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Book Review
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Women in history: Undoing the ‘Matilda Effect’

Author Kate Mosse chronicles the untold stories of lives that mattered.

NBR columnist Nevil Gibson speaks with Fiona Rotherham.

Nevil Gibson Sun, 06 Nov 2022

Judgments on the costs and benefits of the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 are still a long way from finality.

The Government is refusing to decide on a royal commission of inquiry, fearful it will be largely negative. An independent review in Australia, funded by several foundations, had politicians in the most extreme lockdown states defending their decisions.

These included border closures, rigid quarantines, and the longest lockdown in the world – 262 days, or nearly nine months, in Melbourne.

Politicians said they made their decisions to protect lives. The hard-nosed analysis in the 97-page Fault Lines review found otherwise.

“For children and parents (particularly women), we failed to get the balance right between protecting health and imposing long-term costs on education, mental health, the economy, and workforce outcomes,” it said.

“Rules were too often formulated and enforced in ways that lacked fairness and compassion. Such overreach undermined public trust and confidence in the institutions that are vital to effective crisis response.”

English bestselling novelist Kate Mosse.

English writer Kate Mosse no doubt spoke for many when she said of the January 2021 lockdown: “There seemed no end in sight – a rising death toll, fear, such loss and grief, incompetent and dishonest political leadership…”

That judgment may be too harsh. The fictional TV miniseries This England depicted well-meaning confusion among decision-makers. But hypocritical breaches of the rules eventually brought down Boris Johnson.

Lockdown projects

Mosse was among many who used the enforced home detention of the lockdowns for a special project. Hers was to launch a worldwide campaign to identify women from history who should be celebrated or better known. She also sought an answer to the question: why are women ignored in history?

Her starting point was her great-grandmother, Lily Watson (1849-1932), a highly educated daughter of a Baptist church leader, familiar with five foreign languages, educated in Edinburgh, went on walking holidays in Switzerland and Austria, and was knowledgeable about painting and music.

She brought up six children, including three boys with haemophilia (one of whom died at 12), while also being a novelist, poet, lifelong contributor to The Girl’s Own Paper, community leader, and much else.

Except, when Mosse came to research Lily’s life, she found little documentation of her existence. The books were long out of print and, effectively, she had been ‘erased’ from history.

Trove of letters

That changed when Mosse found a trove of letters that were written almost daily between Lily and her husband, a London solicitor. However, they shed little on her public life and contained no references to major world events of the time, which covered the Victorian and Edwardian periods up to the 1930s Depression.

Mosse tells Lily’s story chronologically as the ‘spine’ of Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How women (also) built the world. It comprises potted biographies of more than a thousand women, most well-known but some who will be unfamiliar for most readers.

While Mosse’s great-grandmother’s life was not exceptional for women of her class, it is a stretch to say she had been deliberately erased from history because of the ‘Matilda Effect,’ a term first used to describe how the achievement of female scientists were attributed to male bosses. It is also used to accuse men of claiming all the credit for social and economic progress.

Looking back from the vantage of modern feminism, Mosse makes this surprising observation: “Lily’s primary definition of herself was as a wife, a mother, a Christian – not a woman.”

This cannot be applied to Mosse’s own brilliant career – a degree at Oxford, a rapid rise in London’s publishing industry, and her success as writer of bestselling historical fiction. Her books have sold more than five million copies in 42 languages.

Carcassonne in southwest France features in Kate Mosse’s novels.

She says her ‘overnight fame’ occurred at 45 with the publication of Labyrinth (2005), the first of a trilogy and set in southwest France during the 13th century Crusades. The inspiration for the third volume, Citadel (2012), came from a plinth in Carcassonne that names all the men and “two unknown women” executed by the Nazis in 1944 for an act of resistance.

Erasure from history of any exceptional women is unlikely in today’s world. Women are the leading buyers of fiction and biographies of women are more popular than those about men, both famous and infamous.

Wikipedia entries

But the biggest reason is Wikipedia, which contains an entry for Lily’s daughter Winifred (Winnie), an author of more than 60 romance novels under the pen name Pamela Wynne (1879-1959). There is no listing for Lily herself.

I checked all the New Zealand and Polynesian women named in Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries for their achievements in literature, politics, botany, medicine, aviation, and suffrage. All have entries in Wikipedia.

Incidentally, Wikipedia clarifies Mosse’s listing of Matiu Rātana as the first wahine MP. She was, in fact, Iriaka Te Rio and married Matiu Rātana, who was an MP until his death in 1949. She succeeded him and remained in Parliament for another 20 years.

The entry for Whakaotirangi describes her as the world’s first domestic gardener during the Polynesian migrations, arriving in Aotearoa about 1350. “She described the techniques she used to plant, grow, and store seeds, making it possible for her people to settle in one place rather than having to keep moving when natural food sources ran out.”

No book of 400-odd pages can do justice to all the exceptional women in history, so Mosse had to be selective. She groups them into chapters for writers, educators, lawyers, warriors, pirates, scientists, physicians, engineers, and so on. The bibliography runs to 16 pages, though it doesn’t include local examples such as The Book of New Zealand Women (1991). Online biographies have now become the go-to source for students and scholars.

The statue of Margaret Cruickshank is unveiled at Waimate in 1923.

New Zealand’s first registered female doctor, Margaret Cruikshank – who died in 1918 during the ’flu pandemic – received a rare honour when the grateful citizens of Waimate erected a statue of her in 1923.  The event was attended by Dr Emily Siedeberg, Otago School of Medicine’s first woman graduate, also listed by Mosse.

General readers will find plenty to dip and out of these topic-based chapters, which include stories of bravery, conviction, and courage. Teenage warrior and martyr Joan of Arc is listed with parallel figures from Africa, the Americas, Armenia, Spain, India, and Tibet. Similarly, New Zealand’s suffragists, civil and land rights activists also have their equivalents in other countries.

The work of correspondents, photographers, and behind-enemy-lines secret agents in many theatres of war are recognised. For some artists, fame came after their deaths. An example is Frida Kahlo, the Mexican who wasn’t ‘discovered’ until the 1970s and whose work is on display in Auckland.

Austrian-born Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr’s invention of radio guidance for torpedoes during World War II, leading to Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi, has received much publicity. But I didn’t know about Josephine Garis-Cochrane, who patented the first dishwashing machine in 1886, or Eunice Newton Foote, who discovered the ‘greenhouse effect’ in 1856.

Another interesting tidbit is that pioneering computer scientist Mary Berners-Lee (1924-2017) was the mother of Tim, inventor of the worldwide web.

Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How women (also) built the world, by Kate Mosse (Mantle/Pan Macmillan).

Nevil Gibson is a former editor at large for NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.   

This is supplied content and not paid for by NBR.  

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Women in history: Undoing the ‘Matilda Effect’
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