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The answers are complex because female power is complex. Even if we accept that, for much of human history, women have conducted their lives in a patriarchal bubble – subordinate in law, custom and religion to the men around them; not even wanting equality with men, so ridiculous did the idea seem – it doesn’t mean they lacked purpose and agency. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate their achievements.
As modern women, we are instinctively drawn to a certain species of trailblazer – the women it’s easy and satisfying to claim as proto-feminists. But not all of them would be pleased to wear the T-shirt.
Take the eighteenth-century writer and philanthropist Hannah More for starters. It was fine, she thought, to teach poor women to read so that they could understand the Bible; but she was shocked by women she had heard about in France who ‘run to study philosophy, and neglect their families to be present at lectures in anatomy’, and she loathed the sort of education reforms proposed by Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘How many ways there are of being ridiculous!’
When the explorer Mary Kingsley returned from the second of her expeditions to West Africa in October 1895, she distanced herself from the New Women then being discussed in newspapers, arguing that women’s suffrage was ‘a minor question; while there was a most vital section of men disenfranchised women could wait.’ The polymathic explorer Gertrude Bell – one of the cleverest, most remarkable British women of the early twentieth century – couldn’t understand why women wanted the vote. Believing the whole business to be a silly distraction from the grand imperial project to which she was committed, she became first secretary of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League.
Another modern feminist reflex – and I must plead guilty here – is to scoff at traditional ‘homemaker’ roles. It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that too many women remained trapped in them for too long, their intellectual freedom of movement curbed; but it’s quite another to claim that they have no value. The opposite is the case: it was domestic power that many of the women featured in this book harnessed.
High-born historical heroines wouldn’t have been doing the dishes, yet frequently their lot was to be also-rans: nearly-queens such as Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who just missed out on the throne in 1153; or queens who stood in for absent monarchs such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who governed England while her son Richard the Lionheart was off fighting the crusades. In her brilliant book about these pre-Tudor queens, She-Wolves (2010), the historian Helen Castor notes that their power was perceived as ‘a perversion of “good” womanhood, a distillation of all that was most to be feared in the unstable depths of female nature’.1 (#litres_trial_promo) It was a view promoted most famously by the Scottish reformer John Knox in his polemic of 1558, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women: ‘For nature hath in all beasts printed a certain mark of domination in the male and a certain subjection in the female which they keep inviolate.’
Gems like this kept me entertained as I was writing. But how, I wondered in my ignorance, did Knox feel justified in writing this stuff in the sixteenth century when in many ways women had been bossing it for hundreds of years before that?
‘The history of England,’ wrote the historian and politician Macaulay, ‘is emphatically the history of progress.’ Not for women, it isn’t. In key respects, they were better off in 800 than they were in 1800. I didn’t notice this sufficiently when I was eighteen and studying history. (I barely noticed anything when I was eighteen. I was too busy bemoaning my curly hair and bottle-top glasses.) Now, in my forties, I found myself wondering what had gone wrong since Anglo-Saxon times, when women were accorded considerable respect.
Surviving evidence, some of which I’ll outline below, led the historian Doris Stenton to conclude that Anglo-Saxon women were ‘more nearly the equals of their husbands and brothers than at any other period before the modern age’.2 (#litres_trial_promo) At this point the fake-news klaxon sounds in the back of my head. Some historians3 (#litres_trial_promo) dispute Stenton’s ‘Golden Age’ thesis, so I should note that we have little concrete information about how women actually lived. Anglo-Saxon culture was mostly oral, so what we know comes from clerical and legal records and, least reliably of all, heroic poems.
Still, language tells its own story, and it’s significant that the Old English word mann can also be used of women. A charter from 969 that relates to a grant of land near Worcester concludes: ‘Aelfweard was the first man, and now it is in the hands of his daughter and she is the second man.’ As we in the twenty-first century tussle over gender-neutral toilets, our Anglo-Saxon ancestors might have wondered what on earth all the fuss was about.
Anglo-Saxon marriage, too, sounds almost progressive, especially compared to the bond of misery endured by many Victorian women. A husband had to pay his prospective wife a morgengifu or ‘morning-gift’, often a considerable amount of money or land, over which she had total control. Finances were the joint responsibility of husband and wife. According to the laws of Aethelbert, a woman could walk out on a marriage if she was unhappy, and if she took her children with her then she was entitled to half the marital home. How very equitable.
‘Cunning women’ had considerable power in Anglo-Saxon communities, practising folk magic, using their powers to heal, hex and hunt down stolen goods. Pendants, crystal balls, shells and other amulets thought to have magical properties have been found in the graves of female Anglo-Saxons. And although we might bridle when we read, in the tenth-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems and other literature known as the Exeter Book, that ‘the place of a woman is at her embroidery’, cloth-making and embroidery were in fact high-prestige occupations. In the households of large-estate owners, many of whom were women, the mistress of the house and her daughters would have worked making adorned gifts or, after the arrival of Christianity, church vestments. More mundane soft furnishings such as wall-hangings, table linen and bed clothes were handed down as heirlooms, and more commonly mentioned in the wills of women than men, suggesting they were thought of as female property.
The needle was by no means the only tool in women’s armoury. Female warriors wielded more traditionally masculine weapons to great effect. We know that a strong tradition of female warriors existed in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain from Tacitus’ account of the Iceni queen Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans. He puts into her mouth a rousing speech in which she assures her troops that it is ‘customary … with Britons to fight under female captaincy’. Boudica rides in a chariot with her daughters in front of her and fights not as a queen but as a ‘woman of the people’ to avenge ‘her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters’.
High-born Anglo-Saxon women, too, could be every bit as blood-thirsty as the men. Queen Cynethryth, wife of Offa of Mercia, is a Lady Macbeth figure who not only had coins struck in her name, but is supposed to have encouraged Offa to kill Aethelberht II of East Anglia. Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred (of cakes infamy) assumed power after her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians, died in 911. A formidable warrior who ‘protected her own men and terrified aliens’ (according to William of Malmesbury), she ruled for the next seven years, implementing an ambitious programme of fortification and fending off attacks from marauding Vikings and Danes.
The arrival of Christianity in the British Isles is usually dated to 597, the year Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and baptised the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelberht of Kent. Many of the monasteries that subsequently dotted the landscape were ‘double monasteries’ where an abbess ruled over both monks and nuns, who lived in separate buildings.
Thanks to good old Eve, notions of female inferiority are hardwired into Christianity. Nevertheless, women emerge in this period as effective religious leaders, not least because of their apparent gifts for diplomacy and realpolitik. Medieval historian Henrietta Leyser thinks women adapted to Christianity more easily than men because they were better at reconciling new demands with old codes: ‘[Women] take up its challenges with alacrity and with evident success. They become saints apace, exercising power in life and in death: in life in positions of influence as abbesses, in death through miracles worked at their shrines.’4 (#litres_trial_promo)
Most of what we know about these abbesses comes to us via my old friend from the history class, the Northumbrian monk Bede, aka ‘the godfather of history’. His favourite seems to have been Hilda of Whitby, who founded Whitby Abbey and was famously wise: according to Bede, ‘not only ordinary people but also kings and princes sometimes sought and received her counsel when in difficulties.’ One of her most celebrated feats was her discovery and encouragement of the cowherd-poet Caedmon, composer of one of the earliest known vernacular poems, ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’.
These ‘brides of Christ’ could be flamboyant, glamorous figures, their celebrity an important source of local pride. St Edith, abbess of Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire, was famous for dressing in ornate, golden clothes (albeit with a hair shirt worn underneath). William of Malmesbury tells how, when she was ticked off for this by Aethelwold of Winchester, she retorted that this opulence didn’t matter because God could see through superficial trappings to the soul beneath: ‘For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs.’
After 1066, many (though not all) historians agree, a lot of that girl power withered on the vine, in the church and beyond. Freedoms taken for granted in Anglo-Saxon society were undermined by new canon (religious) law and the Normans’ insistence on making land ownership a condition of military service to a lord. From 1066, the number of female land-owners drops. Women can no longer make wills. Husbands are permitted to beat their wives. Primogeniture transforms inheritance law so that first-born sons are valued over daughters. If a woman kills her husband, it’s classed as treason and punished accordingly by burning at the stake.
The idea that women are second-class citizens, physically and mentally inferior to men, becomes a commonplace as medieval Catholic theology sets up new and troubling archetypes that remain with us – on the one hand, Eve; on the other, the Virgin Mary.
Consider the Bayeux Tapestry, the 230-foot long piece of embroidered cloth thought to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s brother. As all schoolchildren know, it tells the story of the Norman conquest, culminating in the Battle of Hastings. Although it was made by English women – women whose needlework skills were so famous throughout Europe that their work had a special name, Opus Anglicanum (‘English work’) – it depicts only three women: Queen Edith of Wessex, wife of Edward the Confessor and sister of the slain Harold; a mysterious figure called Aelfgyva, whose presence seems to be a reference to some unknowable contemporary sex scandal; and finally, an anonymous war refugee fleeing with her child from a burning building. Notice the way these women fall neatly into three categories: inheritors of and revellers in wealth and status; sources of gossip and intrigue; and helpless victims. Is the Bayeux Tapestry a precursor of the Daily Mail Online’s notorious ‘sidebar of shame’?
Still, our medieval sisters struggled on. They oversaw births and deaths as midwives and layers-out of bodies. Some ran businesses from their houses. If they were married they could and often did declare themselves unmarried in order to escape the common-law disadvantages of being wives. (Their husbands were happy to be complicit in this as it absolved them of liability for any debts.) This was known as trading feme sole and gave women a bit of economic independence, especially in areas like the silk trade; in trades less female-dominated they probably fared worse.
Alice Chester carried on her husband’s business after his death in 1473. She used her own ships to trade in cloth, wine and other commodities with Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Flanders and made enough money to afford a town house in Bristol and to lavish expensive gifts on her local church, which included elaborate carved figures and a new rood loft. Margaret Paston ran her lawyer husband John’s malt and wool business when he was away, as well as defending the family estates in Norfolk from armed bandits. When they were separated, Margaret kept in contact with John by letter, many of which have survived to provide us with arresting insights into life in England during the War of the Roses. In 1449 she wrote to John demanding crossbows, grappling irons and shooting bolts for use in defending the Paston castle at Gresham against an attack by Lord Molynes. Margaret and her twelve comrades-in-arms never stood a chance against Molynes’ thousand-strong army, and she was duly evicted and the castle sacked. But she didn’t lack courage or resourcefulness.
We learn a fair bit about the lifestyle of a bourgeois woman in a thriving provincial town from Margery Kempe, the Christian mystic whose dictated autobiography, dating from the 1420s and surviving in a single manuscript discovered in the 1930s, is one of the earliest known memoirs by a woman. Much of it relates to her spiritual journey, undertaken in the grip of what sounds like post-partum psychosis.
Among the religious revelations is the more fascinating one that Kempe ran a microbrewery in her home town of Norwich. The Book of Margery Kempe is pleasingly graphic about what ensued on the day a batch of ale became contaminated: ‘When the ale had as fine a froth on it as anyone might see, suddenly the froth would go flat, and all the ale was lost in one brewing after another, so that her servants were ashamed and would not stay with her.’5 (#litres_trial_promo) Having only taken up brewing in the first place ‘out of pure covetousness’, Kempe interpreted this stalled fermentation as a punishment from God.
Less heavenly patriarchs intervened over the next century. A woman’s work was reduced to child-rearing and caring. Acquiring education, power, money? Not so much. There were exceptions such as the entrepreneur Katherine Fenkyll who, like Alice Chester, took over her husband’s business (he had been a draper) with huge success after his death in 1499. But apprentices to trades were usually male: only seventy-three women are known to have been enrolled as apprentices in sixteenth-century London, compared with thousands of men.6 (#litres_trial_promo)
Women weren’t thought to be worth properly educating, so they couldn’t acquire skills the blokes took for granted. In the early modern period, female education was generally a religious affair, designed to get round the fact that women were ‘born in sin’ as daughters of Eve, the ‘weaker vessel’; gossipy and obstinate, prone to idleness, volatility, hysteria – or any other vice which could be hurled at them.
Exceptions to this rule tended to be royal, or as good as. Sir Thomas More treated Margaret Roper and his other daughters to the same education as he had. Margaret could read Aesop’s Fables by the age of three and went on to study languages, history, philosophy, rhetoric and – her particular passion – astronomy. She married, as she was expected to do, but when More discovered that she and her husband William Roper were both studying astronomy, he wrote a bold, inspiring letter to her that sounds – sounds – as if it is legitimising her intellectualism: ‘I am ever wont to persuade you to yield in everything to your husband; now, on the contrary, I give you full leave to strive to surpass him in the knowledge of the celestial system.’
Yet there remained a sense that a woman’s mind was ‘naturally bad’; that Margaret was remarkable not in herself but because her education represented a triumph over women’s inherent defects – defects which, More conceded, ‘may be redressed by industry’.7 (#litres_trial_promo)
So it was that the future Queen Elizabeth I was tutored industriously by Roger Ascham between 1548 and 1550. Ascham was impressed by Elizabeth’s intellect: ‘Yea, I believe, that beside her perfect readiness in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, she readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day than some prebendary of this church doth read Latin in a whole week.’ Aged eleven, she presented her stepmother with a translation from the French of Navarre’s Mirror of the Sinful Soul protected by a needlepoint canvas cover she had made herself. Truly, she possessed all the virtues!
But the adult Elizabeth justified her success by declaring that she was different from other women, possessing the (male) heart and stomach of a king. Pictures show her armoured, manly. But she was the exception which proved the rule. Edmund Spenser’s female knight Britomart in Book III of his epic Gloriana poem The Faerie Queene is supposed to represent Elizabeth. But as the poet makes clear: ‘virtuous women wisely understand/That they were born to base humility/Unless the heavens them lift to lawful sovereignty.’
Elizabeth Joscelin’s The Mothers Legacie (1624), a conduct manual written in the form of a letter to an unborn child, is revealing about prevailing attitudes towards female education. While it was vital that women be taught ‘good housewifery’, writes Joscelin, ‘other learning a woman needs not.’ She goes on: ‘Though I admire it in those whom God hath blest with discretion, yet I desired not much in my owne, having seene that sometimes women have greater portions of learning than wisdome.’
One female Restoration writer who bucked the trend for feminine modesty was Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. She craved reputation, recognition, visibility – all the markers of success men believed were their due, for, as she wrote in the preface to Poems, and Fancies, ‘they hold books as their crown, and the sword as their sceptre, by which they rule and govern.’ Not only was Cavendish prolific, but she refused to be restricted to a single genre, turning her hand to biography, poetry, science fiction, philosophical and scientific treatises – anything she felt like. Thanks to her talent for self-promotion – she designed her own extravagant, daringly masculine costumes and travelled with a full complement of carriages and servants – she became one of fashionable society’s must-see attractions.
When Cavendish visited London in 1667, Samuel Pepys became obsessed with obtaining a sighting of her. After several failed attempts, he finally caught up with her when she addressed the Royal Society on 23 May – the first woman ever to do so. Unfortunately, Cavendish was overcome with nerves, possibly because of the presence in the room of so many scientists she had been rude about in print, and she gave a poor account of herself. Pepys was scathing: ‘The Duchess hath been a good comely woman; but her dress so antic and her deportment so unordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say anything that was worth hearing.’
This was pretty unfair, especially as Cavendish had received ‘no formal education in even the most basic writing skills’.8 (#litres_trial_promo) In fact, as an aristocratic woman, she had arguably received a worse education than her immediate social inferiors, who’d been trained up as governesses, ladies’ companions and teachers. Yet her instinct, as with so many latter-day women, was to blame her failings on herself, rather than an unjust society. ‘It cannot be expected I should write so wisely or wittily as men, being of the effeminate sex, whose brains Nature hath mixed with the coldest and softest elements.’
The sense that education for women might be genuinely important – because the lack of it isolates them from spheres of legal and political influence – doesn’t gain momentum until the end of the eighteenth century when radical ripples from revolutionary France cause turbulence in Britain.
‘Talents put a man above the World, & in a condition to be feared and worshipped, a Woman that possesses them must be always courting the World, and asking pardon, as it were, for uncommon excellence,’ wrote the aristocratic social-reformer Elizabeth Montagu to a friend in 1763. To help level the playing field, Montagu and like-minded ladies such as Mary Monckton turned their houses into salons where women and men could meet and mix as intellectual equals. The salon was a French import and the point was conversation, not debauchery – no drink was allowed, or card playing. Montagu’s function as hostess was to encourage and bestow patronage on writers she liked.
Salonieres became known as ‘bluestockings’ – not, at this stage, a pejorative term for a studious woman – after a male guest, Benjamin Stillingfleet, turned up to one wearing blue worsted stockings because he hadn’t been able to afford black silk ones. Exactly how the term came, by the late eighteenth century, to apply only to women isn’t clear – possibly because it was two women, Monckton and Elizabeth Vesey, who decided to ‘own’ it by calling their salon the Blue Stockings Society. James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson (he of the Dictionary) went along to one of Monckton’s salons and noted that ‘her vivacity enchanted the Sage [i.e. Johnson], and they used to talk together with all imaginable ease.’ The novelist Fanny Burney was sceptical, describing Monckton in 1782 as ‘between thirty and forty, very short, very fat … [and] palpably desirous of gaining notice and admiration’, and Montagu as having ‘the air and manner of a woman accustomed to being distinguished, and of great parts’. So much for the sisterhood.
If Johnson was happy to drink tea and chat with educated women, he still thought of them as essentially decorative; still believed, like most of his kind, that ‘a man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table than when his wife speaks Greek. My old friend Mrs Carter [a celebrated female linguist, who tutored her brother so that he, unlike her, could have the privilege of going to Cambridge] could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.’
Some feminist historians go so far as to argue that the Enlightenment – the period from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries when intellectual discourse was dominated by thinking about human reason, science and our relationship to the natural world – didn’t benefit women at all: ‘Just as there was no Renaissance or Scientific Revolution for women, in the sense that the goals and ideas of those movements were perceived as applicable only to men, so there was no Enlightenment for women.’9 (#litres_trial_promo)
Certainly, its defining philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his people-power bible The Social Contract (1762), declared that educated women were ‘unpleasing and unnecessary’. His influential novel Emile (1762) promoted his belief in biologically determined difference between the sexes, even recasting wit, the salonieres’ stock-in-trade, as a harmful vice: ‘A female wit is a scourge to her husband, her children, her friends, her servants, to everybody.’ Even if timidity, chastity and modesty were not innate female attributes, he argued in Letter to D’Alembert (1758) that ‘it is in society’s interest that women acquire these qualities; they must be cultivated in women, and any woman who disdains them offends good morals.’
Passages such as this infuriated the English feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft – that ‘hyena in petticoats’, as the politician Horace Walpole called her. In just six weeks she bashed out the scrappy but momentous manifesto Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), its key goal the demolition of Rousseau’s arguments. ‘The first object of laudable ambition,’ she wrote, ‘is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex.’ Once women were given the same education as men, they could go on to be doctors and lawyers or run complex businesses, just as men did. Why, she thought, liberating women in this way would even make them nicer to be around! As she put it: ‘Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens.’
The process of intellectual stunting began in childhood, Wollstonecraft argued. Gender stereotyping had the effect of returning grown, mature women ‘back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart for ever’:
Every thing that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind. False notions of beauty and delicacy stop the growth of their limbs and produce a sickly soreness, rather than delicacy of organs; and thus weakened by being employed in unfolding instead of examining the first associations, forced on them by every surrounding object, how can they attain the vigour necessary to enable them to throw off their factitious character?
By the 1790s, when Wollstonecraft was writing this, ‘bluestocking’ had become an insult and the fledgling women’s movement fatally associated with the ‘Jacobin’ values of revolutionary France. On 10 September 1797, at the age of just thirty-seven, Wollstonecraft’s chaotic, itinerant life ended after she gave birth to her daughter Mary, future author of Frankenstein, and developed septicaemia.
The light of progress flickered only dimly. Some dedicated girls’ schools had been founded in the early eighteenth century, endowed by merchants and livery companies, but as a rule they focused on ‘accomplishments’ such as needlework rather than the kind of learning laid on for boys. Between 1785 and 1786 (when the money ran out), Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra studied at the Abbey School in Reading, a boarding school run by a Mrs La Tournelle who had a cork leg and a passion for theatre.
It was probably similar to Mrs Goddard’s school as described in Austen’s 1815 novel Emma – ‘a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education without any danger of coming back prodigies.’
The loss of ground in the mid to late eighteenth century was a real blow for women. Even if she had acquired a smattering of education, the most an intelligent, independent-minded woman could hope for was to be a governess or a teacher or a ladies’ companion. As their husbands ventured out into the world and were rewarded for their thrusting virility, they would stay at home being chaste and docile, reading the sort of novels Jane Austen would later parody in her mock-gothic Northanger Abbey. This so-called ‘cult of sensibility’ seems to have been a very British phenomenon. As the critic and historian Janet Todd remarks: ‘Foreigners marvelled at the idleness thrust on English women, whose business was little more than coquetry in youth and motherhood or fashion in later years.’10 (#litres_trial_promo)
For feminist academics Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser, the early nineteenth century ‘marked the nadir of European women’s options and possibilities’.11 (#litres_trial_promo) Paradoxically, though, by embracing the most traditional female virtues, women acquired a moral authority as the ‘consciences of society’ that they later put to radical use.
The tradition of female radicalism and dissent ushered in by Mary Wollstonecraft would bear fruit in the new century – eventually. First, though, the relationship between men and women would have to become more equal as part of a broader process of social reform. Women would have to stop being virtuous and passive simply because it was expected of them. They would have to be able to divorce their husbands and seek legal redress in cases of abuse and rape.
This started to happen as early as 1837 when a woman called Caroline Norton fought for the right to have access to (though not custody of – that would be a crazy idea!) her three young sons after walking out on her drunken, abusive husband, the MP and failed barrister George Chapple Norton. Her fastidiously detailed list of the obstacles married women encountered in existing law makes for grim reading:
An English wife may not leave her husband’s house. Not only can he sue her for restitution of ‘conjugal rights’, but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge … and carry her away by force …
If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself … She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for ‘damages’.
If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband … however profligate he may be.
Sadly, Norton failed in her bid to secure formal access to her children. She was only allowed supervised visits after her youngest son, William, died after falling from a horse in 1842. But her campaigning blasted a path for transformative legislation like the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870.
Before long, a new generation of bluestockings was exploiting the zest for reform. They understood only too well that far-reaching change was required and that it was as important to improve the lot of working-class women as it was to lift restrictions on middle-class women looking for work.
Education was vital because of the insight it gave women into the way men controlled the world. At the end of the day, irrespective of whatever other rights they secured, it was education that would give women the keys to the kingdom and enable them to insert themselves into history in the way they deserved.
On the morning of 7 April 1853 Dr John Snow, renowned at the time as Britain’s most skilful anaesthetist, took a cab from his home in Sackville Street in central London to Buckingham Palace. He made contact with Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s Physician in Ordinary, and Dr Charles Locock, Queen Victoria’s first Physician Accoucheur – from the French, meaning ‘one who is present at the bedside’ – and the three men waited in an anteroom next to the Queen’s bedroom to be summoned. In the early stages of labour, Victoria preferred to be attended only by her beloved Prince Albert and ‘monthly nurse’ (nanny-cum-midwife) Mrs Lilly.
At around midday, the Queen asked Snow to come to her bedside. He measured out 15 minims (0.9ml) of chloroform onto a handkerchief which he folded into a cone before placing it over the royal mouth and nose. It had taken six years to persuade the Palace that chloroform was safe, but finally, on the occasion of her eighth pregnancy, the Queen had decided to give it a go. Leopold’s proved to be her easiest birth so far. As Snow noted: ‘Her Majesty expressed great relief from the application, the pains being very trifling during the uterine contractions, whilst between the periods of contractions there was complete ease.’
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