Wilful and Wondrous Women

First published on The John Rylands Special Collections Blog in March 2019.

To celebrate International Women’s Day (although I like to think of it as the whole month) I would like to discuss some exceptional women from history that changed the world in their own way. This blog will explore the lives of Caroline Hershel, the first female astronomer; Mary Prince, an anti-slavery activist, who was also the first woman to write autobiography and petition the courts. We will explore the ideas of problematic icons by discussing the pioneering author, Colette.  Last but not least, The Ananna, Manchester – an organisation founded in education, health-care and friendship.

Caroline Herschel: The first female astronomer

”Femininity appears to be one of those pivotal qualities that is so important no one can define it.”

Caroline was born in Germany in 1750. At 10 she contracted typhus, which stunted her growth, so she did not grow taller than 4ft 3in. She lived with her parents until she was 22, after which she moved to Bath with her brother, William.

Caroline initially worked as his housekeeper but became very interested in William’s passion for amateur astronomy. She learned mathematics, how to construct telescopes and the observational methods of the period.

Smelling out the commet

Caroline assisted William with his astronomical pursuits and was with him when he discovered Uranus. He was knighted and appointed as court astronomer for King George

the Third. Caroline was employed as his assistant, becoming the first professional female astronomer.

Her work flourished in this role. In 1783 she made her first discovery of a nebula (hazy clouds where stars form) and a new galaxy, both on the same night. In 1786 she became the first woman to discover a comet, the 35P/ Herschel-Rigollet. Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered an additional 8 new comets and two new nebulae.

Caroline catalogued every discovery made by herself and her brother. She used this information to create two astronomical catalogues which are still used today: The catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars and The catalogue of stars taken from Mr Flamsteed’s observations contained in the second volume of the Historia Coelestis and not inserted in the British catalogue by the Royal Society.

The catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1786, but credited William Herschel.

She found that the most popular index of stars of the time, British Catalogue of Stars, contained errors which hampered her work. She added corrections and an additional 560 new stars. In 1798 it was published as The Catalogue of stars taken from Mr Flamsteed’s observations contained in the second volume of the Historia Coelestis and not inserted in the British catalogue by the Royal Society. This publication credited Caroline and William.

Caroline’s achievements were honoured when she became the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal in 1828. It was another 168 years until it was awarded to another woman, Vera Rubin, in 1996.

The John Rylands Library proudly holds the Memoir and correspondence of Caroline Herschel (Reference: R30496). Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.

Mary Prince: Anti-Slavery Activist

‘They come home and say, and make some good people believe, that slaves don’t want to get out of slavery. But it is not so. All slaves want to be free’

Mary Prince was an anti-slavery activist. She was the first black woman to write a memoir, which outlined the realities of her abuse at the hands of enslavers. This experience was filtered through the production and editing from Susanna Strickland and Thomas Pringle, but retained Prince’s individual voice. Her experiences ensured people understood the horrors of slavery which gained support for the cause.

She was treated cruelly by a series of masters on several West Indian islands, enduring extreme hardship and sexual abuse. When she married a freeman without her enslavers’ permission, she was horse-whipped and, unable to work due to her injuries, was locked in a cage and beaten. Her neighbour discovered her, and let her out; it is unknown if her enslavers were leaving her to die.

Despite this, her enslavers refused Prince’s requests to buy her freedom. They didn’t want to lose someone who, when well, was such a phenomenally hard worker.

In 1807 her owners, Mr and Mrs John Wood, forced her to separate from her husband and took her from Antigua to England. When she became ill and was no longer able to work, they kicked her out of the house.

This same year the UK abolished slavery on the island and Prince was a free woman. However, if she was to return to Antigua she would still be considered a slave.

She met Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, who gave her employment in his home as a domestic servant. Pringle assisted her in petitioning the court to return to Antigua a free woman, making her the black first women to ever petition the UK courts. She was unsuccessful.

She dictated her life story to Susanna Stickland, a converted Methodist, a poet and guest in the Pringle household. Pringle edited the work and it was published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince. When editing, Pringle omitted areas of Prince’s life that readers might find sinful, such as unmarried sexual exploits, in order to ensure their full support for the anti-slavery movement.


Prince shows herself as a strong and determined woman in her memoir, defending herself and others, physically and verbally. However, the world was not ready to read about her sexual freedom and much of her relationships (other than her marriage) were omitted from the book to keep her ‘sexually pure’ and to continue a concept popular in this time period, of the perfect slave, worthy of salvation.

The book had the desired effect, attracting a large readership just as the anti-slavery movement was gaining momentum.

Prince died in 1833, the year that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, a feat which could never have been achieved without Prince’s courage and that of her fellow abolitionists.

You can learn more about her life from her biography, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave. It is available to view at The John Rylands Library from April 2019, in the Rylands Gallery. From July onward you can request it from Special Collections Reading Room using the reference: R107337.18.12.

Colette: A problematic pioneer?

‘Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.’

Colette was a complex woman. After the death of Proust she was considered the most talented writer in France, a pioneer in literature. She divorced and remarried twice, and lived unrestrained by hetero-normative relationships and attire. However, her liberal ways were limited, she considered the suffragettes irritating, wrote for the collaborationist press during the Nazi occupation, and released Julie de Carneilhan in 1941, a book full of anti-Jewish slurs.

This portion of the blog post will explore this history of Colette and the complexities of being held to a high standard due to being a woman and trailblazer. We will ask the question, how do you reconcile the power of a woman with problematic behaviour?

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. In her late teens she moved to Paris, after marrying Henry Gauthier-Villars, a writer with the pen name Willy. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette also took on a new persona in Paris, where she became known as Colette.

Willy made regular use of ghost writers in his work, and when he noticed Colette’s talent used her work to publish one of the most famous book series in Paris, The Claudine Books. The semi-autobiographical novels written from the view point of Colette included Claudine at SchoolClaudine in Paris, Claudine and Annie and Claudine Married.  Willy refused to share the credit, royalties and copyright permissions with Colette.

In her book, Claudine Married, she writes of the non-monogamous relationship between herself and Willy, arranging the marriage in what she described as ‘the most natural way’. Colette had different relationships during this period, but maintained the longest relationship with Mathilde de Morny, better known as Missy.

Missy had short hair and hid her breasts, she dressed in exclusively in men’s clothing and shoes, ‘wearing overalls and three-piece suits’[1] while using socks to fit their feet into men’s shoes. [2]

Colette left Willy in 1906 and continued her relationship with Missy until 1911. Colette and Missy caused a stir with their performance at the Moulin Rouge in a pantomime called Rêve d’Égypte when they shared a kiss on stage. Lesbian couples were accepted in Paris, but in a limited capacity. As a consequence, Missy’s family cut all income.


Colette by Leopold Reutlinger. Source: https://dantebea.com/

Colette worked exclusively as a performer in music halls and gave up writing, until the release of her 1910 novel, Vagabond,inspired by her new career.

In the story of a divorcee who becomes a dancer, a character posed the question “What else could I do? Needlework, typing, streetwalking? Music hall is a profession for those who have never learned one.”[3] She states confidently “I have found my voice again and the art of using it”[4].

This and her subsequent books were published under the name of Colette. This time she kept the credit, royalties and copyright permissions.

Through a contemporary lens, up to this point of her life Colette can be seen as an inspirational story of a talented woman reclaiming her independence in love and art. But like many, Colette made mistakes, many of which would negatively impact other people.

At 47 Colette married the diplomat Baron Henry de Jouvenel and began a romantic relationship with her 16 year old step-son, Bertrand; a situation very similar to the plot of her book Cheri. However, in this case she changed the ages for a smaller age gap. In the book it is an 18-year-old who begins a relationship with a woman 24 years his senior. When her husband found out he demanded a separation.


Colette Source: https://dantebea.com/

Bertrand and Colette carried on their relationship until 1924. After this she met and married her third husband, Maurice Goudeket.  They remained together through the horrors of World War 2 and until her death.

In 1941 the same year she released her book Julie de Carneilhan, Goudeket, who was Jewish, was taken by the Gestapo. Colette was successful in her campaign to have him released from a detention camp. Goudeket and Colette spent the rest of the war hidden in an attic chamber.

Colette died in 1954, after which Goudeket published an account of their days together called Close to Colette. He describes it as a happy relationship which gave Colette serenity. [5]

Colette’s life is inspiring, surprising, interesting and at times, disappointing. She is liberal, yet does not indulge organised feminism. She works hard to free her husband, but writes with slurs that offend his personhood. Colette, like many people, is a host of contradictions. Exploring the ideal and questionable parts of Colette, we acknowledge her personhood and honour her memory in an authentic way.

A copy of Colette’s Mitsou; ou, Comment l’esprit vient aux filles [Mitsou; or, How Girls Grow Wise] (1919), is available at the John Rylands Library, reference R133049.

Ananna: Manchester Bangladeshi Women’s Organisation

‘Providing services for women by women and for the benefit of the whole community’

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of Ananna. To celebrate I will discuss their inception and their aim to reduce isolation and improving mental health of women who had relocated from Bangladesh.


Ananna means Unique Woman in Bengali, which summed up the women who came together in a Longsight library in 1987 to create the Manchester Bangladeshi Women’s Organisation.  After being awarded funding, it officially started its services in September 1989 in Longsight, Manchester.

The aim of Ananna was to empower women and create support to meet their needs that were culturally sensitive. This meant they did not have to struggle through battles alone, the same battles that most Bangladeshi women were feeling at the time.

‘Life is not easy if you are not White.’

The biggest battle facing Bangladeshi women at this time was integrating into society without losing their heritage. Bangladeshi women frequently dealt with being ‘othered’ and experienced racism frequently, so to avoid awkward or racist situations they avoided going out alone. Many did not speak English confidently and so their husbands conducted all the shopping. This often meant women would be isolated throughout the day.

Their first aim was to create preventative measures to reduce the isolation for mothers. Ananna ensured that when children leave home, or partners go to work, there was somewhere social and welcoming they could go to. Ananna gave the women a safe space to learn and be social.

Ananna began creating this community when two members began reaching out to women by going house to house to find where Bangladeshi families lived, they publicised the service, and noticed the demand.

During this period Ananna was managed and guided by Social Services and it was hard to establish trust with the community. This support and independence for women challenged some views held by their husbands.

However, this did not deter women from using the services, which they often went to for help when it was needed.

They worked to find what would be most beneficial to their community. They created a space for education and empowerment whilst also allowing a space for relaxation and socialisation.  The services began with English lessons, and drop-in services for relationship and childcare advice.

They also tackled taboo subjects, such as mental, physical and sexual health, or issues facing their children, such as drugs or gangs. Ananna also held seasonal parties, craft and sewing classes. Ananna also created a crèche to ensure women would not be isolated in the first months of post-partum, with access to mental health services if they would need it.

Manchester Bangladeshi Organisation Ananna Papers are available at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, in the Manchester Central Library.


[1] Bentley, (2002) T. Sisters of Salome

[2] Bentley, (2002) T. Sisters of Salome

[3] Colette (1910) Vagabond

[4] Colette (1910) Vagabond

[5] https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/10/17/specials/colette-delights.html

Published by Jass Thethi

I am a Library and Museum professional. I am passionate about fair representation and diversity arts and heritage. I created theconcept of Empowered Collaboration, which describes how to increase diversity by respectful coproduction with under-served groups. I discuss real life experiences of being a minority in arts and heritage and potential ways to diversify collections through my blog and twitter account. All views in this blog are my own and not that of my employer.

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