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Expeditions for Erudition

The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery (published by Lions) is about a girl named Maria who runs away from school to her uncle who is the Warden of Canterbury College at Oxford. There she is introduced to the ticklish business of original research as she pursues the life story of a young Cavalier boy. She also begins to learn Greek and Latin and displays an aptitude for it which makes it likely that she will one day study at the university.

When The Warden’s Niece is set, in about 1875, Oxford University had just started to admit women the previous year. Five all-male colleges at Oxford: Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s became open to female students in 1874 and women’s colleges were later established. In neighbouring and rival Cambridge University, two women’s colleges had been established in 1869 and 1872. These were Girton College and Newnham College respectively.

However, women were not examined or made full members of the university in either Oxford or Cambridge until some years later. Although both universities began to allow female students to sit examinations, they were not given degrees if they passed. In Cambridge, women were examined in 1882 but were not full members of the university until 1948. At Oxford, women could become members of the university from 1920 although women had been passing examinations since the late 1870s.

However, Maria’s ambition goes beyond merely studying at Oxford, she wants to become a professor there too. When Maria first admits to her uncle her ambition of becoming a Professor of Greek he tells her: ‘Now that they are admitting female students into Oxford there is every chance there may be female professors in your lifetime’. Unfortunately, Maria would have had to wait a long time to fulfil her ambition. The first woman to be appointed to a full professorship was Agnes Headlam-Morley. She became Montague Burton Professor of International Relations in October 1948. In Cambridge things moved slightly faster as Dorothy Garrod was made Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1937. As Maria is supposed to be about eleven, she would have been 84 at the earliest possible time of her appointment to professorship at Oxford.

Despite Maria’s enthusiasm for her research, she finds numerous obstacles in her way. As her eccentric tutor, Mr Copplestone, remarks: ‘The pursuit of truth was never an easy task.’ It is even more difficult than usual for Maria, who faces opposition from every quarter because she is a child and a girl. Women have often been hindered in and blamed for their quest for knowledge although it is a worthy pursuit for anyone. It was once believed by educated doctors that too much knowledge could damage a woman’s reproductive system and make her infertile. For this reason, among others, many people looked askance at women’s education.

Maria’s original research sounds much like a (very short) PhD. She wants to discover something entirely new and different. In her quest for knowledge, Maria visits the Bodley Library in Oxford. The head librarian allows her in, against the rules because she was not in the university, because of her uncle’s position. He is firmly against female students and is disgusted that they are permitted in his library, which is very unfair because everyone ought to be helped to learn. Unfortunately, the librarian doesn’t see it this way.

In a similar way to Maria, Eve from the Book of Genesis took a risk in her quest for knowledge, for which endeavour she has been regarded as a villain for centuries. Eve was just the same as Maria in that she wanted to know something but faced heavy opposition.  Maria is in fact compared to Eve by Professor Smith after they make an unaccompanied trip out of Oxford. He says: ‘I don’t know whether you acted as Eve the temptress or whether they [his sons] led you astray.’

The similarity between the stories of Eve and Maria can easily be seen in The Garden by Elsie V. Aidinoff (published by Doubleday). This book is an interesting take on the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is depicted as curious, questioning and bright. She explores the world outside the Garden of Eden without God’s knowledge in the company of the Serpent, who is her teacher. When Eve eats of the apple, she does so because she wants to be free and to know more about the world outside. The Garden is a very beautiful and unique re-telling of an old, worn and misunderstood story.

Both books are well worth reading and I hope you’ll leave a comment if you have any other recommendations!

Also, I’m participating in an event for International Women’s Day on much the same theme as these books. See the event’s web page for more information.

 

 

Women Heroes of World War I

In January I reviewed Code Name Pauline by Kathryn J. Atwood (Chicago Review Press), the memoir of Pearl Witherington Cornioley, who was an SOE operative during WWII. The author recently sent me some more of her work from the Women of Action series and I’ve just finished reading Women Heroes of World War I. This book covers sixteen women in detail, from resisters and spies to medics, soldiers and journalists. Each role has a section, with an introduction and information about each of the women.

I found descriptions of women such as Flora Sandes, who worked in Serbia during the war, very fresh because the Western Front is often concentrated on in books aimed at teenagers or young adults. Sandes was a British woman who went to Serbia to help nurse the soldiers there. She was involved in fundraising for, buying and distributing supplies.

Later, she was accepted as a private in the Serbian army. I enjoyed reading about women who worked in the other theatres of war further afield, such as Helena Gleichen, a radiographer in Italy. I was interested in the story of Marina Yurlova, a girl who boarded a troop train and ended up as a Cossack. I think the woman I was most inspired by was Louise de Bettignies, a French woman who worked for the British intelligence service and organised the Alice Network, a resistance group in Lille. This fascinating woman thought of many creative ways of evading arrest while carrying secret messages.

All of the accounts were very interesting and full of information. I certainly learned a lot, and the use of anecdotes made the women leap off the page! As the women worked in different countries, and some moved between several places, I found the map at the beginning of the book very helpful for tracking the progress of each story. There are many quotes and short historical background notes included which were relevant and useful as well.

On the other hand, there were places where more stringent editing would have improved the read. Also, I was disappointed that while this book includes information about British, French and Russian women, as well as a Romanian and women who worked in Serbia and Italy, there was very little mention of any German women. As the title of the book, (Women Heroes of World War I), does not say anything about ‘Allied Women Heroes’, I think that the imbalance was odd, although it could be due to a lack of available sources. However, the depth of research and detail in this book is evident and the author has provided a feast of fascinating stories which inspire and educate.

 

 

 

 

Rose Under Fire

I loved Elizabth Wein’s first novel, Code Name Verity, but it wasn’t until I was researching for my post about the covers for female authors’ books, that I realised there was a sequel. Rose Under Fire (published by Egmont) continues the story of Maddie Brodatt, but is mostly about Rose Justice, an American ATA pilot in Britain in 1944. She is captured and ends up in Ravensbrück, a German prison camp for women. The book describes a part of WWII that I didn’t really know much about before: the experiments performed on Polish prisoners, who were nicknamed ‘Rabbits’. The experiments were performed on seventy-four Polish women. The doctors claimed to be improving medical conditions for German soldiers by cutting the women’s legs in different ways and deliberately giving them gangrene.

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (published by Egmont).

I was also struck by descriptions of the prisoners ‘organizing’ things, which meant stealing things to bribe the guards with or extra food or newspapers. One thing that really stood out for me was the co-operation and support between the prisoners, who were all in the same boat, as it were.

After detailing Rose’s time in the prison camp, some of the war trials are also recounted, as well as her struggle to return to normal life, still haunted what she has seen in Ravensbrück.

The story is told mostly through Rose’s own writing, first when she is in England, and later in Paris after the end of the war. A few letters from her friends and family are used

As with Code Name Verity, this book has a rather dramatic tagline, which sums up the spirit of the women who suffered during the experiments. In Code Name Verity it was ‘I have told the truth’, in Rose Under Fire, ‘tell the world’. In other words, the world must know what happened in Ravensbrück, of the atrocities and horrors, but also of the bravery and strength of the women who survived, and those who died.

Photo Credit: http://www.amazon.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

I think this cover looks familiar…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a very disappointing thing in bookshops and libraries, and that is the covers put onto books by female authors. I’ve come to the conclusion that publishers are either not creative, don’t want to spend time on books by women or have a very narrow view of what teenagers want from book jackets.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Many YA/teen novels by women have covers like this.

A large number of young adult/teen fiction novels by women have dull jackets that are just unimaginative variations on the same theme. The most common image is of a single girl or young woman with an appropriate background. The person stares out at you with an inscrutable expression.

There are numerous examples to illustrate this statement. I blogged about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion Books) previously, when you search for it online several covers can be found. I prefer the one with the bicycles but two others have a girl’s head on them. One is in profile and the other looks out from the cover, with suitably dramatic backgrounds. If that’s the first time you’ve seen this type of cover, it looks deep and impressing, but keep looking down the shelves, there are many more. Witch Child, Sorceress, Sovay and Pirates! by Celia Rees (all published by Bloomsbury) have suffered the same fate. Pirate Queen by Morgan Llywelyn (O’Brien Press) and several of Mary Hooper’s books are also designed in the same style. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Penguin Books) breaks the mould in an amusing, although perhaps unintentional way. There is a girl on the front, but she has her back turned, so you can’t see her face.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

A popular image, but facing away from the reader

All of the books that I mentioned above have strong female protagonists and the cover designs are so inappropriate. The girls’ expressions do differ somewhat, from determined to dangerous to dopey, but they are still weirdly alike. The old phrase holds true here that ‘when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’.

Usually, books from one genre will have similar covers, but these books are not the same. It is unfair to the authors to take romantic, historical and adventurous stories and lump them all in one category. As all these books are put together, one wonders what feature they share. It’s fairly clear, all these books have been written by women. So it seems that despite the variety of plot, setting, language and characters to be found in all of these books, they are all labelled and packaged according to who wrote them.

Pirate Queen by Morgan Llywelyn

There are many variations to this type of book jacket.

Maybe publishers don’t think teenagers want more unusual book jackets, and I can’t comment on how accurate that judgement is, if that is their reasoning. However, I do know that if an interesting title catches my eye on the spine of a book and I have a closer look at the cover, seeing the familiar staring face on the jacket will not inspire me to read it. Although it’s good advice not to judge a book by its cover, it doesn’t mean people don’t. Even if you don’t decide whether to read it or not based on the cover, if the outside doesn’t interest you, it’s possible you won’t approach the book with an open mind. The imagery on a book jacket can cause you to have certain preconceptions about the story, and the obvious one here is to think that it will be the same as all the others with the same type of jacket. If you were to read a selection of the books that I mentioned above, or any others that looked the same, you would know that this is untrue. However, what does it tell us about publishers, do they think all YA/teen novels by female authors are the same? Certainly, all the books feature girl who ‘go places’, but all in hugely different circumstances.

Witch Child by Celia Rees

This type of cover can look haunting, sad, enticing…

I think that publishers should really pull up their socks in this area and start designing some original and unusual book covers for women authors’ YA and teen fiction. It is silly to bracket all of these books together, when they are so diverse.Each of these novels have something different to offer. Surely their covers should reflect this? Let me know what you think about this topic. The comment box is open…

 

 

Photo Credit: http://www.amazon.com and http://www.goodreads.com

Sorceress by Celia Rees

After a while, it gets boring, seeing the same thing over and over again.

Pirates! by Celia

However, this image is repeated very often.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This post is from Tome to Read, a book blog. I found it very interesting as I think a lot of people are confused about what feminism really is. Also, it’s certainly true to say that some people hesitate to call themselves feminists. I think I’ll read the book some time soon.

Tome To Read

To co-opt a phrase from Oprah, it is not often that I have an ‘Aha moment’. That is not to say I have been completely bereft of epiphany, but it can be unusual to really and completely resonate with an author, particularly when it comes to the subject of feminism. I always find feminism difficult to both talk and write about because it has for too long been mired in controversy and is of course, incredibly subjective. Part of feminism’s problem, in my view, is that there is no over-arching agreement about what feminism is or what is should be. It if a self-fulfilling cycle that feminism perpetuates: it’s is about choice and therefore sometimes the choice is not to identify with it.

As an undergrad I studied in great detail about the first wave feminists. These were the feminists agitating for women’s suffrage, something many of my contemporaries take…

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Women in Tolkien’s world

It has been said that The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, lacks two things: women and religion, and for me, the lack of women is the more annoying of the two faults. There are women in the book, but very few. Several female hobbits are named, including the notorious Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Other females crop up occasionally, but there are only three women who make more than a fleeting appearance. They are Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel.

Arwen is an Elven princess.  She is the daughter of Elrond Half-Elven and Celebrian. Of these three main women, Arwen has the smallest role. She marries Aragorn and becomes Queen of Gondor. However, Aragorn is mortal, and when she marries him she gives up her immortal life. Arwen also gives away her passage to the Undying Lands in the West on the Elven ships. She gives this honour to Frodo, a hobbit from the Shire and the Ring-bearer. Arwen’s role is that of a medieval lady, who gives her knight a token, in this case a banner, and waits for him to prove himself in battle. However, the film version of The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, gives Arwen a more active role. In the film, it is she who meets Aragorn and the hobbits on their way to Rivendell. She takes Frodo to safety over the ford. Arwen summons a great torrent of water to bar the ford and stop the Black Riders. In the book it is Glorfindel, an Elf-lord, who rescues Frodo, and the torrent is conjured up by Elrond and Gandalf. I don’t know why Glorfindel was taken out but I don’t think it was a bad idea. Thus, Arwen gets a larger part to play that she had in the original story. Unfortunately, the script-writers also enlarged her romance with Aragorn. Although mention is made of their courtship in the appendices to the book, it is not as soppy as in Peter Jackson’s version.

Another female who plays an important part in the story is Galadriel, an Elven queen. Galadriel is the wielder of Nenya, an Elven ring of power. She rules Lothlorien with Celeborn, her husband. Galadriel is enormously powerful; she protects her kingdom from three invasion attempts and, after the defeat of Sauron, cleanses Mirkwood and destroys Dol Guldur. The White Council, of which she, Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman are members, was her idea. She also commands Galadriel’s mirror, water in which the future can sometimes be seen. Galadriel sails to the West after the war, as the power of her ring has diminished. Although Galadriel has much power and wisdom, she is unique in that all the other realms mentioned throughout the story are ruled by men. Even then, Galadriel does not rule alone; technically Celeborn is the king, although she is more powerful.

The last woman character who stands out is Eowyn, the niece of the King of Rohan. When he dies her brother, Eomer, becomes the next king. Eowyn is trained to fight and ride and is called a shield maiden of Rohan. Grima Wormtongue, a counsellor to the king, desires to marry her, and stalks her. However, the extent of his advances towards her are not made clear. Eowyn meets Aragorn in Edoras in Rohan. She falls in love with him, not knowing that he is already engaged. Eowyn oversees the muster of Rohan and is left to command the kingdom while the army rides to war. She pleads to be allowed to go to fight but is told to remain behind. Aragorn refuses to have her in his company, saying that she was given orders to remain and he cannot change that. To this she replies, ‘All your words are but to say: you are a women, and your part is in the house…I can ride and wield blade and I fear neither pain nor death’. Eowyn also reveals that the one thing she fears is a cage, to be trapped and unable to do anything. This could well represent the feelings of many women who were trapped in their own houses before the concept of women in the workplace was acceptable. It seems to me that the idea of leaving Eowyn in charge is reminiscent of the World Wars, during which women took the places of men in factories and on farms, but were not allowed to fight on the front line. Eowyn is determined to ride to war. She disguises herself as a warrior named Dernhelm, rides to war and kills the Witch-king of Angmar and his flying steed. During the battle her arm is broken.

She recovers in the city of Minas Tirith. Faramir, the new Steward of Gondor falls in love with her and she accepts his proposal of marriage. She no longer loves Aragorn, because her love for him was not very deep and was more for his image than himself. Eowyn becomes a healer, which has always been a traditional occupation for women. Faramir is made Prince of Ithilien and she leaves Rohan to live on the east bank of the Great River. Eowyn has an important part in the story, but is really little more than a plot device. The Witch-king of Angmar, who is now a Ring-wraith, cannot be killed by a man. Therefore, a woman is needed to get rid of him. Eowyn’s emotions are interesting but difficult to understand. At first she is grim and sad, probably because of Grima’s unwelcome attention. Merry, who rides to war with her, thinks that she has the face of one ‘without hope who goes in search of death’. She wants an honourable death in battle because she cannot have Aragorn’s love. Fortunately, she changes her mind when she meets Faramir.

The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful book, it is very imaginative and creative on a grand scale. However, the lack of women is not to its credit. Tolkien was socially very conservative and may not have welcomed the idea of women being more involved in public life. In this case Tolkien’s work may represent his views in this respect. In conclusion, do read The Lord of the Rings, but bear in mind that its empowerment of women is limited to a few high-born specimens.

Further reading:

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Guide to Tolkien, by David Day

The J.R.R Tolkien Miscellany, by Robert S. Blackham

J.R.R Tolkien A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter

Code Name Pauline

This post is kind of about an Adventurous Woman but as I’ve been reading her memoirs I’ve decided just to review the book. I received Code Name Pauline as a Christmas present but I had so many other things to read that I only finished it last night. Code Name Pauline is the memoir of Pearl Witherington Cornioley who was a Special Operations Executive agent in WWII. The book is based on interviews between her and Hervé Larroque and was edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. It is part of the Women of Action biography series published by Chicago Review Press.

The Women of Action series aims to be lively and accessible and Code Name Pauline ticked both boxes. The story is told mostly in Pearl’s own voice, except for small sections of background facts at the start of each chapter. These were useful for putting Pearl’s story into context with the events happening around her. The maps, photographs and notes throughout the book were very interesting.

Pearl’s fascinating account details her early life, special agent training, her work as an undercover courier in France and finally becoming the leader of a band of 3,500 French Resistance fighters.

Some recent news also links in with this book as Wing Commander Nikki Thomas has just been named as the first woman to command an RAF fast jet squadron. Thomas is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this year.

Another piece of recent news is that a former SOE agent who helped British agents in Italy has been honoured with three war medals after a 70 year wait. Rossana Banti was presented with the Italy Star, the Victory Medal and the 1939-1945 Medal. Banti helped brief and prepare agents, distribute anti-fascist literature and she also trained as a parachutist.

Anyway, Code Name Pauline was a great read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in WWII or SOE agents’ work in France. I would love to hear from anyone who has read it, the comment box is open!

 

2014: A Summary

2014 has been an exciting year on Stand Strong Girls, with new campaigns and victories. In this post I will do my best to summarise some of the topics that have appeared here this year.

                                    Education

One of the issues I mentioned this year was the debate of single-sex education versus co-education. Drawing on my own experience in both types of schools, I tried to reason out the pros and cons from both points of view. While I still remain firmly in support of co-educational schools, I tried to appreciate the advantages of single-sex education as well.

I also wrote about women’s universities. Their numbers are growing in developing countries, where they are often women’s only option for higher education. However, in western countries their numbers have decreased significantly in recent years. I am of the opinion that women-only universities are just a short-term solution to the problem of women still being barred from many universities.

                                      Books

This year was Read Women 2014, a campaign started by writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh that encouraged people to read more books written by women. At the moment, I’m doing quite well, reading Code Name Pauline. It is about the experiences of Pearl Witherington Cornioley, an SOE agent during WWII. The book was edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Earlier in the year I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a novel based on SOE agents’ experiences.

Let Books Be Books campaign also kicked off this year. The campaign aims to put an end to the gender specific branding of books. Already several publishers and booksellers have got on board, promising to stop producing or selling gender specific books.

                               Adventurous Women

The Adventurous Women series began this year, a series of post about women who achieved, created or just did something different.  I have already written about the pilot Amelia Earhart, the nurse Mary Seacole and Sophie Germain, who was a mathematician. I also wrote about Katharine Wright, who helped to develop the first aircraft and Nadezhda Durova who served in the Russian cavalry. If you know of a woman you think deserves a mention, please let me know.

                                         Toys 

I’ve talked quite a bit this year about how children’s toys have changed from neutral and non-gendered to the pink and blue gender-specific toys that we know today. One example is Lego, which seems to think that girls can only build with pink blocks. However, this year Lego produced the Research Institute, featuring three female scientists.We saw it being put to good use by Donna Yates, who tweeted pictures of Lego scenes using the new set on @LegoAcademics.

                                  Malala Yousafzia

As an education activist, Yousafzia has made the news quite a few times in 2014. I read her book earlier this year, I am Malala, co-authored by Christina Lamb. Yousafzia also won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, along with Kailash Satyarthi, to recognise their struggle for children’s right to education.

                                     Campaigns 

I have written about campaigns such as HeForShe, Man Up and White Ribbon this year. One thing these campaigns have in common is that they are looking at the role men have to play in order to build an equal world. I think this approach is hugely important because it shows that inequality is not just women’s problem and that it is up to everyone to resolve it.

These are not all of the topics that I blogged about in 2014 but I think I have covered all of the bigger ones. I’ll be back in 2015. Happy New Year!

Code Name Verity

I have just finished reading Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (published by Electric Monkey Egmont).  It is an adventure story set in England, Scotland and France during WWII. The reason I am going to talk about it is that the two main characters are young women, doing highly dangerous and skilled work with courage and daring.

It is a difficult book to talk about without spoiling the plot so I can only really be quite vague or else run the risk of ruining it for any potential readers. The story has two main characters, both young women, who are involved in war work. The story is mainly about flying, interrogation, spying and undercover secret duties.

There are a few threads that run through the whole story, one of which is a list of fears. When the two characters meet, they tell each other ten of their fears. Later, when they are separated, they review what they said before and see how much it has been changed by their experiences.

Another thread is the names. What with code names and nicknames and so on, both of the characters have several identities, depending on who they are with and what they are doing. I like this idea, of discovering different parts of the character as you discover their names. On top of that, the title of the book really drew me in, I like finding books with my own name in them!

Another theme in the book is that of lies and truth. One of the first things it says in the book is, ‘I’m going to give you anything you ask,…. Absolutely Every Last Detail.’ This gives the impression of betrayal, but maybe all is not as it seems.

There is a quote from the Guardian on the book that says, ‘Code Name Verity is one of those rare things: an exciting-and affecting- female adventure story.’ It is very exciting and it certainly is affecting, I am not ashamed to say that it made me cry. There is no mincing words about the methods of interrogation or the conditions in which people were imprisoned.

The Guardian is right in another way, it is rare to find a female adventure story, or at least one without kissing. In Code Name Verity, there is more comradeship than love, which makes it more realistic. I loved reading this book because of the realism, comradeship and excellent female characters.

Have you read any books with good female characters lately? Or tell me your opinions on Code Name Verity

 

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