The forgotten women of history
Emily Turner // 26 April 2016
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a talk called ‘The Other Jane’. Given that the talk was hosted at Chawton House Library, just down the road from Austen’s house, it was pretty clear who the main Jane was intended to be – but who was this other Jane, who had completely fallen under the history radar?
Jane Margaret Scott, an actor, writer and theatre manager, was queen of the music hall in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She was the target of critics’ condescension, who accused her of having rickets, smallpox and other “natural defects”, yet she went on to be hugely successful.
Scott was the first known woman to do a solo show on the stage and she created political plays such as Camilla the Amazon, which highlighted the problems of being a woman in power, and Asgard, the Demon Hunter, which features a Monty Python-esque prancing chorus of inquisitors.
However, despite Scott’s contributions to the literary marketplace of her day, she has largely been forgotten from the contemporary narrative of Romantic women’s writings.
With the Queen’s 90th birthday this month, there’s been a lot of discussion about other women who have made history. This talk often seems to orientate around monarchs or wives of monarchs but, as a massive history nerd, I’ve been thinking about all the other badass women who seem to have been forgotten from our history lessons, had their impact on history downplayed or just been written out of history altogether.
There’s no way I’d be able to mention even a tiny proportion of the amazing women throughout history who have not had their due attention so here is a painfully brief list of four more of my favourite women in history who have innovated, inspired and brought about change.
Hypatia, fourth century CE
Hypatia of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, as well as head of the Neoplatonic School at Alexandria.
She was massively demonised by the Christians, who called her a Hellenistic pagan and claimed that she “beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles”.
Channelling the #HappyToBleed ideology several centuries before the movement actually happened, Hypatia notoriously threw her used menstrual rags at a potential suitor to remind him that she was human and not to be put on a pedestal. That’s one way to get rid of some dude who won’t leave you alone.
Ida B. Wells, 1862 – 1931
Where to even start with the glorious Ida B. Wells? Ida was an African-American woman and dedicated suffragist who used journalism to challenge segregation, and, as an early leader in the civil rights movement, led an anti-lynching crusade. She refused to give her train seat up to a white man 70 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her bus seat and she was the owner of Chicago’s first African-American newspaper. One of my absolute favourite Kate Beaton comics – and if you love comedy and history, this is the gal for you! – features Ida in all her glory.
Nellie Bly, 1864-1922
For someone studying the history of mental health and asylum reform, Nellie Bly is a total legend. Apart from launching a new kind of investigative journalism and undertaking a record breaking trip around the world in 72 days, she also “faked insanity” to be admitted into a notorious mental health institution to expose what happened to patients there. After she wrote Ten Days in a Mad-House, a grand jury launched investigations into conditions at the asylum, which prompted an $850,000 increase in the public charities budget.
Frances Glessner Lee, 1878 – 1962
Although her brother George was sent to Harvard, Frances Glessner Lee was denied a college education because her father felt that “a lady didn’t go to school”. However, while growing up, Lee gained a knowledge of interior design from her mother and metalwork, sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery and painting from her mother and aunts. She utilised this limited knowledge permitted to women of her social standing to create the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death during the 1940s, which she produced after she launched her personal mission to improve crime detection at the age of 53. Used by forensic science students, the Nutshell Studies are tiny, incredibly detailed dioramas which depict crime scenes with clues to work out what happened. The level of detail in this miniatures is astounding – tiny hand-knitted socks, real tobacco rolled into cigarettes, wall calendars purposely outdated. These dioramas are still used today, which shows the impact that Lee had on the study of forensic science.
Who are your favourite women from history? Let me know at @emilyjessturner – I’d love to hear who you think deserves recognition for their work!
The images are all used under creative commons licences.
1. Sketch of a scene from Jane Margaret Scott’s 1816 play, The Old Oak Chest, showing a woman fleeing from a skeleton holding a knife.
2. A black and white sketch of Hypatia of Alexandria, showing her head in profile. The sketch was included as an insert in Elbert Hubbard’s pamphlet, Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, Volume 23, No. 4, published in October of 1908.
3. Ida B. Wells, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893.
4. A photograph of Nellie Bly by H. J. Myers.
5. Chest plates commissioned by Frances Glessner Lee, about 1940. The six ceramic “chest plates” here, part of a much larger collection, show the wound patterns caused by a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, with lead bullet, shot at various distances.