INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

Why it is essential to celebrate days like International Women’s Day

Illustration of Guinevere with Enid and Vivien
Guinevere with Enid and Vivien by George and Louis Rhead, 1898

Charlotte Rawlinson is a young writer who has recently started contributing to Sussex Bylines and is working with us to encourage more young people to get involved. In this piece she uses the Arthurian Legend to explore what determines success, and how what we know as ‘history’ is shaped by what we are told about the past – which may or may not be a true reflection of events. And she calls on us to celebrate all women’s achivements in 2021.

Success is difficult to define. Perhaps it is a moment in life embedded in achievement, or maybe it’s a gradual progression towards reaching the summit we all desire. Between the understandings of success, and the stories of those who came before us, lie many teachings which lead us to believe, if we follow them, that achievement will surely come. One such teaching encourages people to be smart and calculating: “It’s not about what you know, but who you know.”

Consequently many people believe that to reach personal fulfilment, more time must be spent understanding people rather than information, cultivating social connections and making social calculations to engineer success. However, what happens when we look at the past and are not informed about certain people and when the celebration of success rests more on identifying who achieved it, rather than on what the achievement was?  

To celebrate International Woman’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some fatal flaws in history’s ‘who’ and draw attention to those whom history would erase from the celebration of what they achieved. What can we learn from more abstract histories and the many historical interpretations that have shaped the modern day? By encouraging fresher, more inclusive interpretations of events, gaps can be filled to allow for greater understanding. So, let us explore the most famous British story – the Arthurian Legend.

We have all heard the stories of medieval Camelot: Knights of the Round Table, swords, castles and King Arthur. Unfortunately the myth, as recorded by many ancient romantic writers, makes little mention of Arthur’s wife, whose important role was not deemed beneficial for the portrayal of a powerful kingdom. Through the ages, Arthur’s wife has been depicted as a conniving figure, caught in shameful love affairs and implicated in dangerous plots. All credit to those authors who acknowledged Guinevere and explained her role, unlike those earlier texts that ignored her. However, the fatal flaw and ultimate betrayal of the Arthurian Legend is that, once the King dies, the story stops. So Guinevere’s success goes unrecorded, and no matter what she achieved in her life, key moments are unknown.

The myth does mention, somewhat too subtly perhaps, that Guinevere ruled Camelot after her husband. But, as expected, nothing about her rule is described. Why? Many possibilities then exist: She could have been a warrior like the Roman Boudicca, a symbol of medieval female strength. Like Queen Victoria, she could have been a steadying hand central to maintaining balance throughout a lengthy reign, perhaps ruling through great societal revolutions. Or was she perhaps an unapologetically bold ruler? One who desired to be celebrated as a goddess-like queen, like Cleopatra, who built monumental statues – a statement of utter dominance for all to witness?

Unfortunately, while we do not know what Queen Guinevere achieved as ruler of Camelot, and as unfortunate it is for the modern day that the Arthurian Legend eclipses her and deprives us of lessons we could learn, there is always the danger of history repeating itself. In 2021, women’s achievements must be acknowledged, recognised and celebrated.

Hence, as we approach International Women’s Day, an important responsibility exists for all of us to ensure that success, in any form and by any person, is never ignored. And so, our responsibility, on 8 March, is simply to celebrate women in 2021. To record, speak, recall, explore and shine a light on moments of female success so that future generations understand the women of 2021.

So, let us celebrate International Women’s Day loudly and ensure women’s achievements are heard – unlike Queen Guinevere’s that were denied such celebration. In centuries to come, when future generations listen to the past voices of 2021, their understanding will be based on the words of who was speaking in 2021, and this in turn will define what they know of 2021.

Let us make sure that everyone in society this year feels empowered to speak, so every success can be heard.

On 8 March it’s the success of women we celebrate. Happy International Women’s Day!

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