A rekindled love for old movie classics took me to watch ‘Craig’s Wife’, a 1936 adaptation of a popular play by George Kelly, directed by Dorothy Arzner. Modern film critics have always interpreted this film as an indictment of a society that limits women solely to domestic roles. The film tried to feature a woman who is steadfast in her beliefs about her role in a marriage. Arzner was the only woman directing feature-length studio films in Hollywood during the 1930s. Her films offered independent and strong-willed female protagonists whose decisions reflected a conflict with stereotypes.
Thanks to an increasingly inter-connected world and social media, the observation of Women’s History month in March is not just restricted to the United States of America. World over, efforts are under way to celebrate the almost-forgotten women of substance. It’s time we honoured this indispensable heritage so that the world does not forget Arzner and many such phenomenal women.
Leaving a Mark
Women, world over, have left a mark. Some have changed the course of history and some have influenced small yet significant spheres of life. Often, women are unsung and their contributions go unnoticed. Only in the past century, however, concerted efforts have been made to document women’s contributions in history books. Let’s turn the spotlight on a few such women who died decades ago but are still alive in the legacy they left behind.
Nangeli lived in the early 19th century in Kerala when the princely State of Travancore witnessed the worst form of caste-based atrocities. To reinforce the caste structure, a ‘Breast tax’ was imposed by the King. Women from the lower echelons of society were denied the right to cover their breasts and were taxed ruthlessly if they did. Nangeli was an Ezhava. Her community was required to pay the tax to cover the chest of their women. In an act of selfless sacrifice, she cut her breasts off in protest when the tax inspector approached, eventually forcing the King to roll back the breast tax. Even today, her village is called as Mulachhipuram (The land of the woman with breasts) to remind the generations of her valiant act.
Yang Guifei (719-756) was known as one of the four beauties of ancient China, a beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. Yang hugely influenced the cultural legacy of China. A long poem, Chang hen ge (Song of Everlasting Sorrow) written by Bai Juyi became quite popular in Japan and served as a source of inspiration for the classical novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, often regarded as the first novel. At a time when women neither wrote history nor became a part of it, Ban Zhao (AD 45) wrote Han Shu (Book of Han), one of the best-known histories ever written and became a model for all future dynastic histories in China.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was the wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. During the first war of India’s independence in 1857, as the acting regent of the State of Awadh, she led the native resistance to British control. One of the most significant colonial wars of the 19th century, the Great Mutiny united Hindus and Muslims in ways that would never happen again. She was the only leader never to surrender to the British and maintained her opposition through 20 years of exile in Nepal.
Ahead of Times
The first notable woman mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, became the recognised head of the Neo-Platonist school of philosophy at Alexandria in 400 AD. She symbolised rationalism, which at that time in western history was largely identified with paganism, leaving her in a precarious situation. She was scholarly, scientific, less mystical and intransigent. Her statement “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better, than not to think at all” was way ahead of her times.
A notable feature of the freedom struggle in Bengal was the participation of women. Matangini Hazra, fondly remembered as ‘Gandhi Buri’ (Bengali for old-lady Gandhi) was a revolutionary who was instrumental in mobilising women for the Quit India movement. She died a valorous death chanting ‘Vande Mataram’ till the last breath.
Lord Byron was a widely-read and influential British poet. But not many are aware of his lesser known daughter Augusta Ada King. She collaborated with British inventor Charles Babbage to invent the Analytical Engine, an archetype of the modern digital computer. The technology of their time was not capable of translating her ideas into practical use but the Analytical Engine had many features of a modern computer. Historians regard her as the first computer programmer.
Luce Irigaray, a French psycho-analyst was the first woman to challenge the Freudian psychology of women. Titled as ‘Speculum of the other woman”, she argued in her doctoral thesis (which eventually led to her dismissal from the University of Paris in 1974) that history and culture are written in patriarchal language, exclude women’s needs and desires and that the thinking of Sigmund Freud was based in misogyny.
I am grievously conscious of the fact that this limited space cannot do justice to the numerous unsung women who made a difference world over. One of the principal pursuits of an empowered woman is a living concern for the shape of the future generations. If we cannot guard the legacies of the past, we may not be able to shape a society of significance for the future. We must teach our children about the women and their untold contributions. Time to wake up from the forced amnesia!
(The author is Superintendent of Police, Mahabubnagar District)