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They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades    by Barbara Holland order for
They Went Whistling
by Barbara Holland
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

They Went Whistling provides an entertaining and provocative overview of women's history for the last 2000 years. As the author herself says in the acknowledgments it is not a genuine scholarly biography, footnoted and all. Rather it is intended to make us think about the few famous women who are known to history and wonder what happened to all the rest. Written with informal language, the book reads quickly and the reader is never in doubt as to Holland's point of view. She has very definite opinions on women's place in history books or rather the reasons for their absence.

The book starts with several quotes. One is attributed to early travel writer Dervla Murphy who says 'One is a much less lighthearted traveler with a foal at foot'. As Holland discusses in the introduction, for much of history women have been defined as mothers and their lives very much restricted. Those who rebelled were certainly not respected in polite society. Of course, some did venture out, but the ones who are remembered well by history are those 'not driven by dreams of glory but by a nurturing concern for others: the Virgin Mary, Florence Nightingale, Clara Baron, Harriet Tubman, Mother Theresa - mothering their way into history'. Men could be adventurers and greatly admired, but an adventuress is 'a woman who preys on rich men and other people's husbands.'

Holland divides the book into chapters titled: Warriors, Menswear, Outlaws, Exiles, Wayfarers, Renegades, Grandstanders, Seekers and Radicals. The famous such as Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Susan B. Anthony and George Sand are all there. However, the pleasure in reading this book lies in discovering the less known but still remarkable women like Confederate spy Belle Boyd or Alexandra David Neel who was the first Westerner to visit Lhasa and Potala, 'the glorious palace of the ruling lamas'. Neel travelled under incredibly difficult conditions, disguised as a beggar with her face blackened by soot from the bottom of a cooking pot, to avoid explusion or worse.

There is no doubt whom Holland admires and whom she scorns. Grandstanders such as dancer Isadora Duncan or aviatrix Amelia Earhart are roundly mocked. 'Those with ample self-esteem seldom worry about survival', and they often put the people in their lives through incredible hardships while they follow their muses or dreams. Greatly admired by the author are the wayfarers, those intrepid travellers who braved the wilderness before credit cards, airplanes and cell phones. A great many of them were British women in the 19th century. Maybe 'knowing that a woman ... stood at the helm of the Empire worked in their hearts like yeast' and gave them courage to travel 'trotting ahead of the yellow dogs of domestic boredom'. Many apparently looked much younger than their chronological ages. 'Perhaps after all it's the quiet life that breeds gray hair and wrinkles'. Luckily many of these women left journals or wrote extensive letters so we can admire their incredible bravery and sometimes wonder at their foolhardiness.

Holland also pays tribute to the radicals such as Mary Harris, the 19th/early 20th century American union organizer 'Mother Jones'. A ferocious soldier in the war between workers and management, her motto was 'Pray for the dead but fight like Hell for the living'. Her legacy continues to live on in the Mother Jones magazine which is dedicated to 'social justice implemented through first rate investigative reporting'. As the book, concludes Holland worries about the future. Where are the wayfarers and radicals now? 'Careers, it turns out, keep women in line more effectively than policement or repressive husbands'. Those degrees and careers are time-eaters and demand ceaseless loyalty and attention. They're harder to leave than a husband, and unlike children, they never grow up and learn to take care of themselves. She has a good point; women today are often just too tired to rabble rouse.

Readers, whether or not they agree with all of Holland's ideas, will enjoy finding out about these amazing women - it's hard not to admire their fortitude - to whom the book is dedicated, women 'who take their own lives in their hands and step over the edge'.

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