Mary Anning

Mary was born in 1799 to a poor family in Lyme Regis, her father was a cabinet maker and she was one of 10 children (although only her and her elder brother, Joseph, survived into adulthood).  She was fortunate to be able to learn to read and write at the Sunday School of the Congregationalist Church her dissenting parents attended.  Yet as a girl from a poor working family in the early nineteenth century her opportunities were limited, probably working from home before marriage and motherhood, and a likely hand to mouth existence.

Mary’s father, however supplemented the family’s income by collecting and selling fossils and ‘marine curios’ to the wealthy middle class tourists who were increasingly visiting the town.  Mary and Joseph accompanied him on his fossil hunting trip and she learned much from him at this time, not just about hunting for fossils but also about the important stages of cleaning and preparing them.

When her father died in 1810, Mary was only 11 and the family had to rely on support from the parish.  It was shortly after this that Mary completed her first full extraction of an ichthyosaur, at 17 feet it was a major find.

During her fossil hunting years Mary was to meet most of the scientific thinkers and fossil collectors of the time.  Despite her success and being so well known in her field, Mary Anning’s contributions were frequently not formally recorded and she herself felt that “these men of learning have sucked my brains and made a great deal of publishing works of which I furnished the contents, while I derived none of the advantage”.  Mary was also to find herself in financial difficulties on more than one occasion.

Mary’s contribution to the growing sciences of palaeontology and geology was considerable. As well as finding  numerous complete fossil remains, Mary’s skill was also in the cleaning and presenting of fossils which allowed thorough scientific analysis.  She obviously took the study of fossils seriously, dissecting squid and cuttlefish to allow her to understand the anatomy of fossil cephalods.  She discovered fossilised inks inside belemnite fossils which led to a publication by William Buckland of theories of defence of Jurassic belemnites.  Similarly her investigations into the fossils known as ‘bezoar stones’ identified the fact there were in fact fossilised faeces, once again William Buckland published these findings although he did cite Mary Anning’s help in developing conclusions.

On her death in 1847 a tribute to Mary Anning was read out at the annual address of the Geological Society by Sir Henry De la Beche.  It was an extraordinary honour for someone who not only was not a member of the society but also a woman.

Mary Anning was not only a woman in a man’s world but she was also self taught.  Yet she was in contact and communication with many of the ‘established scientific community’, many of whom had a great respect for her understanding and skill, Sir Roderick Murchison referred to her as “the celebrated Mary Anning”.  In 2010 Mary Anning was included when the Royal Society published a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science.  Finally getting the official recognition she richly deserved.

Written for Sheroes of History by Julia Carter.

Find out more….

The BBC’s Primary History page has a really cool, interactive guide all about Mary’s life. Find it here.

The Trowelblazers website is all about awesome women archeologists & paleontologists like Mary, check it out!

If you’re in the area you can visit Lyme Regis Museum and see some of Mary’s tools and her fossilized finds!

Check it out! Just this week Mary has had a new species of icthyosaur named after her! See more here.


Anne The Last Duchess of Brittany

In the medieval world, dominated by men, Anne of Brittany spent her life fighting for her Duchy to retain it’s traditional independence.

Born in 1477, Anne was the daughter of Duke Francis of Brittany. Her older half-brother had died within weeks of birth, and her younger sister died aged twelve. As the eldest of the two girls with no brother following them, Anne was Francis’ heir.

Brittany was an independent Duchy, bordered by France but technically separate. As the French kings expanded their borders, Brittany came under threat. Duke Francis spent his life fighting to keep the Duchy independent, and must have hoped that sooner or later he would have a son who would continue that fight. He had Anne educated, she was his presumed heir after all, but he no doubt believed that he wouldn’t actually have to leave his Duchy to a girl, with all the political problems that would ensue.

At the age of eleven Anne was catapulted into the role of Duchess when her father was thrown from his horse, and died of his injuries. Just days before his death Francis had been forced to sign a treaty stating that his daughter would only be married with the permission of the King of France. This treaty was equally as binding for the new Duchess, which meant that she would only be able to marry a man chosen by the French king. Naturally he would choose someone who would help him gain her lands.

Despite this, Anne and her council put up a fight. In 1490 she went through a proxy marriage ceremony which married her to Maximilian (who was 30 years older than her!), the heir of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. It was a good diplomatic move, Frederick was frequently at odds with the French, and the enemy of Brittany’s enemy should have been a good friend. But the Holy Roman Empire was almost constantly at war with itself and it’s neighbours. They had no time or soldiers to spare in defending a Duchy that was hundreds of miles away and would involve a journey through enemy territory, or a dangerous sea voyage.

The marriage also angered King Charles VIII of France. Anne was not allowed to contract any marriage without his permission, and he could see the danger of her allying with the Empire. The French army eventually besieged the poor Duchess in Rennes, and with her “Prince Charming” far away and unable to help, Anne had to no choice but to surrender. In December 1491 she was married to King Charles himself, and Brittany automatically became part of the Kingdom of France. She was even forced to agree to the condition that if she had no sons and Charles predeceased her, she would have to marry his heir, although at least she would retain Brittany if he died first. Frederick protested against the match, Anne’s proxy wedding to Maximilian was legally binding, and Charles himself was betrothed to Maximilian’s daughter Margaret. But the fact of the matter was that if Frederick really wanted Anne to marry Maximilian then his son should have gone to Brittany himself. As a woman in the medieval period, Anne was unable to lead an army or fight against the King of France in any real way. Maximilian, who was the widower of Mary of Burgundy, would go on to marry Bianca Maria Sforza, of the powerful Milanese Sforza family.

Even though she was effectively forced to marry Charles, Anne made sure her husband didn’t get everything his own way. In their marriage settlement she made sure that it contained a clause stating that while their first son would inherit the French crown, a second son would become Duke of Brittany, a provision that she hoped would keep the Duchy independent. Charles himself banned her from using the title Duchess of Brittany, and although he did have her crowned as Queen of France she was never named Regent in his absence, that honour was given to his sister.

Anne was pregnant multiple times during her marriage, one son lived to the age of three before dying of measles, all her other babies were either stillborn or died within days or weeks of birth. Like any mother she loved her children and was deeply grieved by their deaths. With no living son, Charles’ death in 1498 pushed Anne in to a new problem. Charles’ heir to the Kingdom of France was his cousin Louis. Under the terms of her marriage contract, Anne’s beloved Duchy was now once again free from the French crown. But she was also bound by the same contract to marry Louis himself.

However, Louis already had a wife. Anne had to agree to marry Louis, but she was at least able to bargain one point; Louis must have his first marriage annulled within a year. There was no real time limit for how long annulments could take, Anne must have been bargaining on the hope that the Pope would take his time. So while Louis started the process of annulling his first marriage (he would claim it was unconsummated because his wife was “malformed”, a particularly unpleasant thing to announce about any woman), Anne returned to Brittany. She was already popular, but now she became beloved. She travelled around the Duchy, appointed her own counsellors, and endeared herself to her people, who flocked to see her at ceremonial entries to Breton towns and cities.

Louis managed to get his annulment in time, and she had to return to France for another marriage in 1499. This time though Anne was allowed to her to keep the title “Duchess of Brittany”, and Louis ensured that his orders were issued under her name. By Louis she had six more children, but only two daughters survived.

Anne spent the rest of her life fighting for Brittany. She arranged for her eldest daughter, Claude, to be betrothed to Charles of Austria (the nephew of Catherine of Aragon). She hoped that her daughter could inherit Brittany and would rule it with Charles. When it became clear that he would not have a son by Anne, Louis broke it off and arranged a new betrothal between Claude and her cousin Francis, who was Louis’ closest male relation and therefore his heir. Anne then tried to make her second daughter Renee the next Duchess of Brittany, but after her death Louis ensured the title went to Claude, and would then pass on to her sons by Francis. Brittany would never be independent again.

Anne died on 9th January 1514 at just 36 years old. In her will she stipulated that her heart be returned to Brittany, while her remains were interred in Saint-Denis in Paris. She had spent her life dedicated to the cause of her Duchy, and to this day the Breton people still love their last Duchess.

Written for Sheroes of History by Katie Collins. Katie has written two ebooks about some amazing Sheroes of history! 30 Women of History Volume 1 & Volume 2 are great resources available at a very reasonable price for your Kindle! You can follow Katie on Twitter @CreateHistorian

Find out more…

There is a book about Anne called Twice Queen of France: Anne of Brittany, available here.

There is a project in France commemorating 500 years since Anne of Brittany died in 1514. It brings together many of the châteaux that Anne lived in during her life. The website has a fantastic interactive timeline of Anne’s life.

Here is a short video about Anne of Brittany, it’s in French – but don’t worry, it has subtitles!


Ani Pachen: ‘Tibetan Joan of Arc’

Ani Pachen was a Tibetan tribal princess who became a  Buddhist nun and led her tribe against the Chinese.

Pachen Dolma was born in 1933 in Eastern Tibet. Her father was the leader of her tribe. As a girl growing up she learned how to ride & shoot, but Pachen (Ani) had a desire for a more peaceful life.

When she was 17 years old she heard of plans to marry her to a chieftan from another tribe. She wasn’t keen on the idea so instead she took herself away to join a Buddhist monastery and train to become a nun. The name she is now known by ‘Ani Pachen’ means simply ‘Nun, Big Courage’. Eventually she made peace with her family and began to spend time with them again, but she carried on training in the monastery for the next 8 years, she learned how to meditate and live a peaceful life.

However everything changed in 1958 when her father died. The tribe needed a leader, especially as the Chinese had invaded Tibet. Ani left the solitude of the monastery for good to return to her family and lead the tribe. She said,

“I was the only child in the family, and since my father had so much love for his country, I had to carry on what he left behind; the task, the struggle against the Chinese.”

She gathered over 600 of her tribe and formed a resistance force, leading them in rebellion against the invading Chinese, who were destroying ancient Buddhist monasteries and killing many of her people. They lived in the hills and rode on horses fighting the Chinese. Ani knew that violence was not the way of Buddhism, but couldn’t by stand and watch as her country was destroyed. She later said,

“To be truly a Buddhist, you must be loving and all compassionate. But I was faced with a particular situation and I thought I did what was right at the time.”

She was the only female leader amongst the rebelling tribes, and she noticed that when she met with the other rebel leaders they looked at her “with a mixture of curiosity, disbelief, and dismay on their faces, as if they thought their meetings were no place for a woman”. The Chinese were equally as confused it seems, she said, “Because I’m a woman, they think I’ll hand over the weapons of my people. It’s an insult.”

Despite her ‘big courage’, the struggle of the Tibetan people against the Chinese was inevitably to fail. Ani Pachen decided the best thing she and her family could do was to flee, as thousands of other Tibetans had, however as she was trying to escape she was captured by the Chinese. It was 1959 and she was only 25 years old.

The next 21 years of her life were spent in prison being questionned and tortured by the Chinese. She was forced to endure horrific suffering at the hands of the Chinese. Years later, after her release, she told people what it was like;

“I went into prison a young woman and came out an old woman. No one in my family survived but me. When they arrested me they bound my hands and feet and hung me upside down and interrogated me. They beat me continuously. I would pass out and they would throw water on me and beat me some more. They shackled me for a year. They put me in a hole in the ground and forced me to live in my own feces. All other prisoners suffered the same.”

She later wrote, in her book Sorrow Mountain; the Journey of a Tibetan Nun, that her Buddhist practices & meditation helped her to survive. She envisioned a day when she would be free and dreamed of one day meeting the Dalai Lama.

Eventually, in 1981, she was finally released. She returned to her village and found only the remains of what used to be. While she had been in prison all the rest of her family had starved to death. Despite the years of suffering she had endured at the hands of the Chinese, as soon as she was free she once again took up the struggle against them – speaking out against their oppression of the Tibetan people and culture. Soon however she heard rumours that she was going to be arrested again, so she decided the time had come for her to leave Tibet.

She walked for nearly a month until she eventually arrived in Nepal. Just a few weeks after her escape the dream she had held for so long was finally realised when she met the Dalai Lama. She would meet him many times over the rest of her life, as she became a global voice for the plight of Tibetans. She travelled the world telling people her story and in America led several huge marches to raise awareness. She spoke of her effort to forgive those who had tortured her,

“Sometimes I felt such anger for the Chinese… my life, like so many others, passed in suffering. His Holiness said that we must not hate the Chinese. Even after my time in the caves [where she meditated], I still struggle with anger.”

She eventually settled in India, in Dharamsala so she could be close to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. As more and more people heard her story she became a heroine (or you could say shero) of the Tibetan people. She died peacefully in 2002. 


Find out more….

Why not read Ani’s story in her own words? You could buy Sorrow Mountain; the Journey of a Tibetan Nun or get it from your local library.

You can read interviews with Ani Pached here and here.

Find out more about the continuing struggle to free Tibet and how you can support the cause here.





Mary McArthur – Striking Shero!

Mary Macarthur was born in Glasgow in 1880. Her family were Conservatives and at first she shared the same political beliefs. In 1901 she attended a meeting to discuss the establishment of a branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union, which caused her to rethink her politics. The meeting inspired Mary to become an advocate of trade unionism and a member of the Labour Party.

Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906.

The NFWW was initially met with some resistance within the trade union movement. Many union men did not like the idea of women organising, and women themselves were often suspicious of trade unions. However, many women joined the NFWW from trades which did not allow women in their unions or from trades where no unions existed, and the union proved a huge success. By the end of its first year it had 17 branches in England and Scotland and had signed up about 2,000 members. Membership eventually reached a total of about 40,000.

In 1907 Mary began to publish a monthly paper called The Woman Worker. This also proved popular and it soon became a weekly paper, with a readership of 20,000.

Mary was an excellent leader. Contemporaries Margaret Bondfield and Beatrice Webb said that (despite her middle class background) Mary had the ability to speak to women workers as if she was one of them.

Mary campaigned for a legal minimum wage, and she also sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweated League which campaigned against sweated labour. She helped to organise the Cradley Heath women chainmakers when they went on strike in 1910. Chainmakers worked in poor conditions for low pay. They worked in sheds in their backyards and earned 5s for a 50-hour working week. The strike was a success securing fairer pay for the women chainmakers.

Mary continued to campaign for women workers’ rights during the First World War. She was the Women’s Trade Union League representative on the War Emergency Workers’ National Committee, and from 1916 she served on the government’s Reconstruction Committee, which was established in order to advise the government on the conditions of women’s employment after the war. Mary’s work on the committee resulted in a report of 1919 recommending that women should have a minimum wage and that they should work no more than 40 hours a week.

At the end of the war, Mary stood for parliament as Labour candidate for Stourbridge. She was defeated, but by 1919 she was on the executive of the Labour Party.

Mary died as a result of cancer in 1921, aged 40. During her brief life she was dedicated to campaigning for women workers and helped to give women a voice in the workplace and in politics.

Written for Sheroes of History by Charlene Price. Charlene can be found @NoLoveSincerer and 


Find out more…

Find out more about Mary Macarthur and the Sweated Industries  on this English Heritage website.

There is some much more detailed information about Mary’s life here.

The People’s History Museum has a number of objects related to the National Federation of Women Workers and Mary Macarthur including this NFWW badge and an autograph book containing Mary’s signature.




Picture 215

Edmonia Lewis – Sculpting Shero

Emonia Lewis was a world famous African American and Native American sculptor. Born in America, she spent most of her career in Rome.

Edmonia was born on 4th July 1844. Her father was Haitian, while her mother was from the Native American Ojibwa tribe. Sadly, by the time she was 9 they had both died, so Edmonia and her brother went to live with her aunts in Canada, where her mother’s tribe came from. While living with them she was known by her native name, ‘Wildfire’, while her brother was called ‘Sunshine’. She helped make traditional baskets with her aunts, which they sold to tourists near Niagra Falls.

In 1859 Wildfire became Mary Edmonia Lewis, when she started college and decided to change her name. She went to Oberlin College, which was the first college in America to allow women and African Americans to attend. It was here that she first developed her passion for art.

Unfortunately everything did not go smoothly while she was at college. A couple of years into her studies she was accused of poisoning two white students. While no evidence was found to support the accusation and she was officially aquitted, the townspeople took it in their own hands to punish Edmonia. In a brutal attack they ambushed her and severely beat her. Somehow Edmonia got past this and continued to study at Oberlin, but when more (probably false) accusations surfaced the following year she was forced to leave.

After this, in 1864, Edmonia picked herself up and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a sculptor. She moved to Boston and found a well known artist who would teach her the skill. She was a fast learner and showed great talent; later that year she had her very first solo exhibition.

Her sculptures were made of marble, and while she worked in a classical style, the themes which inspired her work reflected modern ideas. She was moved by the abolitionists who were trying to end slavery and their ideas greatly influenced her work.

Her name became really well known when she made a sculpture of a well known Civil War hero called Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. People wanted to buy her work and soon she was in great demand, selling her work for lots of money!

Edmonia knew what she wanted to spend her new income on and in 1866 she bought a ticket to sail to Rome. Once there she was able to set up a studio and learn from other great artists. She was supported in her work by a group of forward thinking women which included other artists and abolitionists, including anti-slavery activist Maria Weston Chapman and actress Charlotte Cushman. The women were known as feminists and some of them were openly gay – which made for quite a controversial group at the time. Some people have suggested that Edmonia herself was also gay.

She created lots of beautiful works of art while she lived in Rome. She carried on using marble and sculpted pieces inspired by her Native American heritage like this one called Hiawatha’s Marriage, inspired by the story of Hiawatha:

Hiawatha's Marriage

Hiawatha’s Marriage

The way she showed Native Americans in her sculptures challended the idea many people held at the time that they were ‘savages’ – instead she portrayed dignified human beings.

She was also inspired by the ongoing struggle to end slavery. One of her most famous pieces was called Forever Free and showed a black slave with broken chains.

Forever Free

Forever Free

At the height of her fame Edmonia was invited to exibit a piece for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, America’s first official World Fair. She was the only black female artist to display work there, and the piece she created was described as “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section”. It was a huge marble scuplture called The Death of Cleopatra. It really caused a stir for how boldly it portrayed death.

Death of Cleopatra

Death of Cleopatra

After the exposition the statue was put into storage and was lost for the next 100 years! It was eventually found in the 1970s and is now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. After the stir caused by the Cleopatra sculpture Edmonia was so well known that the following year the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, commissioned her to sculpt his portrait!

In her later life Edmonia’s fame faded as the type of art that people liked changed. By the turn of the century she had moved to London, but very little is known of her life from that point until her death in 1907.


Find out more…

Read more about the disappearance & rediscovery of The Death of Cleopatra here.

There is a book written about Edmonia’s life called Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Buy it here.

There are several videos on YouTube about Edmonia Lewis. This one is a good place to start and is part of a series about American artists. Watch this (part 5) and Part 6 to find out more detail about Edmonia’s life.


Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole, born in Kingston Jamaica in 1805, was the daughter of a free Jamaican woman and a Scottish solider. Mary’s mother was a ‘Doctoress’ who practiced herbal healing, and Mary inherited an interest in traditional medicine and nursing skills from her, whilst also learning more modern methods from Army Doctors who stayed with her family.

In her earlier years, Mary ran a hotel (which operated like a hospital) for primarily injured or disabled European ex-soldiers, alongside her mother. Here she furthered her nursing and business skills. She married in 1836, but her husband died just 8 years later.

Mary was a keen traveller whose financial background allowed her to visit the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. In the 1850s, Mary visited her brother in Panama and spent time there nursing patients through a Cholera outbreak. She also adventured through jungles wearing the long dresses and hats which were fashionable at the time, and was even reported to have cooked parrots!

The Crimean War broke out in 1853 between Russia and her previous allies, including Britain. Mary, who considered herself to be British due to her paternal ancestry, travelled to Britain with a group of nurses and applied to travel to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Her interview was unsuccessful, possibly due to racial prejudice. However, she decided to travel to the area regardless of this, and used her shrewd business sense to set up the ‘British Hotel’ and sell food and provisions to soldiers.

As she was independent of the army, she had the freedom of movement which many in the formal nursing service could not utilise from their hospitals miles from the frontline. Due to this, when Sevatapol was under siege for nearly a year, Mary was able to visit the battlefield on horseback several times and sew the wounds of soldiers who were fighting on both side of the conflict.

For her nursing work during the conflict, Mary was called ‘Mother Seacole’ by men that she helped and letters from soldiers were published in many newspapers celebrating her work. For her achievements and care, Mary was awarded medals in Turkey and Jamaica. Despite this recognition, Mary was left financially worse off after the war ended in 1856 and suffered from ill health over the following decades. Mary died of apoplexy in 1881 and was buried in London.

She is now returning to the fame of her age, particularly in Jamaica where she is celebrated by nurses, and through her inclusion in the British National Curriculum, which has been hotly debated in recent years due to her comparisons with Florence Nightingale.  Whilst Mary did not cause massive progress to the Nursing profession, she did many things which women or those of mixed race backgrounds were unlikely to achieve in her time.

Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd.

Further reading:

The BBC have a great interactive resource about Mary which you can fine here.

Mary wrote an autobiography called, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ which is still available to read today. Get it here.

There are lots of books for all different reading ages about Mary’s life. Why not have a look in your local library?

There are also loads of videos online about Mary. Here is one which is part of a documentary about her: