On Tuesday 23rd February, Newcastle University’s own Helen Berry, professor of British History, gave a talk about one of the region’s most influential and inspiring women in her talk, ‘Gertrude Bell and the Woman Question’. Curtis Auditorium was completely packed out for the event, as was the overflow room in Lecture Theatre 1.
I was brought up in or around Newcastle and so this woman was an entirely new figure for me, but her story is one that’s quite simply amazing. Born in the North East, Gertrude Bell eventually managed to travel all across the world in her pursuit of discovering other cultures, revealing things that had before been hidden to the Western World, such as the harems of Arabic kings, while also campaigning for the right for women in Baghdad to have access to an education.
While Gertrude Bell had been influential in these areas, as well as loudly voicing political opinions, she is also seen a paradox figure in women’s history. She was a staunch believer that women should be educated and allowed roles in the same areas as men, yet she was also a founder member of a Northern branch of an anti-women’s suffrage group. Within this, she had a prominent and controversial role as the Secretary of the group, while also actively canvassing both men and women to join her cause. However, in her talk, Helen Berry gave her side on why this could have been.
Gertrude Bell was born into a staunchly imperialist family, her father owned Cleveland Iron works and her stepmother had even written and published her own book. Though women were barred from graduation at the time, Bell was able to study at Oxford and gain a 1st Class Degree in Modern History. In her father’s London home, she was able to mix with important politicians of the time, allowed to have her own say in this. All of this seems to point to a woman who would have been strongly interested in promoting the women’s cause, but, her family held very strong imperial views, and Bell seems to have belonged to the group of women who viewed the Suffragist movement in particular as damaging. Not only to pre-conceived gender roles of the time, but also that what they as professional women had achieved could be undermined and destroyed by the militant WSPU.
Yet, given all that, Gertrude Bell was also a woman who could be highly critical of women who performed these gender roles. She herself set out and traveled the world, photography and speaking with women from cultures so different from her own. She was even with T. E. Lawrence on some of his digs, yet there is no mention her in his film. And without wanting to come across as a militant feminist myself, this is largely due to men’s opinions of women at the time. As well as for the fact that history was written by men about other men, leaving women like Gertrude Bell and many other women of her ilk to be left out of history and forgotten.
This talk was simply brilliant in delving into the world of Gertrude Bell, something that can’t all be told in one article. However, there is an exhibition in the Great North Museum about Inspirational Women, which would definitely be worth checking out.