Saskia Murphy goes gardening in a historical wilderness for women

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History has a bad reputation when it comes to ignoring women. While the achievements of Winston Churchill, Captain Cook and Isaac Newton are familiar to most kids by the time they leave primary school, the feats of women are often resigned to footnotes at best.

It’s been the same sad case for centuries but there’s a new trend taking shape. Thanks to the tenacity of a number of authors, journalists, artists and historians who are committed to rescuing notable but anonymous women from the abyss, a few new names have been weaved into the stories of our past in recent years.

Projects such as Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls, a crowdfunding initiative that culminated in a book full of inspirational women, have kickstarted a movement that aims to rediscover and celebrate women whose stories are often left out of school textbooks.

Most recently the story of a gifted gardener who was cheated out of a scholarship with the Royal Horticultural Society in 1898 was uncovered by researchers in the charity’s archives. The woman, referred to as “Miss Harrison”, won a chance to train at the prestigious society in Chiswick after gaining top marks in its annual exam but was blocked because she was a woman. Writing at the time, the society’s head, the Rev William Wilks, noted: “Only males being allowed at Chiswick, it was never contemplated that a female might claim the scholarship.”

Lawyers were consulted and, despite Rev Wilks’s attempts to win over the committee, it was decided that the word “he” in the regulations meant women were barred.

The talented Miss Harrison lost her opportunity to train as a gardener, and there the trail goes cold. Historians are now attempting to find out what happened to her – all that is known is her surname; no letters or photographs have been found.

Miss Harrison is one of a number of women whose stories have been dug out and recognised on a wider scale this year. During celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the women’s vote earlier this year, one Twitter user posted a picture of Scotland’s youngest suffragette, Bessie Watson, who played the bagpipes on the platform of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station as trains took convicted women’s rights campaigners to Holloway Prison. At the age of just nine Bessie piped outside Calton Jail to encourage the suffragettes imprisoned there. Bessie’s story went viral, and she was subsequently honoured with a Wikipedia page. It’s a small nod but it has the potential to make a huge impact when it comes to inspiring future generations.

This weekend Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray will speak at Manchester Literature Festival to coincide with the paperback launch of her 2017 book, A History Of The World In 21 Women: A Personal Selection. Murray’s book pays homage to the unrecognised visionaries, groundbreaking artists and trailblazing politicians whose achievements have been mostly forgotten.

Also working to uncover the hidden achievements of great women is Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman, whose book Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries And Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot To Mention is out this week.

It feels like notable women are finally receiving the credit they deserve. Too little, too late? Yes, definitely, but the best part is there’s a whole world of women still to explore.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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