Stylist is running its first ever feminist advent calendar in 2018, with a remarkable woman revealing who her feminist icon is every day until 25 December. Here, Mary Beard reveals why Jane Ellen Harrison is her ultimate feminist icon.
My feminist icon is a woman called Jane Ellen Harrison. She was a fellow at Newnham College, which is where I went.
Jane was the first professional female academic in this country, but she didn’t just teach. She knew that writing, researching and being an academic (just like the blokes, but better) was what she wanted to do, and that’s important.
Jane became known for her wonderful style, caustic wit, sardonic character and humour. She was very much a role model and had a fantastic following in London, where she would give lectures. She worked on the ancient world, with a particular focus on Greek art, religion and myth.
She used to give these stunning lectures in the British Museum, and she also did amazing lectures with a magic lantern that she would use to show slides of Greek pots. She would stand and lecture in these extraordinary green outfits, which were really over the top.
Nowadays, nobody has really heard of her, but she deserves to be better known. She was always terribly funny and she was a suffragist (although she wasn’t sure if she could be bothered to vote – it was more a matter of principle).
She also wrote a wonderful semi-autobiography in which she described some of her better moments. When she met the Emperor of Japan, he was probably about 16, and she said: ‘if you have to bow down in front of a teenager, it is at least some compensation to know that he considers himself a God’.
She went through life being this wry observer of men in many ways. And I think she’s got lots of lessons for us; one is pushing and finding a voice, and going out there and saying ‘I can do this’. But the other is in more of a laid-back style, to laugh at the follies and stupid sense of entitlement that some men have, rather than always getting cross about it. Which I think is a really good thing.
Mary Beard presents Amo Amas Amusical, 16:00 Saturday 31 December, BBC Radio4 on BBC Sounds
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