Today is International Women’s Day, and tens of thousands of women across the globe are marching in support of their own rights and to campaign for those whose voices can’t be heard.
Bernard Shaw would have been an outspoken supporter of #IWD2014, although I can’t help suspecting that he would have been very disappointed that women are still needing to march. Shaw was identified with feminism as early as 1895; so much so that he was satirized in a conservative novel as ‘a paradoxical, arrogant champion of women’ (Weintraub, Fabian Feminist).
There have been many texts written on Shaw and women: the above picture is just a very small selection gathered from our shelves here at Shaw’s Corner. Not only was he friends with strong, forward-looking, independent and inspiring women, he created them too. He wrote plays ‘replete with extraordinary women who slap, think, argue, study, manipulate, control, work, nurse, chase, fly, juggle, cross-dress, save souls and inspire men’ (Hadfield and Reynolds, Shaw and Feminisms).
His women are real and earthy, yet also inspired and working towards a higher cause: Saint Joan, Major Barbara, even Ann in Man and Superman. Shaw’s most famous female creation Eliza Doolittle, bears little resemblance to the be-hatted confection that is Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She doesn’t return to order ham for Higgins or fetch his slippers, and she is a thinking and active woman who wants to determine her own fate:
LIZA. What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?
HIGGINS. I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well.
LIZA. We were above that on the corner of the Tottenham Court Road.
HIGGINS. [waking up] What do you mean?
LIZA. I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now youve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.
Pygmalion, Act 4.
Yes, everyone should read Pygmalion and The Intelligent Women’s Guide and Man and Superman. But for me, the play that first made me really understand Shaw’s voice for women: both shouting for them and letting them speak was Misalliance. In Hypatia, he has somehow put down on to paper exactly what it feels like to be in your early twenties and in Lina he created an inspiration. The speech below was my Shavian lightbulb moment and something I believe every woman should work towards:
“I am an honest woman: I earn my own living. I am a free woman: I live in my own house….I am strong: I am skillful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought: I am all that a woman ought to be….”
Ass. House Steward.