Jemma Neville is Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland, the national development agency for all community-led arts practice. A writer and human rights activist, her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Island Review and National Collective. Swapping statutes for stanzas, she is at home in Leith where she can be found by the Shore with her dog, Bonnie, planning creative adventures near and far. @jemma_tweets
Richard III was a Neville. My great, great uncle Daniel was eaten by a crocodile. James Smith set sail from Timberbush, Leith, for The New World as a cabin boy and returned a wealthy sea merchant. All true, apparently.
I know these, and other legendary family tales, to be true, apparently, because of treasured diaries and archived official records. Except that these accounts of ancestral history are incomplete and therefore open to misinterpretation because of the absence of female individual identity – the faint, gradual but consistent erasure of our she-lines.
James Smith wrote a whole tome entitled ‘The Book of Occurrences’ about his sea-faring world adventures but included little detail about the women that supported his rise to fame and fortune from humble beginnings. I wonder what he would make of me now living next to the boat-building yards of Timberbush, Leith, in a much changed part of our city. I know nothing about the women back home who might have mourned the unfortunate demise of Daniel after the incident with the croc in the ‘new world’ (Australia). Wife of Richard III, Queen Anne Neville, gets a substantial bookmark in history but only in reference to her king-making role in the English War of the Roses and as a woman educated and wealthy enough to wield power and influence among men.
In less regal branches of extended family tree, women appear briefly in birth, marriage and death, if at all. And upon marriage, loose their maiden name and thus genealogical clues to their own identity. Beyond two or three living generations, maternal lineage becomes harder to trace and female footsteps gradually fade into anonymity. Our record of history is the history of men. In retelling only that version of events, we all miss something.
And so it was with admiration that I have observed my grandmother and sister’s recent efforts to piece together the she-lines of our own family. Beginning by narrating her own mother (Stella)’s story, our grandmother (Isobel) painstakingly followed a line that grew fainter from daughter to mother back and back. Then with the help of the National Registrar of Scotland, church marriage records, pencil sketches, and great tenacity and patience, she managed to trace a path over eight generations and several previous Isobel/las, as far back as the 1740s and the Jacobite retreat through Perthshire when church records were burned. The faces staring out at us from later, faded photographs have now been returned their identities and reinstated into the permanence of the past, separate to their fathers, brothers and sons.
In praise of this and in response to International Women’s’ Day, 8 March, I invited some of the women I most admire to come together for a meal and the sharing of stories about the women who have shaped our different life experiences thus far. I also asked each guest to consider what she had inherited, and what she might pass on, irrespective of whether that inheritance should be social or biological. These memories are of course for others to own and share as they wish to but I have attempted to gather together some of that which was retold.
We discussed the F-word with reference to classics such as Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and more contemporary writing including 50 Shades of Feminism and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. We laughed and we cried. We talked about food, sex, and fashion. But mostly we just made time to honour the courageous, funny and talented women that have made us each who we are today.
Nina talked about her academic career in human rights law at Glasgow University. And she told us the story of how she got her name; of her mother’s best friend in Toronto, also Nina, and sadly no longer alive. She reflected that, for her, inheritance is a connection to love.
On love, Isobel shared a morning mantra: “I love me. I am a being of love. I feel wonderful” and gifted each of us a postcard showing the heather and rolling hills of her native Galloway as a souvenir reminder of why self-respect and love must be the foundation for all relationships.
In turn, Rowena shared her admiration for Isobel via an email contribution sent from a remote village in Uganda where she was working at the time in gynaecology and family-planning medicine:
“I think of my two grandmothers. Both were brought up largely by their mothers, themselves independent women who overcame many challenges. They have a true spirit of adventure, which sees them continue to explore new places and take up new activities into their 80s. They are each lynchpins in their own large and geographically dispersed families, keeping us all in touch and together. Neither is overly sentimental, but is honest and straight talking, which can be so refreshing. They have both given me invaluable advice over the years and have both passed to me a love of the outdoors, of wide open spaces and fresh air.
Have a great day – I am helping to give a talk on the new cervical screening program being set up by the hospital here, before sodas and music :)”.
I embarrassed Isobel further by telling one of my favourite stories about her single-handedly challenging the power of corporate advertising and a multinational fashion brand. She had spoken out about her distaste at seeing mannequin dummies in Edinburgh’s Harvey Nicholls Department Store dressed in metal bondage chains. A polite but firm complaint that stated her objection to depicting women as slaves resulted in a rethink about visual merchandising, a complimentary lunch by way of goodwill, and perhaps a lesson in social history for John Galliano.
Dee, while breastfeeding baby daughter Aoife, introduced us to a real-life ‘sister act’ – her great aunt Maur– a guitar-playing nun who studied at Trinity College Dublin and went onto win the university table tennis championship dressed in full habit and wimple. Maur had made the most of the limited choices available to her at the time outside of a married life.
Tricia shared a smiling photograph of her mother, Sheila, dressed in dungarees and headscarf atop hay bales in the Land Army. She said: “The greatest pride in my life is that my daughters are not afraid to give their opinions. My mother, Sheila Menzies, was told from childhood until she was a young adult that her views were worthless and should not be expressed. That stayed with her all her life despite her being such a caring, intelligent woman. We have come a long way as a society to where we find ourselves today.”
Since our Women’s Day lunch on 8 March, babies have been born, relationships ended and new ones begun, careers progressed, political campaigns won or lost, and more stories made. I hope the lunch becomes an annual event. Perhaps it has taken me so long to write up a record of that Saturday in March because the telling of women’s lives, throughout history, has largely been an oral tradition and not always a written one. Finding and celebrating our female lineage is a dangerous act – it requires tenacity of effort and independence of mind in research and provoking the official version of events.
On researching International Women’s Day, I found this quote from the late human rights activist and trade union leader, Inez McCormack:
Some things only make sense with the settling of time and the re-emergence of biographical clues linking us to one another in often surprising ways. Just as I’ve always been terrified of crocodiles, I know that I’m also a living mix of all the extraordinary, dangerous women that came out of the shadows and into the sun before me. They didn’t need to colonize countries, battle wild animals, or win wars to do so. They were carers and careerists, agriculturists and academics and in their own, determined ways, quite dangerous. To acknowledge this inheritance, I want to take up my rightful space as a woman, with my own name and thus visible, permanent she-line marker after, and before, others to come.