It is wonderful to celebrate the amazing achievements of extraordinary women on International Women’s Day. I’m very pleased to have heard so many female composers featured on radio 3 this morning, for example. And the newspapers are full of impressive profiles of women who have defied the odds, challenged misogyny or battled against fearsome prejudice. I am fascinated to read those stories. They are inspiring and valuable. They can also be a little intimidating and seem far removed from ordinary life.
I’d like to celebrate women who achieve extraordinary things every ordinary day. I was going to name some who I have found particularly inspiring, but I decided that might be either embarrassing to those I named or hurtful to those I leave out. So, I won’t. I’m going to start with carers, as I have quite a bit of first-hand experience at present of those who work in this field. There is so much criticism in the press about the care sector, but these women, and they are often women in my experience, are among the kindest and least complaining people you could meet. They cater for people’s most basic needs with professional kindness so that the person being helped can maintain as much dignity as possible given the circumstances. Emptying commodes, dressing wounds, showering frail bodies and administering food or medicine is hardly glamorous work but it is vital and I admire their dedication. They make people’s lives better even if they cannot cure the ills. If I have a plea, it is to recognise this vital work that will never cease to be needed.
There are women in every walk of life who achieve little miracles daily – nurses, police officers, firewomen, teachers, classroom assistants. Then there are those who volunteer, running everything and anything, from sports clubs to food banks. The Women’s Institute, born in the second summer of the First World War, is one enormous body of talent and generosity whose work I found so inspiring I wrote a book about their work in the Second World War. The spirit that helped over a quarter of a million members to keep the countryside ticking in those difficult years embodies everything I admire about women of that time. To hell with red-tape and wartime bureaucracy, they got on with making jam, collecting herbs for medicine, knitting millions of items for the Home Guard, the Merchant Marine and evacuees. And they sang and smiled their way through it.
Archivists and librarians are people I admire enormously. They are often women who work behind the scenes safe-guarding history and thus the national memory. I have worked in archives all over the world and often the incredible collections they protect are underappreciated by the people whose histories are being preserved. Those of you who read my biography of Audrey Withers will know that she destroyed the entire Vogue archive in February 1942. Why did she do it? It was an act of fervent patriotism, urged on by her star photographer, Cecil Beaton, for paper salvage to help the war effort. What a loss, though, to future generations. She believed she was doing the right thing at that moment in history, and one cannot criticise her motives, but it does point to the value of original archive material to the memory of the nation. Material, I might add, that celebrated women far more than men.
My current project, a biography of British Vogue, is full of stories about inspirational women from every decade of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as some men. The magazine may be about fashion on one level but it is a celebration of the achievements of women on so many others. Over the last 105 years Vogue has covered every topic of interest to women of any given era. I find it life-affirming and hugely impressive to think about the achievements of women from every walk of life.
Much has been made recently of the value of friendship. It is something that is now understood to help to encourage healthier living and even a longer life. Studies in Australia established that women who have close female friendships are less likely to suffer from multiple serious conditions in later life. 7,700 women were tracked over twenty years to see whether they went on to contract diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression and half a dozen other serious conditions. ‘Researchers found that women who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing multiple conditions compared with those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction.’ I raise a toast to the women I row with four or five mornings a week in Oxford. We were out today despite the snow and we loved it. If it helps us to stay healthier longer, well that’s just a wonderful side effect.
So yes to celebrating International Women's Day on 8 March but I want to celebrate women every day of the year.
Julie’s Previous Blogs
When the Duke of Edinburgh’s death was announced this morning, I found myself recalling a wonderful afternoon in Paris in 1992 when I had to show him around an exhibition. I was working for the Henry Moore Foundation at the time, and we were staging a huge show of his largest sculptures in the Jardins […]
Two months from now, on 15 May 2021, the Royal British Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born out of the ashes of the First World War, the Legion was the amalgamation of several ex-Services organisations, all fighting on behalf of those wounded, disabled, widowed or orphaned by war. Over the last century the Legion […]
Sandy aged 21 photographed for the Oxford University 1923 Blue Boat 96 years ago, today, 8th June 1924, my great uncle stepped into the pages of history. He was the nd’Irvine of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all times, the junior climbing partner of the great George Mallory. From the moment of their disappearance, somewhere […]
Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – […]
Several people have asked me what Audrey Withers’ reaction to the current crisis would have been. I have thought about it a lot and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare 1940 and 2020. At the beginning of the Second World War the government closed down the country. It banned all […]
There is a moment in a book’s life when it is no longer the personal, much-loved friend it was during research, writing and editing. This is when it goes to print and the powerful machine of publicity grinds into action. It might seem strange to express a book’s publication thus but it is something I […]
The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and […]
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I spent a week in July teaching narrative non-fiction to a group of writers in Devon. It was a memorable week, not least because the weather was perfect and the Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton is truly a magical spot. My fellow tutor and travel writer, Rory MacLean, enchanted us with his stories from his […]
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I celebrate women every day of my writing life. I do it quietly and with respect, humour and awe. I write about ordinary women who do extraordinary things when faced with intractable problems or simply difficult situations. So while I am thrilled with all the fuss being made about International Women’s Day in this significant […]
One of the great joys of being a writer is having the luxury to spend time playing with English. It is a magnificent language – rich, colourful, brimming with borrowed words from all over the linguistic world and infinitely versatile. It can also be exceptionally precise, although it does not have a word for my […]
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