Final Major Project #1

I have a nasty habit of spending hours on Pinterest. That lead me to waste hours of my time but also learn most of my history. Numerous women are kept out of history books and curriculums, scientists, soldiers, pilots, historians, writers, the list goes on.

The manuscript of Voynich is a 15th-century manuscript that also happens to be the only text never translated and a mystery that has kept historians, scientist, mathematicians and linguists on their toes, such as Alan Turing. This manuscript depicts drawings of women, biology and botany. The text is written in an unknown language that is believed to be a mix of several languages of the time, including Old German. It is believed (since 2000 something because men are slow to believe that anything could have benefited women) that this book treats women’s health and reproductive systems, pregnancies and giving birth surrounded by other women.
It is also believed that it was written by a plethora of different men depending on the theory. In fact, the name Voynich comes from the name of the man that found it. They never considered the fact that it could potentially have been written by a group of women. It’s enraging considering it’s so fucking obvious (it also tells a lot about who worked on that manuscript).

“Why write an untranslatable book about women’s health during the Italian Renaissance? One that has no overtly Christian or Catholic-specific symbols in it, either? On the one hand, you have an age of discovery and a period of enlightenment. On the other, you have the establishment of the Church and its political might. In between, however, you also have the birth of an Italian feminist movement that began in the late 14th century,” wrote Monica Valentinelli.

“Who would be interested in writing a book that emphasized women’s health? One that stretched the boundaries of the knowledge they possessed at the time? Who’d have access to vellum and inks? Who’d have access to women to illustrate and study their naked bodies in a non-threatening, non-sexual way? Answer: an Italian woman of privilege. […] If the folio was written by an educated woman, then she has more than one reason to ensure the text is not translatable–especially if she continued to work on the text as time progressed.”

It seems natural and obvious of them to have wanted to store and preserve their knowledge in a manuscript no one but a trusted few could understand. Women’s science and biology was forced into hiding, forgotten or deliberately destroyed in some cases and it poses the question: how much more of women’s history do we not know about?

The night witches was the nickname attributed to the all-female aviators of the 588th Night Bomber regiment of the Soviet Air Forces during World War II.

“They flew under the cover of darkness in bare-bones plywood biplanes. They braved bullets and frostbite in the air while battling scepticism and sexual harassment on the ground. They were feared and hated so much by the Nazis that any German airman who downed one was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal.”

Colonel Marina Raskova was the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force. She created the squadron after receiving many letters from women wanting to join the fight. 400 women were selected from the >2000 applications received. Applicants were comprised of teenagers and young women with no prior experience. In just a few months, each of them was trained to be pilots, navigators, maintenance and ground crew.
They faced scepticism from military men that believed they added no value to the war, sexual harassment and subpar equipment. “The men didn’t like the ‘little girls’ going to the front line. It was a man’s thing,” said Steven Prowse, the screenwriter of the film ‘The Night Witches’.
They received hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers, including oversized boots that they had to stuff with torn bedding to get them to fit.
Their planes were used, outdated and made out of plywood and canvas. They were never meant for combat. It offered no protection from the elements, something that might have come in handy at night in the middle of Soviet winters. “It was like a coffin with wings,” commented Prowse.
They were able to carry two bombs each, which meant that they weren’t able to take anything else such as parachutes, guns and radios as the plane wouldn’t withstand it. Instead, they had rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps and compasses.
They didn’t have defence ammunition and had to duck and dive to avoid enemy fire. If hit by tracer bullets (projectiles with a small pyrotechnic charge), the aircrafts caught fire.
Because of the weight of the bombs, they had to fly at lower altitudes, making them a much easier target, hence their night-only missions. They travelled in packs. The first planes would go in as bait, attracting light, illuminating the scene and pinpointing the intended target. The last plane would stop its engines and glide towards the target. The whooshing sound of the aircraft gliding in the night, much like the sound of a sweeping broom, is what got them the name of ‘Night Witches’. “This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar… [or] on infrared locators,” said Steve Prowse. “They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.”

There were 12 commandments the Night Witches followed. The first was “be proud you are a woman.”

Their success wasn’t attributed to their intensive training or, less realistically, some grand heroic side buried within them. No, the Germans attributed it to them being criminals and master thieves sent here to serve their sentence, or they had their genes mutated to see in the night. Right.

They flew more than 30 000 mission, about 800 per pilot and navigator. 30 pilots were lost. 24 flyers were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Raskova, the mother of the movement, was given the very first state funeral of World War II and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin. They were the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war, and yet they were disbanded six months after the months and weren’t included in the big victory-day parade in Moscow.

How did I hear about both? Pinterest. Not history books, not light reading, not classes, not articles and not conversations. Fucking Pinterest.
I’m keeping so many other names out because I could go on. There’s excitement in finding these people for the first time, then there’s the disappointment of finding them on social media powered by random algorithms. Our history shouldn’t solely be shared on the Internet where it can get lost and only a vast amount of luck will make it available to you. Or get twisted. A user said it was the new oral tradition of passing down knowledge and stories and in a way, she’s right.

I had a look at an article by Emma Kerr called ‘Women’s Studies Students Across the Nation Are Editing Wikipedia’. 4,617 students have edited 9,855 articles and more than three million words since 2014.
Despite this, only 17.49% of biographies on Wikipedia are of women.

Russell told me about the Every Woman Biennial. I like the concept of libraries and events where women can share their art and creations. I like the idea of passing down and sharing knowledge and stories so that we aren’t forgotten or erased.
That could be an interesting route to go down. I’m a bit wary because I already spend too much time researching feminism and I wanted to do something different. I also know how riled up this particular subject can make me and I have no intention of spending four months angrily working on a project.

Links and references:

Why I Believe the Voynich Manuscript was Created by a Woman

https://www.history.com/news/meet-the-night-witches-the-daring-female-pilots-who-bombed-nazis-by-night

https://www.chronicle.com/article/womens-studies-students-across-the-nation-are-editing-wikipedia/

https://everywomanbiennial.com/

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