If we are going to talk about influential women in the field of science (in this case, social science), then I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gertrude Bell. She wasn’t someone that came into my radar until last year when I couldn’t sleep and turned on the t.v. The movie, ‘Queen of the Desert’ just happened to be starting. It was a film based on Gertrude Bell’s life. Needless to say, I enjoyed the movie immensely, and the very next day, I started to read up on her.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy English family in 1868. Though it wasn’t common practice for women at the time, she went to Oxford University, and completed a First Class Honours degree in Modern History; the first woman to have done so. Not interested in settling down and getting married, Gertrude Bell convinced her parents that she would like to take a trip to visit her uncle, who was the ambassador of Tehran. Once there, she began a serious study of languages: Arabic, Persian, Italian, German and Turkish. With her social background, vivid curiosity and keen intelligence, Gertrude made quite an impression with the European Diplomatic circles in Tehran. She, in turn, discovered that she quite enjoyed her life at the embassy, and was fascinated by the intricacies of the political situation in that region of the world. She loved to explore the area, taking meticulous notes, maps, photographs, and illustrations along the way. Gertrude managed to update and even correct some of the existing maps of the desert in her exploration. Incidentally, these maps of the Arabian Desert were used extensively by the British and her allies during WWI, as they outlined routes and passages which had never been seen by a Westerner before. Her gift with languages came in handy and enabled her to get to know the people and the land in a way few foreigners were able to achieve. These notes, maps and perhaps most importantly, Gertrude’s unmatched knowledge of the area and mastery of languages would later prove invaluable to the British government. At the outbreak of WWI, when the Ottoman Empire joined forces with the Central Powers, the newly formed Arab Bureau contacted Gertrude for her expertise. They recruited her to advise on Middle Eastern policies, help find routes to mobilize British troops, and also act as a liaison between Britain and the Arab natives. The British government recognized Gertrude’s ability to get along with the Arabs as she was known to be able to talk easily and charm both powerful Sheiks and desert nomads alike. As well, Gertrude was one of the few outsiders who understood the history and intricate relationship between different tribes and clans in what is now modern-day Iraq. It is this political and geographical insight that differentiated her with other ‘travelers’. Early on, Gertrude began to realize that her visits to the interior had to mean more than a wealthy lady’s eccentric hobby. This decision helped her to have a focus for her life pursuit and encouraged her to take an almost scientific approach to her observations and notetaking of everything she experienced and observed. Eventually, she wrote a book about her travels and her fame spread in England. The Royal Geographical Society invited her to give a series of lectures which were a great success and helped cement her reputation in England.
Gertrude Bell was blessed with intelligence, independent wealth, and a free spirit that despite the restrictions of society and her class, she was able to rise above. She had the courage to leave her family and home, first for school and later, traveling through parts of the world that were relatively unknown to Western travelers. This does not mean her life was always happy. I imagine in many ways, it was a lonely existence. She undoubtedly missed her family (to whom she was very close to, as evidenced by the hundreds of letters she wrote and received when she was abroad) and friends. Though she was much admired by the desert people she came in contact with, she had a harder time being accepted by her fellow peers and countrymen/women. The men felt threatened by her intelligence, her strong personality, and her adventurous nature. She put herself into dangerous and risky situations that even her male counterparts dared not take on. At a time when women of her class were groomed from birth on feminine arts like needlework, hosting tea parties and taking care of her husband and children, Gertrude Bell was trekking through the desert and mountains, sleeping in tents beneath the stars and mingling with desert nomads. Though some people admired her spirit and may have even envied her her freedom, others were not as kind.