paris where she continued acting and quickly became an icon. But glamour did nothing to stir her imagination, and so Lamarr began other work.
Alongside her friend, George Antheil, using the insider knowledge she had eavesdropped from her husband, she drew up plans to outwit the enemy by means of a ‘secret communications’ system that could intercept German messages.
The pair gifted their invention to the US Navy but it lay dormant for years. Rediscovered in the 1960s, it became the lynchpin of Wifi and GPS – a pivotal tech invention driven through by a woman.
SHE: A Celebration of 100 Renegade Woman is out on 8 March published by Headline Home.