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!