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Forgotten Women

April 1st 2018

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a bit of a mission in life to give a voice to some of the forgotten women of history. This has been a recurring theme of my creative life. But it is also based on an experience I had in my own life of being erased from someone's personal history.

Several years ago, I attended an ex-partner's wedding . At the time, I had just lost my Mother, and I felt that I really needed to get back in touch with significant friends, but the wedding was a very interesting experience that I will never forget, and it taught me a few more lessons. It was this experience that made my love of forgotten women much more personal to me. At the reception, there was a wall covered in photographs of my ex-partner's life before he met his wife, and lots of pictures of her life before she met him. I stood with a close female friend looking at these photos, and as we worked our way round the wall, we slowly became more and more silent. Both she and I were missing from the wall, except for one blurred photo at the bottom, where she was looking away and I was blinking. I had spent five years of my life with my ex-partner; we had planned our future together, gone everywhere together, shared all of our friends, established a film company and made a feature length film and lots of short films for film festivals. We had even gone to University together. And yet here was his life in pictorial form, and I had been erased. I felt as if I had been chiselled off the temple walls.

I sat that night in my single room in the hotel (which ironically was freezing cold as they had not put the heating on in that room) and wrote in my journal about how shocked I was to find I had been removed so completely from a life I had been a big part of, and the name that kept resonating for me all night and for the rest of that weekend was Hatshepsut. It was as if my own name, like hers, had been erased from history. Once I got back to my own life I started researching and found that Hatshepsut and I were not alone; other women or goddesses throughout human history had also been subject to the same phenomena, either by design or just by circumstance, Hatshepsut; Lilith, The Queen of the Night; countless women who made a contribution to history but were then forgotten, Pope Joan who has been erased from Papal history even though there is a chair at the Vatican designed with a hole in the seat so that the gender of the Pope can be verified; Mary Seacole, the forerunner to Florence Nightingale who was erased until recently, women writers, scientists, artists who have just vanished from the canon while their work and their achievements have been “absorbed” by their successor, or their husband, or their brother, or simply lost.

As a writer I have continued this work. In Nature Mystics I consciously wrote about as many women as I did men, the only difference was that the male writers were all very well known, while the women were largely forgotten - Mary Butts, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim for example. As my PhD topic, I have chosen to work with Mary Webb, using fiction to imaginatively fill the gaps in the record from where her husband actively slashed and burned all of her personal papers, claiming that they were so poor, they had to burn the papers to heat the house.

This series of articles is taken from an essay I wrote several years ago, and is my memorial to some of them, just as Nature Mystics was my testament to some of the forgotten literary women, and Looking for Mary Webb (when I finally finish it) will be my love song to her. For although their names may have been removed from the roll-call of history, somehow they have started to find their way back in. If we keep speaking about them, each generation after the other, then they can't fail to make their way back in, even if it is through oral tradition rather than in the canon itself.

Hatshepsut has long been a beacon for me in life; she has been someone I have been drawn to from the first time I learned about her existence. She has fascinated and intrigued me. She has been a figure to lend me light when I have been in virtual darkness. When events in my own life have been frightening, and disappointing and unsettling, Hatshepsut has been there to remind me that other women have found life a challenge too. She has been there to inspire me. And the picture of the Queen of the Night sits just behind my computer monitor at work, to remind me of her presence also.

I cannot be unique. Other people will find similar inspiration in the form of these Goddesses. The paradox of the unnamed goddess is that by trying to remove her from history, her enemies give her the gift of mystery and intrigue, and this only serves to draw attention to her. People love nothing more than a good mystery to get their teeth into, and what better way to draw attention to something than to try (and fail) to remove it from time. Thousands of people still visit Hatshepsut’s monuments daily, just as thousands of people gaze upon the face of the Queen of the Night. Similarly, thousands of women take up the cause of Lilith, of Pope Joan, of Mary Seacole, and the others as paragons of feminism, and thousands of people find fascination at their stories. Their stories remain as lessons, as inspiration and as testament to the fact that they once passed this way. What better monument could a goddess ask for?

Image: The legendary stercory chair from the Vatican. Reports of its actual function vary.

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