The Women In History My Mother Told Me About

mum and i young

Mum and I on my 2nd birthday

mum and i

Mum and I in Hyde Park, January 2016

Hello and welcome to Women’s History Month! Although every month is women’s history month on Let’s Hear it For The Girl, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on why women’s history has always been a fascination of mine. The answer is simple. It is because of my wonderful mother.

Mum and I both share an obsession with period dramas, royal family trivia and out of hand Wikipedia searches that start with Queen Victoria and progress through every single one of her descendants. When I was growing up, Mum actively encouraged my love of history through books, films and even documentaries. While the books I read and the movies I watched were inspirational, my memories of the conversations we shared about women’s history were the most influential.

My first memory of mum teaching me about women’s history was when she explained the importance of suffragettes in women’s history, and in particular, New Zealand history. I was 6 or 7 at the time, and an election was looming, marking the first time I was old enough to understand the importance of what was taking place. Mum took the opportunity to explain the importance of voting, particularly as a woman, because as she explained, women had to fight for the right to vote. As my young mind struggled to grapple with the concept of sexism for the first time, mum proudly told me New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. She told me about Kate Sheppard, New Zealand’s most prominent suffragette whose face graces our $10 note.  I remember this conversation so clearly, I can even recollect where we were driving at the time (by the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch, FYI). Suffrage was a recurring topic. As I grew up mum spared no details when describing the suffrage movement. I learnt about the protests, the hunger strikes and the force-feeding in prisons. Due to my early engagement with suffrage history,  I will always be confused as to why so many of my female friends do not exercise their right to vote.

At a similar time I also became obsessed with Princess Anastasia. This is partly attributable to the brilliant 1997 animated film, and to my family’s ancestry. My great-grandparents were Russian Jews who immigrated to New Zealand just before the Russian Revolution. According to our family history, my great-great grandmother worked as a seamstress in the royal palace. As if the intrigue and musical numbers in the film were not tantalizing enough, my own family’s mysterious history made Anastasia the focus of a lot of my attention and imagination. Mum encouraged my interest and continued to buy me books about Anastasia throughout my childhood and bought me the Barbie doll from the movie after I got my tonsils taken out. Today, I am listening to the audiobook of The Romanovs: 1613 – 1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore, obviously some obsessions never die, they simply mature, although I would not say no to an Anastasia barbie either…

(PSA for musical theatre fans like myself: the Broadway adaptation of the film is starting in New York this month!)

Growing up in a Christian family, women in the Bible played a large part in my upbringing. I was always fascinated with Queen Esther. Esther was a Jewish orphan who married  King Ahasuerus of Persia. Unbeknownst to the King, Esther, or Hadassah as she was called at birth, was Jewish. When Haman, an adviser to the King, planned a genocide to kill all Persian Jews, Esther bravely advocated for her people to the King. Queen Esther is honoured through the observance of Purim, a feast in the Jewish faith to remember their deliverance.  I enjoyed hearing stories about Esther because she challenged me to consider whether I could be as brave as her if I needed to be one day. I also loved Moses’ older sister Miriam. Miriam watched over baby Moses when their mother put him in a basket and floated him up the River Nile, in a desperate attempt to save him from Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Jewish baby boys. I could relate to Miriam on account of her age and depiction as a protective sibling, as a bossy and loyal older sister myself.

My mum also introduced me to one of the greatest loves of my life: Jane Austen. Since I displayed an interest in the classics from a young age, my first experience of many of them was through their film adaptations, as I was too young to tackle the original reading material. The first Jane Austen story I watched was the 1996 Sense and Sensibility. Making Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon the first Austen man I ever fell in love with, or first man, period. When I watch the film now as an adult, I cannot help but reflect on how my own personal development mirrors Marianne’s in some respects. Here’s hoping that is a coincidence and not my mimicry of Kate Winslet… My obsession with Austen grew widely. Not a fortnight passed when I did not watch at least a part of Pride and Prejudice. And when the 2005 adaptation was released mum and I saw it at the theatre twice. I believe my early exposure to Jane Austen may be one of the reasons why I dream of being an author and seeing my name on a book spine one day.

When I reflected on my mother’s role in teaching me about women’s history, I realised what a powerful shared interest it is for us. It has unquestionably shaped me as a person by providing me with countless role models, given me a better understanding or the world, and gave me the ultimate gift, a strong relationship with my mother.

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