Superwomen: standing on the shoulders of giants

‘If you could have any special power, what would it be?’

It’s a great question. Who doesn’t dream of having a special power that they could use for good (or evil, or anything inbetween)?

For me, it would have to be time travel.

One reason is that as a photographer, it’d be far too good an opportunity to miss. I would take a case full of memory cards, as many batteries as I could manage, and my trusty SLR back in time to shoot everything I possibly could.

The past is etched in paint, pen and ink, and hidden in untapped spaces between words in ancient, fragile books. Since photography only began to develop in a meaningful way from the early to mid-1800s, and was limited to a knowledgeable few, we have no direct, visual documentary record of what life was actually like beforehand.

The idea of being able to capture that is beguiling.

Colourised images of the Victorian period intrigue me. People appear different in sepia and black and white, frozen in time, imprisoned by long exposure in stiff poses. They look unreal.

The naturalistic shots that do exist, such as the first ‘selfie’ by the American chemist Robert Cornelius in 1839, are few and far between. But in colour they are vibrant, come to life. I’d love to bring sights from hundreds of years ago to the present day.

But the main reason I’d like to go back in time is to tell the pioneers, the proto-feminists, just how influential they have been, and how much they are admired and revered.

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day.


I’d like to go back to the 1600s and tell Aphra Behn, poet and playwright, that she set the precedent for professional writing nearly 100 years before a man (Daniel Defoe) published the first novel in the English language.



I’d like to take tea with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792, and find out if all the conjecture about her complex personality is true.




I’d like to go back and tell Ada Lovelace that her mathematical work on the Analytical Engine was among the first in a long line of research which led to the modern computer. That she is respected as a woman of science, and that there is a day named in her honour for all the women who have followed in her wake.



I’d like to meet Isabella Bird, writer, traveller and photographer, and sit in wonder, longing to hear all her stories of exploration (and tell her she saw so much more than David Livingstone – if she didn’t know already!).




I’d like to meet Julia Margaret Cameron and tell her how beautiful her photography is, and show her how women have taken up the medium both as an art form and commercially as their calling. I would tell her about Lee Miller and Vivian Maier and show her their work.


I would visit a small parsonage in Steventon, Hampshire to see an unassuming author called Jane Austen. I would take tea with her and tell her that her work is so well loved in English literature that it has become part of the canon. That her novels are taught in schools, and that her sharp wit and pragmatism have come to characterise our view of society in the Georgian period.

(I’d also tell her to hold fast and cut a better deal on Pride and Prejudice. In terms of sales it was her most successful book, bought for a song by her publisher.)

Above all, that her status as a role model for women everywhere is official. She’s on the £10 note.

I would ask her to sit for a photograph. Only one sketch remains of her, by her sister Cassandra.

I would tell her how far women have come in the world. That we can have an occupation, and are no longer at the mercy of legacy laws and marriage for financial security.

We no longer need partnership or marriage to be considered respectable or secure our place in society.

Above all, I’d want to tell her that the roles of the sexes in society that she and so many other women before her must have dreamt of, has come true.

We can vote. We are educated, can go to university, and have become learned.

We are parliamentarians and activists. We run countries and hold high political office. We are doctors, lawyers, businesswomen, artists, creatives, scientists, musicians, engineers.

We fly planes and sail ships and build buildings. We serve our country in the armed forces.

We remain caring partners, mothers, sisters and daughters.

We have achieved much that the women before us were unable to, and more.


We are independent and proud, and free to choose our destinies.

Of course there is still so much work to be done, and we cannot rest. However, taken in historical context, we have come such a long way in such a short space of time, and that is something to be celebrated, today of all days.

Somehow, I think she would like that.