Saturday, 23 November 2013

'As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.' Virginia Woolf

          Women achievements should go hand in hand with their peers, but its not always the case is it? 

In its introduction to Women's History, English Heritage writes ' Women's achievements and experience have left a deep impression on the historic environment. Once exposed, this can help fill in the gaps left by previous generations' recording of history to reveal a host of fascinating and inspirational stories.

I was amazed to discover recently via Lucy Worsley's Harlots Housewives and Heroines, a 17th Century History for Girls, that the reason women give birth on their backs was because of the intervention of men, this of course leads to midwives being outed from this important role, but also their role in history has been forgotton too. Angelique-Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray was a eighteenth century French midwife whose book, Abrege de lart de Accouchements or the Art of Delivery was published in 1759, this amazing woman also designed and made a set of fabric anatomical demonstration aids to teaching other women her skills.

                                                          Angelique and her fabric mannequins 

Important work, like that of Angelique's have gone unnoticed, and their names are not written into history books. Today though, more and more we are hearing about the lives of unknown women whose achievements are now being brought to us by women themselves. Many of these women we know of already from our school days, historians such as Helen Castor in her She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth talks of women who stood up to their male counterparts and the above mentioned Lucy Worsley has written of other not so famous women, such as Aphra Behn, playwright and spy! Fiction writers too are doing their best to bring the lives of real women to the forefront as Philippa Gregory does in her series of books of the lives of Anne and Isabel Neville and Margaret Beaufort. But there are so many others! 

One of my 'heroines' is Matilda who fought with her cousin for the throne of England, who was more than capable of being an effective ruler, but her downfall was simply the fact that she acted like a king, and as Helen Castor in her book writes

      ' 'Haughty' and 'intolerably proud' these are the adjectives associated with her name, phrases coined in those few months of her life when she tried to exercise power as a monarch in her own right

This was not what men thought a women should be, it was unwomanly behaviour, but they were the qualities expected of a king !!!  

                                                            Matilda flees her captors 

Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, went on Crusade, where she led an army of women dressed in armour and was later imprisoned for supporting her sons revolt. And then there is Isabella of France, the She Wolf herself, who paraded her lover and with him took up arms against the weak rule of her husband Edward II. There's Boudicca, Catherine of Aragon (another of my favourites) Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth, Florence Nightingale, Marie Stopes they are all icons because their story stands out. But what of the 'every day' women, like the aforementioned Angelique, those who were not monarchs, not achievers of the daring do or a pioneering scientist.

Women in the past have been categorised, the pious lady, the nun, the wench and the scold, how wrong can they be? Medieval women in literature and art are often depicted as a virgin or a whore, even this in not correct, prostitutes were more widely accepted in medieval times and nuns weren't always as saintly as we are lead to believe, and as mentioned before, living quietly among them are other strong women, the ones the world knows little about. One fine example of a capable early medieval woman was my very own ancestor Margery, a descendant and kinswoman of the mighty Norman lords, the Earls of Surrey. Margery saw very early on in her marriage that all the lands held by her husbands family were gained purely by right of marriage, the vast lands of her mother in law and sister in law had been thrown into a large melting pot. Margery had no intention of this happening to her ancestral lands or her property!  Margery's son was under age on the death of her husband and she feared, quite rightly, that the boy would become a ward of his paternal uncles and the lands that were hers by right would soon be managed, and finally taken by her in laws. So angry at the thought of this she disinherited her own son rather than see her lands end up as part of the vast estates of her dead husbands family. In a very unusual move for the time she gifted her lands to a woman, who at present, seems unrelated. What Margery foresaw, turned out to be quite right, nearly all the lands owned by her husbands families descendants, for nearly four centuries, was gained by marriages to wealthy heiresses.

                                                                              Holding onto  what is rightfully yours

 One women who worked in the field of medicine was Felicie de Almania who spoke of the need of women doctors to treat women patients, arguing that women received better treatment from a female physicians and testifying that she had been able to cure women of ailments that male doctors had failed to do. Felicie bravely continued to practice medicine without a licence even after she was excommunicated. In the world of business was a Mrs Rutinger and a Rose of Burford, both thirteenth century women who were successful in business and traders in wool, both ran businesses after the deaths of their husbands and in the case of Rose persistently visited the court of Edward II, insisting he pay monies owed to her late husband, eventually suggesting that the debt  be settled in refunds on export duties. Then there is Livinia Fontana a commissioned artist, who painted anything from portraits to female nudes to religious art, a confident woman who didn't work within the confines of what society saw as befitting her rank, free to paint and live her life as she pleased. 

Livinia Fontana 

Between 1939 and 1945 there were women who worked in secret, looking for and breaking codes in military intelligence and whose story a recent television drama, The Bletchley Circle, is based. It is the story of four bright women who worked as code breakers during the second world war whose efforts saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people, who later used their skills to track down a psychotic killer who preyed on women.  Apart from being a story of murder and the rape of women, it tells of how women were not taken seriously by those in authority and how they were abandoned by their own country. It was not only clever women with a talent for mathematics, all the women who 'broke their backs' doing their bit for the war effort, the ones who worked in the fields and the ones who worked in the factories, and once the war was over and they were no longer needed, their jobs given to the returning men. The women of Bletchley signed the official secrets act and therefore were unable to tell anyone what the did during that time. This lead to them being frustrated, angry and bored with their present lives, and left them wanting more, but they were living with men who expected them to be happy with the role of wife and mother and didn't understand that for many it wasn't enough.

                                                                                           Says it all, doesn't it?

This brings us up to the present day woman, she has so much more freedom than that of her female ancestors, who had restrictions placed on them by their family, the church and their husbands and for many women this was their lot, but as we have seen some women cut through these ties. Girls today may have none of these things but it was said to me recently that society has 'subtle and complex ways that disadvantage and discriminate against women” and this is no surprise. I am concerned for  young women when they are humiliated and harassed. I worry how they cope when all they hear is that they are lesser beings and then I’m irritated when I see scantly clad young ladies standing in front of Formula 1 cars or parading themselves in front of darts champions. I never quite sure whether these young women do it because they want to and are therefore empowered and confident or do it because that’s what they feel men want to see. Girls are continually bombarded with impossible physical standards that dictate the right weight, the right shape and the right clothes to wear, leaving them to struggle with insecurities and low self-confidence. Today, women have a different sort of pressure than those of their ancestors, but it is pressure non the less.  Twenty first century women are criticised about the choices they make whether it is a career or whether it be motherhood and this can make many women's lives an unhappy one, women of the past knew what was expected of them and these restrictions made many of their lives an unhappy one too.

 We've not moved on too much have we? 

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