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.’




Friday Fun: Homes of French Writers

Grandiloquent gestures and symbols do not sit well with me. I express my love of my current home, France, in simpler ways – not just today, but always.

Madame de Chatelet's chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From
Madame de Chatelet’s chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From

Madame de Chatelet was a respected author, mathematician and physicist, who translated Newton into French. Voltaire was her lover, friend and intellectual collaborator for 15 years, until her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42. Voltaire wrote of her:

Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly.

Madame de Stael's Swiss chateau at Coppet, from
Madame de Stael’s Swiss chateau at Coppet, from


Madame de Staël was one of the most vocal opponents of Napoleon and had to flee across the border to Switzerland to escape persecution. She felt restless and lonely in rural Coppet, missed the intellectual verve of Paris.

The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Madame de Staël)

Francois Mauriac's home Malagar. From
Francois Mauriac’s home Malagar. From

Mauriac was one of the 3 Great ‘M’s to originate in Bordeaux (the others being Montaigne and Montesquieu) – a novelist, dramatist and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.

I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet. (Mauriac)

Emile Zola's house in Medan, not far from Paris. From
Emile Zola’s house in Medan, not far from Paris. From

Thanks to the success of L’Assommoir, Zola bought a small house in Medan and extended it so that he could receive his friends, Guy de Maupassant, Cézanne, Manet, Alphonse Daudet and so on. How I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall there!

Victor Hugo's handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from
Victor Hugo’s handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from

Hugo and his family spent a lot of time in this house and village on the river Seine, but their time here was marked by tragedy too. His favourite daughter Leopoldine and her husband (they had just married, despite some family opposition) drowned in the river there.

By contrast, Flaubert's modest pavillion in Normandy, from
By contrast, Flaubert’s modest pavilion in Normandy, from

This is the only building left of a much larger manor house and property belonging to Flaubert’s father. The writer adored this house and wrote all of his work here.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. (Flaubert)

Marguerite Duras' house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from
Marguerite Duras’ house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from

The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. (Duras)

However, Alexandre Dumas' Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From
However, Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From

Cautionary note as to the last, however: Dumas designed and built the chateau from scratch and moved in the grandiose custom-built venue in 1847. By 1850 he was bankrupt and had to sell all the furniture, the house itself and find refuge from his creditors in Belgium.