27 Dec 2017

Hannah Jewell: 100 nasty women of history

From Summer Times, 10:10 am on 27 December 2017

New Zealand women make up four percent of Hannah Jewell's 100 Nasty Women of History. Her collection of "brilliant, badass and completely fearless women everyone should know" includes aviator Jean Batten, WWII secret agent Nancy Wake and Māori leaders Te Puea Herangi and Dame Whina Cooper.

Hannah Jewell

Hannah Jewell Photo: supplied

Jewell took the title of 100 Nasty Women from something Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton – an intended slur which has now become a badge of honour, she says.

She began working on the book after noticing a lot of activity in the comments section underneath an article she'd written about women in history for Buzzfeed UK.

"There were so many people saying 'This is my favourite woman in history, you have to look her up. I wrote a PhD on this woman – please read it and write about her."

As well as "a few of the old standards", Jewell wanted the book to include a lot of women most people had never heard of.

She got her recommendations for New Zealand women from the academic Margaret Wetherell, who happens to be her boyfriend's mum.

She then visited New Zealand last year and investigated early Māori and Pakeha interactions: "It seemed like a very unique story. There was a lot to learn and delve into."

Jewell read about Dame Whina Cooper's teenage audacity in Michael King's Whina: A Biography of Whina Cooper.

When Dame Whina was 18, an estuarine swamp used by local Māori to gather seafood was leased to a Pakeha farmer.

Whina's father Heremia Te Wake challenged the lease through parliament, but the farmer's crew began digging drains.

Whina led a party who filled in the drains as fast as the farmers dug them. This intervention bought enough time for the Marine Department to withdraw the lease.

Whina Cooper addressing Maori Land March at Hamilton.

Whina Cooper addressing Maori Land March at Hamilton Photo: Heinegg, Christian F, 1940- :Photographs of the Maori Land March. Ref: 35mm-87529-13-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22700614

Jewell hopes people will see their own struggles reflected in stories of women who "coped against incredible odds".

Women in history are sometimes put on an "unattainable pedestal" and she wanted to humanise her one hundred.

"A lot of these women were studying harder than I ever will or any of us ever will but also were afflicted by the same ridiculous day-to-day travails that take away our energy and our time.

"It's a relief to read about women who have been cool a long time ago but also frustrating to read their dreams were often thwarted or frustrating that I didn't learn about them sooner, and they're not so well known when people like Jack the Ripper have a museum dedicated to them."

Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231)

Empress Wu Photo: Public domain

Jewell says she "love all her mothers equally" but if pressed for a favourite from the book, it would the 7th-century political genius Empress Wu Zetian: "Otherwise she'll brutally murder me and haunt me to my last days."

Empress Wu is the only woman to have ever ruled China in her own right.

"I'm all for an Empress Wu Netflix special in 12 parts."

Closer to modern day, Jewell chose women who worked for equality and called themselves feminists, she says.

"Sometimes you get these books with women collected and you turn a page and Margaret Thatcher is there being written about as if she was good for women in Britain."

The women are all so different a house party with all of them would be a disaster in many ways – there'd likely be fighting between the warriors and the ancient scientists and mathematicians would be walking around in shock.

"This would actually be the greatest party ever. Probably the house would burn down, but it would be totally worth it."

Read about Jean Batten in an extract from 100 Nasty Women of History here:

Jean Batten on October 16th 1936

Jean Batten Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

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