Powerful Women I’ve Never Heard Of

From The Guardian’s “Sandi Toksvig’s top 10 unsung heroines”:

“When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’

“It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions? How often had I sped past them as I learned of male achievement and men’s place in the history books? Then I read Rosalind Miles’s book The Women’s History of the World (recently republished as Who Cooked the Last Supper?) and I knew I needed to look again. History is full of fabulous females who have been systematically ignored, forgotten or simply written out of the records. They’re not all saints, they’re not all geniuses, but they do deserve remembering.”

 

1. Hilda Matheson (1888-1940)

If you love Radio 4 you should love Hilda. She was the BBC’s first director of talks and helped shape the programmes we listen to today, founding radio journalism and the notion of quality radio. She was almost solely responsible for the mammoth African Survey for which Lord Hailey took all the credit.

 

2. Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814)

As a child growing up in the United States I was taught that a man called Eli Whitney changed the face of the American economy with the invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine that mechanised the cleaning of cotton. In fact it was Catherine’s idea but in those days women didn’t take out patents.

 

3. Princess Khutulun (c1251- ?)

The niece of the great Mongol leader, Kubla Khan, Princess Khutulun was described by Marco Polo as the greatest warrior in Khan’s army. She told her uncle she would marry any man who could wrestle her and win. If they lost they had to give her 100 horses. She died unmarried with 10,000 horses.

 

4. Queen Vishpla (somewhere between 3500 and 1800 BC)

The ancient sacred text of India, Rig-Veda, includes the story of this queen who led her troops into battle and lost a leg. She had an iron leg fitted and returned to war. The first person known to have a prosthesis.

 

5. Jerrie Cobb (1931-)

Chosen for the US astronaut programme in 1958, Jerrie Cobb had twice as many flight hours to her name as John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the earth. She failed to go into space because she hadn’t gone through jet-aircraft testing. She hadn’t because women weren’t allowed to until 1973.

 

6. Agnodike (Fourth century BC)

Athenian women were not allowed to be doctors so Agnodike disguised herself as a man to study medicine. When she had finished she tried to treat women but they refused, thinking she was male. When she revealed her sex she was arrested but succeeded in having the law against female medics changed.

 

7. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Nightingale is well known in history as the Lady with the Lamp but this was actually a phrase invented by a Times journalist. The men of the Crimean actually called her the Lady With the Hammer because she was quite happy to break into supply rooms if her patients needed something.

 

8. Angelika Kauffmann and Mary Moser

In 1768 Angelika and Mary helped found the Royal Academy of Arts in London. When a portrait of the founders was painted, only the men of the Academy were shown gathered in a studio. The women appear as portraits on the wall.

 

9. Enheduanna (c2285-2250BC)

Probably a princess. Certainly the world’s first known author, male or female. She wrote hymns to the gods in cuneiform.

 

10. Edmonia Lewis (1843–c1900)

The first black woman to be recognised as a sculptor. At college she was accused of trying to poison two white students. Although she was proved innocent she was not allowed to graduate.

* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Deborah Orr points out “Diversity and Equality are not the same thing”

Sure Deborah Orr may be criticizing U.K. society but the words ring true across the Atlantic in her article published in today’s The Guardian, “Diversity and Equality are not the Same Thing”

Here are some of the meatier sections to her astute argument:

…the Conservative leadership has embraced not equality, but diversity.

This is social progress, of course. But it is not the progress that the left once envisaged. On the contrary, in the same time as the argument for diversity has made such strides, the increased equality that was assumed to be part of its goal, has not materialised at all. Instead, inequality in Britain is now much greater than it was prior to the success of its various “equality” campaigns…

Does this matter? Is it important to understand that diversity and equality are different things, and that they are sometimes even at odds with each other? After all, the rooting out of discrimination achieves social justice, whether in the name of diversity or equality…

Yet who in the political mainstream is advancing this argument? Even Barack Obama, the world’s most potent embodiment of the advance of diversity, has trouble setting out, let alone winning, the equality argument.

In the current issue of the London Review of Books, US academic David Bromwich writes about Obama’s difficulties in persuading the nation of the overall benefit of his healthcare reforms. In a stinging phrase, just as applicable in this country, he says: “Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by a liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality.” Miserably, he’s quite right.

Read more of the article here.

Jane Austen as Gateway Drug (or Must-See BBC)


When Masterpiece Theatre aired their complete series of Jane Austen not only was I reacquainted with an artist who I wholly took for granted in my undergraduate years, but the re-adaptations of such delightful works as Mansfield Park and Persuasion got me hooked, once again, on the period piece dramas I escaped  to in the awkward and unnecessary years of high school. Since MT’s airing, I’ve been chasing the likes of Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, and the Brontes since and am thoroughly enjoying almost every page of these seemingly endless serial works.

I wholeheartedly advocate diving into these wonderful recent adaptations, all of which are deliciously satisfying. I wasn’t a fan of Billie Piper until I saw her in Mansfield Park where she proved she had some acting chops as precocious and shy Fanny Price, who, despite her lowly background, doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind and triumphs over deceit and denial.

Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penny-Jones are wonderfully pensive and draw out a nuanced performance in their awkward and painful dance in Austen’s more serious Persuasion.

I was utterly enthralled and enchanted with Northanger Abbey, which should make a short and delightful read just in time for Halloween. I’m also enamored of JJ Field, who is irresistible in this romp as well as in Phillip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, a Masterpiece Mystery Classic.

I did not care for the new Sense and Sensibility nor the Emma with Kate Beckinsale, but if you’d allow me to make a plug for my three absolute favorite BBC period productions, which I intend to own someday because they’re just so damn good. Elizabeth Gaskell makes Jane Austen’s drawing room dramas seem tawdry frivolously frilly affairs in her powerhouse critique of Industrialization and Labour in North and South.


Gemma Arerton’s performance in Hardy’s Tess of D’Ubervilles will win you over body and soul. And Hardy blazes a scathing eye to Victorian society and the demented rigors of religion that leaves everyone scarred and profoundly stunned.

Keeley Hawes is also astoundingly amazing as downtrodden but defiant heroine, Lizzie Hexam (one of the rare complex female Dickensian creations to grace his volumes of otherwise two-dimensional women), but you really need to read Our Mutual Friend before being able to enjoy the adaptation. Chuck D is a master writer and no matter where one is in with the craft, we can always learn from him.

With that said, no writer has compared and no piece can withstand the astute clarity and transcendent pathos of Charlotte Bronte. I used to love her sister above all else until I saw Jane Eyre, and then read Jane Eyre twice in a row. Charlotte is a Goddess of Art.

I watched Lost in Austen a couple of months ago and though I loved Jemima Rooper as a lesbian ghost in the macabre BBC occult hit Hex, I found the modern revamped Austen take too silly and therefore unnecessary.

Before watching Becoming Jane I had serious doubts about Anne Hathaway as Austen but was pleasantly surprised by the film and Hathaway’s performance though Miss Austen Regrets is a finer tribute to the writer, and the film attempts to present a truthful portrait of the arduous and lonely journey of a mature writer.

This journey is eased and inspired by all the great works listed above, which are worth visiting and revisiting until the journey’s end, not to mention they’re just great fun and a perfect antidote to rainy weather blues.