Friday, 28 April 2017

Recommend: Kick-ass women from history

For this week's "Recommend" post we’re asking you to tell us your favorite kick-ass women from history. Understand that brief however you like (there’s a range of interpretations below), and tell us about these figures—why they’re “kick-ass,” why they mean something to you, a story from their lives… inspire us. To get us going, we asked a few authors, editors and other friends of TFF for their suggestions:

Maria Grech Ganado (profile; interview)

A German abbess of a Benedictine monastery, medieval mystic, philosopher, writer, poet, hagiographer, scientific natural historian. And, before the term was invented, a feminist. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) established for herself a female identity never recorded before in her exclusively patriarchal historical context—the Church.

Preaching was forbidden women, but Pope Eugene III requested she travel widely to preach the visionary theology she wrote 3 volumes of, was consulted by both religious and social personages, invented a new language, composed the first musical morality play, Ordo Virtutum. Her liturgical chants still enchant many, including me, and her natural medicine influenced that of the New Movement.

Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman’—Hildegard’s writing exalts woman and God’s creation of beauty, recommends beer to give her nuns rosy cheeks. She refers openly to the joys of sex, scorning concepts of woman’s ‘uncleanness’. She challenged authority, obviously male, and got her way. I suspect her insistence that she was an unlearned member of the weaker sex was tactical rather than humble, crucial at the time to ensure her power. A woman after my own heart.

Regina de Búrca (twitter; TFF)

Sometimes when life, neoliberalism and/or bigotry brings me down, I like to remind myself of my kick-ass female ancestors to help me feel stronger. As with all family trees, some ancestors are more colourful than others, and I have to say I'm pretty proud to have the blood of Granuaile, the Pirate Queen of Connacht, Ireland, running through my veins. Born around 1530, legend has it that as a child she cut off all her hair to disguise herself as a boy so she could join her father on a trading mission. He had refused to take her as at that time it was considered bad luck to have women on board ships. This is the source of her name Gráinne Mhaol (or bald Gráinne), anglicised as Granuaile.

Salic Law forbade women to become leaders, however this did not deter Granuaile from becoming chieftain of the O’Malley clan, leading an army of 200 men and being captain of a fleet of ships. Famous for leading an army against the English, by 1593, she had a catalogue of treasonous activities levelled against her by the English Court. This didn’t stop her from travelling to Greenwich Palace to negotiate successfully with Queen Elizabeth I for the release of her two sons and half-brother.

For me, Granuaile personifies tearing down limitations imposed by gender and societal expectations, and her memory inspires me never to take no for an answer.

Djibril al-Ayad (TFF)

My candidate for kick-ass woman from history is, Malahayati (sometimes also known in Indonesian as Keumalahayati), the late sixteenth-century Sumatran admiral and stateswoman under the Sultan of Aceh. After graduating from Islamic and then military schools, and a successful career as a naval commander leading to her appointment as first admiral of the growing Aceh navy, the historical record recounts several major naval victories under her command, including over the Dutch colonial and piratical expeditions in 1599 and 1601, but it is telling that as well as a formidable commander, she was trusted with international diplomacy and financial negotiation as well, including a trade agreement with Elizabeth I of England (who joined the Dutch in choosing to treaty rather than attempt war against the well-defended Aceh Sultanate). Legend also has it that Malahayati, herself the widow of a naval commander, in the 1580s had recruited a force of between 1,000 and 2,000 war widows to serve in her navy, driven by vengeance against the Portuguese conquerors of Malacca, on the reasoning that these widows would be a highly motivated military force. So maybe I cheated, there are actually 2,000 kick-ass women from history in my story!

Omi Wilde (story; story)

Hide Hyodo photograph, [ca. 1935].
City of Richmond Archives and
Richmond Retired Teachers Association,
photograph # 2014 6 5.
One of my favourite kickass women from history, Hide Hyodo Shimizu, was born in Vancouver—the same town I was!—in 1908, just one year after white-Canadians targeted Japanese-Canadians in violent race riots, and throughout her lifetime she battled oppression and prejudice. At eighteen she became the first Japanese-Canadian to hold a teacher’s certificate. In her twenties she was part of a Japanese-Canadian delegation that petitioned the Canadian government for voting rights, which they were denied. Three years later, the start of World War II increased government-sanctioned oppression to even more shameful levels, including forcing Japanese-Canadians to register with the police and the Canadian government’s theft of Japanese-Canadian citizens’ homes and belongings. After the majority of Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes along the BC coast, Hide continued to work as a public school teacher but dedicated her weekends and evenings to providing an education to the children imprisoned in the internment camp in Hastings Park, Vancouver—all while unpaid, preparing for her own imprisonment, and working around a restrictive curfew. Later, when she and the majority of Japanese-Canadians had been further removed to internment camps in Interior BC, she traveled from camp to camp planning primary school curriculum and training highschool students to teach the younger children. After the war, still prohibited from returning home to coastal BC, Hide settled in Ontario and continued to be a dynamic activist and educator. In the 1980’s and 90’s she was honoured in many ways, including being awarded the Order of Canada, but I think she’d be most pleased by the multiple scholarships named for her. To explore and learn more about Hide and Nikkei history, the website nikkeistories.com is an awesome resource.

Your turn! Please give us your recommendations of kick-ass women from history in the comments.

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