She Burns: Inspiring Women Whose Stories Are Worth Reading

 Issabella Orlando is a Toronto-born, London-based Ancient History student. She has always been an avid writer, fascinated by antiquity, travel and world issues. Inspired by the ancient past, she hopes to use her background in classical studies as a foundation of insight from which she can better understand social, cultural and political issues within the modern world, develop a greater appreciation for the destinations of her adventures around the globe, and write her own works addressing the interconnectivity of her three loves.

The place of women in the many compartments of the world — politics, academia, and the home, just to name a few — has been a hot topic for decades; I’d even call it a fire. The movement to empower women may have originated as a tiny spark, a flicker of light in dark times for females deserving to be heard; but after years of nurturance, that flame has grown to become a steadily burning bonfire, illuminating a world in which women can participate, make themselves heard, and inspire one another to do the same. Here are seven women who have taken the world by storm over the years, and whose stories alight a flame that continues to burn today…

Gertrude Bell

I think sometimes in seeking inspiration from women who motivate us to follow our dreams in ruthlessly pursuing theirs, the most convenient place to find strong female examples is in the past. In looking backwards, it’s not difficult to pick out those who paved the causeways we now use as mediums of transportation towards the goals of women in the modern world. One of the historical figures who I find a beacon of inspiration is Gertrude Bell, an icon to me for so many reasons. Although I personally place her at the top of this list because she has worked in every realm that I could ever hope to break into – writing, travel, archaeology, and politics — her work is aspirational for the many of us complex, multifaceted women whose interests lie in multiple fields. Even if her career doesn’t align with your personal interests as it does with mine, it is remarkable how her cross-curricular interests allowed her influence to span widely; her participation in a great number and variety of projects allowed her to become a woman of real agency, a rare sight in Victorian Britain. Bell’s example serves as an encouraging affirmation for those of us who share her curiosity, and hope to find our calling in a multitude of places; her story reminds us that success is not linear and that as individual women, we can become the medium through which the things that inspire us intersect, creating places for ourselves and our merged interdisciplinary interests.

Read more: I’ve yet to read Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell, but it was this book that introduced me to Gertrude Bell in the first place, and it’s been on my reading list ever since.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson

Continuing to draw inspiration from the past, if you’ve seen the Academy Award nominated film Hidden Figures, the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson will not ring unfamiliar. Working behind the scenes on NASA’s team of mathematicians during the American space race, these women are inspiring to me not just for their brilliant work and determination to make space for themselves as female intellectuals of colour in an era dominated by white men. What is most remarkable about their story in my eyes is their tireless effort to use their skills away from the public eye, fiercely taking part in NASA’s projects even knowing that they might never receive any recognition. Their story leaves me to wonder how many more quietly influential women march behind them, their stories swept under the rug; it also reminds me that it is this generation of women, we whose voice that is the echo all of theirs, who are responsible for unearthing those hidden figures, and continuing to read, write and tell their stories until they become engrained into our collective memories, where they should have been all along.

Read more: I didn’t realise until writing this piece that the film Hidden Figures is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Definitely another for the nightstand…

Joan Didion

Joan Didion is yet another female figure who has captured my attention lately, a femme fatale according to some, a brilliant journalist by my own standards. Some may argue that her work and life has been glorified beyond reason, but there is much to respect about her as a woman who made a name for herself in the cutthroat world of journalism, not succumbing to the male-dominated era of the 20th century. Most profoundly, I am inspired by her tendency to direct the attention of her readers to meaningful topics and events through incredibly insightful first-person prose; it encourages hope within the writer in me, that there can be room in the industry for a woman wanting to discuss topics of social and political importance with a personal approach. Her work, infused with opinion as well as fact, seeks to both inform and to express a personal perspective that may rouse the thoughts and opinions of her readers. There is certainly something to be said of the acute focus of her lens on relevant discussions and experiences, rather than the flimsy, somewhat insubstantial columns on little more than skincare, dating and celebrity gossip that flood channels originally intended for more purposeful journalism, both online and in print.

Read more: I’ve just picked up a copy of Joan Didion’s first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem; I hope to also read her other collections, including her most well known, The White Album.

Malala Yousafzai

After years of hearing her name but not knowing her story, I recently found my self awe-inspired by Malala Yousafzai. The youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and only two years my senior, Yousafzai became an activist for girls’ education while still a student herself; her efforts to support women’s access to education and to write about her experience living under Taliban rule led to her attempted assassination, luckily a failed endeavour from which she was able to recover and escalate her efforts. To anyone who becomes aware of her story, she is a true embodiment of courage and perseverance; she serves as a signpost for the power that can be manifested by one person when they exercise firmness of purpose, and a reminder of the work to be done in corners of the world that the consciousness of the Western mind does not turn to enough. Her story spurs me to wonder how much more amenable it would be to make waves on a global scale and affect positive change, both for women and for all, if we as a collective possessed her initiative.

Read more: Written both by Malala Yousafzai herself and Christina Lamb, her fascinating story is told in the bestselling memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

Maya Angelou

A favourite poet of my mother’s, Maya Angelou’s is a voice that I have been attuned to since I was little; her words, both written and sung, have had the ability to permeate me intellectually and emotionally ever since. She may be best known for her memoirs and work alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as a civil rights activist; but to me her most exceptional trait above all is her ability to embody both strength and grace. Her poems carry powerful messages and address significant challenges, yet somehow her words never come across harsh, nor demanding, nor hardened by the unfairness diffused within our world; she has the ability to inspire, to empower, to raise important questions and to rouse spirits without ever contributing to callousness. A model of what it means to be both tough and tender, Maya Angelou’s work does not sacrifice fortitude nor repose, and inspires me to take the same approach in character and in writing alike.

Read more: You’re probably more familiar with the words of Maya Angelou than you think; her quotations are often ones you’ve heard before but didn’t know who was behind them. Any of her collections of poems is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.


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