Tuesday 22 October 2013

Where have all the heroines gone? by Kate Lord Brown


Clearing the family bookshelves for the last time at my parents' home in Devon, I found my old 'Girls' Handbook' this summer. Perhaps you had something similar - full of useful tips from mending punctures to taking care of your animals, and always with a section on heroic women from history. At the age I remember devouring the book, I was at the kind of girls' school that put as much emphasis on being able to navigate Dartmoor and change a plug as rustle up a decent meal and walk with a straight back (deportment badges were handed out for good posture). It had a strong spiritual heart, was academically rigorous, and instilled an instinctive sense of sexual equality. At the time that practical, intellectual and liberal foundation seemed completely normal. Only with the benefit of age can I see how incredibly fortunate it is to have an education like that. Also - a sign of the times - that exemplary girls' school has just closed its doors for the last time.

The stories in the handbook - of remarkable women like Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Anne Frank - became a shared history. These women were conjured to life by our teachers and their courageous examples became part of us - they were truly formative. I still remember standing in silence in the Frank house in Amsterdam at roughly the same age Anne was when she lived there. Perhaps you've seen the Hilary Swank film 'Freedom Writers', where the true life story of teacher Erin Gruwell is dramatised? Gruwell used the example of Anne Frank to reach a group of 'unteachables', working several jobs to pay for Miep Gies (who sheltered the Franks), to come and talk to her group. The book speaks across the years, but I wonder if the Diary of Anne Frank is still required reading in schools?

Writing historical fiction I still find myself drawn to these women - Amy Johnson in 'The Beauty Chorus', Gerda Taro in 'The Perfume Garden'. One of the lovely things about being published that I'm still getting used to is how people give you the gift of their stories. At a shwarma party in a desert house the other night, a woman told me a wonderful tale about her grandmother, who was named for British nurse and patriot Edith Cavell. 'I'd love to read a novel about her,' the woman said.

I began to wonder who today's girls admire and look up to. A quick survey at home came up with two names:

J K Rowling


Hermione Granger

I'll be putting a copy of the 'Girls' Handbook' or its modern equivalent under the Christmas tree for my daughter this year in the hope we can add a few more to this list - it would be interesting to know which names you can come up with from your daughters or young friends. Which heroines had an impact on you as a youthful history girl? Or perhaps you've also had the experience of being 'given' a story? 

Who will be the modern day heroines, the examples from our own era? If there is one contemporary candidate, it's Malala Yousafzai, whose biography has just been published. Her bravery fighting for the education so many of us take for granted, and her message of peaceful resistance is truly inspiring. If you haven't seen this clip, it's well worth watching - 4.40 onwards takes your breath away and just goes to show that heroism is alive and well today:


Petrea Burchard said...

What a hero! I think I've found my next book to read.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I have been asked for that book about Malala for the school library and will be hunting it up. Amazing young woman!

Stroppy Author said...

Marie Curie was my female hero when I was young. Two Nobel prizes. Count them - one, two. Genius.

Sally Zigmond said...

For me, over 40 years ago, other than the wonderful women you have already mentioned it was Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale and Anna Pavlova

Today, Malala is a remarkable young girl and well worthy of the many accolades that have been heaped on her. However, judging by comments in the tabloids, the fact she is a Muslim and cares about education counts against her. What a sad world we live in when many young girls today only dream if winning the X Factor!

Clare Mulley said...

Interesting stuff Kate. Funnily enough I was on a panel discussing 'what makes a modern heroine' last weekend at the Isle of Wight lit fest, with Elizabeth Fremantle, Elizabeth Buchan and local author Andrew Lucas. Both Malala and Hermione Granger were mentioned, but there were few other contemporary names, although Disney's slide from rather dependent Snow White to Brave Merida determining her own destiny was at least found to be encouraging.
Recently I was shocked at the debate about how hard it was to find a woman worthy to be depicted on our £5 note. As well as Nightingale, Seacole, Fawcett, Cavell, Curie, Keller, there are so many lesser known stories that should be highlighted - such as the subject of my first biography, Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928), founder of Save the Children and pioneer of children's human rights.
We certainly need more avenues to celebrate such women and their more recent sisters.

Theresa Breslin said...

Lovely post Kate. I've a whole collection of old children's books so this really resonated with me. You'll be glad to know that Anne Frank's diary is till read in schools.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thanks for your comments - some wonderful names here, and it's great that this topic is being discussed, Clare. As Sally pointed out, in an era when people aspire to being famous for being famous (not going to say the K-shian word), we need our heroines (and so glad that Anne Frank is being read).

margaret blake said...

I loved these kinds of books as a kid. Fascinating stuff and you mention heroines I have forgotten.
Thank you.
I do remember reading about Margaret of Scotland, she came from Hungary to marry a Scottish King and was a wonderful woman. She was one of my heroines alongside Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale and Mrs Fry who did much for prison reform.
Malala is a true heroine of today.

Alison Morton said...

I worshipped Edith Cavell from when I first read her story in my 'Girl' annual. Joan of Arc was a strong model as was Boadicea (as she was known then).

Now? Malala, of course. And the woman who approached the killers of the young soldier cut down outside Woolwich barracks.

Katherine Roberts said...

Boadicea/Boudica was mine, too (and she's my story in the History Girls' very own "Daughters of Time" anthology - a children's book of heroines due out from Templar in the spring!)

Also Velvet from National Velvet - even though fictional, I still remember that film having quite an effect on me as horse-crazy youngster.

Kate Lord Brown said...

That's wonderful about the anthology. Shall definitely be getting a copy for my daughter!

Kit said...

A quick quiz to my 13 yer old came up with Natalie du Toit, Joan of Arc and Mother Theresa. My 11 yr old drew a blank. Better start telling her a few more stories of real people rather than fiction!