Thursday, 25 August 2011

Sally Bercow: a feminist rolemodel? I'll take Ching Shih any day.

I'm getting sick of hearing and reading about Sally Bercow. Obviously I have no idea what she's like as a person; I don't know much more about her than Louise Mensch's spirited defense of her on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/LouiseMensch), the media portrayal of her exploits in a bedsheet (http://bitURL.net/b2rf), and the furore over her appearance in the Big Brother house (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG_aIMvzxKc). Somehow, however, a discussion has arisen around whether she's a feminist rolemodel, an apparent figurehead of how political wives can be proudly independent of their husband's relative fame. Wonderful sentiment, truly, I applaud it; but entering Big Brother? Loudly, egotistically voicing her opinions, seemingly just for the sake of proving that she can have views that oppose those of her husband? I'd like to have taken that last bit for granted, to be honest.
I'm going to declare that I hate self-righteous, ignorant and judgemental blogging, and then go on to self-righteously and ignorantly pass judgement on Sally Bercow: would we be aware of her, if she didn't have a famous husband? I doubt it. It would be great if we did become aware of her for doing something impressive in her own right, but she hasn't earned that public acknowledgement. Please, Ms Bercow, if you're going to draw attention to yourself for being independent...do something independently. And tweeting a lot doesn't count. We wouldn't mind this exhibitionism if it were for the sake of education; but your highminded aims to encourage female independence are, rather, undermined by the fact that you rely on your notoriety as The Runaway Speaker's-Wife for your place on that soapbox. You're kind of detracting from all the educative, insightful and actually independently interesting women out there.

To underline this bitter ramble, I'm posting a list of some inspirational females who actually deserve the title female role-model, but who aren't household names. Some you may not feel belong on the list; some I don't agree belong on the list; the point was to draw attention to women who have contributed something to society or history, often overcoming the dominance of men in order to do so:


  • Grace O'Malley, born 1530: highly educated, the Irish 'Pirate Queen' spoke 6 languages; she had always wanted to be a sailor on her father's ships, but having been repeatedly refused, she maneouvred her way into a position of power, coming to control thousands of men and a vast fleet of pirate ships; she was enormously wealthy and politically powerful in her own right; there are hundreds of great stories about her, e.g. when the English besieged her castle, she melted down lead from the roof and personally poured it over the soldiers below 
  • Octavia Hill, born 1938: co-founder of the National Trust, she was instrumental in preserving historical estates across Britain
  • Frances Buss, born 1827: among the first campaigners for universal education of girls, she became the first headmistress of North London Collegiate
  • Caroline Herschel, born 1750: first woman to earn a salary for scientific work; taught herself complex maths and astrological theory whilst working as an assistant for her brother, an astrologer; went on to be heralded for her work in astrology, publishing noteable texts and being awarded prodigious awards
  • Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, born 1836: first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor; campaigned against new rules that were set down to prevent other women doing similarly; set up the New Hospital for Women in London; prominent suffragette all her life, as was her daughter.
  • Clara Barton, born 1821: president of the American Red Cross, she first brought the Red Cross to the United States
  • Alice Hamilton, born 1869: first female professor at Harvard Medical School, she lobbied for laws to improve working conditions in every US state
  • Edith Cavell, born 1865: British WW1 nurse, she helped save the lives of hundreds of soldiers, Allied and German alike; aided the escape of 200 Allied soldiers from Belgium, for which she was arrested, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad
  • Ching Shih, born 1775: maneouvred her way to the head of Chinese pirate coalition, with control over 400 ships; ruled with (rather impressive) brutality - e.g. sailors were beheaded for having sex with female captives, even with their alleged consent

Okay, I could go on forever and ever. We all know women can be great, just like the rest of humanity can be great (personal favourites: the pirates...); it would just be nice if women like Cheryl Cole (as my mum says - in a Georgie accent - 'wahCheryl') didn't steal the show.

Note - a number of the names seized from excellent sites and articles:
Most influential British women in the history of science selected by panel of female Fellows of the Royal Society and science historians | Royal Society
Famous Women in History - The Society and Culture Beat - SearchBeat.com
Jane Austen to Elizabeth I: Ten of the greatest British women | Mail Online
Role models: someone to look up to | Life and style | The Guardian
http://www.pinkstinks.co.uk/

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