Women have on the whole had a tough time throughout history, but in England in the mid to late 18th century, as the period between the two world wars, the shortage of men allowed women with talent to emerge into the public spotlight, albeit in socially acceptable fields.
This engraving by Richard Samuel published in 1777 and featured in the Ladies New and Polite Memorandum Book for 1778. Most of them have been largely forgotten, though they were highly respected at the time:
Angelica Kaufman – painter
Elizabeth Carter- classical scholar, author, poet, claimed to be the heir to Alexander Pope
Anne Letitia Barbaud – Poet, educationalist
Charlotte Lennox- novelist, poet, advocate of women’s rights
Catherine Macaulay – historian, political activist,
Elizabeth Griffith – novelist, playwright
Hannah More – author, playwright, educator, abolitionist
Elizabeth Montagu – ‘queen of the bluestockings’, advocate of women’s education and social advancement, patron, literary critic
Mrs Sheridan nee Elizabeth Lindley – soprano, wife of Richard Brindsley Sheridan,
A few that we know today are surprisingly missing: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson, Fanny Burney, Caroline Herschell, Mary Moser, Fanny Kemble, Sarah Siddons,
In 2002 this theme was repeated with John Gotto’s photomontage of 9 Female vice presidents of he British Academy. Why vice presidents?
In 1996 a colour print was produced by Derry Moore for Country Life of Modern Muses of Great Britain which featured
Tessa Blackstone – educationalist
Darcy Bussel – ballet dancer
Evelyn Glennie – percussionist
Sarah Hervey-Bathurst – interior decorator and ‘chatelaine’
Mary Elizabeth King horsewoman
Emma Kirby soprano
Emma Sergeant painter
Vivienne Westwood designer
Tracy Louise (Ward) Marchioness of Worcester actress & environmental campaigner
As this list was compiled by the magazine for the landowning elite, there is a slant towards the elite, which was noted when the image was feature d on the cover of The Independent at the time.
But this got me thinking. How far have we come in over 2 centuries that successful women are still being held up as exceptional? And the notion of muses is a rather passive one, often seen as inspiring the more active men. Still, I was trying to think of a list of truly exceptional modern British Women. It may be me, but one big shift seems to be from the literary-heavy list of the original, to more entertainers, especially musicians.
Emma Thompson – actress, screenwriter
PJ Harvey musician, singer songwriter, performance artist
Cleo Laine – jazz singer/interpreter
J K Rowling – author entrepreneur
Dr Susan Greenfield- neurologist, promoter of science
Vanessa Redgrave – actress, campaigner
Tilda Swinton – actress, performance artist, icon
Eliza Carthy punk and folk musician, singer
Vivienne Westwood – fashion designer, campaigner
Who would you put on a list of 9 outstanding women? Or do you object to the notion of such a list, like awards ceremonies?