Regarding girls’ lack of confidence in their own genius, a recent editorial suggested that “teachers should highlight the achievements of the brave few” female high-achievers of the past (“Build girls’ self-esteem,” Feb. 9).
Few? There is a perception that until our times the female half of the human race was silent, unqualified and shut out of public life. In fact, the accomplishments of women in every era created our world, as much as did those of men.
A hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf was founding the Hogarth Press, after establishing a “room of her own” in which to write novels as brilliant as those by her many female predecessors. In Victoria, Emily Carr had mounted an exhibition of 70 paintings completed in Europe.
Reformer Nellie McClung was writing columns still read today. Horticultural designer Gertrude Jekyll was the prime mover of the Arts and Crafts movement. Florence Nightingale had already invented modern hospital administration and nursing education. Octavia Hill had established England’s National Trust and created housing for the urban poor based on the notion that access to nature is essential for health (the term “greenbelt” was coined by her, not the Capital Regional District).
Beatrix Potter, famed for Peter Rabbit, was a conservationist-farmer who saved Britain’s Herdwick sheep breed, and a scientific illustrator who introduced the theory of evolution by symbiogenesis, later confirmed and expanded by American biologist Lynn Margulis (of Gaia Hypothesis fame).
Elizabeth Fry had during the previous century advanced prisoners’ rights, and the Elizabeth Fry Society continues her work internationally. Harriet Beecher Stowe had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the impact of which, according to Abraham Lincoln, led straight to the American Civil War.
Nor is the fierce female investigative journalist a new phenomenon. While editor at McClure’s Magazine at the turn of the 20th century, Ida Tarbell rattled John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company with her damning critique of his business and political machinations.
Around the time Tarbell was challenging corporate America, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was challenging the Christian church by publishing, with 26 other female scholars, the Woman’s Bible (1898), a scholarly version of the Christian text minus the misogyny.
Stanton wasn’t the only woman who had questioned the religious landscape: Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Scientist Church in 1879 and launched the redoubtable Christian Science Monitor in 1908. Ellen Gould White co-created the Seventh Day Adventist Church, wrote about 5,000 articles and 40 books and is the most-translated of all American non-fiction authors. And consider the mystics Margery Kempe, Hildegard of Bingen, Mother Juliana and Enheduanna, priestess of the Great Goddess, who 4,000 years ago wrote the earliest religious document we possess.
The three movements that most shaped our own times — the civil rights, women’s and environmental movements — were sparked by women. When Rosa Parks (writer and speaker) refused to move out of a whites-only seat on a bus, she ignited a boycott that led to the ban on segregation on buses. Betty Friedan revolutionized the thinking of policy-makers with The Feminine Mystique (1963), and the modern wave of environmentalism was kick-started by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962).
Rosalind Franklin’s work with crystallography made the unravelling of the structure of DNA possible, while the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner discovered the element protactinium and co-discovered nuclear fission, as well as the “Auger Effect.” The oldest dinosaur skeleton in Britain was found by the Victorian Mary Anning, and the British Union to Abolish Vivisection (now Cruelty Free International) was founded by Frances Power Cobbe in 1898.
Kew Gardens was established by Augusta, the mother of George III. And could we have done without the superior air power that enabled Britain to defeat Hitler’s air force thanks to the foresight and financial contribution of Poppy Houston?
Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir are not novelties, nor were their predecessors Catherine the Great, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Queen Christina of Sweden. Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan schoolgirl who survived an attack by the Taliban and now furthers girls’ education, mirrors the brilliant Hypatia of Alexandria, who taught mathematics and philosophy in AD 400, but did not survive an attack by the religious zealots of her own time.
Opposition to women such as Hypatia was unjust, but that so many young women today are completely ignorant of their accomplishments is equally insulting. History as a subject is not much promoted in school curricula. Maybe the problem of girls assuming only men have been geniuses starts there.
Barbara Julian is a local writer and memoirs coach.