On July 14, 1868, a girl was born to a Progressive family of successful ironmasters in County Durham in the North of England. Throughout her life, this girl, Gertrude Bell, would break through many barriers that restricted women in Victorian Era Britain. For example, in 1886 she became the first woman to earn a first-class degree in history at Oxford. During the 1890s and early 1900s she spent much of her time climbing mountains in the Alps – a theatre reserved almost entirely for men. In fact, during this time she recorded 10 new paths or first ascents of peaks. Quite an achievement!
During this same period, Bell began to get study Arabic and archaeology, focusing on the Middle East. She was in the Arabian Peninsula when World War I broke out in 1914 and was caught up with T.E. Lawrence and the famous Arab Bureau of spies run out of Cairo. Throughout the war, she sent intelligence on Ottoman movements to the British military leaders and helped to maintain good relationships with Britain’s Arabic nomadic allies such as Prince Faisal. At war’s end, Gertrude Bell was the one woman at a conference held in Cairo to determine what to do with the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra that were now mandated to Britain by the League of Nations. Bell was among the leaders of a movement to unite the provinces into a new state, Iraq, under Prince Faisal who would rule as king. This is exactly what happened!
True, she firmly believed in colonialism and the superiority of British society, but there is no doubting that Gertrude Bell was an important figure in women asserting their abilities to engage in “men’s” activities.