Kate Mosse: Where are the Women?

This month, international bestselling author Kate Mosse OBE will embark on her first ever theatre tour based on her most recent non-fiction book, Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World. Ahead of her appearance at Redgrave Theatre on 3 March, we ask Kate about the inspiration behind her latest title…

“Where are the women?” asks best-selling novelist Kate Mosse’s latest offering, Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World. The title shines a light on hundreds of phenomenal women whose stories, for one reason or another, have been left out of the history books and their accomplishments largely forgotten.

This month, Kate – the author of number one best-selling The Joubert Family Chronicles ­– is taking Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries to theatres countrywide, including Bristol’s Redgrave Theatre on 3 March. Audiences can look forward to getting on better terms with some familiar faces (think Agatha Christie and Beatrix Potter) before being introduced to some lesser-known women: from a Victorian explorer, to a comet hunter, to a 13th Century Mongolian princess. Here, we ask Kate about the inspiration behind her latest work.

What first inspired you to write Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World and take it on tour? Where did it all begin?
It began with a social media campaign during lockdown – #womaninhistory – where I invited people to share the one woman from history they’d like to celebrate or be better known. Within days, I had thousands of nominations from people all over the world – Scotland to Saudi Arabia, Japan to Chile, France to Australia, South Africa to Italy – amazing women, from all periods of history, who had done incredible things to change the world. Friends took part, too – so Clare Balding suggested the great English footballer Lily Parr, Richard Osman the Chinese poet Ding Ling, Martina Navratilova suggested Katharine Hepburn, Professor Kate Williams said the Japanese novelist Murasaki Shikibu, and Bernardine Evaristo the amazing Mary Seacole. This gave me the idea for the book – and now the tour – to celebrate and share the stories of some of these incredible women and also to ask the question why many of them were not better known. The book is a question to myself: what is history, who gets to decide who and what matters, and how do we get women back into the history books? After all, women and men built the world together.

Can you tell us about your writing process and how you researched each story?
There are nearly a thousand women mentioned in the book, so some obviously get more space than others. But, pretty quickly, I realised that, in every period of history, there were key areas – so, women in law, women of courage, women in medicine, mothers of invention, explorers, scientists, inventors, women of faith – very important link with Bristol Cathedral in this chapter – artists, writers. Because it started in lockdown, I did a fair amount through online sources and libraries, reading biographies, getting in touch with specialist organisations like women in STEM or women in sport for their recommendations. It was a huge amount of work, but so fascinating. For every one woman in the book, there could be a hundred more.

Can you tell us about your own family history in the book and how you first discovered the story of your great-grandmother, Lily Watson? How did it feel to discover that you were related to a highly-successful novelist, whose story was also lost in history?
I had always known there was someone in the family ‘who wrote’, but it was never talked about as if it was serious or a profession. I wanted to know more about this mysterious great-grandmother of mine who was, in her day, a really famous and celebrated novelist – the Prime Minister Gladstone’s favourite novelist. She wrote fourteen novels, hundreds of articles and essays, books of devotional poetry and children’s stories. Yet all of her books are out of print now and her name doesn’t appear in any books about Victorian writers. So, I turned detective, trying to find out what had happened to Lily and learning all about my own family history. It was fascinating and, in one particular way, heart-breaking when I discovered a family secret I knew nothing about.

What did you learn while researching and writing Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries in terms of the way history has been recorded and why women’s stories are often left out of archives?
There are all sorts of reasons why women’s achievements are overlooked or ignored, some sinister and others just down to old fashioned neglect. But the biggest issue is that, for most of human history, learning, education and the writing of history has been in the almost exclusive hands of men, who often therefore simply don’t ‘see’ women’s achievements. It also can lead to what historians called the ‘silence in the archives’, whereby women’s work isn’t preserved in the archive so it’s not there for future generations to find. There’s also the issue of women’s successes being misattributed to the men who worked alongside them; think of the fossil hunter Mary Anning or the scientists Eunice Newton Foote, who actually discovered the phenomenon we now know as global warming way back in 1856, but male scientists who came after her claimed the credit.

Why is it so important to tell these stories today?
If we don’t know the real story of who made history – all of us together – then we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes. It matters that girls and boys all over the world know that there have always been women scientists, women athletes, women doctors, and that sometimes people have to fight for the rights they deserve. We can see that today in Iran and Afghanistan, with men and boys standing shoulder to shoulder with their sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers. History matters because without knowing where we have come from, we cannot know where we might go for the future.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the tour?
First and foremost, it’s will be a great night out in the theatre – lots of music, and wonderful stories to make the audience gasp, laugh, cry and possibly roar with rage. I hope everyone will come out feeling that they’ve spent the evening in the company of some incredible women from the past and inspired to share their stories with other people. Also, for those who are interested in researching their own family history, there will be a few tips and shortcuts into how to go about it. Because I’m travelling around the UK, I’m so keen to hear about amazing women from all the towns I visit – who might or might not yet be in the book – so that, together, we can build an ever-expanding library of women of achievement. At each venue, we’ll be inviting audience members to nominate their ‘one woman’ to celebrate, so this is about getting a national conversation started. Oh, and there will be t-shirts and other merchandise: I’ve never had that before.

You founded the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which has become one of the largest annual celebrations of literary talent in the world. How do you look back over the last 28 years of the prize and what do you look forward to over the next three decades?
It is so important to champion women’s voices and to make sure that any woman who has a story to tell feels empowered to tell it – wherever they come from, whatever their background, however old or young they are. The Women’s Prize is about putting incredible novels in the hands of male and female readers who’ll appreciate them; it’s about travelling the world and time through the pages of a book; its about standing in other people’s shoes. I’m proud that we have put thousands of books into the hands of millions of readers over the past twenty-eight years, and we’re developing a significant charitable programme now to support reading and writing at every level. Look out for a few big announcements, and then our thirtieth birthday in a couple of years’ time.

Kate Mosse will be at the Redgrave Theatre on 3 March. Book your tickets at: katemosse.co.uk

Featured image: Kate Mosse | Credit: Photography by Ruth Crafer