International Women’s Day: My Heroines

I used to think that International Women’s Day was a Communist invention, brough over by the Soviets, a sop to exhausted women doing double shifts in the workplace and at home to build the socialist dream. In fact, it predates the Russian Revolution by a good few years and I see it now as an opportunity to remember inspirational women of the past, and improve the situation of women everywhere now and in the future. So here are my personal heroines:

Marie Curie. From Royal Society of Chemistry website.
Marie Curie. From Royal Society of Chemistry website.

Marie Curie

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, the only person to win it twice for two different sciences (physics and chemistry), the first woman professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to be entombed on her own merits (rather than as ‘wife of’) in the Pantheon… her list of achievements just goes on and on. She also managed to achieve all of this whilst being a single mother to her two daughters (her husband Pierre Curie died when the girls were just toddlers) and building her lab outside Paris. The quote below shows just how much this must have cost her – and how little things have changed since then.

I have often been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.

Virginia Woolf, from German Wikipedia site.
Virginia Woolf, from German Wikipedia site.

Virginia Woolf

Largely self-educated, despite her relatively privileged background, she overcame her fears, anxieties, insecurities, depressions and periods of insanity at least long enough to give us some of the sharpest critical thinking and most poetic prose in English literature. And she had the coolest group of friends (despite their little stabbings and rivalries), so she must have been a good friend.


Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Sophie Scholl, from the German National Archives.
Sophie Scholl, from the German National Archives.

Sophie Scholl

German student who, together with her brother and a small band of friends, formed an anti-war resistance movement The White Rose, at the heart of Nazi Germany. She was found guilty of high treason and executed in 1943. Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag, who wrote a play about The White Rose, has been quoted as saying: ‘It is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the twentieth century… The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there…’

Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.

Martha Gellhorn, from The New Yorker.
Martha Gellhorn, from The New Yorker.

Martha Gellhorn

One of the foremost war correspondents of her generation and perhaps the whole twentieth century, she was smart, fearless, compassionate and deserves to be remembered as more than just ‘Ernest Hemingway’s third wife’. When he complained about her frequent work-related absences, saying: ‘Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?’, guess what her answer was? Yes, something along the lines: ‘These boots are made for walking…’

The only way I can pay back for what fate and society have handed me is to try, in minor totally useless ways, to make an angry sound against injustice.

Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Library of Congress.
Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Library of Congress.

Margaret Mead

American anthropologist, the first and perhaps only superstar of anthropology, who opened up minds and hearts to other cultures and other voices. Although some of her conclusions and findings have been contested since (which perhaps just goes to show that human societies evolve continuously), she is a model for courage to explore independently, learn new things constantly, fit in with others and go against the prevailing current. She was also a fantastic mother, whose daughter has followed in her footsteps.

 If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognise the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

Happy International Women’s Day, to inspirational women everywhere and the friends and families who stand by their side!


40 thoughts on “International Women’s Day: My Heroines”

  1. Great list Marina! One thing I could never understand was Martha and Hemingway, who I despise, and had little respect for any woman. By the way, love your new look!

    1. Ah, but I heard Naomi Wood (author of Mrs. Hemingway) talk about his wives and Ernest himself, and maybe he was not quite as macho when he was in love. That book is firmly on my reading list, not because of Hemingway (whom I personally never liked very much), but because I want to hear more about these women.

      1. I have it, and intend to get to it very soon. I suppose people can be different when they are in love, and by that I mean both Martha and Ernest (whom I’ve never been keen on, as a man, or a writer!) To be fair, I think he did marry all his mistresses (I think one of his wives said as much! – “I don’t mind Ernest having lovers but why does he have to marry them,” or similar.) That’s a bit more chivalrous than just having them as lovers. Another quote was something along the lines of feeling you were in the sunlight when he loved you – so the contrast, when his eye wandered, must’ve been dreadful. It’s the macho image that causes me to instinctively dislike him – that, and the simple fact I disliked the books of his we studied at school! Perhaps the book will rehabilitate him a little, in our minds? Sophie Scholl was a new name to me, and one with a fascinating, albeit tragic, story.

  2. Interesting and inspiring list, Marina Sofia. I especially liked that you included one I had never heard of — Sophie Scholl — and one I know less about — Martha Gellhorn. When I was in college many years ago, I did study some anthropology courses and I remember being very impressed by Margaret Mead and I read a couple of her books.

  3. What a fabulous post! I love your choices, too :-). You’ve given me a lot to think about. I ought to think about who my heroines are. My problem is that I have several…

    1. Some of them, certainly, but I think Margaret Mead and Martha Gellhorn at least were reasonably happy with their chosen path and did not feel they had to sacrifice too much.

  4. I’m ashamed that I’ve never really thought of who my heroines might be…I shall have to mull that over. But I suspect my list would also include Madame Curie. Hmm… Florence Nightingale perhaps…

    1. I was doing the same, FF, after reading this! There’s a couple of women currently in Scottish politics – you’ll know who I mean – whose politics I don’t share, but who I admire, and think of as great role models (I’m forever referencing them to my daughter as proof that women in Scotland today can do anything – I just wish we had such examples throughout the UK!)

    2. That’s an interesting one: I wanted to move away from the caring, self-sacrificing image of women, hence no Mother Teresa or Florence Nightingale. Each of these women were also prickly, difficult, flawed in some way (aren’t we all?) – things that we expect and accept in ‘great men’, but which we don’t often admire in ‘great women’.

      1. Absolutely – as is so often said, successful, powerful men are “driven” or “assertive”; women in the same position are “bitches”! People seem to resent taking orders from women, still! (I’ve generally found female bosses to be more caring and sympathetic, but I think it’s very much about the personality, not the sex!)

      2. Ah, I don’t think of Nightingale as particularly caring, despite the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ image – she battled her family to be educated as a nurse, took on the government over conditions in the Crimea, shaming them into action, terrorised her nurses into submission, went on to become a great social reformer despite being ill and often bedridden for much of her life – and had a pretty low opinion of her fellow women for not getting their act together to improve their own status! I suspect she was probably obnoxious – but effective… 😉

  5. My favorite woman is Helen Jackson. A writer who wrote the truth and left us with the only true history of a bad time. She also wrote great plays. Still being performed.

  6. Such a fabulous list! I am fascinated by every woman whom you have mentioned, especially Woolf and Scholl! I loved learning about the latter at school, and have always admired her. Happy (belated) International Women’s Day!

  7. Sophie Scholl is always my chosen example when I talk to people about those who were young at the time use the excuse “but I was too young to know”. She shows that age has nothing to do with it.

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