Monday, December 6, 2010

The Women Aren’t There

I’m in the process of revising a book entitled:  Korea, Are You at Peace, based on a two year sojourn  in Korea and am incorporating into my narrative some portions of a memoir by Isabella Bird-Bishop, a Victorian travel writer who visited Korea a century earlier.  She was well-known – one could even say famous – in her time; she traveled around the world, published numerous travelogues, and was the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.  Indeed, her presence in the RGS created such a furor from misogynistic members that she quietly withdrew the following year.  She refused to rejoin upon being invited once again, although other women had since become members.
Still, when I tried to find her in my copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, she wasn’t there.  She wasn’t there under the name Bird, by which name she is identified by most who refer to her historically, or under the name Bishop, which she acquired rather late in life at the age of 50.  Admittedly, my version of the Encyclopedia Britannica is one we had when the children were young.  It dates to 1978.  Jimmy Carter was then president of the United States, which seems like a long time ago, although he is still a force in the world.  And Queen Elizabeth was then sovereign of Great Britain, which she amazingly still is.  
Queen Victoria, a model for many nascent British feminists, was sovereign when Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Bishop was one of several noted female Victorian adventurers and travel writers, including Gertrude Bell and Florence Nightingale, who courageously navigated the non-Western world, often on their own.
I’ve checked that encyclopedia for three other women who came up in conversation and reading this past week:  Maria Montessori, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun.  I’ll admit that two of them (Montessori and Gaskell) were there, so it’s not that women aren’t represented in the most prestigious encyclopedia in the English language.  It’s just that there are very few of them, and those are quite famous.  I often start reading an article in the encyclopedia then peruse the pages beyond and behind, just for the compulsive pleasure of learning something new.  There are lots of articles on old guys no one knows about, but essentially no articles on old women nobody has heard of before.
I don’t know what the current Encyclopedia Britannica contains.  Perhaps all four of these women are now there.  You might ask:  “Why don’t you just go online and get information there?”  Of course I do, and I have.  But I like a written encyclopedia, particularly this one.  I trust it to be accurate.  But I realize I can’t trust it to be comprehensive.  And I like to simply peruse it for random information.  You really can’t do that with an online search.
But women are now getting into history through the back door, via sites like the National Museum of Women in the Arts ( and the projected National Women’s History Museum (  The latter had a small blurb on Isabella Bird Bishop and her environmental descriptions of Hawaii (“The Sandwich Islands”) in a recent newsletter article extolling women pioneers in environmental awareness and protection.
Let’s resurrect the women and save the planet.

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