Swimming Against The Current

J. directed me to a radio broadcast this week. “You will know why if you have a chance to listen,” her email said. It was a service of dedication for the life of a daughter of Edinburgh, Elsie Inglis, who died 100 years ago this week. Elsie dedicated her life to the medical care of women and children whom she felt were neglected in those times. In the late 1800’s she set up a maternity hospital and training centre, named ‘The Hospice’, for the poorer women of Edinburgh. Although she is well known for her work in this city – she was also the secretary for the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s – it was her work abroad for which she is now principally remembered. She wanted to set up all female-staffed field hospitals for the allied war effort during WW1. It was more than an outline plan; she had units, staffed by qualified women, poised and ready to go. When she took her proposal to the Royal Army Medical Corps, it was reported that the War Office said to her: “My good lady, go home and sit still”. How that made me laugh when I read it! Laugh at how she completely ignored her stuffy superiors and took herself and her team to Serbia where she worked to reduce Typhus and other epidemics. She established other hospitals, including in Belguim and in Russia, and one in France, that treated the wounded from the Somme.

It must have been awfully tempting to go home and sit still, though. It can be tiring swimming against the current. Especially 100 years ago when everything was stacked against her. Or was it? Maybe things weren’t any more stacked against her then than they are now. Nowadays we suppose we are broad-minded and enlightened but we still have leaders and decision makers encouraging women towards stillness and shutting up. Remember in 2011 when the then Prime Minister, in a distillation of pure sexism, told another female Parliamentaian to “Calm down dear”? Presumably he thought that dissent and debate was not befitting of a woman, even one whose job it was to dissent and to debate.

Stories from the Celtic tradition overflow with women who certainly did not sit still. Queen Maeve, (or Medb) the Warrior Queen, could outrun the swiftest of horses and she rode at the head of her battalion. She had an invincible presence and power. She was still very much a woman though, as it was said that enemy soldiers would fall to the ground in fits of desire at just the sight of this great Queen.

Then there is the salutary tale of Gráinne O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Legend has it she wanted to sail with her father, who was going trading in Spain. Her father told her that her long hair would get caught up on the ropes; an ancient equivalent of the modern day: “sit still daughter, and calm down dear.” Oh, what a mistake that was! Gráinne gave herself a quick haircut and jumped aboard. Thereafter she became known as Gráinne Mhaol – in Irish ‘maol’ means bald. She (literally) learned the ropes, built up a fleet of ships and patrolled the west coast of Ireland. She became adept at raiding as she went, building up a great hoard of wealth and treasure and earning herself the name ‘The Pirate Queen’. Should we all become like Gráinne? We might pick and choose from her better aspects: drop the raiding, keep the fire in your belly. Nonetheless, fathers, be careful what you tell your daughters they cannot do!

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