Unsung women emerge from the footnotes of history

Movement to restore ‘lost’ historical figures to prominence gathers pace with new investigations and events

The search for a gifted gardener cheated of a scholarship with the Royal Horticultural Society in 1898 because she was female was under way this weekend – just one of a number of efforts to rescue notable women from the footnotes of history.

The greenfingered “Miss Harrison” won a chance to train at the society in Chiswick by gaining top marks in its annual exam, but was blocked by its head, the Rev William Wilks. “Only males being allowed at Chiswick, it was never contemplated that a female might claim the scholarship,” he had ruled. The society discovered the story while sifting through its archives and is trying to discover more about her fate. “Did she carry on fighting – did she carry on into horticulture and make a living that way?” Fiona Davison, from the RHS archives, told the BBC. “I’m really curious to know: what happened to Miss Harrison?”

This weekend the unsung voices of other groundbreaking women are being heard for the first time at London’s Leadenhall market – the result of painstaking research. The words of Mary Frith (“Moll Cutpurse”), the 17th-century pickpocket, and Hester Pinney, an 18th-century businesswoman, will be brought together today for an audio performance called City of Women. Alongside, will be the thoughts of forgotten suffragettes, abused servants and fearless financiers.

Writer Veronica Horwell, whose work forms the basis of the show, followed a chain of footnote references to find, among others, the lost story of Valerie Thompson. From lowly beginnings, Thompson rose to become a pioneering woman in the City of London. “If you’re trading fruit and veg, they’re perishable goods, and if you don’t sell them today you could lose everything, that’s how I learned to assess risk,” she said.

Horwell tracked Thompson’s history to find she began as a typist at 15 and then sped her way up to a role as the first female foreign exchange trader.

Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, the notorious 17th century pickpocket.
Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, the notorious 17th century pickpocket. Photograph: Getty Images

All the verbatim texts in the performance were unearthed over several months by Horwell, who trawled hundreds of textbooks in London’s Guildhall Library. She estimates that 97.9% of its volumes are about men. “There’s one shelf only in the library on the subject of women, mostly written by men, and a third of that was about sex and sex work,” she said.

Leadenhall, the 14th-century market place in the City of London, was chosen as the venue for the musical and literary event because it was one of the first public spaces where women were seen to work. Female porters were regarded as quite as tough as men, often carrying a whole sheep or half a side of beef.

“I want people to realise that women have always been so active and involved in society at all levels,” said Horwell. “They were doing all sorts of jobs across the spectrum from sheer heavy-duty work, without any mechanical aids, to revolutionary humanitarian work and leading entrepreneurial roles.”

On the single library shelf devoted to women Horwell found the testimony of Eleanor Mather, a servant, inside the recent scholarly work City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order. Her deposition reads: “My Master beat my Mistress with fury and did her such mischief she was made to take to her bed for a fortnight, then attempted my chastity. But I spat in his face, and asked if he that had almost murdered my mistress would now wrong me? For he had done so to other maids who departed before me.”

This autumn sees the publication of further books about historical heroines. Next week Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman brings out Bloody Brilliant Women, her selection of forgotten, inspirational figures. It includes engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice Shilling, who fixed a dangerous flaw in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine used in second world war Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and journalist Dorothy Lawrence, who posed as a man to become a soldier in the first world war. The book has won early support from Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister. “For far too long, women’s achievements have been airbrushed out of history ... I just wish this book had been written when I was growing up,” Sturgeon said.

This month Jenni Murray, presenter of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, is bringing out a paperback version of her 2017 book A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection, which picks out Artimesia Gentileschi, the Italian painter, and Wangari Maathai, the Nobel peace prize laureate.


Vanessa Thorpe, Observer arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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