Why I wanted to investigate the lives of rebel women of the past
“Every rebel heart will be uplifted by the lives of these women; they broke with convention, rocked boats and dared to do the unexpected. This book sends the message loudly ‘yes you can’ and should be read by everyone putting their own toe in the water, seeking courage to live out their dream.'” Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
We were stamping around in the cold and laughing in that slightly hysterical way you do when you’ve had a terrible shock and don’t quite know how to process it.
It was a creepingly dank day, in the way only days in the Welsh mountains can be, and we, fourteen-year-olds on a school trip with black eyeliner and pasty faces (it was 1979) were fish so far out of water we had evolved lungs. The sky was the same colour as the grey granite cliffs reaching over our heads like fossilised giants’ legs. The school coach that we had been sitting in had veered off the narrow road and embedded itself in the peat bog and cotton grass of the Ogwen Valley and we were mostly annoyed because the delay meant we wouldn’t get back to the Youth Hostel in time for Top of the Pops.
To cheer us up our teacher pointed up at the monstrous cliffs. We were looking at a chimney, she said, a narrow void of air and wind where two huge slabs of mountain had fallen against each other, leaving a vertical 120-foot gap of the sort beloved by dare-devil climbers. We could see high above us, like a bright red ant, a mountaineer attached by what looked like the finest gossamer thread, clinging to the greasy rockface. Miss Whitehead told us that in 1921 Dorothy Pilley became the first woman ever to climb what locals called the Devil’s Kitchen because of the permanent steam-like vapour that rises from its base. It made her so famous that her picture appeared in a long-dead newspaper, the Daily Graphic.
Two things struck me at once: why would anyone want to climb to the top of that thing, and why was it such an achievement for a woman that she had her picture in a national newspaper.
Well, forty years later I found out the answers to those two questions, and many more that occurred to me along the way, and they are recorded in my book, Rebel Women Between the Wars, which has just been published.
Discovering the hills had been a happy accident for Dorothy. Her first ever encounter with a mountain happened in September 1914, on her twentieth birthday when her Aunt took her to Snowdonia for a fortnight. In her diary she records: “The cottage has splendid views of a giant mountain with a torrential stream running down its face.” A week later, after a few tentative forays and soggy picnics, she went out, late in the afternoon, alone: “Wander about and afterwards get caught in the twilight and have to come down the bare rock in the dark.” This deliberate courting of physical danger, body pressed against the rock, incomprehensible to many, was to Dorothy life-affirming. Not only life-affirming, but a rescue from the brink. After leaving school in 1912, her authoritarian father had spent the next two years extinguishing her desires to forge any kind of career for herself. He guarded her virginity jealously, like a dragon guarding its gold. She wanted to be a gardener, then an Egyptologist, and then, when war broke out, she wanted to volunteer to help with agricultural work but her father said no to everything. He aspired for her instead, the life of the middle-class housewife confined to a well-upholstered drawing room. Arguments, headaches and black moods are recorded in her diary as she gradually realised that for a young woman in 1912, life would mean a continuous battle for even small freedoms. This experience of the mountains represented a small ray of light in a world she would describe as being “stuck in a dark sub-terranean cave”. Exposing herself to danger, suspending her body from the end of a rope above a void, leaping fathoms-deep glacial crevasses by moonlight helped displace the suffocation she felt.
So now for a confession. I am not brave. Had I been born at the start of the twentieth century I doubt I would have had the energy and courage to fight for the things women, in the west anyway, now take for granted. As well as Dorothy, I looked at the lives and choices of 12 other women who overcame the obstacles Edwardian society placed before them in order to achieve their dreams. The humanitarian activist Francesca Wilson, who cared for child refugees of the Spanish Civil War; Claudia Parsons, who was the only woman to train at Loughborough as an engineer in 1919, and who became a chauffeur, eventually driving around the world; Una Marson, a Jamaican playwright and poet who encountered both sexism and racism when she came the Britain in 1932 to engage in the culture of ‘the motherland’, and the foreign correspondent Shiela Grant Duff, who was rejected by the Times but who went to Europe on her own anyway, to warn the world about Hitler.
To read these women’s letters and diaries and other writings to find, recorded, their daily battles with fathers, with authority, with employers, all who felt a woman’s place was in the domestic realm of home and hearth, was a revelation and an inspiration. I probably won’t take rock-climbing up any time soon but these women have taught me that it’s OK to stand up and tell people you’re not going to take any shit any more. What’s the worst that could happen?
Dr Sarah Lonsdale has been a journalist for 25 years, writing for many national newspapers, including as a columnist for the Observer on matters of social justice and the Sunday Telegraph on environmental issues, particularly climate change. She teaches journalism at City University London and lives in Dargate after recently moving from Whitstable.