On This Day She is the new book from Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland – a page-a-day history book featuring 366 women who have earned a place in history, but haven’t always got it. You can watch a recent event in which the three of us talked about the book and some of the women in it, here.
History is not just ‘what happened in the past.’ It is the story of what happened in the past. Our existing stories need an overhaul, because women have not been fairly represented in them. There are plenty of women who should have taken their place in any accounts of great deeds and cultural change. If they don’t appear in those accounts, that is not because they weren’t there.
Artists and philosophers are downplayed as the ‘muses’ of men for whom they were actually peers – like Leonor Fini or Emilie du Chatelet. World-leading scientists or artists are dismissed as ‘amateurs’ when they simply could not qualify as professionals. Historical women are written off as legends, when contemporary men are hailed as founding fathers on equally fragile evidence. Some pioneers were treated as curiosities – the UK’s first black policewoman, Fay Sislin Allen or the ‘Flying Housewife’ Fanny Blankers-Koen who won four Olympic gold medals whilst pregnant. Some women have been beyond the imagination of a historian who could not believe in female admirals, emperors or explorers – especially not if they were African or Chinese.
Many of these women were unknown to us before we began our research – like Alice Guy-Blache, a towering figure of the early film industry who has been entirely displaced in movie history by her male contemporaries. Some lived a life which put them outside the pale because of their sexuality or gender – the ‘two-spirit’ American chief who lived a fluid-gendered life with four wives, the unabashed Victorian lesbian Anne Lister, the world-beating athlete Babe Zaharias who shared a home with male and female partners. Some women made local changes or campaigned for social reform in a way that had a wider impact – not just suffragettes, but activists who improved public bathing facilities, or safety for trawler crews. Of course, equality is not always uplifting or celebratory. Women may have been freedom fighters and courageous spies, but they have also been mass murderers, terrorists, dictaros or assassins.
Our book brings you 366 people who did amazing, unsettling or unorthodox things, and who deserve to be remembered, every day of the year. Follow our Twitter account @OnThisDayShe for a bitesize reminder every day – and buy our book here.