International Women’s Day: Never Too Many Heroines

I’ve written in the past about women who have inspired me, for International Women’s Day in 2015, 2016 and on other occasions. But we can never hear too much about women who have been sidelined, neglected or even remembered for the wrong reasons, can we? Here are a few more to remember on this day.

Ono no Komachi

Later portrait of Ono no Komachi.

You know that I am a big fan of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, but the Heian period in Japan was full of gifted women writers and poets. Although very few biographical details are available, we do know that Ono no Komachi undoubtedly existed, was a court lady famous for her beauty and one of the ‘Six Poetic Geniuses’ cited by Ki no Tsurayki, included in the most famous Japanese collection of classical poetry: Hyakunin Isshu. Her waka poems about love, loss, aging are beautiful and timeless, and she became a heroine of numerous Noh plays as well.

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.


I’ve mentioned her before, I’m sure. I love the sensual phrasing and pitch-perfect, slightly ironic observation of humans by this French writer. She started out in theatre and her writing/storytelling talent was exploited by her husband Willy, but she then became so much more famous than him. She lived as she pleased, scandalously bisexual, a bit of a cougar, and certainly a cat person.

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.

There are no ordinary cats.

Sylvie Guillem

One of the most beautiful and powerful dancers I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Those were the days, when I first came to London and could watch her and Darcey Bussell alternating in the same roles on cheap student tickets (and occasionally Viviana Durante and Miyako Yoshida. Darcey was perhaps a tad more lyrical and ingenue, but Sylvie was spectacular, athletic, almost miraculous in her stretches and jumps, much more willing to explore new forms and go beyond classical ballet. She did not suffer fools gladly, spoke her own mind relentlessly and, in a world of silent, obedient ballerinas, became known as the spiky Mademoiselle Non.

Having limits to push against is how you find out what you can do. I have always been full of contradictions. I am shy but I love the freedom of the stage. I need reassurance but at the same time I don’t want it. I hate being afraid but I can’t help wanting to frighten myself. That is how you grow.

Marina Tsvetaeva

Tsvetaeva by Magda Nachman-Acharya.

One of my favourite poets in any language, she experienced just about the most troubled times imaginable in Russian history, with grim repercussions for her own family. One daughter died of starvation in the famine which followed the First World War and Civil War, she and her family were exiled for their anti-Bolshevik stance but when her husband developed pro-Soviet sympathies and they returned home, he was executed as a spy and her second daughter was imprisoned, while her son died later on the front in WW2. Not surprising that she decided to end her life in 1941.

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.
For my country has taken so little care of me that even the sharpest spy could
Go over my whole spirit and would detect no native stain there.
Houses are alien, churches are empty, everything is the same.
But if by the side of the path one particular bush rises, the rowanberry…



One Thousand Ways to Say I Love You

What better way to celebrate a thousand blog posts since February 2012 than by sharing memorable thousands I have seen elsewhere?

  1. 1001 Nights – one of the best collection of stories anywhere – the original page-turner
Illustration from 1001 Nights, from Book Drum

2. A burger with Thousand Island dressing (which I pretended to like in my youth, but time is too short for me to ever befriend mayonnaise).

3. Will I finally read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, about an intergenerational friendship between Afghan women, a book about which I’ve heard many good things? (Why oh why am I so reluctant to read bestsellers though?)

4. Certainly not a bestseller, but this looks very interesting: One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd by Jim Fergus. It’s based on a true story about pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians, in an effort to assimilate them.

5. Admire the art project with anthropological flair: One Thousand ShacksTracey Snelling has created a multimedia sculptural installation depicting shantytowns from around the world.

6. 1000 Meere (or 1000 Oceans) – a song by German band Tokio Hotel. They’ve recorded this song in both English and German and I love the difference in voice timbre when singing in the two languages.

7. Anne of the Thousand Days – a film I loved in my childhood about the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII, with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.

8. New film just out: One Thousand Ropes directed by New Zealand-Samoan film director Tusi Tamasese has been presented at the Berlin Film Festival. This seems to be a film for our times, questioning notions of masculinity and toughness in a traditional society.

9. One for One Thousand literary magazine (1:1000) is open for submissions. They are looking for 1,000-word stories or narrative essays inspired by a photo, and will accept literary, genre, and experimental work, as long as the writing is quality.

10. Above all, a thousand thanks and kisses to all of you who have read, shared, commented, reblogged and simply been there for me over the past five years.


Finally, because today is International Women’s Day, I just wanted to link up to a few posts from previous years celebrating inspirational role models.

2015 post about personal heroines

2016 post about more heroines

Inspiring women and their one weakness



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.’




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!