‘I'm always falling in love with fabulous women’: Sandi Toksvig's forgotten heroines

Fabulous women: (from left) physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, tightrope-walker Maria Spelterini, suffragist Henrietta Muir Edwards and Chinese pirate Madame Ching.
Fabulous women: (from left) physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, tightrope-walker Maria Spelterini, suffragist Henrietta Muir Edwards and Chinese pirate Madame Ching. Composite: Alamy/Getty Images/Guardian Design Team
Fabulous women: (from left) physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, tightrope-walker Maria Spelterini, suffragist Henrietta Muir Edwards and Chinese pirate Madame Ching. Composite: Alamy/Getty Images/Guardian Design Team

From Madame Ching, a 19th-century pirate who ruled the South China Sea, to Anna Hedgeman, who helped to organise 1963’s Great March on Washington, it’s time to celebrate these often-overlooked yet awesome characters

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 12.36 EST

My desk is littered with dead women, which makes me sound like the world’s untidiest serial killer. Let me start again. I collect women. OK, that may be worse – it makes them sound like ceramic thimbles. Let’s see … I read a lot – mostly history – and every time I find a fabulous woman from the past whose story was hitherto unknown to me, I gather her up to keep in scribbled notes. I do this selflessly, because the risk to my health is enormous.

In 1791, the German theologian Karl Gottfried Bauer wrote: The lack of all physical movement while reading, combined with the forcible alternation of imagination and emotion [leads to] slackness, mucous congestion, flatulence and constipation of the inner organs, which, as is well known, particularly in the female sex, actually affects the sexual parts.”

Honestly, I could hardly sit still after I read that; my sexual parts were so astir. Hard to believe, but it was an argument against women’s suffrage: that the female of the species simply was not built for it. If we exerted our tiny little minds too much – reading or, heaven forfend, taking part in civic society – then we were risking the very thing we had been brought into the world for: our reproductive health. So, if you are a woman of child-bearing potential reading this, hang on to your womb, because it is going to be a bumpy ride.

Wait! What about postmenopausal woman, such as me? Surely reading might calm my hormone-addled brain? Sadly, not so. In 1913, a British immunologist with the splendid moniker of Sir Almroth Wright used his no doubt excellent mind to write that vital contribution to British society – a strong letter to the Times newspaper. In this letter, he declared that the menopause gave rise to serious and long-continued mental disorders developing in connexion with the approaching extinction of a woman’s reproductive faculty”. He went on to write an entire book entitled The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage, in which he blathered on a bit more. Fundamentally, the view was that no man should allow a woman in his life to go to the office, the ballot box or that terrible well of reading, a university, because it might kill her.

Almroth may have been shocked to learn that I have been able to find women who managed to achieve a great deal without so much as fainting. On my desk, I find space-shuttle commanders, writers, sharpshooters, painters, the first author of a book about fishing (Juliana Berners in c1450), doctors, scientists, athletes, world leaders and even a woman (Maria Spelterini) who, in the 1870s, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope with peach baskets strapped to her feet. Surely all these women should have been too weak to achieve anything without the steadying crutch of a penis?

I have just finished gathering up some of these fabulous females for inclusion in my book Toksvig’s Almanac, and yet my desk remains uncleared of potential. Most nights I have had to confess to my wife that I am in love again. “Who is it this time,” she asks as I babble on about my passion. Take, for example, Begum Samru, who started life as an Indian dancing girl and concluded it as ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh. Have you heard of her? Probably not, but who would not love her? She was just 4ft 8in (1.4 metres), which turns out to be plenty tall enough to lead your own 3,000-strong army into battle. Said to be a brilliant leader, she wore a turban, smoked a hookah and called herself Joanna, after Joan of Arc. When she died, she left a fortune equivalent to $40bn in today’s money. Or how about Queen Seondeok of Silla, who lived about 1,400 years ago and ruled one of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea? She led a renaissance in thought, literature and the arts. Check out the incredible Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory that was built under her instruction.

A painting of the household of Begum Samru, ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh in the 18th century.
A painting of the household of Begum Samru, ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh in the 18th century. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Did you know that without the philanthropy and determination of Lady Lucy Houston, Britain would never have had the Spitfire aircraft? And while we are on the subject of fighting, have you heard of the fearsome pirate Blackbeard? Honestly, he was pathetic compared with Madame Ching, the early 19th-century pirate leader who ruled the South China Sea. Blackbeard had four ships; she had 1,800.

There were also stories that broke my heart. I was five when Martin Luther King Jr led the Great March on Washington in 1963. It is, of course, a moment of great inspiration – so how terrible to know that the women involved were not treated well. My heart breaks for the activist Anna Hedgeman, who had helped organise the event, personally recruiting 40,000 participants and making sure everyone had food and water. Despite this, she was not allowed to march at the front and was not allowed to speak. When King declared, “I have a dream”, she cried and scribbled on her programme how she wished he had said: “We have a dream.” After King’s famous address, he and all the male leaders on the march were invited to the White House. Not one of the women who was there, including the legendary Rosa Parks, was asked to go with them.

Anna Hedgeman, who helped to organise the Great March on Washington in 1963.
Anna Hedgeman, who helped to organise the Great March on Washington in 1963. Photograph: Harry Harris/AP

Brilliant women being left out is nothing new. Take physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, the Chinese-born American physicist who came into the world in 1912. She made significant contributions to nuclear physics and worked on the Manhattan Project. Her male colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and ChenNing Yang had a theory about parity but couldn’t prove it. Wu proved it. I admit I don’t understand it, but proving the theory was a fundamental discovery about how the world works. The men got the Nobel prize in physics in 1957 and she didn’t. Surprise.

Then there are women who did jobs that everyone overlooked. On 17 March 1923, Olive May became the BBC’s first telephonist. If you called, she answered. May was brilliant, but she lost her job when she got engaged, as married women were not allowed to work for the corporation. It is too easy for the world to forget all the Mays who keep everything running.

A woman who puts her head above the parapet has to be prepared to be shot down. Take Dr Una Ledingham, who, in the early 1920s, graduated from the London School of Medicine for Women, a marvellous place of female education founded in 1874 by pioneering female physicians. Ledingham became an expert on the problems of diabetes in pregnancy. She married a doctor and ran his practice as well as her own work while he was on active service in the second world war. Everything I can find about her says she was gloriously forthright. She stares boldly at the camera in the only photo I have seen of her. Even in memoriam, however, this is not always a quality for which women are fondly recalled. A man called Richard Trail has penned a short biography of her on the Royal College of Physicians’ website. He writes: “In some ways she was her own worst enemy; only the discerning could appreciate her fairness, broadmindedness and deeply felt sympathy for her patients, under a rather hard exterior and a tendency to mar her brilliant conversational powers with an overpungent wit.” An overpungent wit. How awful.

Perhaps that has been the problem down the ages. These damned clever women with their sharp tongues. We need these stories so that we can see the past as the complicated tapestry of human experience it is, where everyone ought to be able to find role models and inspiration.

The Nellie McClung memorial by Helen Granger Young in Winnipeg, Canada, celebrates five suffragists known as the Famous Five.
The Nellie McClung memorial by Helen Granger Young in Winnipeg, Canada, celebrates five suffragists known as the Famous Five. Photograph: Vadim Rodnev/Alamy Stock Photo

Anyway, I have good news. On 18 October 1929, the British privy council voted that women were persons. There was a group of women in Canada in the 1920s who were known as the Famous Five: Emily Ferguson Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards were all suffragists who advocated for women and children. They brought a case in Muir’s name asking the supreme court of Canada to answer the question: “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act 1867 include female persons?” It was an important matter. If women were legally considered persons, then they could be appointed to the senate. On 24 April 1928, Canada’s supreme court summarised its unanimous decision that women were not such “persons”. The five did not give up and appealed to a higher authority – the British judicial committee of the privy council, who surprisingly decided that women are people after all. Phew.

Toksvig’s Almanac 2021 by Sandi Toksvig is published by Trapeze (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.04 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Toksvig will be touring her show National Trevor in spring 2021. Go to sanditoksvig.com for details.