Maggy Hendry has co-edited the third and fourth editions of the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography alongside the original compiler and editor, Jenny Uglow. In honour of International Women’s Day, she has chosen her top 10 women from the latest edition of the Dictionary, which was published at the beginning of the year.
“It has been a pleasure to work on the updates of such a wonderfully scholarly volume as this. Despite all my efforts to lower the tone in recent years, the book remains as solidly erudite as ever. But Jenny’s generosity in allowing me to try is commendable. Here are my top 10 women, together with their Dictionary entries.”
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For liberating the brassiere. She is largely responsible for modern blatant bra-wearing. Back in the day, perhaps because we were supposed to have burnt them, we would have died of embarrassment if anyone caught a glimpse of so much as a strap. Bras as outerwear and also their straps have been out of the closet ever since Madonna got together with Jean Paul Gaultier et al.
2. Frida Kahlo
For dedication to her art in spite of living a life of pain, and for her brutally honest self portraits which show her with a moustache, a beard and ferociously dark eyebrows that cross in the middle. An excellent role model for the hirsute.
For a reputation which has been evolving for around three millennia. A woman with a penchant for make-up who lived life on her own terms, Jezebel achieves 597,000 results on the world wide web. She had a second world war missile named after her and appeared in celluloid as a ruthless southern belle played by Bette Davis in 1935. She is still to be seen roaming high streets up and down the land on Saturday nights (according to her mother).
4. Professor Wangari Maathai
Kenyan environmentalist. For demonstrating the power of persistent non-violent protest, and for becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
5. Eileen Wani Wingfield and Eileen Kampakuta Brown
Septuagenarian Aboriginal campaigners and winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2003. For travelling Australia with other senior women, speaking out against nuclear testing and dumping on their ancestral lands, and working to keep their culture alive.
6. Valerie Solanas
For writing the SCUM Manifesto (now freely available on the web) and for being ahead of her time. Her wit and brilliance were not appreciated in her lifetime.
7. Martha Gellhorn
For her fearless reporting of the Spanish Civil War and other conflicts including the second world war and wars in China, Vietnam and central America. Also for her stormy five-year marriage to Ernest Hemingway.
8. Mary Anning
For finding and unearthing a complete ichthyosaurus at the age of 12, and for discovering the first pterodactyl.
9. Mary Kingsley
For coming out of the west African swamps with a necklace of leeches, for writing about it with humour and for her insistence on wearing Victorian clothing – layers of petticoats, heavy skirts, boots and highnecked blouses – in all situations.
10. Rosa Parks
‘Mother of the civil rights movement’, for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Her action sparked the eventual abolition of the segregation laws and the emergence of Martin Luther King as a national leader.