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Gertrude Bell and the ‘Woman Question’

Helen Berry, Professor of British History, Newcastle University

Date/Time: 23rd February 2016

This lecture explores the paradoxes and contradictions in Gertrude Bell’s life from the perspective of women’s history. To some, Bell could be regarded as a feminist icon, a pioneering woman in a man’s world – a scholar, traveller, archaeologist, diplomat and curator in an era where few careers were open to women. Until recently, Bell’s legacy was little known beyond academic circles, and like many extraordinary women she seemed destined to be hidden from history. 

This lecture considers the reasons for Bell’s relative obscurity until recent times, arguing that like many exceptional women her lack of posthumous commemoration could be blamed at least partly upon the tendency for history to be written by men, about men. On many political and social issues, Bell did little to endear herself to modern sensibilities – on matters ranging from women’s votes to vivisection, empire to ethnicity, her views are often rightly considered to have no place in the twenty-first century.

Yet, Helen Berry argues in this lecture that Gertrude Bell deserves to be better known: 

  • her contribution to contemporary politics in the Middle East has proved enduringly relevant, if controversial
  • her legacy to archaeology of undoubted significance

Bell’s all-too-human tendency to live with her own contradictions are explored, as a public woman who was against women’s rights but favoured Iraqi women’s education, and as an imperialist whose preference for exile among Arab peoples made it impossible for her to return permanently to live in England. 

Speaker biography

Helen Berry is Professor of British History at Newcastle University, home to the Gertrude Bell Archive. A prizewinning Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Fellow of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, she has published widely and her most recent book, The Castrato and His Wife(Oxford University Press, 2011) was a Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’.  

She has a particular interest in the history of gender and the family. Her interest in Gertrude Bell began when she featured Bell in an exhibition, Inspirational Women of North-East England (2013) at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, after which she made a television feature on Bell for BBC1 (Inside/Out, 2014).

For more information, see Helen's website.