Lady of Legacy: Gertrude Bell

Well-behaved women seldom make history. -Laurel Ulrich 

The Victorian Era

Great Britain was bursting at the seams. Rapid growth and developments were being made across countries. The medical, scientific, and technology fields saw major advances and changes. People started to question and doubt the many rote activities that were passed down from ancestors. The land was booming with new ideas and ways of life. Yet, despite all of these changes, women still held traditional roles in culture and society, with few innovators and rabble-rousers among them.

Upper Middle Class Women

It was the age for hoopskirts, corsets and high tea. A time when women were expected to marry, give birth to children, and keep a home. The Victorian Era was rife with women’s pent up energies. The suffrage hadn’t yet begun and women had no legal rights. The role of upper middle class woman extended primarily to planning social events and ruling over servants. As Etty Raverat, a young women in the late 1800s, said, “Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves, they told others what to do and how to do it”.

Gertrude Bell

Known as the female Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell defied all of these stereotypes. She was the first woman to obtain a history degree from Oxford, and after graduating she became an avid mountaineer of the Alps and traveled extensively. She made two trips around the world before falling in love with the Middle East and making it her home.

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She traveled deep into the deserts; caravans of camels and their Arab male herders came with her while she photographed and documented the land and its tribes, something that had never been done before — let alone by a woman. It was a primitive, male-dominated culture, lacking any resemblance to the life she lived in England. She often rejoiced when finding a waterpool where her caravan could refill its empty waterskins, she grew accustomed to sleeping on the hard desert ground, and dealt repeatedly with strenuous weather environments.

She traveled deep into the deserts; caravans of camels and their Arab male herders came with her while she photographed and documented the land and its tribes, something that had never been done before — let alone by a woman.

Her love for the people and tribes, their ancient history and ways of life, along with a love for the land made her an easy choice when the British Intelligence needed a recruit in the area during World War I. She later became the Oriental Secretary of Mesopotamia alongside the Military Governor, was awarded the decoration of the Commander of the British Empire and was recognized for her work in Mesopotamia when Winston Churchill invited her as the only female to attend Cairo’s Conference in 1921. After defining the borders of Iraq, establishing it as its own state and helping to see that Prince Faisal took the throne, she settled down to create the largest collection of antiquities for the Museum of Iraq.

So much of Ms. Bell’s life was surrounded by men. Like a bull in a china shop, she was headstrong about her political views and beliefs and could converse grossly about them to anyone. She was described by Sir Mark Sykes as “a terror in the desert.” But what challenges me is her insistence on foregoing the traditional route of womanhood and placing herself alongside those who thought her lower than themselves. So many women were content with commanding servants or planning parties; this woman drew the lines of empires. Gertrude Bell refused to allow her current circumstances to get in the way of accomplishing great achievements. What could we achieve if we did the same?

FOLLOWING HER LEGACY: What’s holding you back from reaching your fullest potential?

For more information on Gertrude Bell, (she wrote several books of her travels including Desert and the Sown) read JanetWallach’s Desert Queen.

Images via Letters from Baghdad (top) and Clio History (bottom)

Kate is a country girl living in the big city of Los Angeles. A mother of three little ladies and the wife of a writer/director, you’ll usually find her in the garden getting her hands dirty or cooking a homemade meal.

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