International Women’s Day: More Personal Heroines

Last year I mentioned some of my personal heroines, some fictional, some very real, who inspire me every day, not just once a year on the 8th of March.

Here are some more in the same vein, that are worth exploring further. Women I want to emulate in terms of courage, determination, talent, single-minded focus, resilience… but not fate (in most cases).

Women in a man’s world:

From Wikipedia.

Amy Johnson: British ‘aviatrix’ (in the language of the time)

Many have heard of Amelia Earhart, but she was just one of a group of pioneering women pilots active in the 1920s and 30s. Amy Johnson was the first woman pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. She set numerous other long-distance and speed records, including beating her new husband’s record flight from London to Cape Town (he was also a pilot). Unafraid of a bit of rivalry, then! (Or was he? 6 years later, they divorced.) She was part of the Air Transport Auxiliary during WW2 and died in 1941 on a mission. Some suspect it was a ‘friendly fire’ incident.

From the National Air and Space Museum.
From the National Air and Space Museum.

Bessie Coleman: First black pilot to hold an international licence, she was the tenth of 13 children born in a sharecropper family in the American South and had to study aviation in France, since no one would train her (as a woman and a black) in the US. She became a big airshow sensation in the 1920s, was known as Queen Bess and even appeared in a film. Sadly, she died far too soon, at the age of 34, in a flight accident while preparing for a show.



Lise Meitner

Austrian physicist of Jewish origin, who did not share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded in 1944 to Otto Hahn for nuclear fission, although she was a long-time collaborator on this project. She was born in Vienna in 1878.  Although women were not allowed to attend university at the time, she was encouraged and supported by her parents to complete a private education and a doctorate in physics. She then moved to Berlin to study with Max Planck and soon became his assistant, then the first woman to become head of the physics department at the university of Berlin. Sadly, with the rise to power of Hitler, she had to flee abroad and eventually settled in Sweden, but died in the UK.

Women in ‘traditional’ women’s roles

Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from
Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from

Josephine Baker

The Bronze Venus was born in very humble circumstances in Missouri and had to work to support herself from a very early age. Cleaning houses, babysitting, dancing on street corners – she was like an early Piaf, and was discovered for a vaudeville show at the age of 15. It was in France, however, that she became a sensation in the 1920s-30s. During the war, she was recruited by the French intelligence services and the Resistance. After the war, she was involved in the American Civil Rights movement and adopted twelve children of different origins, which she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’, to prove that all religions and races can live together harmoniously. She raised her children in her chateau in Dordogne until 1965, when financial troubles forced her to sell.

From Barnes and Noble website.
From Barnes and Noble website.

Penelope Fitzgerald

No surprise just why I admire Fitzgerald so much – not only was she an outstanding, subtle, erudite writer, but she also embarked upon her literary career rather late (at age 58). So there is still hope for all of us who are a bit slow in getting started… In her case, there were some sad reasons behind this: her husband was an alcoholic and a bit of a con man, which led to him being unable to work.  This meant they were reduced to a life of poverty and temporary accommodation, while she worked hard to support the family through teaching, running a bookshop and writing for magazines. She remained a supportive wife, but it was after her husband’s death that she truly blossomed and published most of her books.

Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.
Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.

Madame de Staël

Born into a Swiss banking family, raised in France, married to the Swedish ambassador at the court of Louis XVI by the name of Staël-Holstein, she became famous not for her beauty but for her wit, talent and political intrigue. She survived the Revolution but had to spend quite a bit of time in exile for her outspoken opinions and created a literary salon in her Swiss chateau in Coppet, as well as in Paris. She was a vocal opponent of Napoleon’s, but is best known for her several novels and critical works which marked the transition to the Age of Romanticism. She travelled extensively and led a remarkably free love life, although she is quoted as saying: ‘Love is the whole history of a woman’s life, but an episode in a man’s life.’ But she also said: ‘One must choose in life between boredom and suffering.’




23 thoughts on “International Women’s Day: More Personal Heroines”

  1. Wonderful selection of inspiring women! I have a biog of Baker lurking somewhere which I really must read!

  2. I love this post. So many fascinating, inspiring women there. I have enjoyed several Pen elope Fitzgerald novels – but I didn’t know anything about her circumstances.

  3. Oh, this is lovely, Marina Sofia! I’ve always admired Josephine Baker very much, myself. I have a special fondness for the memory of Lise Meitner and Bessie Coleman, too. Glad you mentioned them.

    1. Josephine Baker’s courage and integrity in all areas of her life are just outstanding! In fact, all of these women show a concern for something greater than themselves, which is most admirable.

    1. She is a wonderful, understated kind of writer. Happy to say that I have a short story collection of hers on my shelves to look forward to! Plus I intend to reread The Bookshop and The Blue Flower at some point.

  4. Lise Meitner “was a long-time collaborator on this project”. It’s actually even more (worse) than that.

    They prepared the experiment together, but then she had to flee to Sweden. So Hahn wrote to her with the results, and she did the theoretical work and wrote back to him explaining what it meant (i.e., they had split the atom), and then he published the result without her name. And he didn’t acknowledge her at all during the Nobel prize speech, which she attended, although the war was over and collaborating with Jews was no longer an issue.

    1. I had heard some rumours to that effect, but wasn’t entirely sure, so thank you for setting the record straight. It is quite appalling, isn’t it?

    1. You’ll never believe where I first heard of Amy Johnson – in Ballet Shoes! When Petrova says she wants to become a pilot like Earhart and Johnson.

  5. A really interesting selection of women, Marina. It’s great to see Penelope Fitzgerald here. I’ve only just ‘discovered’ her books in the last couple of years, but sh has already become a bit of a favourite. I really ought to read another at some point this year.

  6. I think I could read these snippets on inspiring women forever. Josephine Baker especially has pique my interest. Also, Amy Johnson’s story reminds me of a book by Helen Humphreys, called Leaving Earth. I haven’t read it but it’s about 2 women aviators in 1933, one is also married to a pilot. I wonder if Humphreys was inspired in any way by Amy Johnson, or if there are a myriad of women pilots from the 1930s to choose from. In any case, it reminds me that I would like to read the book. 🙂

  7. Amy Johnson was actually abducted by aliens, cryogenically frozen and revived in the 24th century where she is now living happily. Don’t you watch Star Trek?? 😉

    1. Ah, that explains it! Maybe in the 24th century she will have more recognition and stranger spaceships to fly. Amelia Earhart has a worse fate then: she comes to life in ‘Night at the Museum 2’ and falls for Ben Stiller…

  8. Penelope Fitzgerald has always been a great favourite of mine. And can I add Beryl Markham, another aviatrix who wrote a very amusing memoir, West with the Night. And Eugenia Ginsburg, who survived an astonishing 17 years in Stalin’s gulag, and yet there is not one bitter sentence in her memoir, Into the whirlwind.

    1. It’s a humdinger of a quote, isn’t it? Sometimes I think some of the women of the past were braver and more radical than many women are nowadays.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.