Some women who never existed

A popular publishing theme is the invisible women myth. The books argue that female achievement is less likely to be acknowledged and celebrated because, it is claimed, histories has been written by men. Such books are usually an exercise in confirmation bias. That is, only looking for evidence that supports your point of view and disregarding or not even searching for the conflicting evidence. Confirmation bias is something to which we are all vulnerable unless steps are taken to include and appraise all evidence according to a template that ensures a level ‘playing field’. This doesn’t come naturally to anybody and there is a whole field of scholarship devoted to methodologies for surveying the literature in its entirety while using validated tools to minimise bias in the assessment of any individual sources of information.

The truth is that most people, even those of great achievement, are forgotten by history. This means that if you search for examples of some identity group who you feel have been unjustly neglected, you will find cases to back up your belief. By means of this exercise, your conviction that a group has been unfairly neglected compared to other groups – especially white males- will become more deeply entrenched. This is an exercise in confirmation bias and although it no doubt stimulates an ‘identitarian endorphin release’ it is an intellectually bankrupt enterprise. It doesn’t prove that the said identity group is more or less likely than others to be overlooked by history. If you want to see the ‘barrel scrapings’ of this genre I recommend Cathy Newman’s book ‘Bloody Brilliant Women’. 

There are probably a large number of factors that influence whether achievements are remembered in the popular record. Luck is likely to be high on the list as is working at an elite institution, writing in the English language, socioeconomic background and possibly gender. A systematic study of this issue would be of great interest but also fraught with difficulty.

If these invisible-women type histories can perhaps be excused as an exercise in the all too human failing of confirmation bias, what is unforgivable is the invention and insertion of non-existent female characters into based-on-a-true-story accounts. These adaptations of historical events can resonate on the collective public conscious more than a simple documentary retelling of events and their producers have a duty to stick closely to the historical actuality even when that conflicts with the current fashion.

HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl is a good example of this problem. The events surrounding the runaway nuclear chain reaction at a Siberian nuclear reactor were dramatised in gritty and horrific detail. The clear hero of the series was the female physicist Ulana Khomyuk who was brilliantly played by Emily Watson. Ulana is, of course, smarter and morally superior to the men around her and she risks life and limb to ensure that the true dangers of the accident are widely known. So was Ulana an ‘invisible woman’ hitherto airbrushed from history? The answer is no, she never really existed. This does matter; if you give a real-life account, then broadly speaking you have to stick to the real-life narrative and not add politically expedient characters just to pander to fragile feminist egos.

Another example of the widely prevalent trope of inserting smart women in historical situations where they were never present was the film Aeronauts which was released on December 6th 2019 by Amazon Studios. This depicted the remarkable 1862 ballon ascent of James Glaisher and Henry T Coxwell. The latter was already an accomplished balloonist and Glaisher describes how Coxwell brought the newly designed and constructed balloon to Wolverhampton and noted that it exceeded previously constructed balloons in terms of strength and cubic capacity. The story is very much a boys-own adventure of Victorian daring-do. The aeronauts used themselves as human guinea pigs and ascended higher than anyone had ever gone before, but they nearly died in the attempt. The balloon, filled with coal gas, kept ascending higher and higher because the valve to control gas release had become jammed. At a height of 29000 feet, Glaisher had already lost consciousness, but the balloon continued rising until it reached an estimated height of 37000ft – the height at which jumbo jets fly.  Coxwell’s vision was failing, his fingers had turned black with frostbite and he had lost the use of one arm. Unless something was done both aeronauts were going to die – and soon. In an act of astonishing bravery and physical endurance, Henry Coxwell managed to climb up onto the rigging and release some gas from the balloon envelope by opening a trapped valve with his teeth. First, the balloon stopped ascending and then began to descend and Glaisher rapidly regained consciousness. Both men were saved together with a mountain of invaluable scientific data. 

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You might think that story would, with any modification or narrative embroidery, make a great film. Amazon Studios clearly thought differently and airbrushed Henry Coxwell from the script. Instead, the saviour of the balloon expedition was a woman who was smarter and stronger than her male colleague. In the film, she climbs the rigging and releases the gas from the balloon to save the day. This distortion of the narrative has a real effect. I was talking to one of my neighbours who thought that the female character Amelia Wren was real a real character who had been airbrushed from the narrative by oppressive patriarchy and was now achieving her long-overdue proper recognition. That should concern us all.

Oh and another thing. The balloon lifted off from Wolverhampton, not London. Then again, what could be worse in the eyes of media luvvies than a heroic man? Answer; a heroic man from the provinces.

By femgoggles

I was abandoned by my parents in the black mountains and raised by timberwolves. On my return to the 'civilised world' with questionable table manners, I became a detached observer of human behaviour in general and gender relations in particular. This blog is the product of those observations.

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