Figure 9: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy

Underrated:

Hedy Lamarr is a classic case of the ‘Underrated’ segment of this illustration series. Although she didn’t talk about it much, it was known that she was interested in inventing (she had a miniature lab set up in her trailer for between takes). However, mostly she was recognised only for her looks, earning the title ‘most beautiful woman in the world.’

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000), Hedy began her film career in Germany when she was 17. She soon got married, to a weapons mogul named Fritz Mandl. Mandl soon revealed his colours as a jealous control freak, and reduced Hedy to the role of trophy wife, controlling her closely, only allowing her out of the house with a servant and controlling her tiny allowance. He even bugged the rooms in their house so he could listen in on her conversations.

Because of his job, Mandl entertained a lot of important men, and when the Third Reich rose to power he signed a deal with Hitler. He also entertained Mussolini. The upside to these dinner party companions is that Hedy was able to learn a whole lot about weaponry and war, which paid off… as soon as she finally escaped.

She took her chance when he went out of town, using the money she had squirrelled away to make her getaway to Paris, (possibly) dressed in the outfit of a maid who she had drugged. She continued on to London, and Mandl gave up his pursuit, deciding that divorce would probably be less effort.

There, she met Louis B. Mayer, president of Hollywood’s MGM studio, who proposed a contract with her. But it a pittance, and she refused. Despite this, she changed her mind, perhaps realising that she could really start afresh far away in America. Mayer’s ship back to the US was all booked up, so Hedy went back to her ingenuity, posing as a child’s nanny to sneak aboard the ship. This courageous (and nuts) act, combined with the appreciative looks her appearance gained from male passengers, persuaded Mayer to forge a new deal with her, quadrupling the length and salary that he had previously offered.

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However, she hated the way she was reduced to her appearance in Hollywood, with Mayer keeping her in mediocre, ‘exotic’ or temptress roles. She said ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Eventually she left MGM, and set up her own production company, which didn’t do so well.

While all of this was going on, she used her free time to do science. She turned her attention towards helping the war effort; she realised that to make planes fly faster, you could imitate the body shapes of the fastest fish and the fastest bird, a technique which still influences streamline designs today. In 1942, she and a composer designed a way of producing radio signals that couldn’t be jammed or intercepted by the Nazis. They submitted it to the army: they ignored it. It wasn’t used until the 1960’s, by which time the patent had run out, and she never made a penny from her ideas, which are the basis of mobile technology today. We wouldn’t have wifi without Hedy Lamarr.

Even today, in articles praising her, her work is passed off as ‘a hobby’ and ‘tinkering.’ I think that this is patronising and undermines her intellect. The attitude that beauty and smarts can’t go together is still so pervasive; it almost implies that it was a lucky break that lead to these landmark achievements. I’ve even seen the word genius put inside brackets, as though it is simply a quote and not a verifiable fact!! I know that it can be hard to be completely certain on this sort of thing, but I truly feel that a man in the same position would be praised to the heavens for being smart AND gorgeous – in fact, they absolutely would.

Her life was messy, and she was uncertain of which role she should occupy in her every day life; temptress or trophy wife or star or scientist? I think that this threw her off. I hope that if she lived today, she would no longer feel that she could occupy only one of those boxes at once.

 

For more about her great escape from her first marriage, click here

For a slightly patronising but otherwise nice article about her and the new documentary, click here

 

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Figure 8: Mary Seacole

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Underrated: Born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica (1805-1881), Mary spent her life travelling to different countries in order to try to save lives. Her mother owned a boarding house, and it was there that Mary learned traditional medicine and gained a reputation as a nurse.

She was also pretty entrepreneurial, opening a hotel with her brother in Panama in 1851 where she learned to treat cholera, as well as surviving the disease herself. She left to treat yellow fever in Jamaica two years later, and began to provide services for troops at this time.

Not long after she made the trip to England, where she heard about the issues facing the nurses on the battlefields of the Crimea. Mary went to several different officials, requesting admission to the front to provide her services, all of whom rejected her. She was even apparently rejected by Florence Nightingale, although this is still a big point of contention.

So Mary decided to make her own way there. She established a company with a relative, and set up a general store and hotel, and they were given permission to travel to Crimea. With her medicines, Mary nursed and cared for injured soldiers at military hospitals, where ‘Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued. She earned the nickname Mother Seacole, and she became famous back in England thanks to a war reporter named W. H Russel reporting on her good deeds. Unfortunately, when the war ended her hotel and general store naturally failed, and he returned to the UK destitute.

But many people had not forgotten Mary, and an enormous benefit was organised to raise money for her by two former Crimea Commanders and lords. She continued to work, and was apparently rejected once again from helping during the Franco-Prussian war, as she contacted Florence Nightingale’s brother-in-law Harry Verney, who was closely involved in the British National Society for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded. Mary spoke very fondly of Florence in her memoirs, but a letter from Florence to Verney referred to Seacole’s hotel as a ‘bad house’ and said ‘I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question).’

In recent times, it seems to me that both of these womens’ impressive legacies have been overshadowed by modern historians, politicians and newspapers attempting to pit them against each other. Every article I’ve looked at resorts to the claim that one or the other of these nurses were terrible and Bad and not worth remembering. Very little mainstream media seems to care that it’s easy to celebrate both women.

Mary Seacole portrait illustration

I feel that Florence had her reasons for rejecting Mary, living as she did in a time when almost anything could destroy a woman’s reputation. Mary had unconventional medical practices, and in a society that had only banned slavery around a decade before, and in the days of Empire, it was normal for white British people to look down on basically anything anyone did differently to them. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this world view, I think that holding Florence solely responsible for colonialist ideas is more than a little unfair, especially considering that a lot of men rejected her back in England too. It is a classic example of men pitting women against each other because they think that only one can be a saintly woman, the other has to be terrible, doesn’t she?

I also think that Mary has become a target of this drama due to the polarising effects of contemporary discussions on Brexit and immigration. For some, the fact that she has a statue outside a hospital at which Florence worked – and the fact that her statue is a tiny bit bigger than Florences (which by the way was installed over 100 years before Mary’s!) is a huge spit in the face for white people across the country – darned immigrants, stealing our jobs, healing our sick!!

This goes hand in hand with the attitude that acknowledging Mary’s accomplishments is ONLY being done to pander to PoC’s *insert comments about liberal snowflakes here.* They conveniently ignore the fact that the main reason People of Colour from history are only now being recognised is because we wilfully ignored their contributions in the past due to racism. People have gone as far as saying that she didn’t actually contribute anything, really, to the Crimea war, and therefore should not be celebrated, despite those nice quotes from W H Russel.

Which is funny because London has statues of the likes of George IV, ‘by all accounts the worst king Britain’s had’ and statues of animals who probably weren’t massive contributors to British society.

I think that Mary’s techniques were unconventional and possibly unscientific. But I feel that as long as she was helping people, as she certainly did, then she still absolutely deserves celebrating.

Further reading here.

Read a great article about the modern ‘feud’ here:

‘Even Natasha McEnroe, the director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, can’t understand the fuss. And pitting the two against each other is plain sexist, she says. “No one ever asks me to compare the work of two (male) surgeons in the Crimean War, yet it is always assumed that two women feud,”’

 

Figure 7: Marsha P Johnson

Marsha Johnson illustration portraitOverlooked:

Marsha P Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels (1945-1992) was a transgender woman who was involved in the Stonewall riots of 1969 which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement in the USA.

The riot began outside the Stonewall Inn, a hub for the gay community at this time. They were often bothered by the police; deliberately targeted for their lifestyle and arrested on questionable charges. But this finally came to a boiling point, and this is when Stonewall began. The riot spread to neighbouring streets and lasted several days; some eyewitnesses credit Marsha with throwing the first object at the police.

Marsha’s activism spread way beyond Stonewall and lasted her entire life. Despite struggling with mental health issues, drug problems and spending most of her life effectively homeless, in addition to being an openly transgender woman of colour, she fought hard for her community. She co-founded GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera. She aimed to challenge societies ideas about LGBT people, and organised rallies and meetings across America. She even had to fight against discrimination within her own community, and spoke out against the prioritisation of white cis gay issues.

Drag performance was a central aspect of Marsha’s life, and she even toured the world performing with the drag troupe ‘Hot Peaches.’ Drag is still an important and vibrant part of LGBT culture, as shows such as Ru Paul’s drag race help to normalise gay issues –  although recent evidence proves that there are still transphobic attitudes within this community.

Marshaclose

In parts of America, sleeping with a member of the same sex was still illegal in many states until 2003. Homophobia and especially transphobia are still rife across the USA (not to mention the rest of the world). For many women, including Marsha, transphobia combined with barbaric racism is a deadly combination, and Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson river of her beloved New York in 1992. The police brushed it off as suicide, despite the protests of those who knew her and knew that she was not suicidal. She was only 46.

Today, trans women of colour are still at serious threat of discrimination, violence and murder, and the numbers are not declining;

“Among the 53 known transgender victims from 2013-2015, at least 46, or 87%, were transgender people of color.*”

Almost all were under the age of 39. According to the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), the average life expectancy of a trans woman in the Americas is thirty five years old. That makes Marsha’s life appear long and healthy.

I hope that the focus on Marsha P Johnson can serve to illuminate the appalling treatment of contemporary trans women; it is vital for us to know that this issue is still here, it’s still horrifying and at the moment it’s not going away. Protect trans people, question patriarchal notions of masculinity that feed the idea that being trans is just a man pretending to be a woman (and therefore a lesser creature). Let your boys wear what they want and access their emotions, and perhaps someday we will have a generation of men who do not see trans people as an insult to their own self esteem.

*http://assets2.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/HRC-AntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf

please read this and this!

Figure 6: Ida B Wells

IdaOverlooked: Ida B Wells (1862-1931) was a woman who refused to be silent. Born a slave in the American south, Ida went on to earn a college education and became a teacher.

Her vocal objections to the injustices done to black Americans began in 1887, when she was forcibly removed from the first class carriage of a train despite having the correct ticket. Ida subsequently bought a share of the ‘Free Speech and Headlight’ newspaper and began writing articles to further the cause of civil rights.

She continued to gain ground when three of her friends were lynched. Ida then investigated lynchings, and through a series of pamphlets, lectures and articles she challenged the myth of the black man raping the white woman that was often used to justify the lynchings. Mobs destroyed her office and threatened to kill her. Nevertheless, she persisted. She continued to spread her message, and even came to the UK to establish the British Anti Lynching Society in 1894.

She founded or was co-founder of many other societies, including the NAACP, the organisation whose work eventually led to the 1964 legislation banning racial discrimination. She also ran for senate and fought for women’s sufferage, at a time when many of the white suffragists were extremely racist and tried to further their cause by excluding black women.

The New York Times’ recent ‘Overlooked’ series of obituaries put it best:

“She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And as a former slave who stood less than five feet tall, she took on structural racism more than half a century before her strategies were repurposed, often without crediting her, during the 1960s civil rights movement.”

Thank goodness for Ida, whose work really advanced the causes of African Americans and whose actions and words were so ahead of her time. I think that reading about her for yourself is the best way to appreciate what an amazing woman she was:

You can read the New York Times article here.

Read more about her here.

Thank you for reading!!

 

Figure 5: Nellie Bly

Nellie.jpgUnderrated: Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922), Nellie Bly was a famous journalist who shot to fame with sensational journalism such as ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ and ‘Around the World in 72 Days.’ Through these reports she demonstrated her mental strength and determination, enduring extreme discomfort and harrowing conditions; not least in the ‘madhouse.’ But her efforts there were worthwhile, and led to social reform.

This is the work for which she is best remembered, but she continued to push for social reform for the rest of her life. Later in life she reported on women’s Suffrage and even became a war correspondent when she happened to be in Europe as WW1 broke out. It was during this time, while in Austria, that she became committed to helping poor women, children and orphans, and when she returned home she used her newspaper column to help find homes for abandoned children, and endevoured to provide childcare so that destitute women could work to feed their families. She worked so hard to help them that she made herself sick, and she died at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

Her most widely known legacy, of pioneering investigative journalism, is a wonderful one for her to have. But it’s a shame that most brief biographies say nothing at all of any of her work which exposed terrible conditions for workers or highlighting the struggles of the poor, even her work in war-torn Europe! Nellie Bly was sensationalist, but she was also sensational, and used her confident voice to expose cruelties done to others. What a wonderful model to follow.

Figure 4: Huda Shaarawi

Huda.jpgHuda Shaarawi (1879-1947) was an Egyptian feminist, whose activism helped to pave the way for a society which allowed women far more freedom than they had in the past.

Egyptian women at the time were subject to a harem system, which meant that women were made to be veiled and secluded from society, regardless of what religion they practiced. She worked to educate women, organising lectures which encouraged them to get out of their homes and opening a school for girls centred around academic rather than practical teaching. She was also involved in decrying British rule in Egypt after the first World War.

Huda is perhaps most famous for the act of publicly removing her veil in 1923, an act that was soon followed by other Egyptian women. Within a decade, most Egyptian women were choosing not to wear veils.

Huda continued to be an activist for the rest of her life until her death in 1947. She used her intelligence and strength to speak up for women, and to tell them that they have a choice; to wear what they want, to learn what they want, to live how they want. Huda continues to inspire Arab women to this day. I feel that Huda can fit into either ‘Underrated’ or ‘Overlooked’, as I had never heard of her before and I suspect many non-Arabs haven’t either.

My main source is this site, and another good article can be found here.

Figure 3: Truganini

TruganiniToday, on International Women’s Day, I have drawn a lady who, while overlooked outside of Australia, remains a topic of debate within the country. Trukanini/Truganani (c.1812-1876) Was a Tasmanian Aborigine. At sixteen years old, in an attempt to save her people from genocide inflicted by British colonisers, she worked as an interpreter for a man named Augustus Robinson to encourage native people to move to an island missionary. She believed this was their best chance at survival as many Aborigines, including her mother and partner were the victims of violence by colonisers, as well as the new diseases brought they brought across. In reality, Robinson’s promises came to nothing and he soon abandoned them when a better job came up.  Most of the people died on the journey and still more died on the island. They spent the rest of their lives under government supervision. Truganini ‘spent 20 years imprisoned, with other Aboriginal Tasmanians, on Flinders Island, and another 17 years in the Oyster Cove camp, south of Hobart.’*

Truganini lived into her sixties, seeing her people almost wiped out, and being treated as a scientific specimen as the supposed ‘last Tasmanian.’ She deeply feared what would happen to her body after she died, and this was justified, as after her death her body was put on public display at the Tasmanian Museum from 1904 to 1947, and for scientific viewings until the seventies. One hundred years after her death, the Palawa people, modern-day Aboriginal Tasmanians, were able to reclaim her remains, and she was finally put to rest.

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The cruel treatment of Truganini in life and to this day,  demonstrates the racist attitudes which shaped her life and the lives of Aborigine people.

‘Today they still face racist attitudes, and there are periodic incidents of violence towards them, particularly affecting those in police custody. Their generally poor living conditions mean that Aboriginal people have a far higher infant mortality rate and suicide rate and a lower life expectancy than the rest of the population, and they make up a disproportionate section of the prison population.’ **

Colonisers did their best to wipe out native populations, and I hope that white people, myself included, will not let the shame we feel at the behaviour of our ancestors and an alarming number of our contemporaries, prevent us from raising up the voices of cruelly treated native people across the globe.

You can see some of the photographs taken of Truganini here. A brilliant article about her is here .

* Quote is from australianmuseum.net.au and has written a brief summary of her life in a far more succinct way than I have!

** quoted from https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/aboriginals

 

Figure 2: Josephine Baker

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Hi there!

So it’s time for lady two, and this one fits into the underrated category! Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American singer and dancer who is most famous for that banana skirt.  But did you know she was also a spy?

Josephine (born Freda Josephine McDonald) grew up in terrible poverty and in segregation, working from the age of 8 to help provide for her family. From this background, she soon rose to stardom and was part of a touring dance company by the age of 16.

Baker moved to France in 1925, still a teenager, and it was in Paris that she really hit the big time as a solo performer. Performing exotic erotic dances, she excited crowds, most famously in the banana skirt, in the “Danse Sauvage,” benefiting from the French fascination with black people at this time. She became one of the best known and best paid performers in Europe at that time, and the first black woman ever to star in a motion picture in 1934.

It was this reputation that afforded her the trust of important Nazi officials when Paris was occupied during the Second World War. She worked for the French Resistance, smuggling secrets by writing on sheet music in invisible ink. At the end of the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military accolades.

In the 1960’s Baker was also an important activist; she flew from France in order to speak against segregation in the US, and was the only female speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, it was Josephine who was asked to take the lead of the Civil Rights Movement, but Baker declined (this role was taken up instead by Coretta Scott King).

There are plenty of articles out there discussing Josephine’s work as a spy and for human rights, and yet I imagine many people, like me, knew nothing about this amazing woman except that she wore a banana skirt. Josephine Baker deserves to be an icon for her performances, as well as her inspiring contributions to society. It was precisely her role as entertainer that made high ranking officers give up their state secrets, and she deserves to be remembered as a dramatic and impressive woman.

 

Again, massive thanks to The History Chicks for educating me on Josephine, and you can also learn about her in this episode of the Lost Boss Bitch podcast. I also loved this article from AnOther, which is worth a read if you’d like to find out more!

 

Women’s History Month: Figure 1

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Hello hello! It’s women’s history month!

This is the first of an undetermined number of portraits I’ll be doing of amazing women this month. I’m calling the project ‘Overlooked & Underrated,’ as the women I’m choosing fit into two categories.

Underrated is women you’ve heard of, but often only for their looks or fame. Think Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn: remembered for their appearances and style, rather than their considerable work for charitable causes. These women are often remembered for superficial reasons, when the truth is that they helped society tremendously with comparatively little recognition.

Overlooked will hopefully introduce you to women of history who you have never heard of. They worked hard and the affects of the work they did might still be felt today, but they have been forgotten or even deliberately excluded from the history books.

Today’s woman falls into the first category for me. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) was a British scientist who pioneered research in coal, DNA and viruses. Science at this time was almost exclusively the realm of men, but Rosalind refused to be put off, despite facing considerable sexism, especially by her colleague Maurice Wilkins. Her photograph of DNA led to the discovery of the double helix for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Due to her uncomfortable relationship with Wilkins, Franklin left the research team at King’s College in 1953. Her career was cut tragically short when at 37 she died of ovarian cancer.

 

I heard about her just a few days ago while listening to a recent episode of the In Our Time podcast from the BBC. As someone who has always had a fascination in women’s history I was really disappointed not to have heard of this woman, who really is the reason we now understand DNA. Not only this, but to hear the level of exclusion and sexism she faced from her male peers even as she pushed forward with her groundbreaking discoveries, is inspiring.

Discovering Rosalind has also led me to discover the Lost Boss Bitch podcast, which I’m really enjoying and has inspired a few more of the ‘Overlooked & Underrated’ women to come! I also always love listening to The History Chicks podcast, which also works to highlight impressive women of the past.

I hope you like today’s illustration, and keep an eye out for the next ones to come!

 

Belgium

I’ve been dreaming of going to Belgium for a while now. In all honesty, I fell in love with the idea of Belgium because I fell in love with its art; all it took was seeing the Arnolfini Portrait in real life and I was obsessed. I wrote my BA dissertation on the art of the Low Countries and I thought that would be the end of my love (how much can you love something when you’ve written 10,000 words about it?!) but instead, I learned that 10,000 words weren’t enough.

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Two weeks ago today I was in Ghent. The weather was awful, foggy and rainy and the wind was like a punch in the face… but I was delightfully happy. The city is beautiful and old and it felt as though it was bursting at the seams with history. I got to see the Lamb of God by Jan van Eyck, which I couldn’t stare at enough. I think if I lived in Ghent (and believe me, that is a tempting prospect) I would go and see it every other day. The lower panels on the interior side are currently replaced with replicas, as the real panels are being restored at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in the city. Being able to see the restoration process was also a highlight for me.

My art pilgrimage also lead to Bruges, which houses another van Eyck masterpiece as well as many other pieces of beautiful art from the Low Countries. I still find it tricky to put my finger on what exactly makes the paintings of this region so fascinating. Perhaps it’s something about the people; they so often seem to be holding onto a secret, and the calculated poise of the wealthy classes gives so little away; the total opposite to the far more popular art of the Italian Renaissance. I suppose this is the earliest European art which makes a convincing attempt to depict reality; suddenly there’s a sense of space created with the use of perspective instead of flat or even plain gold backgrounds. It’s also the first time we see real people; nobles and merchants, rather than purely religious scenes. It’s a window into a time which is entirely unfamiliar to us.

We stayed in Brussels, which is beautiful and interesting, but honestly was less exciting for me than Bruges and Ghent. In part this was because the city was destroyed in c. 1700 and therefore was entirely rebuilt since then, unlike Ghent which has barely been touched since the middle ages.

Unfortunately, the trip is also important to me as it marked the end of a relationship. These paintings were actually quite hard to paint, as they forced me to confront feelings which I would prefer to suppress. Looking at them now, however, I see them as full of hope for the future, and a willingness to focus on the very best of things.

It’s only been two weeks since I was in Ghent, and a lot has changed. Back home, the sun has come out today after the rain, and I feel the same. I hope you do, too.

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Snapshots from left to right: 1 (view from Hotel Queen Anne, Brussels) 2 (The bell tower in Ghent) 3 (Full Circle Coffee, Ghent) 4 (a church through the trees, Bruges) 5 (Palais de Justice, Brussels) 6 (a house in the main square, Ghent)

Gentleman s