They’re brave, feminist and unconventional, and had a seminal impact on art and popular culture. To celebrate International Women’s day we hail five awesome women.
Jean Rhys was a brilliant writer, her books are rated as among the most accomplished of her era. She was able to circumvent prostitution, three failed marriages, alcoholism, imprisonment and sojourns in an asylum, to write four remarkable novels, including her brilliant acclaimed final novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees William in 1890, Rhys was a pioneer; she articulated the lives of women brutally and honestly, in a way that had never been done before. The women in Jean Rhys novels and short stories are penniless, lonely and have painful and desperate lives. Best depicted by Sophia Jensen, from Good morning, Midnight, Rhys’s ultimate heroine, Rhys’ women are bravely searching for self-determination whilst dealing with the despair, and anguish of doomed romances. It would be easy to write Jean’s work off as anti-feminist, and some have tried to, but far from it. Rhys lifted the lid on the precocious nature of the lives of women during the beginning of the last century, and in doing so gave a voice to the voiceless. Remarkably, despite writing for almost 40 years it wasn’t until the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, her reimaging of Charlotte Bronte’s “Mad Woman in the Attic”, that she was acclaimed as one of Britain’s best writers.
Born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915, Billie Holiday’s pearly voice redefined popular music. She was able to overcome poverty, prostitution, and racism to become an iconic jazz singer and a superstar of her time. Holiday’s unique gift was her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own. Songs such as God Bless the Child and The Man I Love expressed not only her undeniable talent, but her incredible pain as well. She breathed soul and tenderness into to the protest song Strange Fruit, which came to symbolise the brutality and racism of the practice of lynching in America’s South. Such is Billie’s enduring interpretation of the song, in 1999, Time magazine named her first studio version the “song of the century”. As well as a great singer and performer Billie was also a formidable force; she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive feat given the tightly held segregation laws of the day, she once knocked out a soldier after he stubbed his cigarette out on her coat, she also had an affair with the actress and socialite Talullah Bankhead. Throughout her career, Billie was plagued by bad relationships, health problems, and drug addiction and in the end they would tragically cut short her life and career. She died at the aged of 44 but Holiday’s emotive voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.
“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”, the renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo once said. But she did so much more than that. By drawing on some of the tragic aspects of her life such as the near fatal bus crash in 1925, that left her body shattered aged 17, and would cause life-long pain, she was able to tap into, and depict, life, death, sex and female suffering in original and profound ways. Works such as The Broken Column, Tree of Hope and My Miscarriage in Detroit examine and confront what it means to be a woman. The darker and tragic elements of Frida’s life have sometimes threatened to overshadow her work as a great artist. But it would be wrong to view Frida as a tragic figure. She lived her life exactly as she wanted and never apologised. She wore vivid clothes, (she would dress as a savvy young man when she was young), had affairs with men (including the Russian communist Trotsky) and women, and held her own as an artist during her tempestuous marriage to fellow artist and communist Diego Rivera. Her work has been the subject of sell-out exhibitions across the world. Her most famous collector is Madonna and fashion designers claim her as their “muse”. More than 50 years after death her work continues to inspire.
Katharine Hepburn defied convention. The daughter and niece of feminist pioneers, raised in New England, she refused to abide by conformity. She was headstrong, spirited and fiercely independent and did things her way. In the course of her renowned 60 year long acting career she played women who, like her, were independent, forthright and unruly. In her films such as Bringing Up Baby, The African Queen and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner her characters hold their own against the male leads, and would even outwit them, a rarity for the time, and still infrequently seen today. Katharine’s boldness onscreen was also matched by her audacious behaviour off screen. She always wore trousers, she once turned up to the Oscars in 1974 to present an award in her gardening clothes and clogs, for much of her life she lived alone, she never had children, and famously enjoyed a 25-year long ‘affair’ with Hollywood acting legend Spencer Tracy, while he was still married. She spoke out in favour of women’s equality, was pro-abortion and came out against McCarthyism at a time when such an act risked ending her career. In 1999, she was named the greatest star in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute, and so she rightly remains.
Journalism, plays, screenplays, producer, director, Nora Ephron did it all. Gifted with a sharp witty voice, Ephron first made her mark as an essayist and during the 1970s she would write extensively about the emerging second wave feminist movement, pop culture, and about her own life, often in a self-deprecating style. In a 1972 essay called A Few Words About Breasts,” Ephron wrote, “If I had them, I would have been a completely different person”. Her books included I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, Wallflower at the Orgy and Heartburn, which drew inspiration from the end of her second marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Nora Ephron was also one of a handful of successful women film directors working in Hollywood, and one whose films consistently featured women in strong, decisive roles. Her hit movies include Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail; films that would typify the genre that became known as the romcom .Throughout her career Ephron was a fierce proponent of women and women’s rights. She famously quipped that “you should be the heroine of your life not the victim”.