Little women

Richard III was a Neville. My great, great uncle Daniel was eaten by a crocodile. James Smith set sail from Timberbush, Leith, for The New World as a cabin boy and returned a wealthy sea merchant. All true, apparently.

I know these, and other heroic tales, to be true apparently, because of diaries and official records. Except that these accounts of ancestral history are incomplete because of their failure to adequately document the women in the protagonists’ lives.

James Smith wrote a whole tome entitled ‘The Book of Occurrences’ about his sea-faring world adventures but included little detail about the women that supported his rise to fame and fortune. I wonder what he would make of me now living back on Constitution Street, Leith, and writing about it occasionally. I know nothing about the women who might have mourned the unfortunate demise of Daniel after the croc. Wife of Richard (the one found in a Leicester carpark with a sore back)- Queen Anne Neville – gets a substantial bookmark in history but only in reference to her king-maker role in the War of the Roses (said to be the inspiration for the Game of Thrones hit series) and as a woman educated and wealthy enough to wield power and influence.

In less regal branches of extended family tree, women appear briefly in birth, marriage and death, if at all. And upon marriage, loose their maiden name and thus clues to their genealogical roots. Beyond two or three living generations, maternal lineage becomes harder to trace and female footsteps gradually fade into anonymity. Our record of history is the history of men. In retelling only that version of events, we all miss something.

And so it was with interest and gratitude that I have observed my grandmother and sister’s recent efforts to piece together the she-lines of our own family. Beginning by narrating her own mother (Stella)’s story, our grandmother (Isobel) painstakingly followed a line from daughter to mother back and back. Then with the help of the National Registrar of Scotland, church marriage records, pencil sketches, and great tenacity and patience, Isobel and Lucy managed to trace a path over eight generations and several previous Isobel/las, as far back as the 1740s and the Jacobite retreat through Perthshire when church records were burned. The faces staring out at us from subsequent faded photographs have now been given identities and reinstated into the permanence of the past; separate to their fathers, brothers and sons.

Margaret Jolly

Margaret Jolly (born 1841). She married James Barr, a sea captain and a nephew of author James Smith, his mother Isabella being a sister of James. The baby is Isabella Smith Barr (born 1870).

In praise of this and in response to International Womens’ Day, 8 March, I invited some of the women I most admire to come together for a meal and the sharing of stories about the women who have shaped our different life experiences thus far. I also asked each guest to consider what she had inherited, and what she might pass on, irrespective of whether that inheritance should be social or biological. These memories are of course for others to own and interpret as they wish to but I have attempted to gather together some of that which was retold.

We discussed the F-word with reference to classics such as Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and more contemporary writing including 50 Shades of Feminism and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. We laughed and we cried. We talked about food, sex, and fashion. But mostly we just made time to honour the courageous, funny and talented women that have made us each who we are today.

Nina talked about her academic career teaching anti-discrimination law to students at Glasgow University. And she told us the story of how she got her name; of her mother’s best friend in Toronto, also Nina, and sadly no longer alive. She reflected that, for her, feminism is a connection to love.

On love, Isobel shared a morning mantra: “I love me. I am a being of love. I feel wonderful” and gifted each of us a postcard showing the heather and rolling hills of her native Galloway as a souvenir reminder of why self-respect and love must be the foundation for all relationships.


Isobel Neville (nee Robertson) in the Galloway countryside, 1946

In turn, Rowena shared her admiration for Isobel via an email contribution sent from a remote village in Uganda where she was working at the time in gynaecology and family-planning medicine:

“I think of my two grandmothers. Both were brought up largely by their mothers, themselves independent women who overcame many challenges. They have a true spirit of adventure, which sees them continue to explore new places and take up new activities into their 80s. They are each lynchpins in their own large and geographically dispersed families, keeping us all in touch and together. Neither is overly sentimental, but is honest and straight talking, which can be so refreshing. They have both given me invaluable advice over the years and have both passed to me a love of the outdoors, of wide open spaces and fresh air.
Have a great day – I am helping to give a talk on the new cervical screening program being set up by the hospital here, before sodas and music :)”.

I embarrassed Isobel further by telling one of my favourite stories about her single-handedly taking on the might of corporate advertising and a multinational fashion brand, and quietly winning. She had spoken out about her distaste at seeing the mannequin dummies in Edinburgh’s Harvey Nicholls Department Store dressed in metal bondage chains. A polite but firm complaint that stated her objection to depicting women as slaves resulted in a rethink about visual merchandising, a complimentary lunch by way of apology, and perhaps a lesson in history for John Galliano.

Dee, while breastfeeding baby daughter Aoife, introduced us to a real-life ‘sister act’ – her great aunt Maur– a guitar-playing nun who studied at Trinity College Dublin and went onto win the university table tennis championship dressed in full habit and wimple. Maur had made the most of the limited choices available to her at the time outside of a married life.


With Aoife Francis Neville, Perthshire, 2014

Wendy told us the story of how she came to learn to play piano in South Africa on a baby grand piano inherited from her great-grandmother (Florence Franzen). Wendy spoke of her favourite memories listening to her mother (Sharon) play while she (Wendy) was drifting off to sleep. One classical piece, by Zd. Fibich, was particularly poignant: Sharon had drawn comfort by learning and playing this piece in the months following her mother’s death (Hilda Ham). Some years ago, having acquired a piano in Scotland, Wendy decided to learn this piece – both to enjoy it for herself, and also as a way of honouring the tradition of women in her family. Being Wendy, she had also gone to the effort of recording a recital of the piece for us to listen to.

Tricia shared a smiling photograph of her mother, Sheila, dressed in dungarees and headscarf atop hay bales in the Land Army. She said: “The greatest pride in my life is that my daughters are not afraid to give their opinions. My mother, Sheila Menzies, was told from childhood until she was a young adult that her views were worthless and should not be expressed. That stayed with her all her life despite her being such a caring, intelligent woman. We have come a long way as a society to where we find ourselves today.”

Over the course of the last nine months since 8 March 2014, babies have been born, relationships ended and new ones begun, careers progressed, political campaigns won or lost, and more stories made. I hope the lunch becomes an annual event. Perhaps it has taken me so long to write up a record of that Saturday in March because the telling of women’s lives, throughout history, has largely been an oral tradition and not always a written one.

On researching International Women’s Day, I found this quote from the late human rights activist and trade union leader, Inez McCormack:

As soon as you get space as a woman, you should turn around and acknowledge the other women who came before you, and those who have yet to get out of the shadows and into the sun”. 

Some things only make sense with the settling of time and the perspective of context. Just as I’ve always been terrified of crocodiles, I know that I’m also a living mix of all the extraordinary, little women that came out of the shadows and into the sun before me. They didn’t need to colonize countries, battle wild animals or win wars to do so. They were carers and careerists, agriculturists and academics. And their individualism did not, in any way, diminish or threaten the love they had for the men in their lives. To acknowledge this inheritance, I plan to enjoy my space as a woman, celebrate a name of my own, and a rightful place in the next layer of genealogy.



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