Don’t forget all the historical women who held up oppression

When we seek only those who inspire, when we shape historical lives into a “hero’s journey”, we miss the multifarious nature of life itself.

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On Tuesday 21 July 1908, a special meeting took place at Westminster Palace Hotel, London. Among the well-connected female attendees was the Oxford-educated archaeologist, writer and traveller Gertrude Bell, the best-selling novelist and social reformer Mary Ward, and the journalist and philanthropist Margaret Elizabeth Leigh, Countess of Jersey. It was the first meeting of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League, an organisation specifically set up to oppose granting women the parliamentary vote.

Shaped by imperialism and religious social reform, members of the league rested their argument against suffrage upon the idea that women and men had naturally different roles to play in society. As the Countess of Jersey argued: “The opponents of woman suffrage did not think that women were more stupid than men, but they knew that their hands were overfull already”. Over the next few years, as suffragettes embarked on their campaign of “deeds not words”, tens of thousands of women joined the anti-suffrage movement, with half a million signing petitions against votes for women.

To a lesser and greater extent, similar counter movements can be found wherever and whenever female rights have been discussed. In France, for example, Caroline d’Ancre argued in 1877 that “Woman needs protection, not emancipation”; in America, Helen Kendrick Johnson’s anti-suffrage book Woman and the Republic made the case for the protection of the domestic sphere; and in India, even when the ultimate aims were the same, conflict arose between women who sought immediate universal suffrage and women such as Radhabai Subbarayan, who advocated a gradual process of enfranchisement.  

With the release of a new poll ranking historical women by “influence”  and the seemingly insatiable appetite for compilation books about “badass”, “inspiring” or “rebellious” women, perhaps it is time to have an honest discussion about where we place the swathes of women and social movements, such as anti-suffragism, that simply cannot fit into a neat “inspiring” model? In the well-intentioned push to correct centuries of male-skewed history, so much of our pop commentary seems to be shying away from historical nuance.

Recovering this history matters because it is often the interplay between movements and counter-movements that bring world-changing ideas, events, and people to the fore. It matters because seeing “influence” only through a positive (“progressive”) lens discounts women who had an enormous impact on history, but whose lives were too dark, too unsavoury or often downright disturbing. And it matters because forcing women into superhuman stock characters – eg the lone plucky upstart subverting the patriarchy to ultimately do extraordinary good – runs the risk of creating heroines rather than historical figures and facilitating a simplified “Great Woman” view of the past.

In my own period of interest, we find plague searchers who were reviled and accused of bribery and murder by their contemporaries, yet their work was instrumental in shaping the way we understand historical plague epidemics; we find brothel-keepers such as Damaris Page, who was a legendary property magnate in her time, despite wriggling out of a death sentence after performing a lethal (and illegal) abortion using a two-pronged fork; and we find a world where infanticide was such a huge issue that women (particularly those in domestic service) policed each other’s bodies to see if they were concealing a pregnancy.

More broadly, we should also confront the uncomfortable truth that women have been actively involved in some of the most horrendous episodes in human history. Women such as Magda Geobbels and Gertrud Scholtz-Klink were embedded within the Nazi machine. White women played a real-life and symbolic role in the lynchings in post-Civil War America and colluded in the historical sexual abuse of aboriginal women by white men in Australia. Globally, women have also taken a central role in accusations of witchcraft (a topic that is sadly still heartbreakingly pertinent).

We know that throughout history, men have committed significantly more violent crime than women. Yet it is important to explore the impact female perpetrators have had on notions of womanhood – from the 16th and 17th-century Hungarian alleged mass-murderer Elizabeth Bathory to the 20th-century Japanese Geisha and killer, Sada Abe. Added to this are the complex rulers whose lives do not fit into the “inspirational” mould, but whose influence was considerable – rulers such as China’s Wu Zetian (624-705), England and Ireland’s Mary I (1516-1558) and Madagascar’s Ranavalona I (1778-1861).

To my mind, nothing quite exposes the messy web we women weave like the French Revolution. In the 1790s, we find the brave, the bad and the grotesque. There were working-class women protesting and rioting at the price of bread, incredibly optimistic thinkers making the case for equality, and women buoyed by youthful conviction and the excitement of the times into extreme acts of violence – one such, Charlotte Corday, assassinated the radical revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, in a bathtub with a butcher’s knife. She was publicly executed by guillotine for her crime, her decapitated head lifted to the crowds and slapped across the face by a man, before her body was autopsied to see if she had been a virgin and had, therefore, plotted the assassination alone. So distraught were Marat’s female supporters at his death that they carried the bathtub he was murdered in during his funeral.

Across the Atlantic, the events in France triggered a revolution in what came to be known as Haiti. Professor Elizabeth C. Neidenbach has unpacked the differing experiences of formerly enslaved and free-born women who fled to New Orleans from Haiti following the revolution. Through wills, she has shown how these women developed networks and went to great lengths to prove their free status as women of colour in a country where slavery was still legal.

All of this is not even to mention the everyday working women who are so often overlooked, but whose collective lives have turned the wheel of time to shape the world we live in today. As the historian Dr Joanne Paul has said: “the most successful female influencers of the past usually left the least obvious mark, that was the expectation of female influence.” As a tonic to the simplified pop commentary, there are some wonderful digital projects that enable the curious-minded to sift through vast databases and gain insight into the lives of men and women from times gone by. To choose a very few just from my own field: Intoxicants Project, The Old Bailey Online, and Women’s Work in Rural England.

When we seek only those who inspire, when we shape historical lives into a “hero's journey” that can be pitted against others and polled, we miss the multifarious nature of life itself – and history is all the emptier for it. Women, like men, are nasty, funny, ruthless, wonderful, vindictive, charismatic, short-tempered, perverse, ridiculous, brave, evil, rebellious, ambitious and, most of all, connected. All “Great Women” stand on the shoulders of those to have come before. All “Great Women” are shaped by the world and people around them – whether they’re pushing back against antipathy or being pushed forward by wider change. As John Donne almost said: “No man or woman is an island, entire of itself”.