I took part in an incredible event at the university of Reading last Thursday organized by the departments of English literature and History. The Van Emden Lecture Theatre was full of young (and not so young) people eager to celebrate a hundred years of women’s suffrage displaying the colours of the WSPU (purple, white and green) and pictures of significant (but not well known) women.
In 1918 a limited women’s suffrage was granted in the UK for women over thirty and owning property. Women’s vote was already effective in countries like New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Australia. After WW I, most of the western countries introduced or expanded the right to women’s vote, though for some nations it happened only after WW II, such as France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952) and Switzerland (1971).
The event at Reading not only celebrated the achievement of women’s suffrage – which today is considered such an inalienable right –, it also pointed out forgotten outstanding women who are missing from historical records. One example is Constance Garnett who taught herself Russian from scratch and translated sixty-nine works of Russian nineteenth century literature into English, among them authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Her work had a huge impact on the English authors of the time. But instead of recognizing the importance of her contribution, some critics consider her work flat, second order translations, in brief she was not a professional. But translations are not supposed to last forever and this is the reason why books are translated again and again. The language and the inevitable interpretation of the original text become outdated quickly. So, why such a denigration of Garnett’s work?
Other incredible courageous women were remembered, such as Stella Browne, who campaigned for the right of legal abortion, Jayaben Desai, who organized the Grunwick strike in north west London, Libby Lane, the first woman bishop, the African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Mary Aming, famous for extracting fossils in Dorset and Devon but whose work was never fully credited, Ching Shih, who was a pirate, and Emma Hardy, Thomas Hardy’s first wife, who wrote two books about her marriage and a collection of poems.
I believe that there must be much more women whose records are buried, forgotten or erased to hide their achievements and potentials and give space to men. Diminishing women not only keeps them quiet, but also grants some vital necessities of our society, like child bearing and their raising, cooking, shopping, cleaning, caring for disabled and elderly people. All these works require time, energies and dedication. They can be shared with men, of course, and some men do it, or you can pay someone to do it, which has a cost (in the case of disabled or elderly people it can have a high cost). How much easier it is to give the whole burden to women. And how unfair.
Your life slips away without giving you the time to concentrate on anything substantial and rewarding, anything distinctive that puts you in touch with the outer world and opens your mind. Having a family is rewarding as well, but it may not be enough. The multitask approach can be a solution (having it all: home, family and career) but it is also exhausting, almost impossible sometimes.
Maybe today that life is longer, that women can easily find help in house chores and some men are happy to help with the children, maybe women today can catch up at some point, engage in serious career paths and stop being considered only amateurish.
I am sure that there are millions of talented women that can find their valuable space in our world. As Madeleine Davies said last Thursday, genius is not only in the masculine.