Women Who Changed the World: Freya Stark

“There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do,” said British explorer Freya Stark. In 1927, aged 33, while the majority of her contemporaries were embedded in domesticity, she embarked on her first expedition. Boarding a ship to Beirut, her destination was the places she’d encountered through the pages of her favourite childhood book, One Thousand and One Nights. 

Explorer Freya Stark, illustrated by Viktorija Semjonova for Oh Comely issue 31.

Explorer Freya Stark, illustrated by Viktorija Semjonova for Oh Comely issue 31.

While Stark’s travels in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Persia in the 1920s and ‘30s did benefit cartographers by filling in hitherto blank maps, greater still was their effect on a transfixed audience back home. Over her 25 books, she transported readers to the far-flung corners of the atlas, bringing it to life with the characters of the people she encountered, descriptions of how they dressed, ate, lived, and imparting her own giddy delight in exploration. 

Stark’s first book, The Valley of the Assassins, published in 1934, charted her journey in an area barely visited by Westerners, let alone Western women. She travelled alone and unarmed, as she did on all her travels. Over time, her packing evolved to include letters of introduction, medication, small gifts to hand out, as well as copies of Jane Austen and Virgil. Clad in Dior dresses and favouring elaborate hats to hide the effects of a disfiguring childhood accident, Stark took advantage of her gender to experience the aspects of women’s lives hidden from her male counterparts and, when she wanted, to bend the rules. “The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.” Her desire for exploration wasn’t driven by conquest or a need to assert superiority, but by curiosity, “I travelled single-mindedly for fun,” she stated. 

In her 1939 Baghdad Sketches, where a medical emergency left her close to death, she recounted that, “It was not my sins that I regretted at that time; but rather the many things undone”. Living until she was 100, and travelling into her eighties, Freya Stark was a woman who would never be “done”.Further reading: One Thousand and One Nights (Penguin Classics); The Valley of Assassins by Freya Stark (Modern Library Inc); Baghdad Sketches, Freya Stark (IB Taurus and Co Ltd)

This feature originally appeared in Oh Comely issue 31

Women Who Changed the World: Harriet Tubman

In every issue of Oh Comely we celebrate the life of an extraordinary woman you ought to know about. This week, we’d like you to meet Harriet Tubman: an abolitionist, liberator, and humanitarian who ruled the Underground Railway with a pistol and a barrel of belief.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive.”

Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of 1800s Maryland, Harriet Tubman endured the harsh life of a field’s hand from birth, fending for herself and her siblings while their Mother worked in their master’s “Big house”. Sometime between 1834 and 1836, an iron weight directed at another fleeing slave struck her instead, landing with such force it fractured her skull and drove fragments of her shawl into her head. Although she suffered from seizures and periods of semi-consciousness for the rest of her life, the incident was the catalyst of her self-driven revolution.

Continually hired out for odd-jobs despite her impairment, Harriet worked on the docks and in a timber gang. It is here she learned of the secret networks of communication within an exclusively male world. Combining a mariner’s knowledge of safe zones with her own skills of disguise and deception, she became uniquely equipped to flee the horrors of slavery. In 1849, she ran away, leaving her family and husband of five years behind at the plantation. With nothing but the clothes on her back and the North Star as her compass, she evaded bounty hunters and found work as a housemaid in Philadelphia, saving her wages to return South and conduct escape missions. Despite the substantial reward placed on her head, she returned to the site 13 times and helped 70 people find freedom via the covert Underground Railroad. Dubbed “Black Moses” on account of her unrelenting faith and conviction, she carried a loaded pistol and was unafraid to use it against captors, nor to warn fellow fugitives who showed fear or hesitation.

At the outbreak of the civil war, her talents were noticed by the Union Services, who hired her to work as as a spy. Prized for her ability to move unnoticed through rebel territory, she became the first American woman to command an armed military, leading a raid that saw the liberation of another 700 slaves along the Combahee River. During this time she also worked as a cook, nurse, cleaner, scout, laundress and teacher - selling pies, gingerbread and beer in order to supplement her pitiful wage.

 In her later years, she became ever more politicised and continued to campaign for women’s suffrage and black liberation before founding the Harriet Hubman Home for the Aged: a safe space for sick and indignant African-Americans who had sustained injuries similar to her own. Aged 90, she passed away safe in the knowledge of her immaculate record. She never lost a single fugitive, nor allowed one to turn back. 

Further Reading: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson

Images: Library of Congress, Bettman/Corbis of The NYT Photo Archive

Women Who Changed the World: Barbara McClintock

In our final instalment of Women Who Changed the World Wednesday, we'd like to introduce you Barbara McClintock.

”I know my corn plants intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.”

Barbara is a scientist’s scientist: driven by curiosity, committed to exacting standards and deeply incisive. Though McClintock made many notable contributions to genetics, she is best remembered for her work on “jumping genes” or transposons. By 1902 it was known that chromosomes carried genetic information, but how they worked remained a mystery. In the late 1940s McClintock demonstrated that certain chromosomal segments could move around, resulting in kaleidoscopic colour patterns in maize.

It would take decades for the importance of this finding to be widely recognised but by the late seventies transposition was seemingly everywhere: it was the mechanism that could make bacteria resistant to antibiotics, make viruses infectious, or even cause cancer.

In 1983 McClintock received a Nobel Prize and the notion that her work had been long underappreciated came to the fore. Interviewers asked how she had managed to go on. She replied simply: “I never thought of stopping, and I just hated sleeping. I can’t imagine having a better life.”

Barbara's influential paper can be found at The origin and behavior of mutable loci in maize by Barbara McClintock-- taken from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 36 (6): 344-355. 

This short biopic of Barbara's incredible life was first published in Oh Comely Issue 29, alongside Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here!

Illustration: Cristina BanBan

Women Who Changed the World: Claude Cahun

Welcome to the third installment of our March mini-series on women who changed the world with their creativity. This week, we'd like you to meet one of our favourite artists, Claude Cahun. 

“My opinion on homosexuality and homosexuals is exactly the same as my opinion on heterosexuality and on heterosexuals: everything depends on the individuals and on the circumstances. I uphold people’s rights to behave as they wish.” 

Revealing whichever persona she felt like exploring, Claude Cahun’s self-portrait photographs challenged gender norms in early twentieth century Europe. In one image, she appears bald-headed, steely-eyed and suited. In another, she contorts limbs and tumbles from a cabinet full of homewares like a doll.

Relocating to the Channel Islands just before the second world war, Cahun instigated a resistance movement against the Nazi invasion, working alongside her lifelong partner Marcel Moore. As the pair repeatedly placed anti-fascist leaflets in coat pockets and on table tops, the occupying soldiers became convinced that a secret resistance group was operating on the island. Eventually they were sentenced to death for their characteristically subversive, artistic and defiant act.

Though the order was never carried out, their art was destroyed. Today they share a plot at St Brelade’s church in Jersey—entwined beneath the ground upon which they raised hell.

More information about Claude's extraordinary life can be found in Claude Cahun: Disavowals by Claude Cahun. Our extended selection of female muses to learn about and love features in Issue 29, alongside Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here!

Illustration: Cristina BanBan

Women Who Changed the World: Jennie Lee

Every Wednesday throughout March, we'll be introducing you to women who changed the world with their creativity. Our second instalment of the mini-series shines a spotlight on Jennie Lee. 

“As soon as I had an independent roof over my head, I was ready for battle.”

When the 24-year-old Jennie Lee became a member of parliament in 1929 she wasn’t even old enough to vote for herself. After growing up in a mining community so close-knit that her house literally had no back door, she went on to have one of the most colourful and inspiring political lives of the twentieth century.

A fearless, uncompromising socialist, her accomplishments included becoming the first minister for the arts and founding Britain’s last great social project, the Open University. Her 1965 governmental arts white paper—still the only arts paper ever written—argued for the arts to be a crucial part of everyday life, available to everyone. Under her stewardship the creation of new galleries, museums, music venues, theatres and other institutions fostered an unprecedented creative environment that continues to benefit the entire country.

Until the end of her life, Jennie was unable to attend the theatre without receiving a round of applause.

You can read more about her in Jennie Lee: A Life by Patricia Hollis, and find more of Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations of women who changed the world in Issue 29. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here!

Illustration: Cristina BanBan

Women Who Changed the World: Audre Lorde

The twenty-ninth edition of Oh Comely celebrates change in all forms. Every Wednesday for the next four weeks, we'll be showcasing women who changed the world with their creativity, starting with Audre Lorde.

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Audre identified as a “black feminist lesbian mother poet” not only because she happened to be all of those things, but because girls born to Caribbean migrants in 1930s Harlem weren’t encouraged to carve out identities all their own.

Entering the world partially blind and with initial learning difficulties, Audre penned her own unapologetic stanzas from around the age of twelve and went on to publish sixteen revelatory works on the nature of identity, whether enforced or chosen. Living her truth in a society fearful of difference, she established herself as a champion of the civil rights and women’s movements, laying bare the interlocking nature of oppression. Towards the end of her fourteen-year battle with cancer, she took the name Gamba Adisa in an African naming ceremony. It translates as, “warrior: she who makes her meaning known.”

You can find more of Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations of women who changed the world in Issue 29. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here! More information about Audre's life and legacy can be found in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

Illustration: Cristina BanBan