52 Weeks of Women – January
52 Weeks of women is a weekly series of posts allowing us to rediscover the important role that women have played in history. To find out a little more about what we are doing or why visit Introducing 52 Weeks of Women.
To continue our series, this month we bring you Hatshepsut, Ada Lovelace, the Trung Sisters, Christine de Pizan and Margaret Sanger. We hope that each post will prompt you to read more, and if you do we’d love you to share what you find out! Likewise, if you know of any women who you think should be included in our series, let us know.
Little was known about this pharaoh until 1883, due largely in part to her successor’s attempt to erase her from the public record, but also because she sometimes ordered herself to be portrayed as a man and sometimes as a woman in stone carvings. Rather than an attempt to trick people, this was probably a device to convey the rank of supreme ruler in a world which lacked the language for a female monarch. A deciphering of hieroglyphs helped uncover this amazing ruler.
She was a powerful and successful ruler who focused on prosperity, building and trade rather than on acquisition of new lands. Her amazing trade ventures enabled the import of incredibly exotic luxuries such as ivory, ebony, gold, leopard skins and incense; all of which we have come to associate with the buried treasures of Egyptian tombs. Hers was the first recorded use of imported frankincense, which she burned, ground into dust, and then used as kohl eyeliner.
Without her establishment of trade routes, we may never have seen myrhh trees in Egypt, as Hatshepsut successfully had tree roots transplanted from overseas. Quite possibly two of the Wise Men might have been left a little red-faced without a gift for the baby Jesus some 1500 years later, had it not been for the fruits of Hatshepsut’s successful trade missions!
Read more about this influential and successful pharaoh here:
Born as the only legitimate child of poet Alfred Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace grew up with her mother anxious that she pursue a career in the sciences, rather than head down the same ‘insane’ path her father had (Lady Byron was not the poet’s biggest fan!), so she was given a thorough education in mathematics and science.
As a young woman, she struck up a friendship with Charles Babbage who was to eventually be known as the Father of the Computer. She maintained this friendship for several decades, during which time she married and had a family of her own, but all the while, she remained involved with Babbage’s work on his Analytical Machine, which had fascinated her from the beginning.
Babbage commissioned Ada to translate a paper about his theoretical machine from French to English, and as she did so, she added copious notes to further explain the workings of the machine to readers. Her notes included intricate and accurate descriptions of how the machine could be used to complete tasks other than simply number-crunching, showing how she had considered the practical applications of computing machines well before others had done so. Her algorithm explaining how the machine would calculate Bernoulli numbers has been described as the world’s first computer program, thus making her the first computer programmer!
Given that the Analytical Machine was never actually built, it’s a mind-boggling thought to realize how far ahead of her time Ada was theoretically, and this is one of the reasons she is commemorated in so many ways: the computer language, Ada, was named after her in 1980; we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 13th; and there are countless colleges, halls, buildings and scholarships bearing her namesake.
Her foresight and interest in a field so groundbreaking is testament to the fact that women throughout history have been capable of great things from way back, which makes us wonder… what could Ada have told us about the new iphone…?
It’s hard to imagine the contrast in the lives of women in Vietnam and China in 2,000 years ago. Chinese women under the Han dynasty had few privileges and were taught to be subservient. Vietnam was under the control of China but their social structure was based on a more equal gender footing. Vietnamese women were able to inherit property through maternal lines and could become traders, judges, soldiers, and even rulers.
It was into this world that the Trung sisters, Trung Trac (elder) and Trung Nhi (younger) were born. As daughters in a powerful lord’s house, they were taught the art of warfare, learned fighting skills and were well versed in martial arts.
Over time Chinese rule became increasingly intolerable to the Vietnamese, and by 39AD a rebellion was organised. In an effort to dispirit and quell the uprising, Trung Trac was raped by a Chinese general, and her husband, Thi Sach – a powerful Vietnamese lord, was executed. This was not an uncommon tactic in the brutal war of oppression, however, the Chinese underestimated this woman when they expected her to retire and grieve for her husband.
In response to the murder of her husband, Trung Trac banded together with her sister Trung Nhi, and gathered an army of 80,000 people to help drive the Chinese from Vietnam. Legends say that they killed a people-eating tiger and urged the people to join them by writing a proclamation on it’s skin. To lead their army, they trained 36 female generals, including their mother. Their initial campaign liberated 65 fortresses and drove the Chinese out.
While the younger sister Nhi proved to be the better warrior, the elder sister Trung Trac, had more political sway and was proclaimed ruler, and titled Trung Vuong or ‘She-King ‘Trung. She established a court, abolished the hated tribute taxes and restored a simpler form of government along traditional Vietnamese values.
Unfortunately, however, here was no ‘happily ever after’ for this pair of formidable sisters. Three years of constant fighting with the Chinese (who had a far superior army in both number and experience), they were overcome and it is said they committed suicide by drowning in a river as a marker of maintaining traditional Vietnamese honour.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the regular occupation by foreign countries, the legend of the Trung sisters remains a powerful symbol within Vietnam to this day, celebrated in temples, statues and parades, often depicted by two young women riding on top of an elephant into battle.
When we think of a medieval woman, many of us would be forgiven for imagining a meek, mild mannered individual in soft slippers and an icecream cone on her head as she fetched and carried mead and roast boar for her husband, but this couldn’t be further from the truth when we look at Christine De Pizan.
Born in Venice and raised in France, Christine was daughter to the King’s astrologer, and was raised amidst the Court, where she received a broad education. She married young, but upon being widowed by the age of 25, she found herself in need of an income, so she turned to writing. Her ballads were widely received, and she became France’s first woman to support herself by the craft of her pen.
Around 1401, Christine became involved in a public debate surrounding women’s portrayal in literature, all sparked by her aversion to the tone adopted by Jean de Meun’s ‘Romance of the Rose’. In this book, de Meun depicted women as nothing more than seducers, which Christine found “misogynistic, vulgar, immoral, and slanderous to women”. She retaliated publically by writing ‘The Tale of the Rose’.
Her two greatest works were The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, within which she wrote of an allegorical city where women were appreciated and defended. Through one of the characters, she argued “that stereotypes of women can be sustained only if women are prevented from entering into the conversation”, which would have been quite an inflammatory statement at the time!
Simone de Beauvoir, writer and feminist, wrote that in Christine’s works was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex”, and it is fair to say that the writings of Christine De Pizan have gone a long way to shaping the world of feminist literature we have now.
You may be familiar with this name, and that could mean you have a preconceived notion of its place in our list, however, we believe that 52 Weeks of Women is about more than just the ‘glowing heroines’ of history: its about women throughout history who have made an significant impact on the lives of those who came after them. And undeniably, Margaret Sanger is one of those women.
Born sixth of eleven children in America in 1879, Margaret grew up a staunch believer that every woman should be “the absolute mistress of her own body”, and worked tirelessly to change society’s views on birth control. She was concerned primarily with preventative birth control (as opposed to abortion). Later in life she published writings on eugenics which make for rather uncomfortable reading today to say the least. This series does not seek to make sinners nor saints of the women we note, despite the controversial nature of some of her views and we feel it is important to recognise her substantial contribution to the women’s liberation movement.
As a young nurse, Margaret realized that there was very little information available to women who might want to take control of their lives and choose when, or whether, to have children, so she began writing column articles for a newspaper called ‘What every girl should know’. These talked candidly about sex, sexuality and reproduction, and were precursor to other publications she produced over the years.
In 1916, Margaret founded the world’s first birth control (a phrase she coined) clinic in Brooklyn, offering advice, literature, and diaphragms (which she and her husband smuggled into the country) to women. She was arrested almost immediately for circulating information on contraception, which was illegal at the time, and spent 30 days in prison.
Over the course of time, Margaret fought to bring about change in legislation and societal thinking on the issue of birth control, and because of her work, women in America have had choice over their fertility and control of their bodies for over a century, though the battle for this does not ever seem to be completely won.