introduction Sarah, the main protagonist of my novel, Orphan Monster Spy, is the result of a lifetime’s issues with traditional ideas of masculinity. I’ve been working hard on being a fierce, committed, if not always well-informed, feminist since my early adolescence, with varying degrees of success. There were many reasons for this. My father might have been considered a good role model in a bygone age, but his raging patriarchal brand of masculinity left me with no illusions about men. The bullies who made my school life a misery and the teachers who needled and dismissed me were male. I was fortunate enough to have some strong and fearless sister-figures in early adolescence, plus a General Leia here and a Simone de Beauvoir there, to set the tone for my creative life. Women make more sense to me in some ways, or at least they make more sense than the ways in which they are treated. I embraced the feminine, fell in love with Anne Shirley and the girls of Malory Towers, sought out my own role models and set out to create something worthy of them. Now the female voice is very much part of me. This is not an exhaustive list of female fictional and historical heroes, only of those who have touched my life the most. It’s a very personal selection and doesn’t necessarily include the most obvious or worthy of candidates. For example, I talk about Violette Szabo, part of the inspiration for Orphan Monster Spy, although more successful or laudable SOE agents, like Noor Inayat Khan, existed. I was disappointed however, by how few of these names
were persons of colour. By drawing from the novels of my childhood, the list demonstrates some of literature’s unconscious bias, if not its essential racism. That I learned about very few historically significant people of colour in my youth is, likewise, a symptom of a society designed for the privileged; that has, consciously or otherwise, edited those prominent women and people of colour out of the collective memory. Where did Mary Seacole vanish to until quite recently? She was famous, later conveniently forgotten. You only have to muse on the fate of Lise Meitner after the war, as described below, to see how and why this happens. This is why representation, particularly in books for young people, is so important. There’s no shortage of male, white and straight heroes, more than enough to go around. They don’t tend to be very interesting. They’re always starting from a position of privilege in one way or another, yet we default to them so easily. It’s one of the many reasons that Sarah of Orphan Monster Spy was created – or rather created herself and harassed me until I wrote her story – a girl with characteristics drawn from the women in this book. That said, this list remains much as I began it, with some obvious omissions, because they would be obvious, but perhaps missing some names who should be there. Instead these are my own female heroes – some sublime and some less so, some fiercely personal to me and some culturally vital. Matt Killeen, March 2018
The following articles first appeared as a blog tour in celebration of female heroes to celebrate the publication of Matt Killeenâ€™s first novel ORPHAN MONSTER SPY
Sarah has played many roles – but now she faces her most challenging of all. Because there’s only one way for a Jewish orphan spy to survive at a school for the Nazi elite. And that’s to become a monster like them. They think she is just a little girl. But she is the weapon they never saw coming...with a mission to destroy them all.
THE WOMEN WHO MADE ME A FEMINIST MATT KILLEEN
Violette Szabo Special Operations Executive Agent (1921-1945) On a traffic island in Stockwell in South London there is a mural dedicated to Violette Szabo, an agent of the British Special Operations Executive who was captured by the Nazis, tortured and finally executed in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in 1945. She is one of only twelve women to have received the George Cross, the UK’s highest civilian award for gallantry. My regular bus ride past the memorial, just a mile from where Violette went to school, brought one of my childhood heroes right back to the forefront of my mind. This began a train of thought that led to the creation of Sarah, the main character in my novel, Orphan Monster Spy. There were more successful SOE agents and pluckier twelve-year-old partisans in the Belarusian forests. However, the story of Violette Szabo always spoke to me. She was just twenty-one when she volunteered for the SOE, driven partly by grief at the death of her husband in battle and partly by a need to do something about the Nazis occupying the country of her birth. The horrific consequences of capture were clear and real – there were fifty-five female SOE agents and thirteen were killed in action – yet she parachuted into occupied France anyway. Twice. It was not enough for her to play her part in the war against fascism at home, she needed to do more, and all this at a time when women were not regarded as equal
members of society. This was a level of determination and bravery that I could only guess at. Part of my interest stems from Virginia McKenna’s excellent portrayal of Violette in the film Carve Her Name With Pride. This is proof of nineteenth-century historian Lord Macaulay’s assertion that “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” I watched her story as told in the film at an absurdly young age, and she was as much part of my childhood as Princess Leia or Marion Ravenwood. It had a massive influence on me. As well as cementing a lifelong horrified fascination with the moral complexity of the Second World War, it told the boy I was that women were just as strong, just as complex and just as important as any man. It helped make me the feminist I am today. This is why representation matters, why books (and films and TV) should portray multifaceted and challenging women in leading roles. This would, after all, only mirror the reality of the world we live in. This post was first featured on the book blog My Little Library in the Attic @myatticlibrary
Rebecca “Newt” Jorden from Aliens James Cameron’s Aliens dominated my adolescence and remains one of my favourite movies, a terrifying roller-coaster piece of action that is almost perfect in its execution. To say it has influenced me would be an understatement – I spent a year or more making a living role-playing a character that crossed Apone and Full Metal Jacket’s drill-sergeant. While it did not invent the strong heroine trope, it is probably the piece of media that made it most famous. Watching Ripley turn to the opening lift doors, armed to the teeth and ready for action with a look of determined terror in her eyes, is one of cinema’s great moments. However, there are several aspects and subtexts that make Ripley a problematic figure, in a film that struggles with its feminist identity. For example, the faithless mother seeking redemption becomes the soldier that the marines were not. It’s all very kick-ass but in a symbolically male fashion. Therefore, my feminist heroine of choice here is Newt, the six-year-old lone survivor of the doomed colony of LV-426. Her family and community became victims of a powerful horror and, it transpires, a terrible crime. This has happened for reasons entirely beyond her responsibility, yet she has not allowed herself to join them as a victim. When she is found by Ripley and the marines, she has evaded some 150 aliens by using the ventilation shafts for many weeks, a constantly defensive and non-violent tactic that relied on her own cunning and intelligence. Newt’s resilience
is astounding. While clearly traumatised and damaged by her experiences, she remained and remains functional while other adults cannot. She has simply refused to give up. She also has maintained her humanity as best she can. In addition to the necessary rations, she has gathered pretty things to decorate her ventilation shaft home, presumably at some risk. Clinging to her awards for service to the colony that no longer exists, because they are part of her identity, she also holds onto her humour, saluting Hudson and reminding Ripley that her doll is really just a piece of plastic. Most remarkable is her willingness to remain vulnerable. She takes a chance on Ripley, when her rational mind warns her otherwise, because she is brave enough to gamble on a normal life. Her only wish is sleep without nightmares. Newt is, like most great women, also correct about pretty much everything. The soldiers did not make any difference, there are monsters and they mostly come out at night. Mostly. The actress, Carrie Henn, was untrained, inexperienced and barely ten years old when she played Newt, coached to a stunning performance of great precocity by Cynthia Scott, who played Corporal Dietrich alongside her. Like her onscreen self, Carrie took a path of self-preservation by walking away from what would have been an instant career in Hollywood to forge a life entirely on her own terms. She reminds us that personal choice is an essential feminist act This post was first featured on the book blog Typewritered @typewritereduk
Mary Seacole nurse (1805-1881) You could be forgiven for not knowing who Mary Seacole was, so whitewashed has British history been, but the CliffsNotes oversimplification goes something like this: You know Florence Nightingale? Well, Mary Seacole wasn’t just the black Florence Nightingale. She was the real Florence Nightingale. Okay, so that’s not really accurate either. Florence Nightingale was a gifted mathematician and statistical expert, widely believed to be the inventor of the pie-chart – she wasn’t, but she perfected the polar area diagram. She was one of the first people to make a case for sanitation and good postoperative care as a necessity, even if, quite reasonably, she didn’t actually understand what was killing her patients. Her work did revolutionize nursing, healthcare and hospital design. She even laid the foundation for the NHS itself. She was quite a woman…but that compassionate, huggy-kissy, lady-with-the-lamp character – and the “angel” image that the nursing profession has struggled with ever since – simply wasn’t her. It was largely a media invention and a form of celebrity-building during an unpopular war. If anyone was this mythical angel, it was Mary Seacole. A Scottish Jamaican with little of Florence’s privilege, she came from a family of healthcare practitioners. Her knowledge was handed down, then supplemented on her travels and she had dedicated her entire life to nursing the soldiers of the British Empire. She was also fearless. In 1850, she personally cared for people with cholera, at a time when that was viewed as a good
way of ending up dead. As the Crimean War began, there was only one place she considered appropriate to be – after all, the health of the British Army had always been her business. She volunteered to join Florence Nightingale’s team but was turned down – I can’t imagine why – but this didn’t stop her. She organized the funding herself, travelled to Russia and built the British Hotel in Balaclava, which provided food, clothes, spare equipment and medical help to the soldiers, who called her “Mother Seacole”. Was this all entirely altruistic? Some of her behaviour suggests otherwise. She would charge onto the battlefield on horseback as the battle continued around her and tend to the sick and wounded. Mary was a traveller and adventurer. It might be suggested she was something of an adrenaline junkie. Did she exaggerate her own history? Possibly, but her myth was as based on the writings of returning veterans as it was on her own book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Was she a pioneer of nursing? Probably not, but most comparisons with Florence Nightingale do a disservice to both women, and some of the recent sniping in the media comes from a very Daily Mail kind of place. Was Marie Seacole a badass? No question. This post was first featured on the book blog No Safer Place @zcollins1994
Diana Brackley from John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen Go back far enough and few fictional characters, especially those written by men, pass muster as truly feminist. Like the mainly white US suffragettes are tainted by the whiff of racism, most writers are products of their time and even the most benign intentions drag the patriarchy behind them like oversized luggage with broken wheels. However, it is possible for a progressive reading of some of these texts to take place and for us to marvel at the insight of some of the minds behind them, long before they’d be reasonably expected to have got their sisterhood on. One such work is John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen. What he manages, in his own flawed and very 1950s manner, is to create a feminist character of quite remarkable fortitude, vision and single-mindedness. Diana Brackley is not like her mother. She is unwilling to define herself solely as someone else’s wife or mother, or to remain in a state of perpetual dependence. But time, she is assured, is the enemy. Time ticks on for women. Their value, their attractiveness, their desirability and their fertility, all are falling away by the second. According to her mother, there isn’t time for a career, especially not for chemistry…whatever that is. Diana knows that these things are a distraction at best. They’re something to relegate to the future, but she cannot quite shake the sense of the running clock. Men do not have
these limitations, so why should she? If only there was more time… So when her diligence and scientific abilities uncover an anti-aging elixir – made from a rare lichen with a critically limited supply – she leaves her research lab and vague love interest, taking her discovery with her. She creates a beauty clinic. While that appears literally superficial, it’s a wicked subversion of the concept, and since she’s treating these women without their specific consent, it’s a deeply transgressive act. Diana takes on the female condition – as seen through a 1950s filter – and disrupts it for her needs. She has a vision, not just to extend lives, but to reshape the world. She uses the limited supply of lichen to create a longlived group of female leaders, untouched by the rigours and judgements of age, who could exist on a level playing field with the men, for whom the usual limitations do not apply. Such a cabal could change the world for women for ever. In comparison, the love interest’s decision to test it on his children without their consent seems small-minded, parochial and even cruel. Of course, all this is deeply flawed. The restrictions society placed and still places on women are entirely artificial and don’t hold up to scrutiny. Even fertility can now be reasonably extended, if indeed the woman chooses that path. Gamechanging women do not require eternal youth. Yet even this generation of women still can’t shake the patriarchal obsession with appearance. But as a product of the late 1950s, with the second wave of feminism in its infancy, Diana Brackley is a game-changer and a formidable warrior for equality.
This post was first featured on the book blog The YA Nightstand @theyanightstand
Allie Brosh blogger, Hyperbole and a Half I have struggled with anxiety and depression for decades. For the purposes of clarification, when I say that, I mean I have had periods of crippling, life-destroying and all-encompassing visits from the black dog – a huge, voracious and fanged hound that did its best to tear me from my family and from myself. Sarah’s dream dogs in Orphan Monster Spy have nothing on it. I am not alone in this; one in four people suffer from depression in their lifetime and one in six people are depressed at any one time, but it remains a misunderstood blight on human existence. It ruins lives and literally kills. One reason for this is a dearth of true understanding in society at large. To explain the inexplicable, most people turn to the arts. However, most profoundly depressed people can’t get out of bed, let alone create anything, and recovering depressives tend to fail to capture the experience in the aftermath. It’s called perception-dropout. It isn’t possible to remember the mental state in enough detail once you’ve left it behind…it’s like a conversation with Saruman or a visit from Doctor Who’s The Silence. Enter Allie Brosh, “a heroic, caring, alert and flammable” blogger, best known to the world as an MSPaint-style stick figure in a pink dress with an asymmetrical triangle of blonde hair. She has been stricken with bouts of prolonged depression that have made her contributions to her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, intermittent, but her small oeuvre is of priceless value. “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult”, for which she is most
famous, nails anxiety, but it is her duology, “Adventures in Depression”, that makes her one of humankind’s most important storytellers. The moment when Allie finds herself having to comfort loved ones due to her own suicidal thoughts – “no, see, I don’t necessarily want to KILL myself...I just want to become dead somehow” – rang painfully, eardrum-burstingly true. No one had come close to encapsulating this moment that I had experienced, but couldn’t even explain to myself. Likewise, the dead fish analogy remains the most persuasive and accurate description that currently exists of society’s failure to get what depression is and just how poisonous our simplistic efforts to fix it can be. It’s powerful stuff, because like Allie’s other posts, “Menace”, “The God of Cake”, “Simple Dog” and “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas”, it’s also hilarious. It communicates the deep horror of the moment that everything is spiders and yet you feel nothing, in a way that a dry but accurate description just couldn’t. It’s warm and terrifying simultaneously. It’s art, at its very, very best. Allie hasn’t blogged in a while and I suspect that isn’t because she’s out loving life and too busy to write anything. To Allie, all I can say is, that whatever kitchen floor you are sitting on, crying or giggling in turns about a shrivelled piece of corn under the refrigerator, I am there too, holding your hand. This post was first featured on the book blog The YA Nightstand @theyanightstand
Éowyn, daughter of Théodwyn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I struggle sometimes with fantasy – which I can love – on two counts. Firstly, and I’m looking at you video games, it has a preoccupation with anatomically dubious breast sizes and a minimalist attitude to female armour. By that I mean, fetish underwear as battle equipment. It’s not just that it’s offensive objectification which plays to some preoccupations that should have been left behind in adolescence, which it is. It’s also dumb. It’s impractical. Instant narrative dissonance. Caitlin Moran’s one question to identify sexism applies here: would the blokes put up with this? Secondly and given its almost infinite possibilities, some fantasy (or sword & sorcery) tends to come with a set of tired tropes, themes and races established by J.R.R. Tolkien nearly seventy years ago. To the extent that I came out of The Fellowship of the Ring complaining that it was “too Tolkienesque”. I think my addled brain was attempting to articulate that decades of homages, re-treads and knock-offs had taken some of the lustre off the real thing. I did love the movie, but at that point the jury was still out. That was because the character I was waiting for didn’t appear until the second film and her defining moment wouldn’t happen until the third, several years away. Only then could I judge the series. Would Peter Jackson – director of Meet the Feebles – get it right? Not for me, but for everyone? Now Tolkien didn’t so much do women badly, as kind of
ignore them altogether – bypassing the breast and underwear issue, I suppose. I could spend many thousands of words bitching about that, but he did create Éowyn daughter of Théodwyn, and for large parts of the book that did not suck. I had fallen in love with Éowyn the way any straight boy of seven would have, from the minute that The Lord of the Rings was read to me (and thanks, big brother, for one of the greatest gifts anyone has given anyone). She was brave and brilliant and her disobedience resulted in her being in the right place at the right time, so no one would tell her off. She was the kind of woman that made my little chest heave. So, given that, my inner-child may not be an impartial feminist on this. Yes, she didn’t want to be a woman and wear pink, and yes that’s a cliché with its own problems, but Éowyn’s Moment of Awesome is dependent on her true nature. And boy, is her Moment of Awesome truly awesome, maybe the greatest single moment of any character ever in the realm of hitting things with bits of metal. It is a pivotal moment in the whole trilogy. The arrival of the Witch-King of Angmar to stop the charge of the Rohirrim is a game changer. So monstrous is his presence that everybody runs. Nobody can go near him, let alone face him down. Everything hinges on this one moment. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is basically lost at this point, long before Aragorn can get there with his ghost friends. Minas Tirith falls, there’s no march to the Black Gate, no distraction to empty Mordor, Frodo is captured and Middle-earth falls under an eternity of darkness. But someone does face him down. One woman (and a
hobbit, naturally) stands in front of her uncle’s body and dares the Lord of the Nazgûl to come through her to get him. After a lifetime being sidelined by the patriarchy, squaring up to an unspeakable horror clearly didn’t seem that much more difficult by comparison. She kills the big pterodactyl thing, she gets her arm shattered blocking his giant mace, yet still has the wherewithal to spot the flaw in his overconfidence… yes, no man can harm him, but she isn’t one. It’s a beautiful moment. With the last of her strength, she uses Merry’s distraction to drive her sword into his giant Ringwraith face. Yes, there’s that horrible now-I’m-in-love-I-can-stop-beingmyself thing with Faramir, but I kind of edited that out myself. It made far more sense to even the seven-year-old me that Éowyn could surrender her sword because, a) she was probably a little tired from all the Nazgûl slaying, b) there wasn’t anyone left to fight, and c) she was now a famous ultimate badass who people would sing songs about for all time. You know, some resolution and peace of mind on her own terms. Being a bit down before that was understandable, and it was probably PTSD brought on by a sudden life-threatening trauma or the spectre of worldwide destruction. In fact, if the chance of a snog and a future free from fear of enslavement by evil eldritch powers helped her get over that, she should be congratulated for her resilience. In the peerless 1981 BBC Radio 4 dramatization, Éowyn’s moment was lost in a cacophony of screams, grunts and sound effects, so I’d waited two decades to see it come to life. I wasn’t disappointed. Miranda Otto plays Éowyn to perfection. She doesn’t “fall in love” with Aragorn, not really. She just
feels the natural leader he is, the opportunities he represents and yearns to follow him, like everyone else, male or female. And when the time comes, she and Jackson got that bravery is not the absence of fear. In fact Ă‰owyn looks absolutely terrified every second of the encounter. Amongst all the grizzled detachment elsewhere, it makes it the standout confrontation in the trilogy. The exception to all that distress is that great epiphany. I am no man. No, she knows sheâ€™s better than that, she is the very thing she felt held her back all this time. It turns out she is good enough and had been all along. She smiles and SMITES him. This post was first featured on the book blog Tales of Yesterday @chelleytoy
Josephine Baker entertainer and activist (1906–1975) Entertainer, activist, French resistance agent, bisexual, ubermother and the first film-star of colour? Yeah, I couldn’t really leave Josephine Baker out of this list. If you’re assigning points for this, she kind of wins. Born into a show-business family and crushing poverty, Freda Josephine McDonald went from street dancing to vaudeville, defying her mother’s disapproval along the way. Her success led to a tour of France that became permanent, leaving the US behind her. “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people.” She returned to star on Broadway, only to receive a brutally racist critique from Time magazine. She was an instant hit in Paris, where her erotic dancing and nudity coincided with a spike in fascination for African culture. Problematic as it now seems, her Danse Sauvage with her iconic banana skirt and pet cheetah became her trademark and made her the most successful American entertainer in the country. She went on to star in three feature films. Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” and Shirley Bassey said, “I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.” Dance historians have called her “the Beyoncé of her day” and on her 110th birthday, Vogue wrote that Danse Sauvage “brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination” and “radically redefined notions of race and gender through style
and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today.â€? So far so interestingly prosaic, but this is where things get very interesting. As the clouds of war gathered in 1939, Josephine Baker began working for French military intelligence, gathering information on German troop movements, Italian plans and Japanese gossip from loose tongues at parties and salons across Europe. The invasion of France drove her to her country house, where she housed fugitives and arranged visas for others heading to join the Free French forces. She continued to tour and act as a courier for messages and intelligence from Free French territory and elsewhere back to England, written in invisible ink on her sheet music or pinned inside her underwear. In between she had a series of miscarriages and organized entertainment for the half-a-million Free French troops. The end of the war saw her receive some of Franceâ€™s highest honours. A war hero, she returned to the Paris stage to do some of her most successful and thoughtful work before heading back to the US for a sold-out tour. She demanded desegregated audiences, a move that began the end of the practice and saw her become the civil-rights organization NAACPâ€™s Woman of the Year. But she created powerful enemies and she was accused of being a communist, which resulted in her visa being revoked. She continued her civil-rights work back in France and then returned to be an official speaker at The March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. After his assassination, his widow Coretta invited her to lead the
movement, an honour she declined because she didnâ€™t wish to leave her huge adopted family of twelve children motherless in the event of an assassination. She lost all her money. Borrowed a villa from Grace Kelly. As you do. Four days after one of her greatest successes, the launch of a revue to celebrate fifty years in the business, she suffered a stroke, went into a coma and died, having crammed more into her sixty-eight years than most people could dream possible. This post was first featured on the book blog Coffee, Stars, Books @kbeestonewrites
Donita Sparks of the band L7 It’s easy to remember the alternative scene of the early nineties as some golden age of equality, before Britpop’s swaggering blokeishness and lad’s-mag anti-intellectualism pushed into the room, followed by its girlfriend carrying all the shopping bags. Certainly there was sensitivity and compassion amongst the grungy angst and it wasn’t socially acceptable to be sexist or racist in public (remember that?) but the journey to enlightenment was just beginning. It was all a work in progress. In that spirit, I wish to be forgiven in advance for celebrating a possibly juvenile piece of insouciant, revengeful oneupwomanship, because I always felt it was a statement of intent from the women of that community – that discriminatory behaviour based on sex or gender would be dealt with in kind. L7 were an excellent all-female grunge outfit who, along with The Breeders and others, had one foot in the nascent riot grrrl movement and one in the charts. They were an embodiment of the idea that a woman’s place was onstage and in the mosh pit. They hit the main stage at the ’92 Reading Festival, which was turning out to be a riotous celebration of grunge supremacy, decked out in striped war paint. At this point the power to all their instruments vanished. The audience reacted angrily and pelted the stage with mud. The Reading Festival audience has been traditionally belligerent, from driving Meatloaf from the country in the ’70s to its rejection of Daphne & Celeste as the superior ironic comedy pop that they were in 2000, so it’s possible that an all-
male band would have received the same vitriol. The frustration for any band, blameless for the outage, with the solution out of their hands and one of the biggest shows of the year in ruins, would have been exquisite. However, we all know that the patriarchy punishes women specifically with a set of poisonous words, phrases and concepts that it uses to belittle and humiliate. Donita Sparks had enough. She had a rummage, strode up to the microphone and held something up in front of her. Dodging a large sod of earth, she announced she had a “little present” for the audience. “Eat my used tampon, f******.” She spun it like a lasso and out into the crowd it went, end on end, like a tiny red-stained Thor’s hammer. Game, set and match, Ms Sparks. I raise three Katnissfingers to my immortal Queen of questionable equivalence. She described the moment this way: “I went performance art on their asses…I announced that I was throwing it, and I remember a silence afterward. A lot of people reached for it…I guess they didn’t hear what I said.” She went on to drop her trousers live on Channel 4’s perennially “controversial” The Word, something now laughably described by Wikipedia as an “obscenity”. In fact, there is probably no greater example of the confused yet triumphant state of gender politics at the time than this: Here’s my unshaven vagina, live on TV. There it is, under my guitar. Take it or leave it. This post was first featured on the book blog Drinking Books @jemimajosborne
Flora 717 from Laline Paull’s The Bees I love Watership Down with a burning Frith-like passion. It’s a deep, emotional, terrifying and multi-layered work and much of what I’ve learned about responsibility or leadership in my life comes from that book and the universe around it. Yet, like Tolkien’s work, there are virtually no female characters of note. To anyone pointing out the patriarchal nature of rabbit society, I have to say – this isn’t real. No fiction is truly realistic, and the exclusion of female, LGBT+ and characters of colour in your fiction is a choice – even if it’s often a subconscious one. I guess Richard Adams was a product of his era, but the promotion of Hyzenthlay to Co-Chief Rabbit in the 1996 follow-up Tales from Watership Down suggests that he had become aware of this gender imbalance. Laline Paull’s debut The Bees inevitably draws comparison with Adam’s masterwork – s’animals innit? – but turns the patriarchy on its head, by setting a tale of inequality and control, freedom and choice in the matriarchal world of the beehive. Born within the rigid strata of bee society, Flora 717 is the lowest of the low, part of the janitor caste and underclass of hive existence. Bigger, darker and uglier than she should be, as well as gifted with the power of speech above her station, her life seems doomed to be a short one at the hands of the deformity police. It’s never clear whether the Sage, of the highest priestess class, who rescues 717 and promotes her to the royal nursery, is part of some conspiracy to stimulate
variation in an endangered hive. Certainly, Sister Sage’s actions border on the sacrilegious. But beyond this early intervention, 717 forges her own destiny and rises through the hierarchy, all the while buffeted by competing chemical and biological imperatives. 717 wants to lay her own eggs – a terrible blasphemy punishable by instant death – yet her own desires sit within her fierce loyalty to the hive and the dying Queen. She battles their dangerous wasp cousins, negotiates with spiders, manoeuvres through complex internal politics and the deadly polluted countryside, before finally leading a revolution born of the need to survive. The novel discusses fundamentalist religion, fanaticism and choice over fertility, themes reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, yet unlike Offred, 717 has no memory of a better time or a more humane system. She is working off instinct – an instinct to nurture, to defend. 717 is an insect, yet she’s addressing issues of women the world over – working mothers, women with no control over their lives, women held in frameworks of responsibility and mental load, the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised. Pretty good for a bug. This post was first featured on the book blog Never Judge a Book by its Cover @nverjudgeabook
Lise Meitner physicist (1878-1968) Lise Meitner was one of history’s great geniuses. Coupled with the dedication and rigour essential to scientific endeavour, she had vision. When faced with experimental data that confounded the greatest minds of her age, she could envisage a hitherto unimagined reality and in doing so, changed physics, chemistry and the history of the world for ever. However, she was also a woman and, although baptised a Christian, she was from a Jewish family at a time when that was all that mattered to Nazi authorities. Of the many deprivations and humiliations borne by those who avoided the Holocaust and “got out in time”, those suffered by Lise Meitner are historically egregious. She remains a potent symbol of the institutional racism, anti-Semitism and sexism that still pervades our world. Forced to flee Germany after being denounced by a Nazi colleague, Meitner continued to work by post on some bizarre results that her team were generating in Berlin. Her nephew, Otto Frisch, visited his aunt in Stockholm for Christmas and on a long walk in the snow they correctly identified nuclear fission for what it was – a brilliant mental leap by both scientists. Meitner’s colleague in Berlin, Otto Hahn, got wind of Meitner and Frisch’s conclusions via the grapevine and published their joint work under his own name. Hahn would have argued that mentioning Meitner at all would have been politically problematic, but his haste suggests he didn’t agonize
about this falsification for long. Then after the war he and the German scientific community added insult to injury. The scientists that had formed the Nazi’s nuclear programme were being detained by the Allies – in some luxury – and they were anxious to establish their innocence, accentuating that their research was peaceful, even important on a global scale. This meant laying claim to the discovery of nuclear fission as a gift Germany gave to the world. Admitting the contribution of Lise Meitner meant admitting their collusion and complicity in her exile and drawing attention to their cooperation with the machinations of the Nazi state. So, they published a joint statement claiming that Meitner had been part of the team but had “chosen to leave Berlin” and hadn’t contributed further to the project. As Meitner had been forced to flee Germany and their working relationship had continued by mail, this was less than thoughtless. It represented a calculating and outright lie. Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of fission, omitting Meitner and Frisch’s fundamental contribution to his understanding of its workings. The least Meitner should have received was the Nobel Prize for Physics, but her nomination was blocked in Sweden for largely inexplicable and indefensible reasons, partly political, partly patriarchal. Like Rosalind Franklin, whose work on the structure of DNA was essential to its discovery, yet who found her contribution minimized and airbrushed out of history, Meitner didn’t fit. The scientific establishment did not want another scientific heroine. One Marie Curie was enough. Hahn remained a good friend – Meitner was just a better
person than everyone else – but she was deeply critical of those who had stayed to work in Nazi Germany. She also found the concept of nuclear weapons abhorrent. Her nephew was a leading light in the UK nuclear weapons programme, “Tube Alloys”, and later a scientist with the Manhattan Project, but when Meitner was asked to join him in 1943, her refusal was unequivocal. She refused even though it would have meant the kind of recognition she was denied in her Swedish exile. The scientists of the Manhattan Project would later become household names, but after the bombing of Hiroshima, Meitner took a five-hour walk alone. Whatever the German scientific community and the Nobel Committee might choose to believe, she was under no illusions about her share of the responsibility. She spent the later part of her life as a vocal opponent of atomic weapons. I was so taken with her story that I wrote her into Orphan Monster Spy. I hope that it would not have displeased her. In 1992, the German team that first synthesized element 109 proposed naming it meitnerium. The name was officially adopted two years later. It is the only element named specifically after a non-mythological woman. About goddamn time. This post was first featured on the book blog Be My Anchor @autumnfr0st_
Alanis Morissette musician Alanis was not the first female artist to swear and tell it like it was. She wasn’t the first to complain about abuse in the music business in song. She wasn’t the first to scream and talk explicitly about sex and heartache. She wasn’t even the first person to play the harmonica that badly in a professional setting. Yet there was something about her that sounded genuinely new. There was virtually no analogy, metaphor or simile at work in most of her lyrics. She hopes that her ex-boyfriend feels her having sex with someone else. So that’s what she says. Again, it was not unique, but it was the moment when 33 million people stumped up twelve pounds for Jagged Little Pill to hear her go for it over and over again. It was the point when the entire world decided it wanted to hear a woman speak, without any filter whatsoever, from the darkest and most transgressive of her desires and hatreds, to the wildest of her dreams and the most heinous of her wounds. All in so many words. Figuratively and lyrically she managed to exist simultaneously as “beautiful” and “ugly”, good and bad, equally comfortable with either, equally dismissive of both. She seemed so triumphant and so lost, so powerful and yet so vulnerable. Even her descriptions of sex manage to be detailed without being pornographic. And all this rendered complexity, all this terrifying, deep and murky raucousness was melodic, accessible and catchy. Perfect pop. It played the game, changed
the rules and won. One of the few obfuscations on the album, using similes throughout, is the track that’s most dubiously derided. No, her examples aren’t ironic – but in fact, she doesn’t insist these things are ironic, she just asks us if that’s what we’d call them. It took me years to realize that it was all about meeting the man of her dreams and then meeting his wife…an event that left her lost for words. It’s an admission of weakness, so embarrassing that it can only have been true. What it probably was, for a supposed former infatuation junkie, was typical. It was an album released by a woman – it appeared on Madonna’s Maverick label – when every other company had passed on it. It outsold her boss, the Beatles, Guns ’N’ Roses and even Adele hasn’t done better. It remains the thirteenth highest selling album of all time, the second best-selling album by any woman. That may not be meaningful – Shania Twain is number one after all – but it was the Wonder Woman of its day, proving conclusively that the public would stump up cash to hear a woman speak for herself. She suffered through all this to an extent and took a sharp turn in style in its aftermath. She became ever more introspective and concentrated on self-care to the detriment of her sales and arguably the quality and importance of her music. Certainly, her work no longer resonated with the numbers of people it had done. As a music journalist, I might bemoan the reasons behind her later choices. She once said of her change in intensity, that singing Jagged Little Pill live, night after night, hadn’t resolved anything for her but made her more angry. This suggests that
she thought that it was supposed to be cathartic for her. She was the shaman, she was there to heal the tribe, not herself. Of course, there speaks that part of us all that likes our rock stars to burn bright and then be a bit dead. As a fan, I could talk about the crushing disappointment of her meditative later material, or the fact that the 2005 acoustic version appeared to show someone who didnâ€™t know what made her greatest achievement worth listening to. But as a feminist, she decided she was done. So that has to be good enough for me. Maybe what she gave us of herself should be enough for everyone. She was just a singer. She was not a spokesperson or shaman. She was just a woman. But wow, what a woman. This post was first featured on the book blog Book Mumuration @lou_nettleton
General Leia Organa from Star Wars No list of the women who made me is complete without my princess. Yes, she’s a princess and I get that’s a problematic trope, but this is no typical damsel in distress or Disney princess – even though, now, she literally is. She’s a politician and a diplomat. She has authority. She’s also a resistance fighter against an overwhelming and malevolent totalitarian dictatorship. She may have been adopted into wealth and privilege, but she has made all that work for her in defence of the oppressed and vulnerable. She’s the ultimate ally. She is captured, red-handed, by the Empire’s most dangerous individual and can only expect abuse and death. Yet she stays calm and tries to brazen it out with an aura of appalled and condescending innocence. She is tortured for vital information – and refuses to respond to threats or invasive interrogation methods. She watches her home planet get destroyed, with millions of people murdered, as the result of a double-double cross that she must have relived over and over again in the hours that followed. Then the door of her cell opens, and she makes fun of the Stormtrooper who is presumably there to take her to her execution. That’s some woman right there. Yet, she’s also a woman of compassion. She comforts Luke on the apparent death of his mentor without judgement – even though she’s watched her father and her people executed just a few hours earlier. She accepts Han’s apparent betrayal as just
one of those things – it’s his path, no one else can choose it for him. That’s very generous of her, as his departure will inevitably cost lives. I was five years old when I first saw Star Wars at the cinema and it was a watershed moment for me, in every conceivable way. It’s difficult to calculate how important this depiction of women was in my cognitive development. Strong, smart, opinionated, right about most things and not taking anyone’s crap. I saw that this was what women could be – should be – in sharp contrast to some of the real world events I was witness to at the time. Her character continues in that vein for the whole trilogy. She is calm and decisive in the Rebellion’s darkest hour, willing to sacrifice herself to allow the transports to escape. She struggles a little with a sexual harassment issue, but this is resolved by the time she bluffs her way into a gangster’s den to rescue the man she loves, by playing chicken with a thermal detonator. When she fails, she allows herself to be captured and humiliated in order to affect that rescue later. Then she goes to fight on the ground with her troops, a leader who won’t ask anyone to do anything that she isn’t willing to do herself. Finally, when she discovers one of her best friends is, in fact, her brother, she rolls with that as well. She doesn’t beat herself up about what she may or may not have done or felt. By the time of Episode VII, she could be allowed some vulnerability, having fought evil for more than forty years, losing a son and a husband along the way. We’ll also forgive her the moment of racism – “get this walking carpet out of my way” – as she was under a lot of stress at the time and I suspect she regretted it
shortly afterwards. Actress Carrie Fisher struggled with manic depression, plus various substance addictions all her life, an understandable result of being born into a famous family, becoming one of the world’s most famous women at twenty-one and suffering the insidious abuse that Hollywood actresses went through in the ’70s and ’80s. Her behaviour had been erratic and occasionally unpleasant in the past, but she had come to a place of peace, health and generosity in her final years. Those who met her then found she embodied much of the famous princess. Meeting Carrie Fisher felt like coming home. (In a side note, I misheard one of her early lines as, “the senate will not forestill for this.” For some thirty years until I saw a DVD with the subtitles on I was convinced that “forestill” meant tolerate. Apologies to those who may have had to deal with me using that word in a sentence prior to 2008. You were all very kind.) This post was first featured on the book blog Tea Party Princess @corazzz
Ada Lovelace mathematician and writer (1815–1852) Some visionaries are so ahead of their time that they can seem laughable, even insane. One such man was Charles Babbage. In 1822, he designed a sophisticated calculating machine that promised to change the world, but just could not get his crap together. So intricate was Babbage’s Difference Engine that it was forever unfinished, exhausting the pockets and patience of the British Government and London society that once fêted him, even as he dreamed of the Analytical Engine which was, basically, the first programmable computer. People like this need an early adopter. There was one person who truly understood him and his inventions, and she was also a visionary. She went far beyond the cogs and gears of the physical and predicted the entire information technology age. Ada Gordon was born the daughter of “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet Lord Byron and maths geek Annabella Milbanke, after a whirlwind and disastrous marriage of science and the arts. With a childhood designed to mitigate any of her father’s “poetical” or chaotic tendencies that bordered on abusive, she inherited her mother’s love of logic and mathematics, but also more than a little of his imagination. She was fascinated from an early age by machines and mechanics and the numbers behind them, which is why, at eighteen years old, she ended up at a party where her mentor Mary Somerville introduced her to Babbage. Babbage’s
machines were so complex that few people could even understand the basic principles, let alone see what their application might mean, so they became firm friends and collaborators. For Babbage it was all about the numbers, but it didn’t take Ada long to swap those numbers for broader, more metaphysical concepts. What she saw was a world where machines could be told to think. Make decisions. Write and perform music. The scale of her contribution is hotly debated. It is widely believed that she wrote the very first computer programme, and certainly she perfected it. Her work directly influenced Alan Turing, whose work helped define the information age, although she didn’t believe in conscious machines or computers that could create, a contention that it took Turing 107 years to rebut. Seven decades later we’re still arguing about what that might mean. Indisputably, she was a prophet. She saw the future and she described it. How it would work. What it would do. Her wealth and privilege allowed her to study with some great minds and to promote Babbage’s ideas, but this was no substitute for real academic rigour and research. One can only guess at what her brain would have created had she been born in a different era, of equal educational opportunities and longer lives. And she was not without her vices…she was Lord Byron’s daughter after all. She had a string of affairs and sexual encounters, as well as a serious gambling problem, and it was the latter that highlighted her limits – it transpired that she did in fact have some. She simply refused to believe there
wasn’t a mathematical solution for effective betting on the horses. In pursuing finances for Babbage’s work, she became mired in financial scandal, losing a fortune of her syndicate’s money and then chasing her losses. She was bemused and frustrated by her inability to unravel this Gordian knot, when so many other mathematical mysteries uncoiled themselves effortlessly in her brain. It was an ignominious and uncharacteristically unsuccessful end, coming as it did just a year before she died of cancer at thirty-six. Admittedly, I can’t think of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, without thinking of Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. This glorious fictionalized account of her work culminates in them using the completed analytical engine to fight crime for Queen Victoria in an alternative timeline. It always felt like the future she should have had, rather than the hobbled, overlooked and all-too short time on an Earth that would come to depend on the things that she envisioned. This post was first featured on the book blog A Little But A Lot @eenalol
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games Contains spoilers Katniss Everdeen is a hero. It seems too obvious to mention. So successful has this character been in book and film form, so universal and ubiquitous has her effect been, that this blog might seem redundant. But leaving aside her personal influence on me – I’m a big fan, the kind of fan who collects dolls and first editions – she’s really a much more complex character than many “strong female” archetypes. Yes, she is strong and smart and gutsy, but it is the root nature of that heroism that is worthy of note. For a trilogy about a revolution, Katniss begins with no interest in starting one. That was never her intention. She was angry about lots of things, but the focus of that rage lay elsewhere. She was angry with her mother’s mental collapse, rather than explicitly angry at the system that allowed her father’s death. She has no love for the Hunger Games, but her only wish is to run away from it. All Katniss wants to do is protect her sister, her de facto child. She doesn’t volunteer as Tribute with a view to winning or surviving. She believes that she is ending her life to save Prim’s. She isn’t aware of the power of her single-mindedness, or that her skill with the bow is a potential game-changer. The Tributes from District 12 die every single year – with one exception in seventy-four years, long before Katniss was born. Not for nothing is Haymitch an alcoholic mess. He’s helped
send forty-six children to their deaths. It isn’t that she doesn’t have a rebellious streak. The arrow aimed at the judges during training is a huge overreaction to being ignored. It isn’t a piece of calculation to up her score, although that is its effect. She snaps, as she does outside the hospital in District 8 before delivering a plot-defining speech. But this anger is swiftly channelled into a will to survive. To get back to Prim. She doesn’t begin to hate the Capitol, I mean really loathe its raison d’etre, until Rue is killed. Again, it’s her instinct to nurture – a traditionally “feminine” trait – that leads her to risk a loss. Rue is a surrogate for Prim and the Tribute’s murder is her sister’s death writ large. The funeral flowers are a direct act of rebellion, a funeral rite that interrupts the process of the games – her body cannot be collected while Katniss is there. This isn’t to bring down the Capitol, it’s to reassert some humanity. That, of course, is what makes it so dangerous. It’s interesting that the film chooses that moment to show a riot in District 11, the moment that she herself has crossed the Rubicon and become a threat. The very second that she believes that both she and Peter can be saved she seeks him out, even though that makes her more vulnerable. She risks death again to get his medicine. Even the final moment with the nightlock, the moment that is the beginning of the end of Snow and the Capitol, does not come from a place of rebellion. She is not willing to kill, or have Peter die for her, and he will not do the killing. The trick with the berries is just a way of saving both of them. The act of defiance that it represents is incidental.
When she meets the revolution – District 13 and its conspirators – she is suspicious from the off. For a start, it failed to protect all those she cared for. She suspects that, like every rebellion since the dawn of man, it will end in bloodshed and she’s right. She only agrees to become the Mockingjay in return for promises of safety and rescue for those same people…and her sister’s cat. The horrible irony by the end is that despite beginning the journey to save her sister, Prim dies as a result of rebel action. It isn’t that the Capitol – the Nazis or the Empire or whoever – shouldn’t be resisted, it’s just that warfare without compassion is temptingly effective and its cost cannot be calculated. Prioritizing the ends, no matter the means, just proves President Snow right. This is a reality about conflict that is as true of World War Two as it is of the rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss is a hero who changes her world because she cares, because she has an instinct to nurture. The skill with the bow, the determination, the righteous anger – attributes that could be described as male or masculine – are secondary. It is compassion that is the root of everything she does. It is why she is powerful. Her final act – killing Coin – comes from that same place. She gives everything up at that moment, she can expect nothing but death. But there will be no more Hunger Games. The children of Panem, all of them, will be safe. It is the same deal that she made at the very start.
This post was first featured on the book blog The Queens of Geekdom @hscptcrash
A TEENAGE SPY. A NAZI BOARDING SCHOOL. THE PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME.
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First published in the UK in 2018 by Usborne Publishing Ltd., Usborne House, 83-85 Saffron Hill, London EC1N 8RT, England. www.usborne.com Text © Send More Cops Ltd, 2018 The right of Matt Killeen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. Cover border pattern © Shutterstock/Gorbash Varvara Cover background pattern © Shutterstock/Picksell The name Usborne and the devices are Trade Marks of Usborne All rights reserved. This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or used in any way except as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or loaned or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly. This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
A collection of essays on incredible historical, contemporary and fictional women who inspired author Matt Killeen to become a feminist and...
Published on Mar 8, 2018
A collection of essays on incredible historical, contemporary and fictional women who inspired author Matt Killeen to become a feminist and...