It is also a list about extraordinary women.
While all people can surely be regarded as extraordinary in some way, this is about those who stand out as somehow above the norm. It may be because of remarkable achievements or success in spite of setbacks. It may be because they had special talents or strange life stories. Or it may just be because of certain character traits.
This list is also exclusive in the sense that it is my list. Surely there are women who achieved greater things or had greater talents or suffered more. But to make this list, the women’s stories had to somehow resonate with me. They had to become real people, people who touched my heart with their strength, their courage, their love.
I have often counted off the forty days from winter solstice to my birthday. This year, as I neared my forty fourth birthday, I wondered what other women were doing at that age, where they were in their life stories. And this is what I found. Some died before their time, some are still living and haven’t reached that age yet. But as I contemplated them one by one, day by day, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by their lives.
A whole book could be written on the lives of every one of these women and it is very difficult to tell the gist of their stories in a few lines. I hope that this list will inspire you to investigate them further; maybe to make your own list. And to look at your own life and contemplate where you have been, where you are and where you might still be going. As George Eliot said: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
So here they are, in chronological order:
- Queen Ester (c. 500 B.C. - ?). As a young Jewish maiden she became queen to King Xerxes of Persia in 479 B.C. Eight years later she saved the Jewish people from persecution by her courageous act of unsolicitedly approaching the king. King Xerxes was murdered in 465 B.C. Where would Esther have been at age 44 (c. 456 B.C.)? “ I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.”
- Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). As a child she had visions. She joined a Benedictine nunnery. At 42 she had a vision prompting her to write down what she saw and heard. She wrote theology, a morality play, musical compositions, letters, two volumes on natural medicines. She saw medicine as a kind of gardening and stressed holistic health. At 44 (1142) she was in a nunnery, busy writing her first visionary theological work. “Like a feather on the breath of God.”
- Joan of Arc (1412-1431). Like Hildegard she had visions from an early age. She was told that the English must be driven out of France and the French dauphin Charles VII should be crowned as king. She approached the French commander, insisted on being taken to the king. She joined the French army and spurred them to victory. In 1430 she was captured by the English and burnt at the stake for heresy, aged 19. “Although I would rather have remained spinning at my mother’s side…yet I must go and must do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so.”
- Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825) A Scottish travel writer and artist, at 44 (1794) she had been married for one year to Andrew Barnard (12 years her junior). Three years later she would go with him (then colonial secretary of the Cape of Good Hope) to South Africa and travel extensively in the interior for 5 years. “I never exaggerate – never; sometimes I may extenuate, but I set down naught in malice.”
- Jane Austen (1775-1817) After having to leave school at eleven, she attained the rest of her education through reading. She published six novels, initially anonymously. She died aged 42. “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”
- Mary Shelley (1797-1851) She started a relationship with Percy Brysshe Shelley at age 18 and married him two years later. Within 8 years she lost three of their children, as well as her husband. By age 44 (1841) she had written six novels, two children’s books and many short stories and would later write another novel and two travel narratives. “The beginning is always today.”
- Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) By the age of 32 she had lost her mother and five siblings. She married her father’s curate. Six novels published before her death at age 39. “But life is a battle: may we all be enabled to fight it well!”
- George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) (1819-1880) Because she wasn’t considered pretty and therefore not a good marriage prospect, her father invested in her education, but after age 16, she was mostly self-taught. At 44 (1863) she had written three of her seven novels, had been living with George Lewes for nine years and was the co-editor of a literary journal. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
- Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) At age 11 she moved with her family from England to the USA. She worked as a teacher, then studied medicine and became the first woman in America to get a medical degree. By the age of 44 (1865) she had studied in Europe and London, lost sight in one eye, opened a practice in New York. Later she would return to England, establish a medical school for women and campaign for women’s rights. “I must have something to engross my thoughts, some object in life which will fill this vacuum, and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart.”
- Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) Given to bouts of melancholy, she lived an ever more secluded life, writing poetry and corresponding by letter with a few friends. By age 44 (1874) she had withdrawn to such an extent that when her father died of a stroke, she did not even leave her room. Her mother would die a year later. Only a handful of her 1800 poems were published during her lifetime. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.”
- Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) Most of her schooling she received from her father. At 44 (1876) she had worked as a seamstress, governess, teacher, domestic helper, a nurse during the American civil war, and had published several stories, children’s tales and at least twelve novels. “I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship.”
- Grandma Moses (1860-1961) At the age of 44 (1904) she was managing four farms with her husband. Only five of her ten children had survived infancy. In 1938, as arthritis influenced her ability to do embroidery, she started painting and became a celebrated folk artist. “Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”
- Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) By age 44 (1904) she had lost both parents, broken off her engagement to an American rancher, gone to South Africa (December 1899) and discovered horrible conditions in concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War. She had campaigned against them and for helping victims of war, and written two books. Later she would campaign against WW1. “It is astonishing that though so long a list of the world’s greatest thinkers in all periods have pronounced against war, yet (to this time) no statesman has appeared capable of abolishing it as a means of settling disputes…”
- Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) Orphaned at seven, she was brought up by her sister. At age 44 (1908) she was working as a domestic worker, while secretly painting at night by candle light. Four years later she would be discovered by art collector Wilhelm Uhde, who continued to exhibit her work even after her death. In 1932 she was admitted to an asylum for chronic psychosis. “You know, m’sieur, when I feel sad, I go for a walk in the countryside and I touch the trees. I talk to the birds, the flowers and the insects, and it passes.” (quote from the movie Seraphine)
- Marie Curie (1867-1934) With her husband she did pioneering research into radioactivity. By age 44 (1911) she had received a second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry (eight years earlier she had shared the prize for Physics with her husband and Henri Becquerel, becoming the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize). Twenty three years later she would die from the side-effects of doing research on radium. “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
- Helen Keller (1880-1968) She became blind and deaf at 19 months old, but learned to communicate with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan. She learned braille and could read sign language with her hands. By the age of 44 (1924), she had attained a BA degree, was a famous speaker, activist and author (she would write 12 books in total). “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
- Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) The loss of her mother at 13, a half-sister two years later and her father when she was 22 contributed to nervous breakdowns. By age 44 (1926) she had become part of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, had established the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard and written four of her nine novels as well as short story collections and non-fiction books. “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
- Karen Blixen (1885-1962) She married her second cousin and moved with him to Kenya to establish a coffee plantation. By age 44 (1929) she was divorced and having an affair with Denys Finch Hatton, who would die a year later. Her first book would only be published five years later, one of many to come. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
- Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) Born in New Zealand, she moved to England at age 19. She had several affairs with both men and women and a miscarriage of an illegitimate child. She was a prolific writer of articles and short stories, much of which was only published posthumously, as she died aged 34 from tuberculosis. “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”
- Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) She started writing poems at age 11 and studied literature in St. Petersburg. By the age of 44 (1933) her ex-husband had been shot and her son arrested. Though already an acclaimed writer, her work was banned and she struggled to survive. She wrote not only poetry, but also prose, and translated works from Italian and French. “In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me . . . and asked me in a whisper . . . ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘I can.’”
- Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) She worked as a nurse’s aid during World War I, studied mechanics and medical courses, but quit university. To save money for flying lessons she worked as photographer, truck driver, stenographer and others. At age 34 she became the first woman to complete a solo non-stop transatlantic flight. During her second attempt at a circumnavigational flight, she disappeared, a few weeks before her 40th birthday. “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”
- Ayn Rand (1905-1982) She fled the Russian Revolution with her parents and graduated from university at age 19 (majoring in history). By age 44 (1949) she had moved to the USA, married, written several screenplays and novels and become a political activist. Nine years later she would write her best novel Atlas Shrugged. “The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.”
- Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) She was seriously injured in a bus accident at the age of 18, leading to a life of pain and poor health. By the age of 44 (1951) she had married, divorced and remarried artist Diego Riviera. Two years later she held her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was brought in by ambulance to attend, since she was bedridden. “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”
- Mother Teresa (1910-1997) Feeling a call to religious life as a child, she became a nun at 18. She was sent to India, where she was initially a teacher but later devoted her life to help the poor and the sick. By age 44 (1954) she had founded the Missionaries of Charity, Home for the Dying and Leprosy Home. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
- Mary Leaky (1913-1996) She was twice expelled from school and followed her two passions – art and palaeontology – meeting her husband Louis Leaky when he required an illustrator for his book. By the age of 44 (1957) they had been excavating fossil sites in Kenya together for decades. She was part of important discoveries about hominids, among them the discovery of a trail of human footprints 3.6 million years old. “Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity.”
- Elisabeth Eybers (1915-2007) Publishing her first poetry collection at age 21, she became the first woman to win the Hertzog Prize for poetry (in 1943) and won it again 28 years later. By age 44 (1959) she had published seven poetry collections. Two years later she would divorce her husband of 24 years and leave South Africa for the Netherlands, where she stayed until her death. “Poetry is a lonely business, but it has the ability to bring people together and to confirm their essential relationship.”
- Sheila Cussons (1922-2004) An accomplished visual artist and poet, she received many poetry awards, among them the Hertzog Prize. At age 44 (1966) she had not yet published any of her eleven volumes of poetry. Eight years later she would be severely burnt when a stove exploded, but this accident greatly influenced her life and art. “The whole creative process and the completed work is a mystery.”
- Ines Aab-Tamsen (1926- ) She is a much loved artist, exhibiting both in South Africa and Europe, and at 90 still a sought-after art teacher. By the age of 44 (1970) she was living in Pretoria, teaching art to both children and adults. “Passion is probably the one thing that distinguishes art from non-art.”
- Mintjie Bosua (1926- ) By age 44 (1970) she had been a teacher for two decades and would be so officially for another 16 years, but really for life. She remains at the pivot of her extended family, still married after 72 years and beloved by all (including the author, her step-granddaughter). “Where love lives, God blesses.”
- Anne Frank (1929-1945) A German-born Jew, she fled to Amsterdam with her family, where they were trapped by the Nazi occupation. They went into hiding, but was later betrayed and sent to concentration camps, where she died, aged 16. While in hiding she had written a diary, which would later be published. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
- Malie Smuts (1933- ) I do not have sufficient knowledge of her earlier life, but by the age of 44 (1977) she would presumably have been a qualified veterinarian for more than 20 years. Five years later she would become the first female professor of Anatomy at the veterinary faculty of the University of Pretoria. After a year’s study in Israel she wrote the first comprehensive textbook on the camel’s anatomy. At the end of the 1980’s she modernised course material through the then new field of educational videos.
- Jane Goodall (1934- ) With the support of the Leakys in Kenya, she started studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. With no previous degree, she obtained a PhD in ethology from Cambridge. By age 44 (1978) she had been studying chimpanzees for 18 years, founded the Jane Goodall Institute a year earlier and written three books. She remains a campaigner for the environment and sustainable living. “I don’t think that faith, whatever you’re being faithful about, really can be scientifically explained. And I don’t want to explain this whole business through truth, science. There’s so much mystery. There’s so much awe.”
- Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) Born in Kenya, she received a scholarship to study biology in the USA, where she later attained her MSc. She also studied in Germany and attained a PhD in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi. A political and environmental activist, by the age of 44 (1984) she had initiated the Green Belt Movement, which encouraged environmental conservation and women’s rights. She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “Earth and water, air and waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil.”
- Marcella de Boom (1945-2009) She started taking art classes from Ines Aab-Tamsen from age 11 and later completed a BA Fine Arts. At age 44 (1989) she had held countless exhibitions and would continue to do so for the rest of her life, also exhibiting paintings in Germany and Canada. She studied at the University of South Africa for 42 years, mostly non-degree modules, but also completed an honours degree in Science of Religion. In her late fifties she built a cob house (and then helped build another one for her daughter, that’s me!). “The good Lord looks after his own.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi (1945- ) She is the daughter of a Burmese prime minister who was assassinated in 1947. She studied at Oxford and lived in England, India and the USA, but returned to Burma and spoke out against the violent dictatorship. At the age of 44 (1989) she was placed under house arrest and only finally released two decades later. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
- Antjie Krog (1952- ) By age 44 (1996) she had written 8 poetry collections (the first at age 17), 2 children’s verse collections and one novel. At least 10 more books would follow. Her book Country of My Skull chronicled the activities of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. “It's hard for me to speak, whether in English or Afrikaans. The reason I write is because I cannot speak. I feel blunt.”
- Anne Lamott (1954- ) She wrote her first book for her father after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. By the age of 44 (1998) she had overcome her substance abuse and bulimia and was single mother to a nine-year old son after a previous abortion. She is the author of sixteen books. “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
- Chai Ling (1966- ) In 1989 she was a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. She fled to the USA where she studied politics. At the age of 44 (2010) she started “All Girls Allowed” to protest human rights abuses in China’s One Child Policy. “There could only be two futures for China: an outcome of continued fear, or a destiny that opens the door to true freedom — and forgiveness.”
- Natalie du Toit (1984- ) Already competing internationally as a swimmer as a teenager, her leg was amputated after being hit by a car in 2001. Since then she was won multiple medals in both Paralympic and Olympic Games. She will turn 44 in 2018. “Once your dream is fulfilled you face another one."
- Malala Yousafzai (1997- ) At age 11 she started writing a blog detailing life under the Taliban regime. An activist for female education and women’s rights, she survived an assassination attempt and became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014). She will turn 44 in 2041. “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”