“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling
So you’ll be pleased to know that I am going to tell you two stories about remarkable women that I heard at the weekend. That makes them ‘herstories’, not histories.
I had never heard of Isabella Tod till last weekend. She was a fierce defender of the rights of women in mid 19th century Ireland. Maybe it was the combination of a Scottish father and Irish mother, maybe it was the influence of her mum who educated Isabella at home and maybe it was her Christian (Presbyterian) faith that produced such a remarkable organiser, writer and campaigner.
For a period Tod earned her living as a writer and journalist in Belfast. She wrote and campaigned on a wide range of issues – social and moral – that impacted on women, always stressing women’s equality. She cleverly argued that women were “citizens of the state …..bound as much as men are bound to consider the good of the whole [nation]; and justified as much as men are justified in sharing the good of the whole”.
She spoke out for the rights of married women to keep control of their property: under law, all their property passed into the ownership of their husbands, which meant they lost financial independence.
She was a ‘respectable’ woman (she certainly looks respectable in her photo) but that did not stop her from standing up for prostitutes in Victorian Ireland – she wanted to change legislation that meant any woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. For Tod, it was a case of simple decency.
Tod was a strong advocate of temperance, knowing the impact of drink on family life and finances.
She advocated for girls to have access to secondary and tertiary education and was keen that middle class women get practical training so they could earn a living.
Tod organised the first suffrage society in the country and her speeches in favour of voting rights for women were widely reported in suffrage journals and daily newspapers. She addressed meetings in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and visited London annually during the parliamentary session to lobby politicians on both sides of politics.
Such a wide range of interests and causes – no wonder Isabella Tod is regarded as the most prominent feminist in 19th century Ireland. Perhaps a pity that her faith is not often mentioned as her inspiration.
And my second story was also unknown to me till last week. As many parts of the world celebrated Mother’s Day at the weekend, Irena Sendler is an amazing testament to mothers: she became surrogate ‘mother’ to 2500 Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto.
Irena, a young Christian woman around 30 years old, got permission to work in the ghetto. This was the Jewish camp, only 2.6 square kms, where 400,000 Jews were herded in appalling conditions by the Nazi occupying force. She went in as a plumbing/sewer specialist. With a group of other volunteers, Irena smuggled Jewish infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried, in a burlap sack in the back of her truck, or via the sewer network. There was also a church on the border of the ghetto, which was used as rescue route.
The story goes that Irena kept a dog in the back of her truck that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The dog intimidated the soldiers and its barking covered the children’s noises.
After rescuing and hiding 2500 children from 1941 to 1943 using the Polish resistance network, she was caught. The Nazis broke her legs and feet, and beat her severely. But she escaped death and spent the next 18 months in hiding until Poland was liberated.
The story does not end there. She had kept the names of all her rescued children in a jar, which she buried in her garden. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived and tried to reunite the families. Most of the parents had been gassed in Treblinka concentration camp so the children got placed into foster family homes or adopted.
Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (though she did not win). She died the next year, aged 98, in Warsaw.
My thanks to friends who told me these stories
– thanks Eliza for telling me about Isabella Tod around the dinner table. Eliza, like Tod, is a Christian woman from Northern Ireland and she also told me that Tod will be celebrated in a display in the UK Parliament celebrating 100 years of universal suffrage)
– thanks to Michael Frost, Australian theologian and author, for posting about Irena Sendler on his facebook page
Action: Please share these stories (and others you know) about women who act with courage and audacious faith to bring goodness.