International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #7 – Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura

Nichelle Nichols in a NASA recruitment photo

Nichelle Nichols is an actor and NASA recruiter, most famous for her role as Uhura in the original series of Star Trek.

It’s easy to dismiss the contributions of an actor in the company of pharaohs and spies and Nobel Prize winners, but one should not do so with Nichelle Nichols. Her role as Uhura was so important, so seminal. She was a major character on a prime time show. She was a bridge officer and she was a woman and she was black. All of these things were radical at the time, and, as the research of the Geena Davis Institute shows, they are, sadly, still things we struggle with today.

And this was no easy feat for Nichols. She wasn’t just another actor. She faced galling discrimination every time she set foot on set. She had to enter by a different gate to the other actors, was paid less, and often faced bigotry directly from studio staff. The famous inter-racial kiss between Uhura and Kirk was nearly prevented because the director for the episode was against it.

Eventually, Nichols decided to leave, as a direct response to the discrimination she faced. Gene Roddenberry asked her to think about it over the weekend, a weekend in which she was attending a fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Whilst at the fundraiser, Nichols had a life-changing conversation with Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr King told her he was a fan, and that Star Trek was one of the few programmes he would let his children stay up to watch. When she told him she was leaving, he begged her not to. He said:

You can’t do that. Don’t you understand that for the first time we are seen as we should be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.

Martin Luther King Jr

Where before black roles were limited to those of maids and servants, Uhura was fourth in command of a space ship. Nichelle went back to Gene and told him she would be staying.

And Dr King was right. Nichelle inspired a whole generation. Whoopi Goldberg cites seeing Uhura in Star Trek as inspiring her to think that black people had a future; seeing a black woman in space, and not as a maid, made her feel she could be anything she wanted to be. This was the tale she told when she asked Gene Roddenberry for a part on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And beyond her work on Star Trek, Nichols went on to become a recruiter for NASA, specifically working to recruit women and people from minority groups. Those recruited included Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.

She is on the board of directors for the National Space Society, and she even flew on board NASA’s C-141 Astronomy Observatory on a high-altitude mission studying the  atmospheres of Mars and Venus.

This truly remarkable woman withstood personal abuse to become a beacon for all of us. Showing what women could be, and showing what women of colour could be, too.

Index of Inspiring Women.

International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #6 – Mary Bowser

Photograph of Mary Bowser

Photograph thought to be of Mary Bowser.

Mary Bowser was a freed slave and one of the most successful spies in the American Civil War.

One could be forgiven, reading her Wikipedia entry, for thinking that her achievements were largely the result of the work of her former owner, Elizabeth Van Lew, but Mary is a formidable figure in her own right.

Possessed of a sharp intelligence and photographic memory, Mary adopted the role of a slow witted servant under the name ‘Ellen Bond’. She gained a role in the household of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. As a black servant she was treated as invisible, and she used these racist assumptions to gather vast quantities of information for the Union. With her photographic memory she could report conversations verbatim and reproduce documents word for word.

Thomas McNiven was her contact and wrote of her:

[S]he was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis home to drop information.

Recollections of Thomas McNiven

After the war, records of many spies were destroyed for their own protection, so we will never know the full extent of her work, but she was clearly a key player. Mary was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame by the US government in recognition of her achievements.

Index of Inspiring Women.

International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #5: Geena Davis

Geena DavisYeah, sure, Hollywood actor, Oscar Winner, Golden Globe, big whoop. Except… she’s also a sportswoman, activist, and, frankly, Big Damn Hero.

As well as narrowly missing out on joining the US Olympics team for archery, she’s also fronting the Geena Takes Aim campaign for the Women’s Sports Foundation for an Act of Congress to bring equality of sports opportunities.

She’s sponsored the ‘largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment‘, which showed that there were nearly three male characters to every one female character on average for the 400 children’s shows analysed.

In 2005 she launched a project with the group, Dads and Daughters, aimed at equalising gender representation in children’s programmes, and in 2007 she founded the The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which conducts research into the representation of women in Media (and the impact of that) and advocates for a greater female presence in the media.

If you’re on Tumblr at all, you’ve probably seen the results of her work, which has shown that just 17% of characters in group scenes are female, and, as Geena comments:

That’s what starts to look normal. And let’s think about in differen[t] segments of society – 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women, 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn’t that strange that that’s also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we’re actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you’re an adult, you don’t notice?

Interview with Geena Davis in ‘Casting Call: Hollywood Needs More Women’, by NPR staff

Prompting the creation of an (unaffiliated) dedicated Tumblr called 17percenttheory.

Basically, she noted a subjective sense that there were significantly less women in the media than men, was worried about what effect that might have on her children, and she went out and got the data and the research to show that there was a problem, and then she founded an institute to work towards providing a solution. Just the effect of the spread of information and solid data (and the revelation of how little evidence had actually been collected before) has had a palpable effect on the blog-o-sphere. And her willingness to put money, time and effort where her mouth is gives me hope that she can affect real change.

Oh, and she was in Thelma and Louise. Which is awesome and feminist and shit, too.

International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #4 – Le Chevalier d’Eon

Le Chevalier d'EonThere’s gonna be some people who’ll disagree with this one, but I see how my trans friends get treated by some feminists these days, and I feel it’s important to include trans women. Moreover, reading up on le Chevalier d’Eon, I was deeply uncomfortable with the way that historians refer to her as ‘he’. The reasoning is that because a post-mortem examination revealed that Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (aka, le Chevalier d’Eon) that she had male genitalia, the famous transgender spy was ‘actually’ a man.

Why am I judging differently? Well, despite the fact that d’Eon presented as both male and female at different times, she lived as a woman for much of her life and petitioned the government to be treated as such. Whilst there are reasons a person could insist that they were one gender without really holding it to be so, trans people go through enough that if someone claims that status, to me, I think we have a duty to believe them, and the fact that people were curious enough to know what was ‘really’ inside someone’s pants to perform a post-mortem examination of the matter is just… all kinds of wrong. I think the least we can do is call her by her preferred pronouns now.

As for the woman herself? d’Eon was a part of the Secret de Roi, a network of spies operating in the service of Louis XV. She befriended Empress Elizabeth of Russia and became her maid of honour. When she found her finances stopped on a mission to England, d’Eon bargained for return to France by publishing some, but not all of the secrets in her possession. The English public came to support her and the French king ultimately renewed her pension, although she remained in exile.

She published her memoirs, La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d’Éon, although these are believed to be ghost-written by a friend. She led a division of women soldiers and taught fencing lessons until wounded in a tournament in 1796. She retired to live with a widow, Mrs Cole, and escaped debtors’ prison by signing away rights to her biography.

She was basically a badass who should have all the Hollywood movies made about her.


International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #3 – Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai – Activist for the Education of Women

Malala: 16 years old, youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, shot in the head by the Taliban at 15 for the work she was already doing on behalf of women’s education. At which point she had been blogging articulately for the BBC for three years, after being banned from attending school.

Breathtakingly intelligent, brave, self-motivated, and self-sacrificing – if you aren’t inspired by Malala, I’m not sure that you’re human.

She’s been featured on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and as one of the 16 most influential teens. Winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, which has now been named the National Malala Peace Prize in her honour. Winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Spoken at the UN. She’s been made an honorary citizen of Canada, and she’s been nominated for a Nobel prize again in February of this year. She has already done more in her life than, well, probably everyone you know.

My heart breaks when I think that we might have lost her. She was shot in the head.

And it did not scare her off. She has only become stronger.

And now she has set up the Malala Fund, for empowering girls and educating children in developing countries.

Malala is my hero. If you’re moved to do anything for International Women’s Day, you could do a lot worse than donating to the Malala Fund.

International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #2 – Aemelia Lanyer

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645): Poet

My second inspirational woman is Aemelia Lanyer (also called Emilia Lanier), 17th Century poet and first woman to be published as a poet in the English language. (Yeah, we’ve jumped a few thousand years, this is not in any kind of historical order.)

What’s more, her poetry pulls no punches. Her most famous work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a daring account of the life of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted in feminine terms and mankind, but not womankind, is scathingly condemned for his death, most particularly in the section most often referenced:

‘Eve’s Apology’

Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare;
Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.

That undiscerning Ignorance perceav’d
No guile, or craft that was by him intended;
For had she knowne, of what we were bereav’d,
To his request she had not condiscended.
But she (poore soule) by cunning was deceav’d,
No hurt therein her harmelesse Heart intended:
For she alleadg’d Gods word, which he denies,
That they should die, but even as Gods, be wise.

But surely Adam can not be excusde,
Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame;
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refusde,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpents craft had her abusde,
Gods holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being fram’d by Gods eternall hand,
The perfect’st man that ever breath’d on earth;
And from Gods mouth receiv’d that strait command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

And then to lay the fault on Patience backe,
That we (poore women) must endure it all;
We know right well he did discretion lacke,
Beeing not perswaded thereunto at all;
If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?

Not Eve, whose fault was onely too much love,
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all;
If one of many Worlds could lay a staine
Upon our Sexe, and worke so great a fall
To wretched Man, by Satans subtill traine;
What will so fowle a fault amongst you all?
Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay;
But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.

Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether trie,
By all their sinnes the wrath of God to get;
This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
As doth the Sunne, another little starre.

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;
Who did but dreame, and yet a message sent,
That thou should’st have nothing to doe at all
With that just man; which, if thy heart relent,
Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul?
To seeke the death of him that is so good,
For thy soules health to shed his dearest blood.

This is a finely crafted poem, it’s even meter and rhyme structure designed to evoke a sense of reasoned, rational discourse, it’s argument using the very charges laid against women as weapons to condemn men. Men blame women for all the sin in the world because of Eve’s original sin, but, Lanyer argues, Eve’s sin was committed in ignorance; Pilot, meanwhile, has been warned not to condemn the son of God to death, and he ignores that message. So how can men get away with punishing women for Eve’s offense, still (which, Lanyer argues, was really Adam’s fault, to begin with – one cannot be blamed for committing a sin when one does not know the action to be wrong)?

Make no mistake, this poem is dripping with bitterness, but it restrains its anger into this strict structure to say:

    If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

When we do remember the great women of history, we tend to focus on the Joan of Arcs, the Queen Elizabeths – women who are praised for leading men. But we should not overlook our great female writers and poets. Being a woman and a poet in the 17th century was a thankless enterprise. One Aemelia was only able to conduct thanks to her patron:  Lady Anne Clifford. And Lady Anne’s life was no walk in the park, either. Anne and her mother, Margaret, supported Aemelia at their estate, Cooke-ham, for which they engaged in a long and painful battle for inheritance against Lady Anne’s uncle and his son. The battle was ultimately won when the male claimants died, but not before Anne and Aemelia had been evicted from the estate – an event commemorated in Lanyer’s heart-breaking country house poem: ‘The Description of Cooke-ham‘. Which begins:

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content;
Where princely palace willed me to indite,
The sacred story of the soul’s delight.
Farewell (sweet place) where virtue then did rest,
And all delights did harbor in her breast;
Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.
Yet you (great Lady) Mistress of that place,
From whose desires did spring this work of grace;
Vouchsafe to think upon those pleasures past,
As fleeting worldly joys that could not last,

I must confess, I kinda ship Aemelia Lanyer/Lady Anne. Whether it was platonic, or something more, there was clearly deep love and sisterhood, holding to one another and creating a little haven in a world embattled against them. I’m getting teary just thinking about them.

So, this is a woman our children should be reading alongside the umpteen millionth Shakespeare play we forced them through. I’d studied four (and we did Macbeth three separate times and Hamlet twice) by the time I was sixteen, and nobody gave me something like this? Something that might really mean something to me and get my blood boiling? Something that might challenge assumed ideas of male supremacy in the minds of young boys who don’t even know why they think the negative things they do about girls?

Yeah, most people don’t know about Aemelia Lanyer. But they should. Remember her, pouring her heart out with emotion and relentless logic at a time when no other woman dared to call herself a poet.

I remember you, Aemelia. I cannot imagine the strength you must have struggled to find every day, but I admire it.


International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #1

People are tweeting lists of inspiring women for International Women’s Day:


I think this is a really awesome idea, but it seemed like it would be even better to write something with room to explain why these women are inspiring and important – to let them be more than just names, passed around only by women who already know who these women are. This is especially important for those women who have not made it into our history lessons (which is many of the women who have been amazing and important throughout history). So, today I’m going to write just a little bit about some of the women who have inspired awe and hope in my heart.

I’m working today, so I’m going to be doing a series of posts, rather than one big one, throughout the day.

Let’s start back – way back.

Hatshepsut – Pharaoh of Egypt

A statue of HatshepsutHatshepsut (1508–1458 BC), whose name means ‘Foremost of Noble Ladies’, was Great Wife to Thutmose II, and regent to Thutmose III, but she was not content with that. She declared herself pharaoh – king.

Egypt prospered under her rule, and she erected many of Egypt’s most awe-inspiring monuments, including four obelisks, the Chapelle Rouge, and her stunning mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. For a woman to seize power like this was unprecedented, and for millenia, her achievements were forgotten. Late in Thutmose III’s reign, the project of covering up her entire existence began. Her name was removed from her monuments. Her achievements were attributed to others. Her statues were disfigured and in some cases destroyed. But she existed. She ruled, and ruled well, and she was not content to be Great Wife or step-mother to a king. Ancient Eqypt had no word for a female ruler, so she called herself Pharaoh and insisted she be treated as King.

And millenia later we have found her hidden cartouches, we know once more to whom belonged some of Egypt’s most impressive treasures, and history remembers her again.