Herstory at its fucking finest.
Lady Nancy Astor: Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your tea.
Churchill: Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.
The Bank of England has decided that Winston Churchill will deface our fivers. As he’s replacing Elizabeth Fry, currently the only woman to be duly bank noted, it would seem our financial powers that be have one thing in common with the late Prime Minister; their attitudes to women are about as prosperous as our economy.
In another, less wanky – I mean banky – part of London, the Jamaican High Commission will commemorate the life of Mary Seacole (an early rumoured favourite for Fry’s replacement) by hosting a panel discussion on Monday, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m, the night before the anniversary of Mary Seacole’s death on May 14, 1881. The discussion will also announce that the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal has received in excess of £300,000, passing the half way mark on their target.
We do, as a society, have historical fads. Figures from our past become fashionable, hip, even relevant. They don’t go on BBQT or pose in Cosmo, but they start having loads of school libraries named after them, they crop up in articles about the state of modern such ‘n’ such with a nod to “oh, wasn’t it great back in fifteen-thirty-whatsit”, schools will fight tooth and nail to keep the latest fad on their curriculum. Mary has been fashionable since the resurgence of her story in the early nineties – having a thirteen foot bronze statue of you plonked in viewpoint of most-a central London is about as fashionable as it gets for a woman who’s been dead for a hundred and thirty years.
You’d assume that the Bank of England would want to cash in on Mary’s popularity. Give us common people what we want. It’s only five bob after all. Appease us a little *cough* CHURCHILL *cough*. But it seems that Gove isn’t the only one who’d like to give Mary the boot. In pondering why mass pleas for Mary and other notable women have been ignored, how Mary has become the Victorian equivalent of Marmite and why, in the twenty-first century, the Bank of England hasn’t a single lady they deem significant enough to spend a fiver on, us wenches are asking – what makes someone note worthy? And does Mary fit the bill?
The loudest objection to Mary’s comeback comes from parts of the media. The Daily Mail have an impressive back-catalogue of “LATEST: Mary didn’t ACTUALLY win any medals. So why’s she wearing them in her portrait? Did she steal them?” and other trashings – none of which I feel comfortable making too much reference too but because they’re (a) boloney and (b) pretty racist:
“There’s just one problem: historians around the world are growing increasingly uneasy about the statue, amid claims the adulation of Seacole has gone too far. They claim her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, and out of a commendable – but in this case misguided – desire to create positive black role models.”
Oooof course they do. Other, ever-so-slightly less questionable publications have followed suit, and these outcries became considerably more frequent once the plans for a statue outside St. Thomas’s Hospital (home of Florence Nightingale’s nursing school in 1860 and now shrine to our other heroine of the Crimean War) were announced last year.
The media’s resentment towards what’s become known as the “cult of Mary Seacole”, isn’t surprising. Mary’s uneducated, but not in the way we like – a self-taught genius whose poverty prevented them from receiving the education their brilliant mind deserved. She’s black, but again, not in the way we like – a strong woman with no conflicting feelings about her racial identity. She suffered pitfalls, but not in the way we like – poor business ventures and financial gambles don’t make for a good “overcoming the odds” tagline. A refusal to embrace her, particularly by those on the wrong side of the right, is a plain old rejection of a woman who doesn’t quite fit any of our hero tropes. What’s more surprising, and more concerning, is that some academics disregard Mary’s worth with the same furore that those who don’t know what they’re talking about do. Lynn McDonald, who objected to the planned monument for Mary in The Guardian, is a sociologist and Nightingale enthusiast, and she wrote a more history-substantial piece on Mary for History Today, that went something like this;
“Bashing white Victorian heroines is fair game these days, particularly those of privileged background and the higher the status the more delightful the fall.”
Lynn’s bone of contention is the belief that Mary’s reputation has been inflated at the expense of Florence Nightingale’s. Not an uncommon argument. Whether this is because historians aren’t prepared to be as crass when they play the race card or it’s a natural, historiographical transition that generations of history students will later come to analyse, remains to be seen. But a more reasonable issue raised by anti-Maries is that she’s been accredited too much in an attempt to strengthen her validity. Lynn states this as her reason for trying to de-Mary us;
“It is time to look at what these two women actually did and did not do in the Crimean War, against what is claimed for and against them.”
That seems fair enough, take it away Lynn…
Seacole traces her interest in war to her Scottish soldier father, which gave her sympathy with the ‘pomp, pride and circumstance of glorious war’. She next admitted to a longing to ‘witness’ war, especially since regiments she knew in “Jamaica were leaving for the ‘scene of action’ . When the war actually began in late September 1854 Seacole was in London to look after her gold-mining stocks. Newspaper advertisements invited applications for nursing posts, but Seacole never applied. Instead, after Nightingale and her 38 nurses had left, she set out to join a later contingent of nurses, one Nightingale knew nothing about. Seacole made the rounds of offices, beginning with that of the junior war minister, Sidney Herbert, but he neither interviewed nor hired nurses and declined to see her. She did not get an interview anywhere else she tried, but whether or not for reasons of race is not clear. She was old for hospital nursing, nearing 50, and had had no hospital experience, despite the frequent claim that she ran the nursing at an army hospital in Jamaica – not a claim she ever made herself. Seacole then decided to go on her own. She would set up the ‘British Hotel’, which she advertised as a ‘mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. She had used the name earlier at an establishment in Panama, but neither it nor the Crimean establishment took overnight guests – both were restaurants with stores. The Crimean venue also had a ‘canteen for the soldiery’, no further details given.”
Mary’s interest in her family history, her financial investments, none of it discredits her, Lynn. You’re painting the picture of a woman who had a family and needed to earn a living. So sue her. What is discredited is any legitimate attempt at clearing up historical inaccuracies when you follow it with “whether or not for reasons of race is not clear”. As an unescorted, fifty year old black woman Mary was definitely susceptible to numerous prejudices in early Victorian England, so to undermine this is a shoddy attempt at rewriting what we know the cultural climate was like. Yes, it isn’t known for absolutely, certain whether or not the rejection of her nursing application was down to her colour, but it’s a fair assumption to make seeing as she was pursuing a position that would have been occupied entirely by young white women. Fairer than insinuating doubt as to just how much bloody prejudice she encountered. But she continues in the same vein;
“The British Hotel was her major occupation, but she also did voluntary work, such as taking tea and lemonade to soldiers waiting on the wharf for transport to the general hospitals in Turkey.”
Yeah, I really hate people who volunteer their time and money to help others.
“In fact Seacole was present at only three battles.”
Churchill (we’re still not over it, alright?) wasn’t present at any*, yet he’s synonymous with WWII.
“In the Crimean War Seacole’s ‘patients’ were all walk-ins. The army sent its most serious cases to the general hospitals, mostly under Nightingale, the less serious to regimental hospitals. Men with lesser ailments such as headaches and stomach complaints took themselves to the British Hotel.”
She was well liked by her contemporaries and people actually went out of their way to seek her help? Uhuh, that’s definitely going in the cons box.
“All this shows Seacole to have been spunky, generous and worthy of praise. But it does not demonstrate that her actions saved thousands of lives.”
Worthy of praise. Just not too much.
“The Seacole campaign has not only changed her occupation, but her race. She was three-quarters white and proud of her ‘Scotch blood’. She had nothing good to say about her African/Creole heritage, but made a point of distancing herself from the ‘lazy Creole’ image.”
And we’re back to race. The fact that she felt uneasy about her racial identity doesn’t make her any less of an inspirational figure, black or otherwise, and nor is it fair to use it as a snipe against her. Linda Bellos, one of the brains behind Black History Month, spoke in 2011 about the importance of BHM and what her and her fellow cofounders came up against;
“The real difficulty is the recording of history. Publishers will say this is only of limited interest; white people won’t be interested in the history of black people. I don’t think this is conscious; I don’t think anyone is designing how to do racism, how to marginalise black people, – and yet it’s such a cultural norm.”
This is key for two reasons – Firstly, although the masses aren’t disinterested in women’s history or black history, it’s clear that the stars of these histories are expected to be extraordinary. More extraordinary than their white, male *cough* Churchill *cough* counterparts. There’s no room for character flaws or inner turmoil when you’re a black woman. Those inconsistencies which would be considered worthy of study in a Churchill or a Darwin or an Orwell are evidence of your lack of integrity if you’re a Mary. Secondly, worth a mention that one of the reasons we know what we do about Mary is because her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman. This in itself is astonishing in light of the problems with promoting black history that Linda Bellos highlights.
What Mary did or didn’t do and how important she is to the history of nursing won’t be settled any time soon, but her note worthiness, to us at least, is undeniable. As Lynn said, Mary was spunky. And that makes her worth her weight in gold.
*EDIT: We’ve been slapped on the wrist by one of our followers on Twitter – “Churchill, was, alas, present at a number of battles, in Omdurman; also a POW, and front-line battalion CO in 1916-18…” Sorry, – we meant he wasn’t present at any conflicts in the war he’s synonymous with… Cue some smart arse to correct us on that, too.