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[Guest Post] If I Had A Time Machine: Five Historical Women Who Would Thrive in the 21st Century

2012 May 2

If I had a time machine, I would go back through history, picking up awesome chicks and bringing them back to the present. I would finally be able to giggle with glee as Victorians tried to work out how the tiny people got inside the TV and ancient Greeks marvelled at printed books, not to mention what showing them the internet might do! There are certain women, certain amazing icons, who would fit right into the modern world. They would be able to work, love, live and breathe, far away from the limitations placed on them in their own time. Here are five of them. Don’t get me wrong, 2012 is no utopia – we still have our battles and our injustices – but compared to any other time in history, the 21st century is a pretty awesome place for ladies.


Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase c.470 BC. Image via Wikipedia, shared under fair use guidelines.Sappho gave birth to two of my favourite things: lyric poetry and lesbianism. Born in 630 BC on the island of Lesbos, Sappho had a pretty good life, considering her gender. She was rich, talented and of good social standing. Her poetry, which she performed with a lyre (she invented a new subtype of the instrument, and the plectrum, of all things) was well-respected. She had her face on coins and on vases. But she was pretty lonely. The girls in her circle (which was either a religious order, something like a preparatory class or simply a gathering of women, depending on which scholars you believe) would all leave her when they married, and when she fell in love with them, she knew that they would inevitably part. She probably never married herself (accounts differ, but most Still from the Buffy episode Restless. A caucasian blonde woman is lying on her stomach, looking over her shoulder at her back, which has Greek script painted onto her flesh in black ink. Image (c) Fox, shared under Fair Use guidelines.scholars agree she did not, despite being linked to a male poet of the day) and almost definitely preferred women.

If I could go back and get her in my time machine, I’d sign her up to a dating site, put in a DVD of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless” (which features a lesbian writing Sappho’s poetry on her lover’s back) and explain to her that when she met the right lady, she would be able to date her, live with her, and in some parts of the world, marry her.

I’d show her this video, of Ellen and Portia’s wedding:

And I would be so excited because, in this time of technology, the beautiful poetry she would no doubt produce, probably about the woman she would eventually meet online, would never be lost and never be forgotten.

Ada Lovelace

Victorian image of Ada Lovelace in a purple satin gown, holding a fan delicately. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Fair Use guidelines.Ada Lovelace was a genius. Born in 1815 in London, she was the product of very short-lived marriage of mad, bad asshole poet Byron and staunchly moral abolitionist Anne Isabelle Milbanke. Schooled in mathematics from an early age, at the behest of a mother desperately trying to prevent her from turning out like her father, Ada began corresponding with important intellectuals on a variety of subjects while she was still in her teens, including Charles Babbage. The notes she included with her translation of an Italian mathematician’s article about Babbage’s Difference Engine were revolutionary and contained the very first working programming language, leading her to be seen as history’s first computer programmer.

If I could go to the Victorian period and pick her up, I’d go for the bright young Ada, before the affairs and the gambling. I’d show her iphones and laptops and cash machines, making it clear to her that none of this would exist without her. I’d take her to the Apple store and show her an iPad. I’d open a browser and let her google until she thought her head would explode with the sheer scope of it all. Then I’d go to the Google careers page and make her fill out an application.

Emily Dickinson

Black and white portrait photo of a young Emily Dickinson. She is pale with dark hair tied severely back from her face, and wears a dark coloured high necked dress. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Fair Use guidelines.Born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson was not a famous poet during her lifetime. She was not a famous anything during her lifetime.

Known by her neighbours as an eccentric who dressed in white and rarely left the house, she wrote almost two thousand poems, only ten of which were ever published while she was living. Her fascination with mortality, due to numerous personal tragedies, along with her concise, free verse style, made her work a little too ahead of its time to be appreciated until much later. She was an avid letter writer and by the end of her life she was communicating almost exclusively via the written word.

If I could go back, I’d whisk Emily away from the early 1860s, when she was a fiercely creative thirty-something. I’d set her up in a nice apartment with a pretty garden – little known fact: Emily Dickinson was much better known for her gardening than for her writing in her lifetime – and hand her a shiny new laptop. After a hopefully brief, not too infuriating tutorial on the technological revolution, I’d introduce her to Facebook and Skype.

I’d show her how easy it is to instantly communicate with individuals from all over the globe and all walks of life whenever she pleased. I’d explain to her that now, with these tools at her fingertips, she could have her precious solitude without sacrificing the social stimulation she clearly craved. Next, I’d direct her attention to the numerous writers’ communities online. I’d show her the pages and pages of poetry – and the range of quality, from emo teens to professional writers. I’d encourage her to get involved and post daily. Finally one of the most under-appreciated poets of the nineteenth century would be able share her thoughts, feelings and art with like-minded individuals without ever having to leave her desk.

Amelia Earhart

Photo showing Amelia Earheart in overalls standing on part of a plane. She is smiling. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Fair Use guidelines.Amelia Earhart, born in Kansas in 1897, was as ballsy and independent as they come. She wanted to fly, so she flew. She wanted to fly all the way across the Atlantic, so she signed up to command a flight piloted by men in a project funded by a rich woman. She wanted to do the trip for real, solo, and a few years later, she did. In 1937, she decided she wanted to be the first to fly around the world, and sadly, this was where it all went wrong. She disappeared in the air, having flown almost the entire way around the world with only a navigator accompanying her. There are too many theories about how and why this happened to mention, but the most accepted explanation is mistakes were made, preparation was shoddy and she ran out of fuel over the ocean, plummeting to a watery grave.

If I could go back and get her, I’d go back to the early Thirties, and pick her up after her solo flight across the Atlantic, before she was forced to endorse product after product just to maintain her high profile, and before the press began their obligatory backlash, calling her flying chops into question.

I’d sit her down on my bed, fire up my laptop, and show her YouTube videos of women flying commercial flights and flying for fun and flying as fighter pilots. I’d show her this video of the Women In Aviation conference in San Diego:

Most importantly, I’d tell her that flying is now safe. The technology has caught up with her dreams and it is very unlikely, in the age of GPS and state of the art air traffic control, that what happened to her would happen now. I would also let her know that now, it is possible to set off to circumnavigate the globe before breakfast and arrive home in time for tea!

Margaret Cavendish

Black and white image of a painting of Margaret Cavendish. She wears a low-cut off-the-shoulder satin gown and is looking out at the viewer. Her dark hair is in ringlets. Image via Wikipedia, shared under fair use guidelines.Margaret Cavendish, née Lucas, author of a diverse list of books, on subjects like philosophy and science as well as a memoir and creative works of poetry, drama and the world’s very first science fiction novel, The Blazing World, was born in 1623 in Colchester. Yep, really. In a time when most women would never think about trying to write a word, let alone publishing under their own name, Cavendish was a famous and controversial writer.

Her critics complained about her spelling and grammar as much as they did about her writing at all. They also criticised her outlandish style of dress, calling her “mad, conceited, and ridiculous” – but her originality, paired with her keen interest in and interpretation of early science, made her popular.

If I could journey back to the 17th century, I would go to 1668, the year The Blazing World was published, and I’d bring Margaret back here. The first thing I would do is encourage her to get tested for dyslexia, as some scholars have suggested that this would have accounted for her terrible spelling and grammar. I’d show her women delivering lectures on TED about robotics and neuroscience:

I’d get her an application for Oxford University and introduce her to Microsoft Word complete with the lifesaving blessing that is spell check. Once she was accepted at Oxford, she’d get all sorts of support for her dyslexia, and shiny equipment. She would excel at all her subjects, even the ones that weren’t invented in her time. I’d watch her study, graduate, write and publish, and then become an academic, scientist, writer or all three. I’d sit back, hope for another science fiction novel, and smile smugly when she cured cancer.

Sadly, there ain’t no such thing as time travel. It’s likely there never will be. But I can wonder and I can dream. And I can use thought experiments like this to remind myself I have the freedom to love whomever I choose, aim as high as I choose, live however I choose and be respected for it. How very lucky I was to be born in 1984.

  • Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist Yorkshirewoman, wordsmith and fruitcake. In Internetland, she is known as Franzi and divides her writing time between creative and journalistic endeavours, including her Big Distraction column Pop Smart and That Novel She’s Working On. In Realityland she works as an art model and spends the rest of her time on art, ukulele and the feverish consumption of media. She likes high quality American TV shows, female singer/songwriters and novels that land somewhere between literary and speculative. Ironically, she does not like fruit cake.

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