The women who worked for peace

Rachel Cox 

100 years ago from last Sunday, an armistice was signed, bringing the First World War to an end. In the years which followed, conferences and treaties were drawn up to agree on the terms of peace. The process was dominated largely by men – all the representatives at the Paris Peace Conference were male, whilst the ‘Big Three’, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, pushed for their countries’ interests as the settlements dragged on. But there were women too, working tirelessly to create a peaceful world in the years after WW1. Their work has had a much longer-lasting impact, yet their names are seldom mentioned when the end of the war is discussed.

One such woman was Dr Harriette Chick. While those at the Paris Peace Conference were arguing over territory and reparations, Harriette was more concerned about the terrible living conditions and food shortages in the collapsing Austrian Empire and the devastating effect this was having on the health of Austrian children. With a team of female scientists, Harriette began investigating the relationship between the poor nutrition these children were receiving and the symptoms they displayed. She discovered that nutritional deficiency was one of the main causes of rickets, allowing her to develop cures for this and other diseases in the form of vitamin supplements. Harriette not only managed to save hundreds of children that she encountered in Austria, but also made discoveries that continue to be used in modern medicine.


Dr Harriette Chick – source: foodheroesandheroines

Concerns about starvation and disease among the children of Austria and Germany were shared by Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb. Outraged that the British naval blockade was still causing food shortages in Austria and Germany even after the armistice had been signed, Eglantyne joined the Fight the Famine Council, which had been set up in 1919 and aimed to force the British Government to end the blockade. Her actions while campaigning for this cause led to her arrest, but while on trial, the judge was so moved by her case that he voluntarily paid the fine that was to be her punishment. The sisters took this money and put it towards a new fundraising project, which they called the “Save the Children Fund”. This time, their efforts had greater success and attracted much support from the British Public. By the end of 1920, Save the Children had raised an equivalent of £8,000,000 in today’s money. The sisters continued to fight for the rights of those affected by war throughout their lives. Dorothy campaigned for the protection of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, while Eglantyne presented the Declaration of the Rights of the Child at the 1924 League of Nations convention. This declaration led to the creation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which organisations such as UNICEF continue to use as the basis of their work. The Save the Children organisation also continued to grow, and remains one of the most major organisations that provide aid to children affected by war in areas such as Syria and Iraq.


Eglantyne Jebb at her Save the Children desk, 1921 – source: The History Girls 

At the same time, another non-profit organisation was being created by a group of women who hoped to prevent future wars by studying the causes of previous conflicts. Jane Addams, Marian Cripps and Margaret E. Dungan founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1919. These women argued that the lack of female politicians at this time meant women’s voices were overlooked, and so they had no opportunity to prevent war. They saw the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as overly harsh, and feared it would cause more conflict rather than maintain peace, so began campaigning for international peace initiatives such as global disarmament and an end to economic imperialism. At the time, the WILPF was often criticised as being ‘unpatriotic’, and the women involved were deemed too politically active and, as a result, ‘unfeminine’. However, Jane was not deterred and continued to travel to war-torn areas and meet with world leaders and soldiers. In 1931, she finally received recognition for her work, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first American Woman to be awarded one. Remaining devoted to her cause, she donated her prize money to the WILPF. The organisation went on to work closely with the United Nations, and to this day remains one of the few societies to have special consultative relations with the UN.


Mary McDowell and Jane Adams at a peace protest, 1932 – source: world of faces

The names of these women are not brought up nearly as much as those of the men who led the official peace-making process, but their work to support those affected by war was arguably more successful and lasted longer than the settlement drawn up at the Paris Peace Conference. While the Big Three focused on maintaining their own country’s international prestige, these women set up organisations and made discoveries that continue to save lives every day. Perhaps it is time that their stories become better known, as they remind us that when faced with the difficult task of maintaining world peace, focusing on providing for the needs of vulnerable individuals can be far more beneficial than fighting for your own county’s superiority.

Hidden figures: in conversation with Rashidat, FLY Cambridge facilitator

Anna Curzon Price (based on her conversation with Rashidat Fredrika Animashaun)

Underlying my initial interpretation of “Hidden figures” (this week’s theme) was a pretty simplistic narrative. I knew the story I wanted to write: hidden figures need to be revealed – through inculcation into the mainstream, power structures are challenged and we move towards a less racist and less sexist society.

I wanted Rashidat to provide me with a few figures whom I could actually write about and lament unfairness of their erasure from history. But what actually ensued was a far more interesting discussion which complicates this narrative. Here are some thoughts which the conversation triggered.

This is a record of the pictures and themes which I – from my position as a white female in Cambridge – found most interesting from our discussion.

Clearly I am not making any claim of being in a position to be able to truthfully represent experiences which Rashidat was trying to convey to me. Instead, I hope to use this article to provoke thinking about the different things which hidden-ness and visibility do, the different ways in which power structures make visible and hide, and the way in which resistance, too, is dependent on the negotiation of visibility and invisibility.

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On copywriting, copying and writing

Eleanor Surbey 

One of the very first “grown-up” books I ever read was Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. My dad bought me a bargain-bin copy at Walmart one summer and explained to my pubescent self that “reading this book is a requirement for your cultural education. Although Harper Lee was friends with this guy Truman Capote and everyone thinks he wrote it.” At the time, I didn’t think much of this; looking back on it, however, it sends a clear message that many people think women can’t actually write. When I read further into it, I see that women’s authorship is so often questioned: rumor has it that Harper Lee, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, and even Courtney Love used ghostwriters, despite these claims repeatedly being refuted. Ironically, more often than not, women are the ghostwriters in some form or another, whether they use male-sounding names as pen names, extensively edit manuscripts, or write in their diaries only for those same entries to be reused by the men in their lives. The truth of the matter is that many great works of literature or film are actually the products of women writers and editors.

The examples are endless. Harper Lee actually attended every single Kansas interview Truman Capote conducted as part of his preparation for In Cold Blood, and wrote up her own summaries for him to use. Dan Brown’s wife did most of the research for The Da Vinci Code. Woman editors are to thank for films such as Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Star Wars, The Wolf of Wall Street, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and Lawrence of Arabia — the latter being one of seven films for which Barbara McLean was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Editing. Zelda Fitzgerald stated that large parts of This Side of Paradise reminded her of her missing diaries. And on top of repeatedly saving Lolita from the household fireplace, Vera Nabokov typed, proofread, edited, chauffeured, and cut up food for her husband Vladimir.

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Truman Capote signing copies of “In Cold Blood” with Harper Lee in 1966. Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis, source:

Or take Sophia Tolstaya, wife of Leo, who transcribed War and Peace seven times and significantly edited it, all while in a state of permanent pregnancy (she gave birth to thirteen children), as well as nursing and managing her husband’s estate. She did the same for Anna Karenina, too, staying up well into the night with a magnifying glass to decipher her husbands scrawl. Sophia served as her husband’s muse and was the inspiration for many of his heroines, yet her own diaries are the depressing writings of a tired woman in a difficult and complex marriage. While she certainly respected and admired her husband, she also suffered extensive emotional pain as a result of her relationship with him. At nineteen, while pregnant for the first time, she wrote “I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman”; the diaries her husband kept and forced her to read, on the other hand, involved detailed accounts of affairs with serfs as well as the sentence “there is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” Sonya – as she was called – was not even allowed to see her husband, who had run away ten days earlier, on his deathbed, and was kept away from him by his circle of Tolstoyans, especially Vladimir Chertkov.

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Sophia and Leo Tolstoy at their home, Yasnaya Polyana. Photograph: Corbis/© Underwood & Underwood

Continuing in the vein of families, the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy is also one involving diaries. The precise nature of their relationship has been the subject of speculation for years — some scholars believe she is the basis for the Lucy poems and some, such as F.W. Bateson, go so far as to call it incestuous — but it was certainly a friendship that was born out of the shared state of being an orphan and living in poverty. The two actually lived together relatively happily, and continued to do so even after William married his wife Mary in 1802. Mary and Dorothy transcribed many of William’s poems, just like Tolstaya. And much like how Leo Tolstoy made his wife read his diaries, Dorothy too shared her poetic and carefully detailed writings with her brother. In one entry, she minutely and precisely described some daffodils she had seen while on a walk with him. In Dorothy’s words, “some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing;” in Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” published five years later, the daffodils lie “[b]eside the lake, beneath the trees, // Fluttering and dancing in the breeze // […] Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” Dorothy’s own poetic observations of a shared experience are pillaged and reused in a poem which, from the title, emphasizes the speaker’s solitude, and erases both Dorothy’s presence in the moment and her own literary talent.

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Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere Journal”, showing the description of daffodils at Ullswater. Copyright: The Wordsworth Trust

It is at this point that I start to wonder how it is that so often parts of women’s diaries ended up in their male companions’ writings, how it is that women are so often accused of using ghostwriters, and, especially, why it is that women are so often delegated the role of editor. It would be simplistic to reduce the situation to “men who can’t come up with their own ideas make women do all the hard labor,” but sometimes it does feel as if women are delegated the task of changing and rethinking, of rephrasing, with little to no recognition. I can’t help but draw the parallel between these editors and the women in my life, who almost always seem to do a lot of the emotional labor in their relationships with men. “I devote so much love and care to him, and his heart is so icy,” could have easily been said by me or one of my friends over buttery dinner, and yet it comes from another of Tolstaya’s diary entries. The universal feeling of being looked over is echoed in these women’s roles as editors, as writers and as “ghostwriters.” But their indelible presence in great works of literature, looming and ghostly, is, at the very least, a bit of consolation — as long as it is not kept secret.

“A thing happened to me that usually happens to men!” – the un-hidden women in pre-code film

Madeleine Pulman-Jones

In 1931, in a back-lot-oriental apartment in Paris, Russian flyer Alexis (Ramon Novarro) declares to glamorously mysterious spy, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), “I love you as one adores sacred things.” A routine compliment in melodramatic Hollywood parlance, but Mata Hari’s response is perhaps less commonplace. “What sacred things?” she asks. “God… country… honour… you,” he replies. “I come last?” she pushes, “You come first. Before anything.” He replies. He shows her his apartment, including the candle he keeps burning day and night in front of an orthodox icon. Before he can make love to her, Mata Hari asks that all the lights in the apartment be put out, insisting that he blow out the candle in front of the icon before she will let him come near her. The light of the candle casts dancing shadows across his youthful face in high-contrast black and white, “forgive me,” he whispers, and blows out the candle.


(Source –

Two years later in a back-lot-bohemian Parisian apartment in early 1933, friends George (a youthful Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March), a painter and playwright respectively, receive a visit from Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a young commercial artist they met on the train. She is the epitome of what came to define the heroines of Screwball Comedy in 1930s Hollywood. She is petite, blonde, striking, viciously witty and independent. They are both smitten with her and have been pursuing her independently for days. What differentiates this scene from a million other love-triangle scenes in Classical Hollywood cinema, is that Gilda has not come to choose between her two suiters, but to inform them that she has decided that she wants both of them. The following rapport ensues:

GILDA: A thing happened to me that usually happens to men! You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of… interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. It’s perfectly alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out –

TOMMY: But which chapeau do you want Madame?

GILDA: Both.

The scenes from Mata Hari, dir. George Fitzmaurice, and Design for Living, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, respectively, exemplify the sensibility of what has come to be known as “Pre-Code Hollywood.” In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code or the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known in reference to Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was enforced. The end of the 1920s had presented the already audacious films of the silent era with a new toy – sound, and a new purpose – the Great Depression. The freedom given to directors and scriptwriters by witty and suggestive dialogue opened up new possibilities for the humour and subversion that depression audiences craved. That censorship would be enforced to tame these films was almost inevitable, and what was clearly so shocking at the time was the agency and sexual status being afforded to women in these films. The code aimed to censor and restrict “indecency” in Hollywood cinema. Among the things banned or advised against in the code were any form of nudity, interracial and extra-marital relationships. In short, it was implicit in the new dictates of the code that the sexual freedoms of women be suppressed onscreen. The prelapsarian freedoms of pre-Hays Hollywood as detailed above were over.

It often strikes modern viewers as strange that the female protagonists of Hollywood films made pre-1934 are more empowered than many of their modern-day counterparts. The fierce independence of wartime heroines played by stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn are cemented in Hollywood’s collective consciousness, but their earlier incarnations who championed a more subversive form of female empowerment were denied a place in Hollywood legend.

The two women in the aforementioned films embody the two main categories into which women fell in pre-code films. Garbo’s performance as Mata Hari is emblematic of a host of other characters, many of which played by Garbo herself, who revel in opulence and use their mystery and sexual status to manipulate men. Garbo’s Mata Hari is in many ways the archetypal “vamp.” By contrast, Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda is an independent “modern” woman who uses her wit and intelligence to subvert gender norms. Hopkins’ Gilda is the epitome of the then nascent screwball heroine. In examining these two archetypes I might as well have chosen Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) as my vamp, or Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934) as my screwball heroine. The performances in question, though particularly shocking and evocative, are not what is essential to this study in general. What makes watching pre-code cinema today so surprising is that these archetypes which ought to restrict the portrayal of rounded, real women, often engender multi-faceted and complex portraits of women.


Mata Hari, set in Paris in the middle of the first world war, follows Mata Hari, a spy and mistress to Russian General Serge Shubin, as she falls in love with Alexis Rosanoff, Russian pilot from whom she then is asked to steal government information. When Shubin finds out that she is about to leave him for a younger man, he calls the head of the French spy bureau to inform on her, but she shoots him before he can mention the pilot’s name so as to save him from disgrace. She is eventually executed by firing squad for murder and treason. The film, at face value a superficial Hollywood melodrama, features expressionistic lighting and futuristic costumes almost worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, what is still more modern than its expressionistic lighting and avant-garde costumes is its depiction of female empowerment.

Though the narrative remains traditional in the sense that it culminates in the reformation of Mata Hari and her execution for treason, she is always in control of her interactions with men. Empowered and unafraid to fight for what she wants, Fitzmaurice never portrays Garbo’s Mata Hari as anything less than fully in control of her self-presentation and her emotions. As in many Hollywood films, pre or post-code, the female protagonist is punished at the end of the film for her earlier transgressions. Looking at this ending within the film’s historical context, this is unsurprising. However, the presentation of Mata Hari’s subversion is apparent less in details of plot and more in visual representation. The way in which Mata Hari’s head, sheathed in a gold headdress, glimmers like the head of the Virgin Mary as she lies beneath the icon in Rosanoff’s room. The powerful simplicity of her black gown and sleeked back hair before her execution. These images are not those of a submissive, traditionally feminine heroine. Coupled with Garbo’s natural magnetism and androgynous beauty, Mata Hari lies firmly outside the confines of the traditionally feminine object of the male gaze. Less than five years later, the sexual liberties of Fitzmaurice’s Mata Hari would be unimaginable.


More light hearted yet in many ways more shocking is Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. Adapted by Ben Hecht from the Noël Coward play of the same name, Design for Living’s story of a ménage a trois was deemed so scandalous that it was banned in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays code, and was only made widely accessible when it was released on DVD in a Gary Cooper box-set in 2005. One could easily make an argument for Ernst Lubitch being the premier filmmaker of 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. Having emigrated from Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, Lubitsch made a name for himself making sophisticated comedies. He was revered to such a degree that his subtle style became known “The Lubitsch Touch.” Though he made what are arguably his two most brilliant films after the code, Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1941), Design for Living is his most daring and exciting film, and quite possibly the most subversive of the era.

Making a film about a ménage a trois alone would have been shocking, but what is so unusual about the film is the agency it affords its female protagonist. It is Gilda who proposes she live with Tommy and George, just as it is Gilda who sets up the ground rules for their life together, “no sex – it’s a gentleman’s agreement!” she exclaims as the three shake hands. Of course this agreement doesn’t last for long. Gilda ends up flitting from one man to the other, unable to make up her mind about who she loves best, destroying the boys’ friendship in the process. Ultimately they reunite as a trio, with George and Tommy rescuing her from the boring husband she married in an attempt to forget them. The final shot of the film of three of them sitting together in the back of a taxi cab has become somewhat iconic – first Gilda kisses George, then Tommy, then they shake hands again on their “gentleman’s agreement,” fade to black.

On the surface, Gilda’s intellectual status compared to the boys is more conventional. In the same scene in which Gilda suggests the three of them live together, she declares that she is going to devote herself to the improvement of their work, she says:

“We’re going to concentrate on work. Your work. My work doesn’t count. I think both you boys have a great deal of talent, but too much ego. You spend one day working, and a whole month bragging. Gentlemen, there are going to be a few changes. I’m going to jump up and down on your ego. I’m going to criticize your work with a baseball bat. I’ll tell you everyday how bad your stuff is till you get something good, and if it’s good, I’m going to tell you it’s rotten till you get something better. I’m going to be a mother of the arts.”

While declaring that her work “doesn’t count,” she simultaneously asserts her own intellectual prowess and her confidence in her judgement, embracing maternal patronage as a source of empowerment. Perhaps this is all we could hope to expect from a film of the period, but at any rate, Gilda’s prioritisation of the boys’ work is not simply submissive. Just as Mata Hari’s independence and power shines through the oppressive Hollywood tropes of exoticism and sexism, Gilda’s intelligence and intellect is covertly expressed through humour and glamour.


We cannot say with the certainty of a Hollywood “fade-to-black” that women were uniformly and consistently portrayed as liberated in pre-code Hollywood. What we can do is identify a kind of proto-feminism in this bubble of cinema history and an exciting subversion that allowed for the portrayal of more rounded women. These women, unlike those of today’s Hollywood output, were not hampered by years of censorship and societal pressures – cinema was a blank canvas for the 30s’ “new woman.” Whether or not we can wholeheartedly endorse these films as feminist, their female protagonists are tantalizingly glamourous and empowered in a way we, unfortunately, are not accustomed to watching in today’s mainstream cinema.

(Image sources:

My travel photo diary

Alice Gilderdale (with extracts from her diary)

In 2016-17, I spent a year travelling. It was an amazing year of wandering around, asking questions and a lot of the time feeling a little lost. It was the biggest adventure I’ve ever had. However, it was the little things that mattered to me: it was the conversations we had around a fire, or the people I met on a bus. These are the things that stick in my mind. This is something, I learned, that can be found wherever you are – coming home made me realise this. I wanted to write about my travels, not as a blog or as a story, but maybe as a way to put together some of these small, funny, scary, sad, innocent moments, photos and diary entries… moments where I learnt a little. A story of the moments that make me want to continue travelling, continue searching for these memories, no matter where I am.

‘A little smile shared before chin tucking into soft blankets’

A lot of my travels were defined by the landscapes I travelled in. I would spend long days on buses or walking through winding streets. Never really sure where I was heading, but knowing I would find a companion or a beautiful moment along the way.

‘Always aiming highest, as that’s where the most beautiful view is found, where the emotions will drain away like rivers flowing below you’

Every new journey was an adventure, not just a way to move from place to place. I remember sitting in a car with my best friend Rabia, and during the last two hours of an 8-hour journey we kept our spirits high by shouting out all the Taylor Swift lyrics to the songs we used to sing in year 8. It was these kinds of sugar rushes we revelled in – thrills that came from letting your hair fly as you shoved our head out of the window, singing at the top of your voice, your heart beating so fast with the biggest of smiles spread across your face.

‘Thank you for the silent evening, sat by the lighthouse. For the delighted dancing to lively music.’

It was about feeling truly unconnected from the world around me, finding happiness in tripping from stone to stone, but feeling grounded by my beautiful surroundings. I could sit and watch the clouds pass by the mountains for hours. Their smokey beauty snaking around trees and mountains, majestically reminding me of my insignificance.

‘Look up towards the mist, shrouding the shoulders of these beautiful giants, the moon’s threads tangling and resting on high rocks and streams. Don’t look only at your small grasping hands, your cold feet, but up, up towards the beautiful heights of moonshine and winking stars’

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As a female traveller, a solo traveller, I delighted in my successes (and at just generally surviving). How I could steal all the blankets for myself when my roommate continued their travels, or when I managed to eat 6 bananas for breakfast. When I swapped clothes, addresses, stories with other people I met, I realised I was happy and doing well. I met another friend and we travelled up to the mountains. We were totally unprepared and didn’t have enough clothes for the freezing temperatures. But we would smoke beedis and drink cup after cup of boiling sugary chai to keep us warm.

These were times when people and places rushed by: we would gulp down scorching hot chai to run to catch our bus, but also times when I would sit in the Mona Lisa cafe with a book for hours because it was too hot to move. Every experience would be shrouded with excitement. I remember arriving in a new city in the middle of the night, to wake up the next morning and realising I was surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and colours I’d ever seen. The next evening I spent half an hour locked in an empty hostel room because I’d crept in to use their fancy toilet (we found a scorpion in ours). The next week I would be sitting with a haphazard group of people from the UK, up early to watch the live BBC broadcast of the 2017 general election results.

‘My feet are permanently dirty. I am so happy’

But there were times when I had to stop to think. To listen and to find my centre. Too much running around would make me dizzy. I found a spot, a cafe, a room for a month and settled.

‘I have fallen in love with my candle-lit room, the white painted walls and the blue floor tiles which I scrubbed clean. The breeze blows in through the windows and makes the candles flicker… I have decorated it with plants and colourful sheets from the market’

It was here that I came to appreciate that what sustained me during my time away was the wonderful people I met. I had a friend who would carry me over his shoulders, clutching onto each other as he ran down the street. Sarah and I sat on empty beaches at midnight when she came to visit me whilst I worked as an au pair in Barcelona. We would then dash to catch the 4am bus back home. People shared and gave me energy.

‘Natasha was amazing. She walked around in her Doc Martens with her headphones blaring Russian drum and bass music. We would sit in the Mona Lisa together and drink coke. One day she came in and declared she thought she was going to die. The next day she left her boots in a boat on the other side of the Ganga. We all walked barefoot.’

Being with such happy, alive people would energise me and inspire me. And it was the people I met who taught me my most precious lessons. It was storytelling.

‘We have met in the middle. A cross-road beneath the stars’

Travelling for me was a series of heartbreaks. But sometimes you break your heart in the right way. To me, it showed that I truly cared about the people I spent my hours with, and the places I called my home. It was just as much part of me proving to myself that I could feel something, to really connect to people in ways I never thought I could. I wrote in my diary one day that …

‘life can work little tricks on your heart’

… and I guess that’s true wherever I am and whoever I am lucky enough to be with.

Being a traveller on my own, was liberating and freeing in so many ways. For me it was being generous, and hoping others would be generous in return. It strengthened my endless faith in humanity. It was throwing up all night from food poisoning and knowing someone will be there to help you out. Even if I haven’t met them yet.

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I learned how to follow the stars, I made copies of maps in my diary from old tourist guides I found in cafes. I always took the latest flights or buses and arrived tired in cold, unknown airports. There were no plans, and a total disregard of formalities. I forgot which was day or night, and would rush into the rain on warm afternoons to smell the hot pavements. But just because I’m home doesn’t mean this has to stop. I’m still travelling, with every new conversation, every new friend.

‘Tomorrow will never come if we keep inside this spiralling dance’

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‘The stars would map themselves over our thick blankets. Shining brightly through our patchwork sky. Now drops of starlit rain stain my face as I sleep’


On environmental feminism: Palm oil and the pursuit of beauty

Jessica Tomlinson

My college husband infamously shaved off his eyebrows for last Halloween. He was in search of the perfect costume—Naruto, if you wish to picture the scene—and decided to take this bold step (just before he dyed them yellow, of course) to achieve the desired look.

This incident illustrated two things to me: firstly, that Will should really keep his eyebrows whole, and secondly, that we, as humans, are willing to do a lot in the pursuit of what we perceive as beauty.

Of course, this is an outlandish example. We don’t all go to such extremes, and the jury is still out on whether the half-eyebrow look is a good one… however, we all care about what we look like and use make-up to express ourselves and to create, to relax and to enhance, to conceal and to define. Cosmetics today have never been such a popular, such a varied, or frankly, such an empowering way to express identity.

So, why is there still a huge issue?

The problem is this: beauty is killing the environment. Not single-handedly, of course—we still have the automotive, the petroleum, and the farming industries to thank for that. However, its contribution is significant; numerous commonly used raw ingredients directly contribute to the environment’s destruction. One of the most commonly named offenders is palm oil. The negative impact of palm oil—a basic ingredient in most lipsticks, for example—lies in its production, which capitalistically and neo-colonially necessitates the increasing destruction of native areas of unique biodiversity in favour of the widespread planting of these homogenous, non-native cash crops.

It’s easy to see the problem, then. What’s not so easy to fathom is the sheer scale of damage that has occurred in such a short amount of time. A total area of more than 27 million hectares on the earth’s surface is currently comprised of plantations of only palm oil trees. Entire pockets of the earth’s unique and diverse forested areas are being torn down, replaced by “green deserts”, areas of non-native, fast growing, and almost entirely homogenous cash crop plantations that span an area that is, according to Greenpeace, the size of New Zealand.


(Image source – Meridian foods)

These damning statistics may beg the question of why this matters particularly to women, particularly from a feminist perspective. The cosmetics industry, while primarily aimed at a majority female demographic, has not magically broken the glass ceiling. It is not headed by solely—or even majority—female directors. So, what more makes environmental issues so pertinent to modern day feminist philosophy? The answer—at least, for me—lies in ecofeminism. Ecofeminist principles suggest that both gender and environmental issues (read: subjugation) stem from the same place (read: the patriarchy). Environmental destruction in the name of progress is headed by men, and it is our duty to fight for social equality on behalf of that which can’t: the environment.

It’s essential to remember that the responsibility for eco-friendly change doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of cosmetics giants: 61% of palm oil consumption in the EU in 2017, for example, was repurposed as biofuel, power and heat. However, I believe that the cosmetics industry is one particular piece of an environmentally destructive puzzle that we, as women, as feminists, and as consumers, can solve. A simple look at the dynamics of supply and demand suggests that the true power lies in the hands of the consumers, and that change begins the day we take a stand.

So, what are the plausible alternatives to the status quo?

The obvious alternative, for me, is organic makeup. Lush is the quintessential environmentally ethical brand: Lush has phased out its use of palm oil, and has likewise stopped the inclusion of sodium palm kernelate in its products, a chemical that is extracted from the very same rainforest trees that are often felled to make way for palm plantations. Yet even Lush aren’t entirely palm-free: whilst Lush soap-based products are currently free of palm oil, the same cannot be said of their shampoo bars and other similar products. There lie other issues with organic make-up. Lush is expensive by necessity—as stipulated by the company’s ecologically conscious business model, the cost of their products is determined by the cost of the raw ingredients rather than on what the market would determine the product to be worth—and the market has evidently determined environmentally conscious raw materials to be exponentially more expensive than damaging, destructive resources obtained from capitalist cash crop farms.

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(Image source – Wikipedia)

So, what can we do to stop contributing to a booming industry that has a hand in destroying the solidarity that should—and inherently does—exist between the subjugated groups of women and the environment?

Change in the market typically occurs slowly. A revolution sounds like a whisper, as Tracy Chapman would say. I’m not suggesting that we completely stop wearing cosmetics. This is wildly optimistic and wildly implausible; it will be a shocking day indeed when every make-up wearing woman or man puts down their makeup brushes for the final time, moving beyond a many-thousand-year history and cultural tradition of makeup to embrace their natural face at last.

I believe, though, that as more and more cosmetics wearers become aware of the extent of the problem, there will be a gradual shift away from products that damage forested areas in such a devastating way. However, the problem is becoming increasingly urgent—more and more of the planet’s rich tapestry of biodiversity is being ripped away in the name of greed, and the only way to stop it immediately lies in the hands of governing bodies. Take, for example, the total EU and UK ban on microbeads. These tiny plastic particles are helping to pollute our oceans and are having a severe impact on marine wildlife. Microbeads enter ocean food chains when they they’re eaten by marine inhabitants, and as a result they can just as easily end up in our Friday night fish ‘n’ chips.

Well, they could have done, that is. A complete ban on the sale and manufacture of microbeads in the UK came into force in June of this year. However, microbeads were affecting British marine territories, and so, perhaps for one of the first times, the reality of what we in the west are doing to our home struck a chord—a chord that focuses entirely too much on solely British interests, that is. What will Western governments do about the palm oil crisis, a tragedy taking place mainly in developing countries with rich natural resources and the correct climate for fast growing palm crops, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and South America? Well, that’s a different story, and one that is far too tied up in the complex politics of neo-liberal, neo-colonial enterprise and exploitation for me to discuss here.

So, as I said at the start: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of “beauty”. We are willing to go, with our mute compliance and acquiescence, as far as the destruction of our planet. I believe this statement could and should be adapted for the environmentally conscious feminist: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of ethical beauty. We are willing to go far in the pursuit of fair treatment for the planet which graciously allows us to call it home, and in the pursuit of solidarity in the face of the capitalist and patriarchal oppression that has allowed travesties like this to occur far too frequently, for far too long.

(Featured image source –

On environmental feminism: women and natural disasters

Harriet Pinto 

It’s a known fact that natural disasters do not harm indiscriminately. A person’s socioeconomic situation plays a huge role in how well they are able to rebuild their lives after disaster strikes, and the extent to which their lives are affected in the first place. But there is a further relevant divide that determines how people are affected by natural disasters, which is gender. Studies have shown time and time again that whenever these events occur, usually in less developed parts of the world where women’s education, wealth and societal standing tends to be lower, more women are killed, and the impact on their lives is greater and more lasting.

The reasons for this are varied, but clearly the disasters themselves are not singling out women to target. It is, as ever, the structure of a society that places women at a disadvantage from the beginning, and in situations like these it has life-threatening consequences.

Often it is simply a case of cultural expectations. Women are frequently cast as caregivers and homemakers, and the pressure to fulfil this role makes the likelihood of them putting themselves and their own lives first in a crisis fall significantly. Research has shown that women frequently exhibit behaviour traits like going back into dangerous areas to look for loved ones, prioritising keeping family members together, or, in some extreme cases, being reluctant to evacuate their homes until their husbands have authorised them to do so.

Other cultural barriers exist which inhibit women’s ability to save their own lives. A case study from Bangladesh found that for women, running and climbing trees was socially frowned upon, and most of the time they were never taught to swim. During the 1991 cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women.

Clearly such inhibitions, as well as the fact that in many parts of the world many women live in areas with poorer infrastructure, go a long way towards explaining why statistics overwhelmingly show that more women than men are killed by natural disasters.

But what about in their aftermath? Having less financial independence, and less opportunity for education, women struggle to a greater extent to rebuild their lives after disasters. However they are also particularly vulnerable to gender-specific violence and exploitation in aid situations. Shelters specifically designed to save lives during disasters are usually not built with women in mind – they can lack the appropriate sanitation for menstruating women to use them safely, for one thing, but there have also been reports of women being forced to avoid using them for refuge because they fear rape and sexual violence once confined in them.

It is important that we try to change the damaging narrative that perceives women as passive victims of disaster, which of course is self-perpetuating. Organisations such as the World Bank, and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery are supporting programmes which require women to be involved and included both in decision making for natural disasters, and technologies which increase resilience in the face of them. Modernising hydro-met services such as those predicting and monitoring weather and climate, and improving infrastructure, help make sure people can evacuate safely, and governments can plan and adapt for disasters more effectively. But, though a step in the right direction, this is not enough.

Policymakers have failed when the specific needs of certain groups are ignored, downplayed and underrepresented, and so they have failed women in planning and responding to natural disasters throughout the parts of the world where they are already disadvantaged.

This is why it is absolutely crucial that women be involved in every aspect of crisis planning and preparation if they are going to be empowered and enabled to save their own lives during natural disasters. Vital information about the way communities operate, and the behavioural patterns of 50% of the people living in them, is lost whenever women are sidelined and ignored in these processes.

In addition to this, it’s clear that governments need to be far more proactive in protecting women’s rights throughout the entire recovery period of natural disasters. Women are exploited when they are vulnerable and they are never more so than in these situations, which is why far more needs to be done before the narrative of victimhood can ever be significantly altered for good.