Features Editor Sophie Perry is pursuing a Masters in Contemporary Literature, Culture & Theory and has a special interest in Intersectional Feminism, Queer theory, gender performativity and postcolonial identities.
[Featured Image: Colourful painting of Malala Yousafzai]
Much like any other social, political and/or cultural movement, the feminist movement must have a number of signifying traits and features in order to be defined as a ‘movement’. In fact, a ‘movement’ is defined as ‘a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas’. Now, the feminist movement can certainly be described as that. Over the years people have worked together behind-the-scenes, underground, in the streets, in protests, in marches, in forums, in art and in online spaces in order to bring about change. While the movement could not survive without groups of people working together as a unit there are a few individuals who stand out in particular.
In this article for 4×4 Feminist Features I seek to highlight four incredible women who has each, in their own way, had huge impacts on the feminist movement. Without these trailblazers the landscape of contemporary feminism maybe be very different to where we are today. We owe a lot to these inspirational women for their bravery in taking the stand for what is right; gender equality above all else.
Emily Wilding Davison
Emily Wilding Davison is probably one of the most famous suffragettes of the First Wave Feminist movement and an emblem for women’s emancipation. She was a militant suffragette who is remembered for her brave, daring and, often, violent campaigning where she broke up meetings, vandalised property and carried out arson attacks.
If you did not know her name before this article then you probably know her colloquially as the suffragette who ‘threw herself in front of the King’s horse’ at Epsom Derby. This in itself is a frustrating example of the rewriting of history, the changing of narrative in order to fit a particular agenda. Davison did not, in fact, throw herself in front of the horse but was instead trying to pin a banner on to it and was tragically struck by the horse in her attempt. However, for years the debate raged as to whether Davison had a goal in mind when she stepped out onto the race course that day, or whether she was just recklessly killing herself in order to make a political point. On one side you have the martyr, a tragic loss to the movement but an emblem for political passion and the drive for change. While on the other you have the hysterical woman, so crazed in her motives that she killed herself out of spite for a system she did not believe in. Two contradictory narratives about a woman’s life, sounds familiar?
Her death and the uncertainty around the reasoning for it has greatly affected how she has been judged by history, on all sides. Before we get into the ins-and-outs of her death though, we should probably talk about her life.
Emily Wilding Davison was born in Blackheath in south east London on October 11th 1872. In 1891 Davison won a bursary to study literature at Royal Holloway College, however she had to leave in 1893 as her father died and her mother could not afford the £20 a term fees. Following this Davison became a Governess and continued her studies in the evenings. She saved up the money from her Governess work in order to enrol for one term at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and sit her final exams. Already defying the odds in a male-dominated society she achieved a First Class Honours in English, but could not graduate because at the time degrees were closed to women.
Davison first began involved with the suffragette movement in 1906 when she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1909 she left her teaching job in order to focus full time on the work that the WSPU was undertaking. Following her full time commitment to the cause she became increasingly militant where she burnt postboxes, carried out arson attacks and caused public disturbances.
Davison was arrested a number of times for her actions and force fed dozens of times by prison guards. In one incident in October 1909 she was sentenced to hard labour and went on hunger strike in response. Davison was brutally force fed by the prison guards, an experience she said ‘will haunt me with its horror all my life, and is almost indescribable’.
In another daring and brave act during the night of the 1911 census Davison hid overnight in the chapel of the Palace of Westminster – she wanted her residence to be recorded as the House of Commons. A plaque placed in 1990 by Labour MPs Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn commemorates the spot where Davison hid eighty years earlier.
The famous and fatal day in question took place on June 4th 1913 at Epsom, Surrey during the Derby. Davison was positioned at the final bend before the home straight of the race and ducked under the railings after a few horses had already passed her. Reaching for the reins of King George V’s horse Anmer, ridden by Herbert Jones, she was struck at an estimated speed of around 35 miles per hour. All within four seconds of stepping onto the tracks. Knocked to the ground unconscious bystanders rushed onto the track to help, with both Davison and Jones being taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital for treatment.
Davison died on June 8th having never regained consciousness following the incident. Davison’s coffin was transported from Epsom to London where Five thousand women formed a procession, followed by hundreds of male supporters, that took the body between Victoria and Kings Cross stations before being transported to Northumberland. Davison is buried in a family plot in the graveyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Mopeth, Northumberland.
The legacy of Emily Wilding Davison is something that we all, no matter who we are or where we come from, can take inspiration. The sheer determination of Davison’s spirit is a symbol to never give up in what you believe in, especially if you know that it is what right. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Davison’s sacrifice is the Representation of the People Act 1918, which while not a universally equal act of suffrage did increase the electorate by over 13 million people. Her work as a Suffragette, as a campaigner and as a women inspire us to this day to undertake ‘deeds, not words’ in whatever we do.
Incredible footage of Epsom Derby is shown in Claire Balding’s documentary Secret of a Suffragette, a scene of which can be view on YouTube. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-W_URTWjgR0
Sojourner Truth is a figure who has often been forgotten by time. An African American ex-slave, evangelist, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Truth was a women far beyond the time she lived in. Best known for her ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech, her thoughts and words are as powerful today as they were in the nineteenth century and modern feminists owe a lot to her.
Truth was born Isabella Bomfree in 1797 in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York – a Dutch speaking area at the time. Within the first, short thirteen years of Truth’s life she was sold four times to different slave owners where she was often subjected to abusive and violent treatment.
In late 1826, a year before New York’s law freeing slaves was to come into effect, Truth escaped with her infant daughter Sophia to freedom. Following this Truth found the home of abolitionists Isaac and Maria Van Wageners who offered to buy her services from her current owner for £20, until the emancipation law came into effect in New York. She stayed there until the New York Emancipation Act was approved. The Van Wageners also helped Truth sue for custody of her son Peter who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama by her ex-owner. After months of legal proceedings Truth won the case, making her one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win.
In the late 1820’s Truth moved to New York City where she became a housekeeper working for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist. During her time with the Van Wageners Truth had become a devout Christian, her beliefs only becoming further deepened by being surrounded by other religious people such as Pierson. In 1843 Truth had a sort of epiphany and believed that it was her calling to preach the truth, renaming herself Sojourner Truth and declaring that “The spirit calls, I must go”. In her role as a preacher of the truth Truth met a number of abolitionists and women’s rights activists, causes that she passionately championed and spoke about in her lectures.
In 1851, Truth was on a lecture tour and stopped at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio where she gave her most famous speech ‘Ain’t I a Women?’. The speech was originally nameless and delivered extemporaneously by Truth with no preparations or notes, as Truth could neither read nor write. The speech was reported in the New York Tribune and The Liberator following the convention but both of these recordings were brief, the first full transcription being recorded in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. The most commonly cited transcription (and the one that appears below) was published by Frances Dana Barker Gage in 1863.
Ain’t I a Woman?
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
Truth continued her work long after this speech was made, continuing to preach and speak her truth all across the country. In one example of Truth’s passion for change during the Civil War she helped enlist African American troops for the Union Army. As well as this in 1865 she rode in street cars in protest for their desegregation.
Truth died at home on November 26th 1883.
The legacy of Sojourner Truth is one of passion and integrity. Her life shows all of us to never give up on what we believe in, even with the odds stacked against us, especially if we know it is what’s right.
Malala’s rise to fame as an advocate for girl’s education, women’s rights and peace is one almost too unbelievable to be believed. Literally. At age just 15 Malala was riding the school bus with her friends and was shot in the head by the Taliban, yes the Taliban, simply for campaigning for girl’s right to education. She was shot because she believes that women and girls should know how to read, write and do maths. A literal terrorist group shot her. IN THE HEAD. What is the most incredible part of that story? She lived to tell the tale and went on to create the Malala Fund, co-author the international bestseller I Am Malala, be the subject of Oscar short-listed documentary He Named Me Malala, receive the Nobel Peace Prize (making her the youngest ever laureate, by the way) and give a speech at the United Nations.
Malala was born on July 12th 1997 in the city of Mingora in the Swat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She grew up with her two younger brothers Khushal and Atal, her father Ziauddin a school owner and her mother Toor Pekai.
Malala was mostly educated by her father, an education activist himself, who ran a chain of private schools known as the Khushal Public Schools. From a young age Malala was fluent in Pashto, Urdu and English, and was interested in politics and equality.
She began blogging anonymously for the BBC in 2008 about her life in Swat under the Taliban’s growing influence, whom were banning television, music, women leaving the house alone and girls’ education. Abdul Hai Kakar, the BBC’s correspondent in Peshawar, had been in touch with Ziauddin about finding a schoolgirl to blog about her experiences. However, it was difficult to find any wiling students as it was considered too dangerous by many of the girl’s families, Ziauddin thus suggesting his own daughter, 11 year old Malala.
When her blogging ended Malala was approached by New York Times reporter Adam B. Ellick about filming a documentary, bringing Malala to international attention. Following this Malala was interviewed on various radio stations and received a number of Youth Prizes for her efforts towards girl’s education.
As Malala’s prominence grew and her work became more well known the threats against her also increased. Death threats were published in newspapers and sent to her home, as well as online. On October 9th 2012 Malala was riding the school bus with her friends when a Taliban gunman boarded the bus and shouted “Which one of you is Malala?”. Upon being identified Malala was shot in the head.
Malala was airlifted to hospital following the shooting and immediately received a five hour operation, whereby the bullet was successfully removed. Still under sedation Malala received offers from all over the world for medical treatment. She landed in Birmingham and was treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of military personnel injured in conflict. Over the months that followed Malala recovered and learned to speak and walk again, before being discharged on January 3rd 2013.
The attempt on her life didn’t hold Malala back, if anything it only empowered her beliefs further. In July 2013 Malala spoke at the United Nations and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, in September she spoke at Harvard University, then she met with Barack Obama in October. Malala addressed the UN July 12th, her 16th birthday, and this was dubbed ‘Malala Day’ but during her speech she stated “Malala day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights”.
In October 2014 Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against children and young people and for the right of all children to education. She received the prize at the age of 17, making her the youngest ever Nobel laureate. Following this Malala was the subject of the 2015 documentary He Name me Malala, which was nominated for an Oscar.
As of 2018 Malala is studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (imagine reading that UCAS application!)
The legacy of Malala Yousafzai is one of courage and resilience against hate and terror. Malala has already achieved so much in her young life that one can only wonder what more change she will bring about in the world.
See also: Malala’s speech at the United Nations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SClmL43dTo
bell hooks is the pen name of acclaimed author and academic Gloria Watkins, who in her life has written numerous books, scholarly articles, appeared in documentaries and given public lectures. She is best known for her work on the intersection of issues such as race, gender and sexuality, and how these interconnecting issues seek to perpetuate oppression. However, she has also written works on the topics of love, spirituality, media representations, education, art and history. On that note, do not be confused by my lack of capitalisation of bell hooks name – she is known for her particular style of writing which has been described as ‘informal’ and ‘unscholarly’ by some. hooks aims to make her writing as accessible as possible for readers of all abilities, meaning that certain scholarly features such as bibliographies and footnotes are missing from her work.
hooks was born on September 25th 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She was initially educated in a segregated school before moving to integrated schools where the majority of her classmates were white. After high school she accepted a scholarship to Stanford University where she obtained a BA in English, it was at this time that she began writing her first book – Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism – which would not be published until years later. Following her undergraduate degree hooks received an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 1976 hooks began her career as a teacher by taking up a position at the University of Southern California as a professor and senior lecturer in Ethnic Studies. During the following two decades hooks would go onto to hold a number of teaching positions at a number of institutions, including the University of California, Santa Cruz, Yale, Oberlin College and the City College of New York.
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism was published in 1981 and discusses many of the themes that hooks will often engage with in her work including the intersection of sexism and racism, the representation of black women, the lack of black voices in the feminist movement and the devaluation of black womanhood. In the decades since its publication it has become an important work and is often cited in Gender Studies, Race Studies and by feminists.
In 2014, she founded the bell hooks institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The institute website describes itself as a place that:
‘celebrates, honors, and documents the life and work of acclaimed intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer bell hooks. Located close to the Appalachian hills in Berea, Kentucky, visitors to the bell hooks Institute have the opportunity to explore and visually engage with the artifacts, images, and manuscripts talked about in bell hooks’s work. For example, you can see the brown baby doll bell writes about in her memoir Bone Black, look at the Star of David quilt her grandmother gave her when she left for college, check out the international editions of hooks’s books.
The YAA Gallery at the bell hooks Institute showcases artwork by: Emma Amos, Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris, Alison Saar, Alicia Henry, Elizabeth Catlett, Radcliffe Bailey, Moneta Sleet, and Margo Humphrey.
The Institute will bring together academics with local community members to study, learn and engage in critical dialogue. The bell hooks Institute brings scholars and thinkers from in and outside Kentucky to engage with us, to teach us, and to share new ideas in a setting that is local and diverse.’
The continuing legacy of bell hooks work can be seen across the width and breadth of academia where her work is studied, seen as an influential contribution to feminism as well as other areas of thought. It is also important to acknowledge that hooks wrote Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism because she understood the marginalisation of black women within a hegemonically feminist movement. She sought to change this not by simply reading the work of others but writing her own work, which would go on to make waves within the movement. It is certainly a powerful example of ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’.
[Featured image credit: Painting by Richard Day which was uploaded on August 24th, 2017]