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Women in History

Having researched, written and launched the book I am now in the middle of what is apparently the author’s main job – promoting the thing. For me this mostly entails giving a number of talks, including a few for Waterstones bookshops where I speak as part of a panel talking about ‘Women in History’. Inevitably the British historian and TV broadcaster David Starkey comes in for some short sharp critisim during the intro to these events, as earlier this year he very publicly took to task what he called ‘feminised history’, claiming that ‘if you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players and to pretend anything else is to falsify’. Thank you David Starkey, and that will be the same Starkey who is the author of ‘Elizabeth: Apprenticeship’, ‘Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne’ and ‘Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII’…

Eglantyne out of the history books since 1967

This has made me question why it is that there has not been another biography of Eglantyne since 1967 when the wonderfully titled ‘Rebel Daughter of a Country House’ was published. Partly I guess Eglantyne has just not fitted well with academic and broadcasting trends. She is clearly not a ‘great man’ of the type so favoured by David Starkey, but neither is she an obvious choice for the main critics of this narrow approach. As a representative of the priviledged elite she might not appeal to Marxist historians for example, and feminist historians researching the hidden history of women in the private and public spheres might also not be drawn to a woman whose public vocation was focused around children.

Female pioneers have often exploited maternal rhetoric to promote their own causes

Interestingly, notions of femininity and in particular motherhood have not only historically been used to contain women’s interests and demands, but have also offered women opportunities for social action. Many female social pioneers more famous than Eglantyne exploited maternal rhetoric to promote their causes. Even Florence Nightingale, not an obviously maternal woman, referred to the soldiers of the Crimea as her sons; once writing for example ‘oh my poor men: I am a bad mother to come home and leave you in your Crimean graves’. How much Nightingale was motivated by frustrated maternal impulse, and how much she was exploiting the loaded language of maternalism, is debatable. Interestingly though, most British domestic children’s charities were established by rather sentimental – could we say maternal – men; including the Foundling Hospital, Barnardos, NCH, the Children’s Society, and the NSPCC, while most high achieving female social activists seemed to focus on anything else from prison to hospital reform.

Eglantyne was not herself beyond using emotive calls to women, mothers and others, to promote Save the Children, but privately she made her feelings quite clear. ‘I suppose it is a judgement on me, for not caring about children, that I am made to talk all day long about the universal love of humanity towards them’ she wrote to a friend after launching the Fund in 1919! Eglantyne was not motivated by maternal or overtly sentimental feeling towards individual children, but by a passionate humanitarian impulse to help children as people, and as the next generation of citizens, irrespective or gender, race, faith or anything else. Her achievement in putting the welfare and human rights of the world’s children on the international agenda is powerful testament to this humanitarian spirit, and it is this complexity and all inclusive humanity that makes her story both so hugely important, and so very interesting. This is not ‘feminised history’, this is social history at its best!

PS – A good third of my talks so far are at regional Save the Children events, where it is wonderful to meet so many volunteers. Just let me know if you would like me to come and talk at one of your events… I will if I possibly can.

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