Historical Heroines: Iris Wilkinson aka Robin Hyde (1906-1939)

Iris Wilkinson was an esteemed New Zealand poet, mainly under the pen name Robin Hyde, who is most famous for her novels Passport to Hell, Nor the Years Condemn, and The Godwits Fly.

She was born in Cape Town, South Africa, to an English father and Australian mother, but moved to New Zealand when she was still an infant. She began writing poetry in school and was published in her school paper, and even heralded as a “Schoolgirl Poetess” by the The Dominion newspaper where she later got a job at age 17. While at the newspaper she ran the children’s section and later reported from the courts.

Alongside her fledgling career as a journalist, she struggled with a severe knee injury, which often required being confined to a hospital for months at a time. This chronic injury also led to a reliance on sedatives and pain medication, which she struggled with throughout her life. Wilkinson took leave from work to receive treatment for her knee in Rotorua where the thermal waters were recommended. It was here that she had an affair that resulted in her lover abandoning her during pregnancy.

Pregnant, at only 20 years old, Wilkinson moved to Sydney where she gave birth to her stillborn son whom she christened Robin Hyde, the name she later adopted for herself in her writing. She suffered a severe breakdown and was fetched home by her mother. Consequently, Wilkinson spent around a year recovering in the hospital but continued some writing as a means of therapy.

When she was released in 1927, she soon found a job at the Sun newspaper and in following years continued to contribute to various publications. However, in 1930 she gave birth to a son after an affair with a married journalist who then rejected her. She gave her son up for adoption, but rumours about her situation resulted in the loss of work.

Wilkinson later became an editor at the New Zealand Observer and wrote on a variety of issues and topics. However, in 1933 she tried to drown herself and entered into a mental hospital for four years, during which she produced a large body of her work.

After she was released in 1937, she became increasingly feminist in her writings but lived in extreme poverty. On her way to England in 1938 she was delayed in Hong Kong, which inspired her to stay longer in China and report on the Japanese occupation. She continued to write on what she saw until she got caught in Hsuchow when it was bombed and captured. In order to flee, Wilkinson walked along the railway lines until she reached the city of Tsingtao and was handed over to British authorities.

Wilkinson finally made it to London only to die by suicide a year later at the age of 33.

Originally published 1/6/16

Historical Heroines: Pauline Boty (1938-1966)

London artist Pauline Boty is one of the founders of the British pop art movement and of these, the only woman. Her work focuses on female sexuality, empowerment, and criticizing traditional ideas of masculinity. Despite having studied stained glass for a total of six years at Wimbledon School of Art and at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, painting became her focus after college and what she was best known for. Indeed, Boty considered applying to study painting at RCA but was dissuaded as they favored male applicants.

Boty was raised in a middle-class Catholic household with three older brothers and a strict father. Thus, when she accepted her scholarship to Wimbledon School of Art in 1954 it was against her father’s wishes. However, she left with the support of her mother, who herself had given up her dreams of studying art because of her own strict parents.

Boty did some acting alongside her artistic career but refused to let it distract her from her main vocation of painting. This was in spite of the many men who encouraged her to pursue acting full time as it was a more acceptable and respected career for a woman during the 1950s and ’60s.

The respected artist used her later status in the art world to address the sexism that had been so prevalent throughout her life. This is particularly apparent in paintings like “It’s a Man’s World I” (1964) and “It’s a Man’s World II” (1965-66), the latter of which uses images from fine art nudes and pornography. Eventually, her work evolved to include some more overtly political references to events such as the Vietnam War, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the Birmingham race riots.

Tragically, Boty died when she was only 28. After becoming pregnant, she was diagnosed with cancer but refused chemotherapy in favour of continuing her pregnancy. She died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Boty Goodwin.

Originally published 25/5/16

Historical Heroines: Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915)

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a popular Victorian author from London. She is most famous for her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Her writing career gave her rare autonomy for a Victorian woman and although she eventually married, it was for love and not security. Indeed, her relationship with her husband — John Maxwell — began as a scandalous affair. He was already married with five children when she moved in with him in 1861, but his wife was living with her family due to mental illness. Braddon raised his children like her own and when his wife died in 1874 they married and went on to have six children of their own.

Braddon’s own mother separated from her father when she was only 4 years old because of his infidelities. Her mother raised Braddon and her siblings alone, which was no small feat in conservative Victorian England. Due to her family’s financial difficulties, Braddon moved to Bath to work as an actress in 1852. She chose this career so that she could be financially independent and help support her mother. Braddon acted in everything from farces to Burlesque to Shakespearean plays and eventually worked her way up to leading lady. However, although her career was fruitful and lasted about eight years, she was forced to use a fake name (Mary Seyton) to protect her reputation.

She began her writing career in London under the pen name M. E. Braddon, chosen to be gender unspecific. It was here that she published the popular gothic Lady Audley’s Secret. Braddon averaged about two novels a year for the rest of her career and was able to buy a large house for her and her family. Her life may not seem remarkable to us now, but for a woman living in Victorian England her career and independence were incredible achievements.

Originally published 18/5/16

Historical Heroines: Leonor Fini (1907–1996)

Leonor Fini was an Argentinian modernist painter, feminist, and fashion icon. She enjoyed celebrity status among the artistic circles in Paris in the late 1930s due to her flamboyant style and controversial paintings.

Fini was raised in Trieste, Italy, by a single mother and its multi-cultural heritage went on to influence both her outlook and art. Although she stopped receiving a formal education while she was still a teenager, she received a rich cultural education through traveling Italy and taking in its many museums and galleries. Despite having no official artistic training, she received commissions, exhibited paintings in Trieste and Milan, and became close with popular Italian artists of the time; all while still in her early 20s.

In 1931 she moved to Paris to work on her career as an artist alongside her fiance (an Italian prince). Soon after arriving she split up with the prince to better appreciate the creative haven that was Paris of the 1930s.

At 25, she had her first solo show in Paris in a gallery directed by Christian Dior. Her work quickly became popular and was featured in the “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition at the MOMA in 1936. Meanwhile, during the same time frame, she had her first New York exhibition at the avant-garde Julien Levy Gallery. She later went on to design costumes and sets for operas, films, and ballets.

Fini was not only an independent creator but also a muse. Indeed, she was good friends with the likes of Salvador Dali and the famous French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. She even appears in many of Cartier Bresson’s photographs.

Many characterize Fini as a surrealist but in fact she never subscribed to that movement. Indeed, she considered herself apart from “movements” in general and preferred to take inspiration from her own imagination rather than obeying certain artistic techniques. Fini’s art frequently deals with mystery, power imbalances, and sexual tension. Her paintings often portray dominant women and passive men.

Fini retained her independence throughout her life and despite regularly embarking on love affairs, she continued to share her house with paramours both past and present. In addition to her lovers, she also shared her house with her 23 beloved Persian cats who were granted complete freedom within her home.

She herself said on the subject that: “Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community — a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.”

Originally published 11/5/16

Historical Heroines: Elsie Inglis (1864-1917)

Elsie Inglis was a feminist, a skilled doctor, and the founder of the “Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service” (SWH) in 1914. The SWH provided medical care in the form of nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers, and was entirely run by women.

The SWH went on to operate in France, Russia, Corsica, Malta, Romania, and Serbia. However, surprisingly, Britain never accepted the help of Inglis’ female medical units on the Western Front.

Inglis was born in India because of her father’s job, but moved back to her family’s native Scotland when she was 14, once he retired. Unusually for a woman at the time, Inglis received a well-rounded education as her parents believed in the importance of education for all and not just for men.

In 1887 she began to study medicine at The Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women but soon founded her own breakaway college as she disagreed with the school’s methods. She finished her education at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

In 1894 she opened a maternity hospital with her friend Janet MacLaren MacGregor for disadvantaged women staffed entirely by women. In addition to this, she set up a midwifery resource center.

It was Inglis’ dismay at the medical care available to women (and lack of specialized care) that piqued her interest in feminism and led to her involvement in the suffrage movement. She became the Secretary for the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s while she was still completing her medical degree. Her involvement within the suffrage movement only grew, and by 1906 she was regarded as the unofficial leader of the Scottish Suffragist movement and worked closely with Millicent Fawcett, who was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Not only was Inglis a force to be reckoned with when it came to breaking ground on gender inequalities and medical inefficiencies, she was also extremely charitable. She regularly waived the fees owed to her and even paid for her patients to recuperate by the seaside.

Inglis served in Serbia from 1915 until the Serbian government and army withdrew to Corfu. From then on she was based in Russia until she became ill and returned to England where she died Nov. 26, 1917, only a day after she arrived.

Originally published 4/5/16

Historical Heroines: Christine de Pisan (1364-1430)

At a time when there were very few writers — let alone women writers — Christine de Pisan was both a successful author and women’s rights activist. In fact, she was the first woman in France (and most likely Europe) to earn a living through writing.

She was born in Italy but moved to France to join her father, King Charles V’s astrologer, when she was very young. It was there at the court that she met and married a nobleman, Etienne du Castel, at age 15. They had three children together before he died in 1389.

De Pisan’s late husband had been supportive of her writing but after his death she used it as a means to support her family and refused to remarry merely for financial convenience. She gained support and a following from the French royal family, which allowed her a lot of freedom when it came to writing.

Although she initially wrote ballads and poems mourning her husband, de Pisan is better remembered for her revolutionary writings about women. In 1402 de Pisan published a book called Le Dit de la Rose, which was a direct criticism of another popular Medieval text written by Jean de Meun that painted women as shallow seductresses. In her response, she characterized de Meun’s words as malicious and sexist.

Her other writings included a biography of Charles V and several texts about historical female figures. De Pisan’s 1405 text La cité des dames is considered one of the first feminist texts. It considers famous female figures from history and championed the idea of gender equality.

Toward the end of her life, de Pisan entered into a convent in Poissy, France. She wrote much less once she was there, but for her last work, in 1429, she published an outspoken piece in defense of Joan of Arc.

Originally published 27/4/16


Historical heroines: Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

Countess Constance Markievicz was an Irish Revolutionary, outspoken feminist, and the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons in 1918, although she refused her seat in protest of the situation in Ireland.

In addition to this impressive list of credentials, she was a good friend of the famous poet William Butler Yeats who wrote several poems about her including “Easter, 1916” (1916) and “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz” (1933). So not only was she spectacular in her own right, but she associated with similarly captivating people.

Markievicz took an active role in the Irish rebellion in 1916 (referred to as the Easter Rising) and was arrested for her part in it. She reportedly told the court, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”

However, despite initially being sentenced to death, the court recommended a softer deal, “solely and only on account of her sex,” and so she received life in prison instead.

She retained this no-nonsense attitude throughout her life and has a number of excellent quotations attributed to her, including her advice for women to “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” Alongside her freedom fighting ways she was basically an advice columnist of old. But really badass.

Markievicz died when she was 59 on July 15, 1927, due to complications resulting from appendicitis. She had already given away all of her wealth and died in a public ward with her friends at her bedside.

Originally published 20/4/16 

Comment: No, Playboy, clothes don’t equal feminism

In a new attempt to rope in younger readers and get with the times, Playboy has released its first ever non-nude magazine cover since its 1972 launch. Playboy is now an enterprise that encompases a website, physical magazine, Twitter account, Instagram account and Youtube channel. This plethora of social media indicates Playboy’s attempt to remain current and appeal to the millennial reader. The magazine even announced its new cover with the statement: “Playboy Unveils a New Magazine for a New Generation of Readers.” This shameless pandering to “the new generation” is unnerving to say the least. Apparently, Playboy has accepted that misogyny has ceased to be sexy, and feminism is in style. Feminism has become a trend, a hashtag, a bandwagon to jump on: and even a marketing tool, which is something Playboy is clearly determined to cash in on with its latest cover and newly safe for work (SFW) website.

Although SFW, the latest cover is far from feminist. Yes, nude-filled Playboy was in bad taste, but at least it was upfront about it. The magazine’s website even describes itself as: “The original men’s magazine, Playboy’s been pushing (and removing) buttons for 60+ years.” Cringe-worthy double entendres aside, one can hardly argue that Playboy shies away from its reputation. For the most part it has been upfront about its intentions, goals, and readership. The poses models were positioned in were blatantly and overtly sexual, whereas the latest of Instagram star Sarah McDaniel, although covered, is arguably more unsettling.

The photo itself depicts McDaniel clad in skimpy-but-simple pajamas looking up into the camera as if it is her own selfie with “heyyy ;)” superimposed over it Snapchat-style. McDaniel’s said of her shoot that “the idea was to look at me from a boyfriend’s perspective,” thus, appealing to the reader looking for that girlfriend experience. Indeed, Playboy introduced its cover star with the remark that: “You can now know what it would be like to wake up next to Sarah McDaniel.” Alternatively, in an even more sinister vein, it allows the reader to become a voyeur to a young girl’s private life. These considerations make the photo more than just questionable in taste, but when you factor in that the image was actually taken by a male photographer, it develops a whole new element of creepy. The lengths that were gone to in order to make the shoot seem organic and simple, make the entire production that much more sleazy.

Furthermore, Playboy’s homage to Snapchat is unnerving in itself given that half of Snapchat’s users are under 18. This marks an ongoing trend in popularizing the sexulisation of young girls. This idea of virtuous sexuality is a complete contradiction and damaging on a multitude of levels. Playboy even uploaded a compilation of 20-year-old McDaniel’s snapchat stories to their website.

I would argue that Playboy’s final naked cover featuring 48-year-old Pamela Anderson is far less sleazy than its latest clothed shoot. Anderson is a grown woman who is in control of her sexuality. On the other hand, a great deal of effort was put in to emphasize McDaniel’s youth and innocence, but also to make her an object of sexual desire. Playboy works in selling fantasy, and, if it’s to be believed, “the new generation” has a thing for big-eyed innocence in lieu of big breasts. It’s hardly an improvement.

I reiterate: Playboy, just because your cover star is wearing a top, it doesn’t mean that you’re feminist.

Originally published 28/02/16

Comment: 10 better uses for that energy you waste on catcalling

1. Why not take the time to perfect that flawless baritone you’ve been hiding?

If you rest your voice by not yelling out of car windows at passing girls, perhaps you’ll stand a better chance at hitting all those tricky notes.

2. Join the debate team.

Another great option for those of you who enjoy the sound of your own voice. It could even give you a valid reason for raising your voice, and maybe you’ll learn to listen while you’re at it. (A girl can dream).

3. Start a collage.

I can only assume that the urge to yell at strangers stems from oppressed creativity and a feeling of deep-seated restlessness. Why not channel this into a beautiful creation? For bonus points, break out the glitter. Not only will you gain a piece of art, but you’ll have a whole new hobby to talk about and incorporate into your pick-up routine.

4. Take up knitting.

This is an excellent use for restless fingers that previously honked the car horn at girls. Plus, now you can subvert those pesky gender norms you’ve been working so hard to enforce up until now. If you start now, you might even get a sweater out of it.

5. Volunteer at a cat shelter.

Keep the cat, but ditch the calling. Baby steps are everything.

6. Write and perform slam poetry.

Why settle for yelling from the sidelines when you can make yourself the center of attention? Turn those phrases you yell at women into melodic poetry and put your overconfidence to good use.

7. Take a yoga class.

Why would you need to yell insults at women when you can put your legs behind your ears? Your body is a temple and your words are full of s—, so clean up your chi and get bendy.

8. Master the art of street performance.

You seem to love hanging out on the street, so why not give us all a show? Get creative and be original; don’t settle for being like all those unimaginative men shouting “hey, baby.” You’re better than that, probably.

9. Try boxing.

Instead of belittling women, try to reaffirm your tenuous masculinity with some good ol’ fist-fighting. Remember, girls supposedly dig scars, so this should help you score too.

10. Write songs for Robin Thicke.

It’s been too long since everyone’s favourite creep caused a scandal, but since you seem to have such a talent for sexist slurs, I’m sure you could rectify this in no time. Go and see if you can get paid doing what you love, and in the meantime, shut the f— up.

Originally published 06/04/16

Comment: Too Much Face

Facebook has many benefits and can be an excellent way to stay in contact, but it’s becoming increasingly common among people I know to do a “cull” of their Facebook friends in order to rid them of cringe-worthy high school reminders, which I’m sure many of us would rather be without.

For me, Facebook came before Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, so I’ve always viewed it in a softer light. It was my first social media; my gateway into a whole world of hashtags, character restrictions, and filters. It stayed simpler than its successors with less rules and expectations. I used to regard it as an innocuous tool for staying in the loop, rather than as a means by which to be accosted with filtered photo after filtered photo. But now all that has changed.

Facebook has become exhausting. A quick scroll of my timeline reveals a selection of heavily edited profile pictures (thankfully song lyric captions are dying out), countless dumb videos, and another status about how thankful someone is to have really “discovered who they are” on their year abroad. The last of these is something I have become particularly familiar with, being abroad for a year myself.

Apparently, it’s not enough pressure to move across the world and start fresh, but you have to prove to everyone back home that you’re having an “AMAZING and CRAZY time” from the first day you arrive.

I’ve spoken to lots of other exchange students in different countries who have found their expectations of a year abroad to be misleading. For example, it would be easy to feel a flash of envy if you glance at the Instagram account of my friend in France, which presents a rosy array of beautiful pictures of places and people. However, in private she’s told me about how isolated and depressed she often feels and how much she’d rather just go home to the U.K. No one had ever warned her about how challenging it was going to be. Moreover, the social media of past exchange students that she’d seen were only filled with smiling faces and impressive tans. It would seem that to admit you’re unhappy — or even just that you’re not happy all the time — is taboo. If every moment of your life isn’t a whirlwind of adventures, parties, and new friends, then you have failed.

It’s understandable that people want to present their best self to the wider world, but it should hardly be a newsflash that perfection is a myth. Often a carefully cultivated social media persona is not merely an attempt to convince friends and family that we’re having a good time, but to convince ourselves. Especially in an exchange situation it provides a safety net and tangible proof that we succeeded: “It really was the best year ever, and look, here are the pictures to prove it.” However, I feel that the danger with this particular path is not only denying yourself the right to a whole host of important emotions but also in failing to actually experience the things you reference.

If you’re too focused on getting the video of that one party for Snapchat, those selfies from the football game for Facebook, and that filtered panorama of the lake for Instagram, not to mention hitting the right tone in captions, then you miss the actual experience. If you spend too much energy worrying about making people think you’re having fun, then you may not have time to notice you actually are

Originally published 09/02/16