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Women and British success


Victory on top of the Victoria Memorial, London
Image: Jeff Creswell

Is it likely that a nation that suppresses and subjugates half its people will do well? I do not think so. For all the reasons that have been advanced for a country's success, one I rarely hear discussed is the achievements of women. In Britain they were not able to vote until the 20th century, but for the last thousand years they seem to have done everything else.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as long ago as the 13th century,

"Women traders and artisans in London (active 1200 – 1500) formed a significant group within the city's workforce at every social level. City custom allowed them considerable economic opportunities. . .as apprentices, as independent artisans, managers of craft workshops, and heads of trading households."

British history does not exhibit perfect equality between the sexes. It took women a long time to have the right to vote, but the freedom of British women compared to women in other cultures has been staggering and their contributions have been immense. They have fought for the right not to wear the veil; defended castles (Countess of Pembroke, 12th century); endowed grammar schools (Joan Bradbury, 16th century and Anne Middleton 17th century); managed a brewery (Agnes Brugge, 15th century); kept the King's forge going (Katherine Bury, 14th century); served as London Bridge bailiff (Alice Holford, 15th century); built a large, successful business after dressing as a boy, stealing a horse, and being transported to Australia (Mary Reibey, 19th century); and figured out the complex science that resulted in the mass production of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12 (Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, 20th century).

Mary Reibey's husband died shortly after their seventh child was born. She expanded their shipping and farm enterprises, raised the children, became the governor of a free grammar school, gave generously to charity, and after her death was made famous on Australia's $20 note.

There are thousands of well-known women I haven't mentioned, including British leaders and writers and mothers you'll think of immediately. It's an amazing tale, the tale of British women. . .Boudicca, Bathilde, Aethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians, Queen Maud, Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth I, Anne Askew, Anne Finch, Elizabeth Lilburne, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, Octavia Hill, Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Cavell, Eglantyne Jebb, Elizabeth II (if she refuses Her Royal Assent to the EU Treaty). . .

All these strong and interesting women have been fundamental to British success. And the best British men know it. Like Shakespeare, they admire heroines.