Defiant and Determined Literary Women. At school in sixties Scotland, history was male, apart from Boadicea, Elizabeth 1, Mary Queen of Scots, and Helen of Troy. In English class, women authors were even more absent except Mary Anne Evans, who of course used a male pen name, George Eliot. Her sentimental Mill on The Floss wasn’t my cup of tea, but Middlemarch is, by all accounts, ‘a triumph’ of social comment.
However, there are hosts of past women in history who were not content to be pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen (as I was told should be my place when a new family doctor in 1977). Many did write. Twelfth-century Hildegard of Bingen (A Saint for our Times: Matthew Fox) was a writer, composer, feminist, and early green campaigner. English Tudor and Plantagenet Queens were notable, as immortalised in Philippa Gregory’s books (e.g. The Other Boleyn Girl). More recently pioneering women scientists passed over for Nobels have been finally acknowledged. There is chemist Rosalind Franklin who died from radiation she used in her DNA research (Brenda Maddox: Rosalind Franklin) Byron’s granddaughter, mathematician Ada Lovelace (computers, Christopher Hollings: Ada Lovelace) and actress Hedy Lamarr (broadcasting, Richard Rhodes: Hedy’s Folly).
We lack prominent historical female voice not only because men held sway, but as women were largely illiterate, education being deemed unnecessary since they were regarded as only future wives and mothers. The post-French Revolution Bill of Rights (1792) was the first public recognition of a woman’s right to education (albeit cited for teaching children and talking with husbands!). Arguably the first feminist treatise came that year: Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Frankenstein Mary: she died giving birth to her at 38) rote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Till recent times, being a girl was daunting: maternal mortality rates were horrific. I harbour sneaking admiration for those medieval women who refused suitors and convinced the public they existed without eating (Caroline Walker Bynum: Holy Feast and Holy Fast). In 13-14th century Northern Europe when ordinary people had little access to mass, these early anorexics wielded incredible religious power. Many were canonised.
Scotland has an enviable history of educating women. Female testimonies from all walks of life over the centuries have been collated in Rosemary Goring’s splendid Scotland: her story. And there was a London-based Scot regarded in her lifetime as a ‘Shakespeare’ but now forgotten: Joanna Baillie. Niece of the anatomist William Hunter, descendant of William Wallace, her Plays in The Passion were acclaimed by Byron, Scott, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Yet she is absent from college reading lists.
Other lost Scots literary women include Jean Eliot (songs such as Flodden lament, Flowers of The Forest, the prolific Jean Glover (some of whose work was actually registered by Robert Burns) and the socially aware Janet Little (poignant poetry on poverty and inequality). Searches mainly find them only on North American University gender studies websites. Some were aristocrats, others educated in the manse. A few were illiterate, handing down oral ballads with astute contemporary social and political comment.
History is surely more interesting personalised as seen through the eyes of everyday people. Today’s internet affords such an opportunity to write about our own experience. Trillions of words fly about the planet daily. The minutiae of Social Media will be a gift to future historians: places, food, fashion, opinions. On Social Media women post more than men, more likely to access business networking sites (Brandwatch), but SM offers brief snapshots: an Instagram dog-in-hat pic, a doggerel Tweet, lol btw. Sparse chat. Little true sense of human interaction (apart from trolls). Posts may be poignant, witty - or completely false illusions implying ‘status’ or ‘success’ in the quest for followers. There are fake lives as well as fake news. And snapshots: people queuing at landmarks for selfies rather than relishing the moment. A blog, on the other hand, affords time for thoughts, room for grammar. Anyone can post observations on life- or polemic rants. Us older folk especially have stories to tell for the generations coming behind. That’s why I wrote my novel about sixties female medical students. I’d urge anyone to record experiences before they dissolve into dust. Did the Sixties swing for you? Did you live the life you imagined at 18? Did 80s music shape your life? There’s never been a better time to write. It’s cathartic. And, like running, it’s good for you. No Lycra required.
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Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.