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Women who dared go further
International Women's Day

Women who dared go further

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many women achieved great feats in worlds dominated by men - not just literature, but also science, travel and adventure

Diego A. Nieto Marcó

Friday, 8 March 2024

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"Women." "Rights." "Feminism." "Women dare where men dare." It was in Rio de Janeiro, back in the 70s, and the ideas came from the lips of a 21-year-old American girl sitting right in front of me. I did not understand what she meant, nor could she put it clearer. But much has the world changed since then, and much has been talked about "women", "rights", "feminism" and "daring" as she did.

And the changes and the talk have brought us undreamt-of technological advances, among them the internet, which in turn put at hand, in our very home, something as old as a book. As an avid reader I dived into the net looking for libraries. And e-book in hand found them I did. Private libraries, public libraries, legal libraries, illegal libraries. It didn't take me long to pick out some that met all the requirements both of quality and legality. Thus I was introduced to a literary world whose existence was completely unknown to me.

"And the women in the title?" you will ask. "Yes, here they come." From there, from that world of books until then unknown to me despite school and university. It was like discovering the pot of gold in my very garden.

Just as you, reader, have your own literary taste, it did not take me long to confirm that mine led me, in general, to authors between 1820 and 1950. And soon I also came across another fact: there were many more women writers than I knew. They were not limited to Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley and for some Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. There were many more. Clear and concise style, gripping plots, implicit or explicit philosophical content. I began to follow the lives of almost all of them. And it was then that I found the pot of gold.

In that 19th-century straightjacketed world, women made their way not only at home, not only with their husbands and children, not only writing the books that I was discovering. In spite of the absurd contradiction of not being granted the right to vote while having the right to run for positions of political responsibility, women launched themselves, and successfully, into all the activities that appealed to them.

Thus, the number of women travelling in that period is striking. There were those who travelled to Africa as anthropologists, such as Mary Kingsley; those who travelled as missionaries, spreading Christian doctrines, like Mary Slessor; those who accompanied their husbands without flinching, like Florence Baker, who came to look for the source of the River Nile in such an odd way: sold as a slave at a Muslim market and becoming the mistress and wife of her owner, Samuel Baker.

And we can’t fail to remember those who travelled as artists, cartographers, photographers, spies during the First World War, such as Gertrude Bell.

On the other hand, there were the more sophisticated ones, travelling as photographers, journalists, writers; adventurers in a word. To mention just a few: Rosita Forbes, Nellie Bly (round the world in 72 days back in 1890), Eva Dickson (driving alone from Stockholm to Beijing, 1937), and many others, some without husbands, others with husbands, even with husbands patiently waiting at home.

But their limits were not in the rainforests or deserts: one day they took off, up into the air they went, reaching the clouds.

Already in the 18th century Élisabeth Thible had been the first person to fly in a balloon untethered to the ground. But the flying machine that could be steered had to arrive for woman (as well as man) to become one with the sky.

First in an airship, device of the Paris-based Brazilian socialite Alberto Santos-Dumond, flown by Aida de Acosta (June 1903), and then in an airplane, creation of the Wright brothers (December 1903), who, by the way, in one of their flights took their sister Katherine, the first airplane passenger.

The woman and the heavens had met and, as the tragically fated pilot Amy Johnson (1903-1941) put it: "It's as if we are the sky - always blue, always clear ...."

Neither were women strangers to the world of science, even though their education (a subject for discussion in itself) was not focused in that direction. Despite this, there were women devoted to astronomy, members of the Royal Astronomer's Society, such as Herschel and Sommerville; mathematics or physics, Ada Lovelace (designer of the first computer programme, 1830s), Hertha Ayrton (Hughes Medal of the Royal Society 1906); paleontology, Mary Anning, Elizabeth Philpot; and many more.

Women have been, and will always be, involved in every conceivable venture, and this is a biological fact that cannot, and must not, be denied or hindered if humankind is to move forward.

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