A Woman to Know: Gertrude Bell

To wake in that desert dawn was like waking in the heart of an opal. — Gertrude Bell

(image via Newcastle University)


Gertrude Bell was a complicated woman. She was the first in many things: the first woman to earn a degree in modern history at Oxford, the first woman hired as a British intelligence officer and the first woman to trek across the Syrian desert without a male escort. She spoke and wrote Arabic and Persian, and when she traveled to Iraq in the early 1900s, the Iraqi people respected her -- way more than they did her imperialist male counterparts. They called her "Mother of the Faithful," or simply "Miss Bell."

But she also opposed the women's rights movement and believed that the majority of women in Victorian England were incapable of making many of the decisions that she herself did every day. In Iraq, she wrote in her diary that she wanted to do the "right thing" for the people there: to establish a "Western government" for "order." But after the occupation she helped establish solidified, she fell into a deep depression. She killed herself with sleeping pills in Baghdad in 1936. As one colleague wrote, "She was a remarkably clever woman, with the brains of a man." Gertrude considered this a compliment.

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