International Women’s Day – 8 March 2021

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. 

 

Inspirational female authors: Sophie Mackintosh

Since International Women’s Day in March, we have been reviewing one book a month by an inspirational female author. For November I have chosen The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. It is her first novel and it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year.

It is dystopian, but very different from anything else I have read in that genre. It doesn’t really explore the fictional world she has created, but instead it focuses on three sister’s stories. Grace, Lia and Sky are separated from the rest of the world by the sea. They rely on the rituals and rules of their parents to keep them safe from the danger of men and what lies across the water.

TheWaterCure

It is a book about isolation, suffering and sisterhood. I read it quickly, eager to know what would happen. There are moments of violence but the scariest part for me was the vague, hinted at horrors that men in the outside world are inflicting on women, which are never spelled out. Even when we hear from the women themselves, we just get glimpses of what they have endured. This seems to imply that their world might not be that different to our own.

It is a strange book, dreamy but violent and harsh. What I liked most was the intense atmosphere. I also liked the relationship between the three sisters. It feels honest and their love and hatred for one another is true to life, if slightly amplified by their strange existence. I think it’s the sort of book that will divide opinion, but I found it fresh and unique.

See you in December for our next (and last!) review of a book by an inspirational female author.

Philippa, Brompton Library

Inspirational female authors: Helen Dunmore

To celebrate 2018 being the centenary of women’s right to vote, we are reviewing one book a month by a female author. We started things off last month, on International Women’s Day, with ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.

For April, I’ve chosen the poignant ‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore. As we are celebrating female authors, I felt it was appropriate to choose a novel that explores how a female writer from the eighteenth century could be completely forgotten by history.

‘Birdcage Walk’ is set in Bristol during the outbreak of the French Revolution. The main character is Lizzie Fawkes, a young woman conflicted by the ideals instilled in her by her radical, writer mother and her sense of duty to her husband. We witness how all the characters are affected by the revolution in Europe. Lizzie’s feminist mother and her friends welcome the change that the revolution promises. But for Lizzie’s husband, a property developer, the uncertainty the revolution creates means disaster.

I thought the plot was brilliantly unpredictable and all the characters were complex and well rounded. I felt the prologue added an interesting perspective as before we even meet any of the protagonists, we learn that their story will be almost entirely lost to history.

My favourite aspect of ‘Birdcage Walk’ is how personal it feels, as despite being historical fiction it gives an intimate view of one family’s life.

See you in May for our next review.

Philippa, Brompton Library

International Women’s Day – inspirational female authors

Today, Thursday 8 March is International Women’s Day; a date to inspire and celebrate women around the world, a celebration that began for over a century ago. It started with the campaign for better pay and voting rights and this is particularly pertinent this year as 2018 marks 100 years since women were first given the vote.

To celebrate, we will be reviewing one book a month written by inspirational female authors.

We’ll start things off with the electrifying ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.
Like a lot of great plots, ‘The Power’ is based on a “what if?” idea. What if women suddenly had the power to cause incredible pain with the flick of their fingers? This is exactly what happens in this novel and we get to witness how this changes everything on a global scale.

Although we are shown the impact on the entire world, the book focuses on four main characters. There’s Roxy, the teenager from a criminal background who discovers the extent of her new found ability, and there’s Margot, ambitious for more political power. Then there’s Allie, who walks away from her troubled childhood to become the leader of a new religion. And there’s Tunde, a young male reporter who witnesses the dramatic global events unfold.

I loved how much this book toyed with my emotions, as one minute I was euphoric and the next horrified. It is impossible to read this without reflecting on how its themes of power and the abuse of power affect the world today.  This will appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood and anyone ready to view the world differently.

See you next month.

Philippa, Brompton Library