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Archive for the category “Adventurous Women”

African Queens: Making Waves

Role models are much talked about at the moment, and there is debate over the need for them but also the best types of women to promote as role models. I have been reading recently about African women leaders, such as the Queen Mothers in Ghana and I think many of these women embody the idea of a role model in its purest form. These empowered women who are respected and sought after by members of their communities have progressive agendas, with the will to achieve them.

The Queen Mothers or Pognamine in Ghana are women leaders who have considerable clout in their communities. This traditional role, once very important, has had a welcome revival in recent times. Now there are around 10,000 educated and determined Queen Mothers across the country, who are connected together by the National Council of Women Traditional Leaders.

The National Council in Ghana is a member of The African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders’ Network (AQWCLN). This is an umbrella organisation for groups of women leaders in 20 countries, who are all committed to ambitious goals, such as eradicating FGM across the continent.

In Malawi as well, a woman leader has been making waves as she battles against child marriage, with astonishing success. Theresa Kachindamoto is a senior chief in the Dedza district of Malawi. Kachindamoto set out to rid her area of child marriage, firing four sub-chiefs on the way as a warning to those who neglected their duties to protect under-age brides. She has broken up 850 marriages and made sure the children return to school. In this area, her work has been vital, as she had found sponsors to help girls through school and to ensure they don’t have to drop out.

The way I see it, the great virtue of queens and women leaders in Africa is their community centred orientation. By being the ones who know the people and the place, they are able to lead in the way best suited to their locale. On the other hand, the position of a chief is hereditary. Unfortunately, this is not the fairest way of choosing a leader.

All in all though, a role of that kind in a community seems to be an effective way to bring about change. The key element here is trust; a Pogna or other leader is known in the community and who has one aim, to help and improve that community. Since the Pogna knows everyone and knows what they need, she is able to deliver even on difficult problems such as FGM.

 

 

Lions and Rhinos and Black Mambas

It’s a sad fact that many of the world’s most majestic and beautiful animals are at risk from poaching. Elephants, rhinos, tigers and many other species have suffered a decline in numbers in recent years. While in some countries there is a lack of political will to deal with this problem, other governments have put money and resources into the battle against extinction. Often, a country’s way of combating poachers consists of units of armed rangers who patrol reserves and national parks. While these have been successful in some places, there are other less violent and more positive ways to solve this problem.

The Black Mambas, which were formed in 2013, are the world’s first all-women anti-poaching units. The award-winning Mambas operate in Balule nature reserve, in South Africa. Here, they combat poaching, mainly focused at rhinos. The Mambas remove snares and destroy bushmeat kitchens and poachers’ camps. This has resulted in a steep reduction in poaching since their formation. Black Mambas work alongside armed guards, but do not carry weapons themselves.

Black Mambas

A Black Mamba with a rhino

However, the Mambas are unusual in one key way: they focus on community links, particularly with children. All of the women who work as Mambas are from local communities, which are frequently poor and disadvantaged. The women are given training and many support their families on their earnings. They are also involved in the Bushbabies educational programme, which works in conjunction with local schools. The children are taught about conservation, with an emphasis on learning new skills and appreciating their environment.

However, the idea of women being involved in conservation on a large scale goes back a bit further, to 2007, when women forest guards were recruited to India’s Gir sanctuary. These women protect the big cats such as Asiatic lions, which roam the park. They rescue and care for injured or abandoned animals. Unfortunately, poaching is also a threat, aimed at the Asiatic lions, an endangered species.

The Gir forest guards also work with children and have connections to local schools. Due to this educational angle, school children have been positively influenced by the female Gir guards, who make excellent role models. It is also claimed that the Gir forest guards are an inspiration for Indian women as a whole, because of the way that many have defied caste and the doubts of their families to become successful in their work.

Gir Forest Guards

Gir Forest Guards

Both of these initiatives have had a positive impact on local communities, endangered animals, school children, and of course, the women themselves. In my opinion,when it comes to protecting animals and conservation, no method is going to work unless nearby communities can get on board. Similarly, it makes perfect sense to empower women by getting them involved in work that is happening on their doorstep. The Black Mambas and the Gir forest guards have enjoyed considerable publicity and praise, I hope that other regions and countries will follow their example when it comes to taking a stand for conservation.

Photo Credits: http://www.bbc.com and The Black Mambas Facebook

 

Adventurous Women: Madonnas of Pervyse

Elsie Knocker (1884-1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981) are well known names from World War I. Nicknamed the Madonnas of Pervyse, these two women worked on the front lines in France, nursing soldiers. They believed that the hospitals where women were allowed to work, which were set back from the front lines, were far less effective than a nursing post closer to the action would be. They decided to establish their own first-aid post in a cellar in Pervyse, which was very close to the trenches. The women worked from this position as ambulance drivers and nurses. A gas attack in 1918 forced them to return Britain for the remainder of the war.

The friendship between Mairi and Elsie had begun years before the war when a mutual love of motorbikes brought the 18-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elsie together. The two became close friends and remained so until after the war. At this point their friendship dissolved because Mairi learnt that Elsie had been divorced from her first husband. Elsie had been married to Leslie Duke Knocker before she met Mairi, after the marriage ended in a divorce, she went to train as a midwife. To avoid being frowned upon, she said that her husband, with whom she had had one son, had died in Java.

The secret only came out after Elsie had married for the second time, to a pilot in the Belgian Air Corps. However, in 1919 he discovered her previous marriage and they separated. As a result of the way that Mairi felt about being deceived, their friendship broke up.

The two women barely spoke again. Elsie’s son had died during the war and afterwards she developed an interest in animal welfare, although she briefly served in the WAAF during WWII. Mairi competed in car races and later became a poultry breeder.

My main interest in these two women in the break-up of their friendship because of Elsie’s divorce. I assume that Mairi was not upset by the divorce itself so much as by Elsie’s cover-up story. However, all women at the time would have known how socially unacceptable divorce was. I think it very strange that Mairi didn’t remain Elsie’s friend out of sympathy for what she had been through, if for no other reason. Perhaps Mairi found the need for deception difficult to understand because she had seen the emancipation of women in WWI at a younger age than her companion and didn’t see the need for secrecy. On the other hand, maybe Elsie should have trusted her long-time friend more and told her about the divorce.

It seems very sad to me that this famously gritty partnership broke up this way. But it’s easy to be wise in hindsight and now that divorce is more common and widely accepted, it’s almost impossible to comprehend Elsie’s predicament or Mairi’s response almost a century ago.

 

Part II: Downright moral!

Images of women have been, and still are, used to represent many principles and and virtues such as peace, justice and liberty. I have often wondered why women are associated with these high ideals and how the custom began. In Part I: Heavenly Contradictions, I looked at Greek and Roman goddesses. While in that post I was focusing on the contradictions of associating a goddess with things real women were not allowed to do, it is also interesting to look at the goddesses’ morals. Although Venus (Aphrodite), is an exception, Minerva (Athena), Diana (Artemis) and Vesta ( Hestia) among others were all praised for their virtuous natures.

Stained Glass Window

Stained glass window depicting charity as a woman

So, we see that the practice of connecting hope, peace, charity etc with women stemmed from Greek and Roman goddesses and probably even further back, from tribal deities.  The association can be traced through  European history. Victory is shown by a winged woman and countries such as France and Britain are represented by women (Marianne and Britannia, respectively).

However, it was the Victorians who really invested in this idea. I recently saw some beautiful stained glass windows from the Victorian era on the subjects of patience, hope, charity and faith. All of these virtues were depicted by women. The Victorians regarded women as models of virtue, who should teach others to be equally good. I think this opinion came from women’s role in childcare, it was assumed all women were nurturing and caring. This leads to the question, where did they think the women got it from? Either they were born good or their mothers taught them. As with the chicken and the egg, perhaps people were a little hazy about the beginning. Since virtue was predominately associated with women, does that mean that men were thought to lack moral fibre? Maybe the Victorians assumed that with all that working and leading the family, they wouldn’t have much time to cultivate it and would need a crash course from their womenfolk.

Perhaps that is why ‘fallen’ women and prostitutes were so disliked because not only were their own moral characters at fault but they had also failed in their ‘duty’ to teach men the same virtues and then pass them on to their children.

To return to the central question, why were so many positive traits depicted by women? As in the case of the Greek and Roman contradictions, I think it is unlikely that most people thought very much about these representations. There was a status quo, which simply stayed in place. We rarely wonder why green is go and red is stop on a traffic light because we are so used to seeing it, the same may well have applied in this case. Women would not have been involved in military activities, due to a perceived lack of physical abilities. I think that it was mistakenly assumed that less in the way of physical ability, determined, of course, by biology, would be accompanied by moral views that were against warlike activities, hence the assumption that most women were virtuous and good.

To put this into a contemporary context, do people still associate women with ideas such as these? Is the image of a perfect woman, the model of these morals, still prevalent in society? Certainly we can still see images of a women as peace, justice, charity etc in statues, paintings and other art forms, but few of these are recent. Now we have a much more balanced view of the morals of both men and women, I wonder how a modern art work would show hope, faith, charity and patience?

Adventurous Women: Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy, born in 1931, is an Irish cyclist and author of many travel books. As a child, she lived in Lismore, Co. Waterford. She received her first bicycle for her tenth birthday and decided she would like to travel. However, she spent her early life looking after her disabled mother and her first long distance trip did not occur until after her mother’s death.

Her 1965 book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle was based on her first long distance cycle tour in which she journeyed overland through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Since then she has written over twenty more books. She has done volunteer work in India and Tibet and travelled through many countries including Ethiopia, Madagascar, Cameroon, Romania, Laos, the former Yugoslavia and Cuba. A lot of her travelling has been done solo but she has also journeyed with her daughter Rachel and visited Cuba with Rachel and her three granddaughters.

In later years, she moved into political writing and published work about Northern Ireland, nuclear power, the aftermath of apartheid and the Rwandan genocide, among other topics. She is the patron of Sustrans, a British sustainable travel charity, and the Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing.

Her choice to travel such long distances alone shows that Dervla Murphy is a very brave woman. I think she must also be a determined and dedicated person to have accomplished so much. Altogether, definitely an Adventurous Woman!

Part I: Heavenly Contradictions

This post is the first in a short series that I will put up about goddesses and female icons. I find it very bizarre that although goddesses with all kinds of skills and powers were worshipped in the ancient cultures, the real women alive at the time were not permitted to emulate them. In this post I will look at the goddesses and women of Ancient Greece and Rome.

A short history lesson first, though. Both the Greeks and the Romans were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods and goddesses. They believed that each of these deities controlled one aspect of nature or was responsible for a certain time of year, type of person or action. For example, Neptune or Poseidon ruled the sea and was the god to whom a sailor would pray when at sea. Also, the Greek and Roman gods are very similar, but the two cultures gave them different names. For example, Athena, who was the Greek goddess of wisdom, was known as Minerva to the Romans.

Athena

Athena or Minerva

As I said earlier, I am perplexed by the way that these people could openly be so hypocritical by venerating goddesses for having abilities that they did not encourage or allow in real women. Athena, or Minerva, is a good example of this contradiction. She was the goddess of knowledge, war, literature, courage, justice, arts and crafts and reason, among other things. How much of this has a grounding in fact?

Looking at Rome first, girls would have had basic education, although this depended on how much money the girl’s family had. Only very wealthy families would have given their daughters education in literature, philosophy and the other areas prized by the Romans. Roman women would not have had much to do with war either. They could appear in court and some women did fight their own cases, however this was rare and not widely approved of.

Moving on to Greece, the situation is a bit more complicated. Athens, the city most associated with Athena, was full of hypocrisy. Women were given little freedom and were certainly not permitted to fight.  A woman was under the guardianship of a kyrios, a man who protected her and also owned all her property and dealt with legal matters on her behalf.  Some Athenian women would have been educated, but as with Rome the extent of their teaching depended on their families’ income.

However, Athens was quite unusual in Greece and most cities did not place the same restrictions on women. In Sparta, women were not permitted to join the famous army but they could own land. There are records of Spartan women owning and administrating their own land as well as that of their male relatives who were at war. Similar records can be found in Delphi, Thessaly, Megara and Gortyn. Spartan women’s formal education was probably not of a very high standard but they would have at least been able to read and write.

Therefore, we see that despite worshipping Athena’s, or Minerva’s, talents, very few Greek or Roman women were permitted to develop the same skills.  Arts and crafts was virtually the only area of life that Athena was responsible for that Greek and Roman women did en masse.  It would have been seen as a wife’s duty to spin and weave fabric for her family or, in the case of poorer women, to sell.

Artemis

Artemis or Diana

Another example of the contradiction between goddesses and women can be seen in the Greek goddess Artemis, called Diana by the Romans. She was the goddess of hunting, archery, the moon and childbirth. She also had a special connection with animals and woodlands. Here perhaps is a goddess who is not quite so bizarre. The connection with childbirth is realistic, although somewhat backward in a virgin goddess, who would not have had any experience in the matter!

In Greece, Sparta again gave women most freedom to participate in riding and hunting. Spartan women were encouraged to do physical exercise and may have ridden in hunts. They trained with the Spartan boys, but did not go to war so they were unlikely to use weapons very much. However, Roman women would not have hunted at all, and probably did not use bows and arrows.

I have only discussed two examples here, but there are others. Even Aphrodite, or Venus, is somewhat of a conundrum. She was the goddess of love, lust and beauty. While Greek and Roman women would have been expected to please their husbands with their good looks, they would have been supposed to be loyal and leave the philandering for which Venus is known to their husbands.

All of these examples raise the same question. Why were goddesses revered for possessing abilities that would not have been acceptable in real women at the time?

I don’t have a definitive answer but I’ve got a few ideas (which you can argue with in the comment box if you are so inclined). It seems unlikely that having talented goddesses was a way to inspire and set an example to women, because any women who followed in their idols’ footsteps seem to have been disliked. Scrap that idea then. Perhaps the idea was to have something to which unfavourably to compare women: an ancient ‘look at all the things you can’t do’. Also unlikely in any direct or intentional way though it was perhaps an effect of these personifications.

Next theory: the ancient Greeks and Romans were so used to the status quo that most people, both men and women, didn’t think about what it meant. If so, then the goddesses must have come from even older cultures.

It’s true that the Greek and Roman religions came from even further back. The polytheistic religions were the result of piecing together many tribal deities and worshipping them all at once. We saw that Athena’s, or Minerva’s, areas of patronage included arts and crafts and that Greek and Roman women engaged in these. Therefore, is it not possible that if we broke down all the elements of the goddess and re-assigned them to the different goddesses from whence they came, everything would make a lot more sense? For example, Athena is the goddess of war. Perhaps in a certain pre-historic tribe or clan, women were free to participate in fighting and a female deity was worshipped because of that. It’s very difficult to put together a coherent explanation of the minds of people who lived so long ago. There is a distinct possibility that this is all wrong and that the Romans and Greeks would cry with laughter if they could read it. So much knowledge has been lost in the ‘mists of time’ that even with a lot of archaeological material available, it’s not always easy to find an answer.

This is only the first of several posts I’ll be putting up on this subject. The next post will discuss women representing ideals or morals in society, such as justice and peace.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia, with thanks!

She’s the very model of a female major general!

The British Army has appointed its first female general. Susan Ridge will be promoted to the two-star position of major general from September. She will be Director General Army Legal Services and in charge of a team of 130 lawyers. Ridge, a qualified solicitor, will advise commanding officers on discipline and complaints.

Susan Ridge

The first female general in the British Army

Ridge’s promotion comes at a time when there has been a lot of attention focused on the army. The debate is continuing over opening front-line roles up to women. More research is being done about the physiological strains that would be placed on women in combat roles.

Currently, only 8.9% of the 82,000 soldiers in the Britsh Army are women. General Sir Nicholas Carter, the head of the army, has said that he wants to increase that figure to 15% within five years.

It is to be hoped that Ridge’s promotion will set an example to girls and will show them that high-ranking roles are now open to women as never before.

Photo Credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk

 

Snapshots of Dangerous Women

I loved these fun and unusual pictures that show women doing all kinds of things from Snapshots of Dangerous Women by Peter J Cohen and Mia Fineman (published by Rizzoli). They are all very surprising as well. Who would have thought you could go rock climbing in a skirt? The photographs are from the early to mid twentieth century and are all part of Peter J Cohen’s photograph collection. Many of the pictures show women daringly defying the social conventions of the time.

Snapshots of Dangerous Women

Shooting down conventions

The women are depicted doing a whole range of activities, from shooting to climbing to simply showing a stocking top. For more pictures and information, see this article.

Photo Credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Snapshots of Dangerous Women

Scrambling in a skirt

Snapshots of Dangerous Women

A daring duo with their catch

Strong Girl

Stand Strong Girls supports Strong Girls! Have a look at the Strong Girl song, performed by nine female musicians from seven African countries. You can read more about the song here and look at the music video below as well.

Adventurous Women: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was a scholar, philosopher and feminist writer. She was born in London on the 27 April, 1759. She grew up with several brothers and sisters and her abusive father. Her mother died in 1780.

Wollstonecraft left home and opened a school with her sister Eliza and her friend Fanny. She wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters based on her teaching experiences.

After Fanny died, Wollstonecraft worked in Ireland as a governess. When she returned to London she found a job as a translator for a published of radical literature. In 1792 she published her most famous work, A Vindication of the Right of WomanA Vindication advocates education for women. Essentially, it makes the point that women deserve the same rights as men.

In the same year, Wollstonecraft met Captain Gilbert Imlay in France.  She gave birth to their child, who was called Fanny. She travelled to Scandinavia with him, which provided material for a personal travel narrative entitled, Letters Sent During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. After the trip, Imlay left her.

Wollstonecraft then began a relationship with William Godwin. The couple married in 1797, when it became apparent that she was pregnant. Her second daughter was named Mary, and would grow up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft died ten days after giving birth.

Mary Wollstonecraft left a mixed legacy behind her.  For a long time there was little interest in her works, which were viewed as radical. Nowadays, she is recognised for her progressive ideas, which were far ahead of their time. She is an Adventurous Woman because of her courage as she fought convention in favour of the principles she believed in.

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