Sunday, 31 March 2013

Great Britons

My father is a great stamp collector and has often lamented the lack of interest my sister and I have shown in the subject. In the last few years, since collecting television and film memorabilia (particularly props and autographs), some of these areas have overlapped. My father is incredibly jealous of my Alexei Leonov autograph (first man to walk in space) and my Sylvia Anderson one (never mind the fact that I actually held some of the original Thunderbirds puppets!). In turn, I've made him promise to leave me his Gerry Anderson cover once he's gone.

These days, I do flick through his leaflets and catalogues to see what the latest offerings are, and he often asks me if he's getting good value for money on autographed items (such as the 50th anniversary Dr Who covers). 

Royal Mail's 2013 "Great Britons"
So, this morning I was perusing the catalogues when I found a collection entitled "Great Britons". These sorts of sets interest me, as I always wonder who they've chosen and why. What is it that makes someone inspirational enough to make one of these lists?

But as I looked through, I noticed an inequality. On first glance, I only noticed two women (there are, in fact, three). But why three women and seven men? Are there not enough inspirational and influential women in the history of Britain? I doubt it. 

One could argue that in terms of visibility, men have historically been more visible in influential jobs in Britain and, therefore, this is reflected in the choice of personalities on their stamps. But, I think this really undermines and neglects to acknowledge the work of women in this country. We make up 50% of the population, why not 50% of the collection?

I noticed that the collection is the third in a series commemorating pivotal figures in society. Out of curiosity, I decided to find out whether this inequality reached over the other covers or not. I found that over the series, 21 stamps were dedicated to men, and only 9 to women.

The women featured on these stamps are, undoubtedly, influential in their fields; Elizabeth David, Mary Leakey, Vivien Leigh, Mary Morris, Odette Sansom Hallowe, Kathleen Ferrier, Joan Mary Fry, Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd.

But there are so many more inspiring women in our history.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was not only the first female doctor in Great Britain, but the first dean of a medical school. She was also the first female mayor and magistrate in England. Her work opened up the profession to women, but also changed the way in which doctors were trained, in which university hospitals worked and how patients were treated.

Lilian Bayliss was the manager of the Old Vic, producing Shakespeare plays and founding what were to become the National Ballet, National Theatre and English National Opera. If that's not influential in your field, what is?

Agatha Christie is known the world over as a novelist and has produced works that are synonymous with English crime writing. She's also been the subject of an episode of Doctor Who!

Margaret Damer Dawson was the forerunner of female police officers. She formed a group of volunteers in London during the first world war.

Rosalind Franklin, whose images of the double-helix structure of DNA were central to Watson's theories.

Joyce Grenfall, whose monologues and exceptional, unique "voice" made her a household name.

Caroline Harriet Haslett was one of the pioneers of home electricity - not what you'd expect, seeing as electrician is seen by many to be a "male" profession. She was both a campaigner for its use and an electrical engineer herself, and formed groups for female electrical professionals.

Dorothy Hodgkin has saved billions of lives around the world with her pioneering research into insulin and its molecular structure. Without that research, perhaps Franklin, Watson et al wouldn't have made their DNA discoveries.

Amy Johnson, who many know as being the first woman to fly solo to Australia. But she was also influential in the history of aviation in general, being one of two pilots to first fly to Moscow in a day, setting records flying to India and South Africa. She was more than just "that woman pilot".

Jane Lane Claypon did some of the first studies and research into breast cancer, and was one of the first epidemiologists. She introduced the idea of using control subjects in health tests.

The Pankhurst women are synonymous with feminism, suffrage and politics. Though their aggressive style of activism may not be to everyone's taste, it's undoubtedly influential in the country's history.

Mary Quant is a household name when it comes to fashion. And the mini-skirt has been one of the major changes in 20th century clothing.

Anita Roddick was the founder of The Body Shop and amongst the first to ban animal testing for products. This decision has influenced hundreds of other companies and her campaigning has changed the way we think every day.

Marie Stopes who campaigned tirelessly for women's quality within marriage, sex education and opened the first family planning clinic. I can understand why Stopes wouldn't be considered for this collection, given division on these subjects, but she was certainly a pioneer and huge influence in her field.

Vivienne Westwood is a key icon in the British fashion industry, teaming cutting edge punk designs with historical inspiration.

These are but a few women I can think of who have been key in their fields. They are women who aren't names solely for being women, but because they made key contributions regardless of their gender. Some of these achievements may have been inspired by their own experience of sexism, but they are still great achievements in their own right.

I don't want to see a cover with "Great British Women"; I sometimes feel that by segregating women in what are supposed to be "inspiring, feminist" events, we are just drawing attention to and heightening the inequality. What I want to see is women fairly and accurately represented in these features, and recognised for the work they are doing or have done, which is equal to that of their male counterparts. Even if the recognition is over a century late.

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