How to bring a wonder woman to dinner

IT has been described as one of the most fascinating and unusual courses ever held at Suffolk New College. Today JAMES MARSTON reports.

James Marston

IT has been described as one of the most fascinating and unusual courses ever held at Suffolk New College. Today JAMES MARSTON reports.

MOTHER Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Florence Nightingale or Elizabeth I - they were all amazing ladies but which one would you invite to your dinner party?

Well now you have the chance to decide thanks to a new leisure learning course at Suffolk New College

Invitation to Dine: A Celebration of Female Achievement is aimed at adults giving them the chance to celebrate and enjoy the achievements of women throughout the centuries up to the present day.

Course leader Sarah Rejman-Greene said she took inspiration for the course from a work of art.

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The English and drama graduate said: “The course is loosely based on an artistic masterpiece 'The Dinner Party' by American Judy Chicago, herself a great champion of women's talents.

“In this work Judy created a huge triangular table with settings for 39 exceptional women, each with a unique ceramic plate symbolising her achievement and times.

“On the floor beneath the names of another 999 women were celebrated in golden tiles. The work took Judy and a team of women helpers over five years to complete.”

Sarah, of St Augustine Road, Ipswich, said each week a different field or profession will be chosen - including healer, warrior, scientist, writer, saint and villain and three women, one from early times, one contemporary and one from times in-between will be the focus of study.

She added: “The fun element is that the students have to choose a guest for themselves to bring to an imaginary dinner-party.

“They must research their choice carefully and be able to explain why their lady is worthy of being a guest at this important dinner.

“This means being able to describe the social background and cultural times of their guest, the difficult choices she had to make to reach her goals and most importantly, why this woman is not better known for her achievements.”

Sarah has taught courses for more than 25 years - mostly in the field of mythology.

She said: “I've been a bit of a Jill or all trades with lots of different jobs. This is a totally new course and one I've wanted to do for a long while. It is part of the leisure learning programme so the group will have to do a bit of work but it is really learning for fun.

“Women have done a lot of things and often they haven't had the recognition they deserve. Huge barriers had to be overcome.

“In the sciences women were not taken seriously. Caroline Herschel gave up music to help her brother in his work as an astronomer. Night after night she sat up recording observations of the heavens and discovered two comets but it was her brother who became Astronomer Royal whilst her work was not acknowledged.

“Female composers were unable to get their work played by orchestras. Henry Wood was one of the few conductors willing to give women a chance until after the Second World War.

“Zora Neale Huston, a pioneering black anthropologist, saw her work set aside because she presented her ideas in a fictional form.”

Sarah said the course is open to men and women.

She said: “I'm not really a feminist but what this course shows is that women can be inspiring - despite all the setbacks, women can be proud of each other's achievements.

“I hope that if anyone has a book inside them, an adventure they are longing to try or even a cooking recipe they have dreamed up - they might feel inspired to get out there and achieve for themselves.”

Peter Moore, of Suffolk New College said “This is one of the most fascinating and unusual courses we have ever held.”

- Invitation to Dine -a celebration of Female Achievement will take place on Fridays between 2pm and 4pm and will be starting at Suffolk New College, Ipswich on September 26. The cost is £32. Call 01473 343666 to book a place.

- Which women do you admire? What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Why were these women successful?

They had a good education -

Sarah said: “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said, 'Hide your learning like your lameness' and Dr Johnson 'If the stocking be blue, let the skirt be long'

“Bluestocking ladies were a revolutionary force - ladies who could converse on a par with men about the arts, politics and religion. But it was always hard to get education or professional training if you were a woman.

“A father might educate his daughter, for example Marie Curie in the 19th century and Margaret Thatcher in 20th century.

“Other women were secretly self-taught, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the Ambassador to Turkey, learnt eastern tongues in addition to the classical languages which were normally only taught to boys.”

They were unconventional -

Sarah said: “Most women would marry and spend their time having babies and raising children. A few women achieved success before marrying eg Catarina van Hemessen, in the 16th century, believed to be the first female self-portraitist. Once married she ceased to work. Very many women died in childbirth and their talent died with them.

“At the other end of the scale women had to care for their parents and only once they had died could they embark on a career eg Marianne North, botanist, artist and traveller.

“Some women chose masculine pursuits. Joan of Arc adopted male gear and led troops into battle. Phoolan Devi, 'bandit-queen' of India had her own gang of outlaws. Many females were pirates and went on the high seas.”

They were creative -

Sarah said: “Although women have been seen as struggling to imitate men they have often shown initiative and innovation.

As long ago as 2750 BC in Sumeria, Enheduanna, high priestess, astronomer and poet is thought to be the first human to write in the first person. Forty-two of her poems still survive.

“Elizabeth Barrett Browning experimented with sprung rhythm and double rhymes long before these were taken up in the 20th century.

“Joan of Arc used military strategies in her campaigns not commonly taken up till later. Florence Nightingale, besides reforming nursing, was a gifted statistician. She pioneered the use of pie-charts in her reports to explain matters clearly.”

They had courage -

Sarah said: “Many women died as martyrs for their beliefs. Others suffered inwardly. Mother Teresa revealed in her diary that she suffered for many years 'a dark night of the soul' in which she even doubted the existence of God but continued to work for the relief of the poorest in India.

Emily Hobhouse spilt the beans about the use of concentration camps by the British during the Boer War and was reviled even by her fellow women workers.

“Women were often recruited as spies, Aphra Behn was used by Charles II and during World War II Freya Stark, the travel-writer contributed to a propaganda network for the Ministry of Information.”

They had no choice -

Sarah said: “Many were forced to earn their own living. This is because their husbands died or left them with children to support.

“Shortage of money forced Aphra Behn into playwriting in competition with males. In our own times the Harry Potter books might never have been written if J K Rowling had not been hard up.”

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