By Flora Doble
Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta famously declared that in the history of the world “his story is told, hers isn’t” and this is no doubt correct. Traditional recordings of history have tended to minimise, ignore and rewrite the contributions, presence and significance of women in historical, social and political narratives. This means that there are unfortunately many incredible women whose stories have been lost to history in favour of a man’s narrative. Read on to discover five works that give the forgotten women of history (or should I say herstory) a chance to shine.
The Heroides by ancient Roman poet Ovid is a collection of fifteen epistolary poems presented as though written by a selection of Greek and Roman mythological women. The women write letters to their lovers, who have in some way mistreated or abused them: Dido writes to Aeneas; Ariadne writes to Theseus; Medea writes to Jason.
The poems are highly sympathetic to the women’s plight and have struck scholars by how remarkably modern they appear. The poems are also among the few classical depictions of heterosexual love from the female perspective and though written by a man, also constitute one of the few examples of women’s voices in the ancient world. The Heroides, therefore, set a powerful precedence for giving women behind the scenes a platform to tell their side of the story.
The 2016 biographical drama film Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, shines a spotlight on the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Loosely based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterley of the same name, Hidden Figures follows the incredible lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in the late Jim Crow era.
Though the women of the film said that they did not personally experience racial segregation while working at NASA, Hidden Figures provides a powerful insight into working life before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination. We see Johnson being forced to walk half a mile to use the ‘coloured’ bathroom and Vaughan’s struggle to achieve a promotion due to the colour of her skin.
Hidden Figures puts black women at the centre of a stage often dominated by white men, such as Neil Armstrong, and has been used by non-profit organisations to encourage a new generation of women to consider STEM careers. Free screenings were also organised across the USA for Black History Month and the film even inspired Lego to release a Women of Nasa playset.
Johnson’s calculations of orbital mechanics were integral to the success of USA spaceflights and resulted in her receiving the illustrious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Jackson was NASA’s first black female engineer and Vaughan became the first black woman to supervise a group of staff at the Langley Research Centre in Virginia. Despite these achievements, Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson are not household names and their stories have been lost in history. Hidden Figures is a fantastic attempt at rectifying this loss and reminds us of just how many stories are waiting to be discovered.
The rhyme “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” is often used to crudely summarise the lives (and deaths) of the seven wives of Henry VIII, but the new West End musical Six wants to transform their legacy. The brainchild of Cambridge graduates Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six is a modern retelling of the lives of Henry VIII’s seven wives, teeming with jazzy musical numbers and punny historical references (“Come on ladies, let’s get in Reformation!” being one of the best). Henry himself does not appear in the musical, ensuring that the attention is kept firmly on the queens throughout. The famous (ex) wives are brought alive in Six and the diverse cast gives each queen a unique personality, style and voice.
Six highlights the incredible personal achievements of Henry’s wives which are all too often neglected in favour of focusing on the King’s dramatic love life. For example, Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon was a great proponent of female education and his final wife Catherine Parr campaigned for female emancipation. The queens insist that this is their story rather than their respective marriages to Henry. The finale song however reminds us of how easily these amazing women can fade into obscurity again as the queens count down the minutes for which they will be ‘six’ instead of ‘one word in a stupid rhyme’. Six brings these women together as queens who deserve to be remembered as individuals rather than just an accessory to one of England’s most famous monarchs.
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel
On a more morbid note, Iain Bell’s new opera Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel puts the victims of Jack the Ripper’s notorious murders centre stage, rather than the killer himself. Despite the fact his identity remains a mystery, Jack the Ripper is one of the world’s most famous serial killers of all time, while his victims – Mary Kelly, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes – have faded into obscurity and their identities defined by their brutal deaths. Much like Six omitting the character of Henry VIII, Jack the Ripper never appears on stage during Bell’s opera and is instead personified by ‘the darkness’ to make sure focus remains on the female victims. It is all too common for victims of violent crime to be forgotten, while their perpetuators survive into posterity, so Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel does an important service in providing these female victims with a(n) (operatic) voice.
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel also explores working class Victorian life more generally. Many impoverished women of the time were forced to undertake sex work as a means of survival, which often put them at the mercy of their clients. Bell’s opera is thus not just the story of Jack the Ripper’s five canonical victims but also of all women who were forced to live on the terrifying streets of Victorian London.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
On a similarly wicked note, the 2019 biographical crime thriller film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile directed by Joe Berlinger is the newest retelling of the life of the American serial killer Ted Bundy, who murdered at least 30 women in the 1970s. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile attempts something new however, as it is based on the memoirs of Ted Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, rather than a simple recreation of Bundy’s brutal murders.
The film is told from Kloepfer’s perspective, showing Bundy as a loving and doting boyfriend. Kloepfer struggled throughout her life to reconcile her image of Bundy with his violent actions and turned to alcoholism to cope before vanishing from the public eye nearly 40 years ago. The film has sparked debate about the extent to which it romanticises Bundy, especially as teen heartthrob Zac Efron plays the infamous murderer. However, there are no scenes of violence in the film until the very end, when Kloepfer discovers Bundy’s horrific double life. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is not a perfect portrayal of female victimhood at the hand at male violence, however, it does attempt to give a more nuanced story that shows more than just the male perspective.