Saturday, May 28, 2011

"An extraordinary girl; she never would sit still."

In a week when I'm baffled by the reasoning (if any) behind the idiocy of "planking" or what young women hope to achieve in demanding the right to dress and look like hookers on "slut walks", it was heartening to stumble across the remarkable story of a woman from an earlier generation who deliberately went into a hazardous and remote area of the world populated by headhunters - the traditional kind, not modern-day business ones! - but who was accepted by the people and developed a very close bond with them.
She was not formally trained in anthropology but she was awarded the Lawrence of Arabia Medal for her work among the Nagas. (See here for general information on Nagaland.)
Later, in true Empire spirit, Ursula Graham Bower (Betts) displayed grit, resourcefulness and courage in a little-known arena of the Second World War, leading her Naga people in guerilla warfare against the Japanese.
Annabel Venning gives a good summary of her life in this 2010 article in The Daily Mail. In 1945, Time Magazine wrote about her exploits with the lurid title of "Ursula and the Naked Nagas".
Yet again, this is another amazing woman who deserves to be much better known but still seems to be just another feminine footnote to history.
Maybe that could change, with a new book on Ursula scheduled to be published in 2012.
Ursula wrote several books herself and a couple of radio plays were written about her exploits. She took vast numbers of photographs, including those in this collection.
Others can be found along with diaries, manuscripts and other documents at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and at Cambridge University, including some unique colour film footage from the 1930s and 1940s.
For anyone wanting to gain more insight into what women of that British Empire era could be like, the two-part video interview done in 1985 by Alan Macfarlane is an excellent resource.
In the first part, Ursula describes her immediate feeling of connection with the Naga people, as if she had always known them. Her manner is very matter of fact as she describes living among them, their culture and habits and, not least, their great bravery during the War. And in the last few minutes on the second tape, she tells us in her wonderfully plummy voice, and with typical understatement, how she came to meet her husband, get engaged and married within three weeks!  It seems she made the right choice and F. N. Betts had a distinguished career of his own and wrote many publications relating to natural history. One of their daughters described going back to Nagaland many years later in this transcript of a BBC radio interview.
Her mother once said Ursula was "an extraordinary girl; she never would sit still," but it seems she did sit still long enough to have this oil painting done wearing the traditional wedding dress of the Zemi people. The portrait is from a private collection and can be found among the numerous artefacts listed on the university Index relating to Ursula.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The hazards of compilations

I recently picked up a copy of a 1997 book entitled The Giant Book of Influential Women: The 100 Greatest Women of All Time by Deborah G. Felder.  (Not to be confused with a recent work of the same name edited by Kathleen Kuiper and published by Britannica - available to read here on Scribd.)
I am always curious as to how an author or editor decides who is to be included in such books and, to be honest, why they get published in the first place as they usually end up in huge wobbly piles in remainder bookshops. They must be fairly easy to write but are not always reliable works as they are often derivative or cobbled together from secondary or previously published sources and some of them are guilty of perpetuating myths or inaccuracies.
While I concur with some of Felder's choices in this particular work - those women who have left important marks on history that still resonate around the world such as Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, or Emmeline Pankhurst - others left me baffled. As a non-American, they are unfamiliar to me: civil rights activists, psychologists and short story writers.
The author did admit in her introduction that the project was bound to generate controversy. She gathered her names from a survey of women's studies professors in American colleges or universities, which seems very narrow as surely their reasoning was bound to get skewed in the direction of their academic (American) interests? One who declined to submit a list wrote: "Frankly, I think your project is misguided and will lead to more criticism than you can imagine." I'm guessing it did as I notice the book has gone into subsequent editions in which the title has wisely been changed to 100 American Women who Shaped American History.
1997 Australian Edition
2005 American (Bluewood) Edition
In 2010, the British newspaper The Independent published a similar list. Again, if one is unfamiliar with modern British entertainment, politics or sport, the majority of these names mean nothing. These women might have changed Britain recently, but not necessarily impacted on the world as a whole. You can read that list here.
Other selections can be highly subjective and even verge on the ridiculous, such as an Esquire magazine list of 2010 in which serious contenders like Joanne of Arc and Golda Meir have to compete against B-grade actresses, pop princesses and even the 1972 Dallas Cheerleaders! 
One could spend many hours trying to find a definitive list of women who changed the world, but it would be impossible as of course no two people are going to come to the same conclusions. Much better to narrow down your search to specific eras or endeavours:  top women athletes, scientists, reformers, etc. I notice there is even a book out there on the 100 greatest Welsh women!
Surprisingly, two books on wild/notorious women have been published already this year in Australia that appear to go over tired ground. In this day of quick look-ups on Google and Wikipedia for anyone who wants a pocket history of an individual, I don't understand the reasoning by publishers as both books are rather expensive and will end up in those wobbly remainders piles sooner than later.
Wild Women by Pamela Robson includes individuals who have been written about extensively already like Bonnie Parker (Bonnie & Clyde) and the female pirate Anne Bonny but at least she does seem to offer some hope by including intriguing lesser-known characters such as a Queen of Angola.
Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders tackles well-worn women like Tilly Devine and Mary Bryant who have been covered in numerous compilations on infamous Australians.
And being the author of a major work on Lola Montez myself, I must take umbrage with the ludicrous and historically ill-informed choice of cover on this second work!
Lola Montez could never be described as an "Australian woman" by any stretch of the imagination. She only visited Australia for a short period in the 1850s as a performer, albeit creating a great deal of notoriety when she did so.
Nobody in their right mind would dare to suggest that other famous entertainer, Frank Sinatra, was a notorious "Australian man" as a result of his visit to the country in 1974 during which he created a similar degree of mayhem! (Check out the Dennis Hopper movie about that event.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The last one standing (or sitting) is a woman

A poignant day in history: the last man believed to have served in World War I has died in Perth, Western Australia. He was Claude Choules, and despite the French-sounding name was British.
Florence celebrates her 110th in February (pic British Forces News)
That leaves Florence Green, who served as a waitress in the fledgling Royal Air Force in 1918 as the last (wo)man standing, or perhaps more often sitting, given her great age.
However, this isn't to say that there aren't still a few longlived stray individuals out there who might also qualify to have served in some capacity in the Great War.
What about the many other nationalities who are often overlooked in these mostly Western statistics?
According to some sources in the British army alone, over 1.5 million "Indians and other 'coloured' troops" served in that war and yet there is very little known about most of them. Plus there are the non-combatant labourers such as the Chinese and Africans who did not fight, but also died in the course of doing their work. No doubt some of them might also have been waiters like Florence Green, but because of the class and racial attitudes of the day, they have long been lost to history.

Waitresses wanted