Polls. They’ve been in the news rather a lot of late. Not a day goes by on Twitter without a poll of some kind or another. Recently, History Hit has been asking people to name the most influential historical figure. For one academic historian’s perspective on the matter read Steven Gray’s excellent and thoughtful blogpost.
Now, anyone who knows anything about history knows that humans are repetitive over time. So it should come as no surprise, dear readers, that this kind of influential historical figure poll has been done before. In 1888, to be precise.
I’ve been preparing a conference paper, and browsing as I do regularly on the British Newspaper Archive a short article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph from December 1888 happened to catch my eye.
It was a rather outraged opinion piece taking issue with suggestions being made in the Pall Mall Gazette for the most influential women in history. The author of said piece was completely scandalised that the Virgin Mary had been neglected in favour of other far less ‘influential’ (and far more sinful) ladies – like Pope’s daughter, Renaissance lady and rumoured poisoner-extraordinaire Lucrezia Borgia. Wow, I thought, I must check this out.
The Pall Mall Gazette articles that inspired this outrage were even more interesting. It all started when “A Lady Who Wants To Know” wrote a fairly lengthy piece asking “Who Were The World’s Greatest Women?” comprising her own thoughts on the problems of such a question (how do you assess “greatness”?) and her list of twelve women, divided into two categories: Ladies of Thought and Action.
The Pall Mall Gazette went further than publishing this one ‘think piece’ and solicited responses to the question (and lists of Great Women) from eminent women of the day, including women’s rights campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett, author and dress reformer Constance Lloyd Wilde, author Olive Schreiner and an anonymous “Lady Journalist”. Their responses were then ranked by order of popularity.
Joan of Arc, you’ll be interested to know, came out on top - nine women featured her on their lists. Also in the top five were authors George Sand and George Eliot, Elizabeth I and Empress of the Hapsburg Empire/Marie Antoinette’s mum Maria Theresa. The responses ranged across a diversity of women’s experience – authors (Sand, Eliot, Austen), saints (Catherine of Siena, Elisabeth of Hungary), campaigners (Annie Besant, Elizabeth Fry), rulers (Cleopatra, Boudicca), Biblical heroines (Judith, Esther). Mrs Fawcett included “Aliah Bae” on her list (I had to look her up – she was an 18th century Indian ruler).
Each respondent followed the initial author’s example and sent in twelve names, though they disregarded her categories. Combined, the names of over 50 women were featured. I loved particularly the novelist Lucy Clifford’s comment, sent along with her list of ladies, that “A few of them lacked virtue, but none of them lacked greatness.”
There’s a lot more to investigate about this historical competition – what it says about which historical women were generally known and revered among British (female) intelligentsia and why for a start. But that’s for something more substantial than a blog post!*
"A Lady Who Wants to Know". 1883. Who Are the World's Greatest Women? Pall Mall Gazette. [British Newspaper Archive], 23 November. p. 1.
Pall Mall Gazette. 1883. Who Are The World's Greatest Women? Some Answers By Other Ladies. Pall Mall Gazette. [British Newspaper Archive], 30 November. p. 1-2.
Pall Mall Gazette. 1883. The World's Greatest Women. III. Pall Mall Gazette. [British Newspaper Archive], 23 November. p. 3.
Sheffield Daily Telegraph. 1888. Summary of News. Sheffield Daily Telegraph [British Newspaper Archive], 10 December, p. 4.
*Judith Walkowitz briefly mentions this PMG poll in City of Dreadful Delight.