March 8th is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Choose to Challenge. Our Special Collection of Biographies is full of the stories of inspiring and extraordinary women who challenged the norms of the societies they lived in, and improved the lives of their fellow women in vital ways. I have selected three women from very different backgrounds, whose work changed the experience of other women for the better, in three different areas of their lives.
Amelia Bloomer changed the way women dressed. Next time you put on tracksuit bottoms to go for a run (or just to relax on the sofa), spare a thought for Amelia Bloomer. Born in New York, she lived a life that spanned almost the whole of the nineteenth century, becoming the first woman to ever own and edit a newspaper specifically aimed at other women, in 1849. Amongst her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights, she is best remembered for her commitment to the cause of women’s dress reform. Bloomer felt strongly that the restrictive clothing women wore could only impede all aspects of their lives, cause them unnecessary discomfort, and operate as a form of oppression. Well off women were encumbered by elaborately decorative clothing and punishing corsetry. Even poor women were continually hampered by the length of their skirts. It seems amazing now that in the West, trousers for women were not really respectable until the middle of the 20th century, and their previous modes of dress made all kinds of activities from riding bikes to participating in sports to simply running for a (horse drawn) bus impossible. Bloomer championed the idea of loose gathered trousers worn under a shorter dress, allowing women to move more easily – these trousers became known as “bloomers”. A courageous group of like-minded women began to wear them in public, but were often harassed, mocked and even assaulted. But they had begun a century of slow progress towards the time when women could wear trousers without raising an eyebrow, and so be enabled to enjoy the same freedom of movement as men.
Onnie Lee Logan changed the way women gave birth As Bloomer’s life almost spanned the 19th century, Logan’s did the 20th. In her farming community in Alabama, black women did not have access to clinical maternity care and they were helped to deliver their babies by “granny midwives”, who had no formal training but who were repositories of wisdom passed down for centuries. Logan came from a family where women had been practising as “granny midwives” for generations. Her heritage was both African American and Native American, and when she began to practise midwifery herself, aged 21, she drew on the traditions of both cultures. In 1949 Logan undertook formal training and was licensed by the Board of Health. She was able to give her patients the benefit of a new mixture of modern medical practice and family-centred care based on long experience and first-hand knowledge. These women benefited from as many modern medical safety measures as Logan could provide, while being reassured by the sensitivity of a woman who understood their community and cultural traditions at the deepest level. For a period of half a century, ending in the mid-80s, she is credited with delivering almost every baby born in two black neighbourhoods of Mobile, Alabama. She also delivered the babies of poor white women, and became a beloved figure throughout the community, though her autobiography does not gloss over the virulent racism she encountered. Logan emphasised practices that were still being seen as new and innovative by orthodox midwifery many years later, such as the participation of fathers, the use of relaxation and breathing techniques and the application of oils, and she encouraged women to give birth in different positions rather than flat on their backs, as was the conventional and often damaging expectation. Her autobiography is a fascinating record of a working life that spanned enormous changes – an unsentimental “Call the Midwife” of the Deep South, and a testament to an extraordinarily humane and expert woman.
Caroline Norton changed women’s rights in marriage. Norton left her unhappy marriage in 1836, and her husband sued her friend, the Prime Minister and future close confidante of Queen Victoria Lord Melbourne for adultery, involving all of them in an enormous scandal. Although he lost his case, he refused to divorce Lady Norton, and refused to let her see her sons. At a time when women who left their husbands were generally condemned and when it was perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, Norton campaigned tirelessly to change the law relating to custody, divorce and property (married women were not allowed to legally own any property until 1870, when an Act of Parliament Norton had campaigned for was passed). A new biography of this courageous woman by Antonia Fraser will be published in May, and we have a clutch of books in our collection from Diane Atkinson’s excellent biography of 2012, to books from the 1940s and 1960s (see the cover illustration so characteristic of that period) – and Norton also makes an appearance in some sumptuous Edwardian collected biographies of “Queens of Beauty” and “Famous Women of Wit and Beauty”, where her celebrated beauty is recorded in wonderful engraved illustrations.
Check out our monthly podcast BioEpic, where we delve into the lives of fascinating people through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Breaker.