“Be the Heroine of your Life”: Five Inspirational Women From History Assessed
Sometimes, our view of history becomes a story of “great men” – men without whom we would not have discovered the vaccine for smallpox or the benefits of gunpowder. And when women are discussed, it is frequently in relation to their proximity to great men: is Anne Boleyn’s importance related solely to her relationship with Henry VIII? This is not to condemn all forms of history, and all historians, to this assessment; we need only look towards historians such as Lyndal Roper, Margaret Mitchell or Anna Whitelock to see that women’s history is an important, integrated part of our history as human beings. Nevertheless, it is nice to bring to the forefront women from across history who inspire us, even today. Therefore, this article is a celebration of women, their actions and significance both in the long- and short-term. From periods as diverse as Classical Greece and World War Two, these women embody many traits we admire today, as well as epitomise the struggles faced by women throughout history. They also remind us that, by considering an event from a woman’s perspective, we gain greater insight into past events, and find new, more intricate connections with our ancestors.
Hypatia of Alexandria
When we think of inspiring women, we need not reach back as far as Hypatia of Alexandria for an example. The peripeteia of Hypatia however is a prime example of the violent masculine hegemony that has dominated human history. Alive between around 370AD and 415AD, Hypatia was raised and tutored by her mathematician father Theon, the last leading scholar of Alexandria. Equipped with this intellectual arsenal, Hypatia became dangerous not only to contemporary male scholars, but the Christian clergy and the established schools of religious thought, causing jealousy among her peers due to her mastery of philosophy and mathematics and her popularity among pupils. A vocal supporter of Neoplatonism, the female scholar remained unmarried throughout her life. In both her private and public beliefs, Hypatia was steadfast. Naturally, a ‘pagan’ figure of influence such as Hypatia would have to be crushed by the church in violent fashion. Caught on her way to the library of Alexandria, a group of men lead by Peter the Lector “threw her out of her carriage, dragged her to the church… and after stripping off her clothes, killed her by broken tiles. When they had torn her limb from limb, they brought the limbs together… and destroyed them by burning”.
Just like the library of Alexandria itself, potential excellence was destroyed by ignorance and aggression. Renown for being an excellent teacher and, ironically, a woman of spiritual depth and virtue, Hypatia challenged the male dominated field of academia throughout her life. Tragically, our memory of Hypatia is preserved not due to extensive record of her achievements, but because of the actions of men and thus the record of her death. Hypatia represents not only female excellence, but the fact that our historical record is only as inclusive as the society that writes it. To contemporaries, Hypatia would have been a martyr or a heretic. Neither title seems accurate, as it is fair to assume Hypatia aimed to be neither. Perhaps most of all, Hypatia serves as a reminder that our capacity for progress as a race is only as secure as the individuals working within it.
Christine de Pizan
Recently, there has been an increased amount of attention paid to the queens and noblewomen of medieval Europe, due in part to the massive popularity of TV shows such as Game of Thrones, which includes many powerful female characters operating in a medieval-esque setting. However, this renewed interest has largely excluded those medieval women who were influential in other ways. Christine de Pizan is one such woman.
Born in Venice in 1364, Christine de Pizan was the daughter of Tommaso da Pizzano, court physician and astrologer to Charles V
of France, in whose court she grew up. Tragically widowed at the age of 26, Christine was left with the financial burden of providing for her three children, her mother, and a niece. Instead of withdrawing to a convent or living under the protection of a male relative as would have been typical, Christine turned to writing to support herself and her family. Over the course of her life, she would publish a plethora of lyrical poetry and books on political and moral guidance, the most well-known of which include ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ and ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies’, which provide spiritual and general advice for women of all walks of life. Christine was highly praised for the work she did, receiving many commissions from the nobility of France. Much of her work is still known to us because it was written down in beautiful illuminated manuscripts, a sure sign of the significance it held as these texts were hugely expensive to produce.
Perhaps what was most striking about Christine’s work for me was her clear stance against the misogyny of her day, in stark contrast to many other works of literature of the fourteenth century, for instance the Romance of the Rose. She states: ‘any man that wilfully slanders the female sex does so because he has an evil mind, since he’s going against both reason and nature…’ Furthermore, there is genuine compassion for all women in her work which are often absent from other works. For instance in regards to prostitutes, Christine condemns the harshness with which some treat them, saying they should act as Jesus did. On a final note, her writings offer a unique insight into the daily realities of medieval women’s life, and as such should be studied and remembered along with the life of this brave and talented writer.
Kit Davies – ‘the pretty dragoon’
The beginning of the eighteenth century was the beginning of the great age of the British Redcoat. They would become renowned as one of history’s greatest fighting forces. Their military world was masculine and had no place for femininity.
However, there were women who bucked the trend. Christian Davies was one such soldier, who successfully hid her true identity. She described herself as having ‘too much Mercury’ for traditional feminine roles and joined the British Army in 1691, in order to find her husband. The reasons her husband had joined up are unclear; it is unknown whether he joined up of his own free will or was ‘volunteered’ by the army press gangs. Assuming the name Christopher Welch, Kit joined the infantry.
Her service is told through her own words; she was wounded several times and captured by the French. She was headstrong in her service and was convincing as a man. She relished army life, even partaking in a duel in which she shot her sergeant over the affections of a woman. She then joined the cavalry and fought in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Kit was finally discovered in 1706, when she was injured at the Battle of Ramillres. The surgeon discovered her secret but her commander decreed that she would be still maintained by the army. Kit became an official wife of the company and presented to Queen Anne as a war hero in 1712. She became ill in 1737 and was buried with full military honours at the Royal Hospital Chelsea upon her death – one of the first British women ever to achieve this honour.
Kit’s account is one of the few eye-witness accounts of ordinary soldiers of this period. There is little known about the ordinary soldier of the eighteenth century and Kit’s recollections provide a fascinating insight. Her story deserves to be better known; she is the epitome of a strong female character and yet there is very little written about her. She was respected as a war hero in her own time but now she is overlooked in the annals of military history which tend to look at the major commanders and battles. Kit’s writings, and her story, should be used to look into the world of the British Redcoat, a crucial part of the historiography of the British Army’s social history.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko – ‘Lady Death’
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a Ukrainian sniper in the Red Soviet Army during World War II. She is one of the most successful snipers in history, and is the most successful female sniper of all time, with 309 confirmed kills. Born on 12th July 1916 in a small village in Ukraine, Pavlichenko was a 24-year-old history student at Kiev University when the Germans invaded USSR in 1941. Despite being offered a role as a nurse, Pavlichenko was already an experienced shooter, and thus insisted on joining the infantry she became one of 2,000 female snipers, and was among the 500 who survived the war. After sustaining an injury from a mortar attack in June 1942, the now Lieutenant was pulled from combat in part due to her growing presence on the international stage. In mid-1942, she embarked upon a press-tour of America and Canada. In 1943, she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honour.
Pavlichenko’s role in fighting against the Nazis was important to the USSR’s war effort. Whilst in America, she encouraged the USA to pursue the second front through invading Normandy. She also forced the press in America to take her seriously as a soldier and unabashedly went against expectations of how women should behave. Initially, she was asked questions such as whether female USSR soldiers could wear makeup on the front, to which she answered, “who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?” Similarly, her uniform was criticised; her skirt was said to be too long and to make her look fat. Eventually, she grew tired of this and stated that:
I wear my uniform with honour. […] It has been covered with blood in battle. […] What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.
Beyond her appearance, she also pushed the US media and population to move away from the notion that a woman is “less capable” than a man on a battlefield. Her record spoke for itself in this regard; included in her impressive kill-record were 36 German snipers. These missions are amongst the hardest a sniper can undertake. Furthermore, when asked whether she felt moral conflict when shooting, she said that, “The only feeling […] is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey”.
Pavlichenko was celebrated both by the USSR, but also by Americans; she was reportedly very close with Eleanor Roosevelt. It is rare to see a woman so celebrated and respected, not only as a soldier, but as an expert in her field.
Sigrid Schultz was an American journalist and foreign correspondent during World War II. In a time when female journalists were rare, Schultz was both successful and renowned for her determination to report the truth. This was particularly prominent during her time based in Berlin in the early 1930s. There, she experienced multiple run-ins with the Gestapo, was made to publish her writing under a male pseudonym to protect her identity, and was forced to leave Germany when it became too dangerous for her to stay.
Schultz began working for the Chicago Tribune in 1919 after her aptitude for languages was spotted by a Tribune reporter in Germany. Her sheer determination to succeed is evident even at this point at the start of her career; when sent on an errand to the German naval office, she ignored the rule that women were to use a side entrance, and instead marched through the main entrance and requested an interview on the spot. By 1926, she had worked her way up to becoming the Tribune’s chief reporter for Central Europe, and it is widely believed that she was the first woman to hold such an important role in an influential media corporation. Her ambition did not stop there.
When she was based in Berlin in the 1930s, Schultz was not fooled as many were by the charade of ‘peace’ that the Nazis demonstrated to foreign visitors. She fearlessly established high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Göring as an acquaintance, and published information he provided her with in the Tribune under the pseudonym ‘John Dickson’. Eventually, Göring caught on, and had the Gestapo plant an envelope of classified information in her apartment – but before the Gestapo could arrest her, Schultz had discovered the envelope and burned it. When travelling back to her office afterwards, she encountered a group of men heading towards her apartment; she confronted them, announcing that they shouldn’t waste their time looking for the envelope, then flagged down a taxi and drove straight to the American embassy. She later confronted Göring about the situation, who furiously called her the ‘Dragon Lady of Chicago’ – a name which today gives an indication as to her determination, even in potentially life-threatening situations.
Though Schultz’s anti-Nazi sentiment eventually meant she had to flee for her own safety in 1941, she did not let this stop her efforts. She henceforth spent her time working for the NBC, published a book – Germany Will Try It Again – and gave lectures throughout America, warning everyone not to be complacent of the Nazi menace.
After the war, she went on to have a long, fruitful career in journalism, and in doing so, paved the way for more women to enter a field otherwise dominated by men. She deserves to be remembered as such, and as the ‘Dragon Lady’ who unsettled the highest-ranking Nazi officials with her formidable nature, sharp wits, and reputation as a prolific journalist.
History (and “the past” more generally) contains many hundreds of thousands of stories and legends of women as interesting and varied as the women above. A restriction on space alone is the only reason to limit this article to only these five. The women discussed above highlight the fact that, in all historical ages, women have been of critical importance to getting something done. Traditionally masculine history, such as the history of the British Navy, can be enriched and better understood by considering it from the perspective of a woman – or even by recognising the fact that women were present. This is not to lessen or demean many well-written histories of the discussed time periods; instead, this article suggests that our current dialogues can be enriched by further incorporating the stories of important and interesting women into history, as well as men.
Written by Victoria Bettney, Kate Mesher, Elsa Robinson, Lucy Jakes, Catherine Metcalfe and Paul Kerr
Davies, Christian. The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies, 1739 accessed via EECO:
De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of the Ladies.
Saul David, All the King’s Men: The British Redcoat in the Era of Sword and Musket. London: Penguin Books, 2013.
Socrates, History of the Church VII.I 5
*title quote is by Nora Ephron