Dipping into British Herstory

In Bloody Brilliant Women Cathy Newman writes about one of my heroines, Gertrude Bell, with a couple of lively examples exposing male perspectives that has kept Bell out of the history books. In the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s fabulous The English Patient, there is a scene where British soldiers are examining a map, trying to find a way through the mountains. One says, ‘The Bell map shows the way,’ and the other replies, ‘Let’s hope he’s right.’ Newman remarks on this unconscious bias, the assumption that a map maker must be male, behind this scriptwriting. For me, the more astounding point is that this error went unnoticed and unchecked by the script editor and the director’s assistant as well and made it to the screen.

Having read some of Gertrude Bell’s travelogues and letters and having seen an excellent documentary-cum-docudrama about her, Letters from Baghdad , I was pleased by Newman’s find of a letter from Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the likes of Britain, France and Russia). Sykes wrote to his wife describing Bell as ‘a silly chattering windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.’ No need to deconstruct the misogyny here. Newman follows this quote with a simple ‘Wow!’ An example of the laid back journalistic style used throughout the book.

Newman’s version of herstory covers some familiar territory with Emmeline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett and accounts of women impersonating men in order to fight in wars. But it is well worth a read as the book explains the significance of these pioneering women in their pursuit for justice and equality given the socio-political and legal contexts of their time.

As much of my understanding of herstory is of a more international variety, I’m grateful to Newman for introducing me to a few personages that I would have otherwise missed, and who I now feel compelled to read or read about. There’s Dora Russell who championed contraception, recognising that childbearing wasn’t only controlling women’s lives, but also shortening them. Dora is otherwise known as the second wife of Bertrand Russell. And there is Claudia Jones, a journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival. I close with one of Jones’s most quoted remarks: ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’

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