Tag Archives: women

You Daughters of Freedom

Unknown.jpegThis splendid book was sent to me by the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out at the start of October; RRP $49.99 in Australia.

Firstly, this is a hefty tome: it’s 550 pages. But the text itself is only (?) 480 pages, and it must be stressed that this is an immensely readable book with generally short chapters that make the story very readable. So don’t let the size put you off if this is a part of history that appeals to you.

If you know nothing about women achieving the vote in Australia or elsewhere, this is an excellent starting point. If, like me, you’ve read a bit already, this puts it all together in an excellent narrative, explores some of the most important characters, and sets it all in historical context magnificently. I also think you should read it if you’re at all interested in Australia’s early history as a nation.

I have a lot of Opinions on this topic. I think the fight for women’s suffrage in the first part of the 20th century is endlessly intriguing. (In fact my latest zine is on this topic. Do you get my zine?) Wright does a really great job of showing how suffrage was achieved in Australia, and then the influence that had on the rest of the world.

You may have heard that SA women got the right to vote in 1894 – a year after NZ women. But here’s the thing: because of an outrageous attempt by conservatives to be more radical than the progressives, which gloriously backfired, SA women were the first to also have the right to stand for election. Which most women around the world weren’t asking for because they thought it was a step too far. And here’s the other amazing thing: it included the right for Indigenous people of SA to vote. Oh yes. That’s really quite amazing. And because of this, and some smart wrangling from the SA delegates to the Federation conferences, that right eventually got transferred to Australian women, at least for federal elections, in 1902.

Um. Except for Indigenous women. And this is one thing that Wright excels at: pointing out that what’s being celebrated here – and it should be celebrated, certainly – is the right to vote and stand for elections for white women. It was an important step, and indeed was a revolutionary one for the world, but it wasn’t complete enfranchisement. It should be noted that Wright includes in the book some of the arguments about extending the franchise to Indigenous women from the Senate, and… I found it very hard to read that language coming from our politicians, in public. Yes, even though most of them were supporters of the White Australia Policy and I’ve seen Frazer Anning’s words. It was still sickening (so be warned). (The Indigenous population unreservedly got the right to vote in federal elections in 1962.)

Australian women fighting for the right to vote is only half the book. The rest is the way in which Australian women contributed to the struggle in “the Mother Country” (England) (where by comparison there was limited suffrage for women by 1918, and on the same basis as men only in 1928. I say ‘only’ but that’s earlier than France, which was 1944.) I’ve read about Muriel Matters, who was amazing, and about Vida Goldstein (who supported the White Australia Policy and by golly those historical folks are complicated to appreciate). I’ve also read a lot about English women’s activities in fighting for the vote. What I didn’t realise is how influential Australian women specifically were, in working for the various organisations and inspiring particular actions, AND as inspiration in general. Because the other thing that Wright does splendidly is draw out just how much of a ‘social laboratory’ Australia was seen as in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. People in the UK and USA in particular were watching Australia, this new nation, as we tried new things and made them work (first Labour govt in the world, various somewhat socialist things, ladies voting…). Vida Goldstein was the first Australian woman to meet a US president! and so on. It’s quite thrilling to see what Australian women were doing out in the world.

Finally, I also adored the final chapter, wherein Wright destroys the notion that Australia should see its participation at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation, and instead points out just how much it had achieved before then.

This book is amazing.

Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

The Amazing Mrs Livesey

The publisher sent me this book at no cost.

29220952.jpgSo Ethel Swindells – whose name is hilarious in context – had something like forty aliases, eight official marriages, five divorces (… think about that for a moment…), four children, and a few stints in prison. She gained goods on credit, borrowed money, passed fraudulent cheques, stole from numerous people, and tried very hard to live the high life whenever possible. She apparently got to be about 20 stone (c. 125kg), which is relevant because it meant she could be identified on the street more easily than not when there were outstanding warrants; she could be incredibly friendly and lovely and persuasive; she left all of her children when they were young; she made up amazing stories about her life, borrowing liberally from movie stars she admired. Reading the story of her life is horrifying, because she hurt and near-ruined a lot of people, but also fascinating, to see how one person could leave quite such a trail of destruction.

It’s not quite tragedy + time = comedy, but it does come close.

However, I’m conflicted on this book.

On the one hand: holy smokes, a book about a woman! One who wasn’t noble and wasn’t a saint and isn’t generally famous today! That’s pretty awesome.

On the other hand I was disappointed to have a suspicion confirmed by the Author’s Note – at the end of the book: that this is written “as narrative or factional history, real people and actual events… woven together with fictitious character names, and imagined conversations and actions to bridge occasional gaps in the storyline or account for unnamed people.” It was pretty obvious that that must have been what Nicholls was doing, since there was no way that the levels of detail she represented could exist about such a person, but it was annoying to find this at the end of the book; felt a bit like misrepresentation, actually, which is hilarious in a book about a conwoman. I have little problem with reconstructed conversation – I’m not so naive – but I would have liked a note about what the book was trying to do, up front. Additionally there’s one moment where the narrative acknowledges an unnamed character, but that’s all; I’m left wondering if there were others.

Also there were some annoying typos, which aren’t the fault of the story but always grate on me.

If you’re interested in semi-ordinary life in Britain and Australia during and between the world wars, this gives something of a glimpse. It’s not the best written book in the world, but it’s a fast read and it’s generally engaging and Mrs Livesey (… etc…) was clearly quite something.

Amazons of Black Sparta: a review

UnknownMy mother gave me this book for Christmas 2010, I think after hearing about it on the radio? I’ve had great intentions of reading it since then, of course, but until now they have gone the way of many other good intentions. The other day, though – at least partly inspired by Tansy’s post about ‘Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy’ (which also appeared over at Tor.com, although be warned that one of the first comments is ‘most readers of SF are men’ and…I don’t even) – I decided it was time to read it. (There’s also been a bunch of great stuff written about the historical position of powerful women, as queens and warriors etc recently, calling out people who say women have had basically no part in the Great Historical Narrative That Is Mankind.)

This is a book of history. It appears to be thoroughly researched and meticulously end-noted. Alpern constantly refers to his sources, comparing the differences in their perspectives and attempting to explain them based on time, possible prejudice, and other aspects. This is particularly relevant and important because the sources come from a span of two centuries or so, sometimes using second-hand sources, and occasionally coming long after the actual events.

The book is about genuinely documented, real-life warrior women, who were pretty much automatically called Amazons by European observers, in the kingdom of Dahomey, on Africa’s western coast. And these are not from some far-off misty time; no, they date from the late 1700s at the very latest, and last saw action against the dastardly French when those colonisers decided to fight against and take Dahomey… in 1892. They were experts at the use of muskets and spears and – my favourite – the giant razor: said to have weighed 20 pounds or more, it had a blade 24-36 inches long that folded into a wooden handle. It was wielded with both hands and was particularly good for decapitations.

It’s not quite the book I was expecting. I think I was anticipating that was more narrative-driven, but only the last quarter or so fits that bill. The first three quarters read more like a catalogue: the recruitment, training, weapons, and everyday life of these women. The narrative comes when Alpern documents the battles that the ‘warrioresses’ took part in – first against other local tribes for a variety of reasons, then in two set of skirmishes/pitched battles with the French.

There are a lot of fascinating parts to this book – like the fact that the women as warriors may have originated in them being elephant hunters, and the fact that Dahomey had a lot of symmetry going on with women having parallel offices etc to the male hierarchy. One awesome, somewhat incidental bit – and this is for the fabric fetishists – is that the warrior women may have been involved in creating a gigantic patchwork, along with other palace women. It was composed of samples of every type of fabric imported into the kingdom or made locally. At one stage it was apparently up to 400 yards by 10 feet, and exactly it was intended for is unclear. The other mighty fact in the story is that pretty much everyone acknowledges that the women were mighty warriors, as good or better than their male counterparts, and generally even fiercer in actual battle: like, they were the last to retreat, and on a couple of occasions it was only women who got past the enemy’s barricades. And before anyone even thinks it, apparently the enemy generally did not realise that they were facing women, at least in the early battles, so no it’s not because they let the women in (besides, they were CARRYING MUSKETS or other guns – who would be stupid to let in anyone carrying a GUN? (hmm, perhaps this is a little close to the bone today)).

A very interesting read, and a fascinating period of history in general and in specific.

Revolutionary women

So, a while ago on the Coode St podcast, Jonathan and Gary wondered what it would be like if you tried to write a history of sf through the female writers. I think this is a most interesting idea, and relates to my desire to find women writing space opera.

Which relates to a book I’ve just finished reading called Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore. I was expecting it to be a book essentially looking at six women, all very different, and their experiences in the French Revolution. However, what I got was so much more than that. Alongside the bios – and they were really interesting women, all of them – I got a full history of the Revolution itself, almost entirely from the point of view of women. And the really, really cool thing is that it totally, totally worked.

Women were involved at every level of the Revolution. It was working-class women who marched on the palace in 1789 and scared the king and queen terribly. Women were involved in planning and suggesting policy in the convention’s various incarnations, and getting it passed too, thanks to both direct action on the streets and more indirect action in the various salons. Women were directly impacted, of course, by changes made to the laws – although they were not accorded citizenship rights under the great Declaration – and, perhaps more interestingly, perhaps stereotypically, but nonetheless dramatically, fashion was also of huge importance. Especially in the streets of Paris, what you wore was an immediate sign of your allegiances. In a world where there were laws about how could wear what, having women on the street insisting that everyone wear the revolutionary cockade was pretty influential. As was when aristocratic women, formerly the paragons of incredibly expensive haute couture, wore clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on a sans coulotte.

The women under investigation were Germaine de Stael, Pauline Leon, Theroigne de Mericourt, Theresia de Fontenay, Manon Roland and Juliette Recamier (all names missing accents, since I can’t figure out how to add them in). Leon is perhaps the most interesting, in some ways, because she was the most definitely working-class. I had come across her (and Mme Roland) in Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light – daughter of a chocolate maker, active on the streets and probably in violence. Mericourt had probably been a courtesan, and was also immensely visible on the streets. The other four were all basically aristocrats, on various levels and with differing views on politics – what they wanted to get out of politics, and how they went about doing it.

Each chapter is based around one woman, but Moore weaves so skilfully that she keeps the larger story of the Revolution moving, and brings in the narratives of the other women as well. It’s a marvellously well-written book, which I thoroughly enjoyed – even though I was reading it for school! – and it’s now covered in (appropriately pink!!) comments in the margins. Hugely recommended to anyone interested in the French Revolution or women in history more generally.