When I was at school, history was male. Apart from Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth 1 and Mary Queen of Scots. Oh, and Helen of Troy, though I think she was mentioned mainly because she was beautiful and launched a 1000 ships. In literature, I don’t recall being taught on any women authors- apart from Mary Anne Evans, who of course, pretended to be George Eliot to get published. Didn’t care for the sentimental Mill on The Floss, but told Middlemarch is better. Will get around to it.
Recently I’ve discovered hosts of notable women who weren’t content to be pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen (my rightful place as told to me by an old medical grandee on my arrival into practice). Hildegard of Bingen was an amazing polymath. Then there’s those feisty, influential English queens in Philippa Gregory’s excellent books. There’s also been coverage of many pioneering women scientists who were passed over for Nobel Prizes and awards, such as chemist Rosalind Franklin for DNA, mathematician Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter) for computers and surprisingly, actress Hedy Lamarr for early broadcasting research. There is increasing media interest in historical women: about time.
The absence of past female voice wasn’t only due to our patriarchal society (still with us) or women being given limited opportunities to vote, own property or order their own lives, but mainly the fact that women weren’t regarded as worthy of education- considered pointless as they’d only be wives or mothers. The 1792 Bill of Rights was the first public recognition of the right of women to be educated, if only for teaching their children and being ‘companions’ to their husbands. Back then marriage was the only female goal. With the horrendous past maternal mortality rates it must have been a daunting prospect. I have sneaking admiration for those medieval women who refused suitors and managed to convince their families and society that they could exist without sustenance. At a time when ordinary folk were denied direct access to Mass these, mainly northern European, early anorexics wielded incredible religious power. Many were canonised. Their little-known stories fascinate in Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast.
Scotland has an enviable history of educating women. Many female testimonies from all walks of life over the centuries have been collated in Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: her story. And I have found a London-based Scot who in her lifetime was regarded as a ‘Shakespeare’ but now is seldom mentioned, Joanna Baillie. Niece of the anatomist William Hunter and sister of Matthew Hunter who wrote the first ever Pathology book, she wrote Plays in The Passion to acclaim by Byron, Scott, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Yet, we were never taught about her.
Home based Scots literary women also absent from curricula include Jean Eliot, author of the Flodden lament, Flowers of The Forest, the prolific Jean Glover (some of whose songs Burns registered as his!) and the socially aware Janet Little with her poignant poetry on poverty and inequality. Have you heard of them? I only found them on North American University gender studies web pages when researching a reply to the ‘Toast to the Lasses’ for a Burns Night. Some of the women were aristocrats, but many were educated in the manse and some balladeers who handed down oral tradition, unable to write a word, but who sang and passed on astute observations on contemporary social and political issues.
History shouldn’t all be about kings and queens and battles. It’s much more interesting to read of the realities and experience of everyday people, how they are affected by all those wars and strikes and injustices and economic hard times. In Scotland: her Story, Goring unearthed much historic female writing previously buried. But today? Millions of words fly about the ether. Never has humanity commented so much on the everyday. Where we go, what we eat, how we look, why we hate whom we do. Future historians can have a field day sorting out tweets and posts and blogs. Women use social media like Facebook and Instagram more than men- more likely to access business networking sites to build profiles (source: Brandwatch data). Women spend more time and post more- their voice is being heard in 2019.
But social media offers brief snapshots, however poignant, witty or just plain banal their comments are. On Instagram, every picture tells a story. Yet is everything posted real? It’s certainly brief. Tweets are often not even English: lol btw. There’s little true sense of human interaction- apart from the trolling ranters who pollute the web. I do wonder whether we see the posters’ real lives, thoughts and worries? Or are posts designed to convey status or success or collect followers? Do tweets represent true views, or calculated soundbites chosen for effect? Aren’t there fake lives as well as fake news? And for goodness sake, just enjoy the moment at a beauty spot without a selfie! I think blogs may be more real: ordered, longer paragraphs must convey more meaning than party-hatted dog and burger pics (hands up confession- I have posted food…).
Historically women suffered in silence, but now can freely post online observations on life or polemic rants. Us retired folk have stories to tell. They may interest, shock or teach the generations coming behind. That’s why I wrote Not The Life Imagined about sixties female Glasgow medical students. I’d urge anyone retiring to start penning- stories. Time to tell it as it was- before your experiences dissolve into dust. We rode the tide of women’s liberation: not my favourite term- we just want equal not bra burning! Did the Sixties swing for you? How was bringing up kids in the Seventies? Did Eighties music shape your life? Get writing, blogging. There’s never been a better time. It’s cathartic, good for the soul. And for mental health. Like running- but you don’t need Lycra or to get out of breath!

  1. I read a very nice historical fiction novel about here called “The Enchantress of Numbers”. by Jennifer Chiaverini.

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