Author and founder of the Women’s Prize
What inspired you to look at history’s neglected heroines?
All my fiction, and most of my non-fiction, is a love letter to history, while also asking what it is, who makes it, who decides what matters and what will be forgotten. Growing up in Sussex in the ’60s and ’70s, I noticed the history we were taught didn’t mirror the world around me. Where were the women? My book Warrior Queens is a way of putting them back into history – the trailblazers, mothers of invention, composers, military leaders, women of faith. The spine of the book – and now the theatre show – is the story of my own great-grandmother, Lily Watson, who was a famous, celebrated novelist in her day, but has now completely disappeared from the record. Her life stands for so many women, from every culture and period of history.
Who were you happiest to shine a light on?
There are nearly 1000 women mentioned in the book, and there could have been millions more, but I love the medieval Mongolian princess, Khutulan, inspiration for Puccini’s Turandot; the extraordinary Whina Cooper, Maori elder and campaigner for land rights in Aotearoa; Nottingham’s Florence Boot, who encouraged her husband to set up a lending library in his chain of chemist shops; American civil rights campaigner Pauli Murray, who became the first Black female priest in the Episcopal Church in America; the great British composer and suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth; the trailblazing footballer Lily Parr, who scored nearly 1000 goals in her long career from 1919 to 1951.
Is the tide turning from history to herstory?
I am an optimist, a feminist who travels hopefully, despite the evidence, believing most people want equal opportunities, regardless of who we are, what we look like, where we live. Putting women back into history is not a “rewriting”, nor about taking glorious and brilliant men out, but rather telling the whole story: villains and saints, women and men, all nations, all cultures, the unvarnished account of us all. Women built the world too and judging by the audience reaction so far, where women and men are on their feet singing along to the final song, most people do want to celebrate incredible women from the past.
Apart from Lily, with which woman do you feel the closest bond?
Hillary Clinton talked about how women should “resist, insist, persist, enlist” and I think that’s a pretty good mantra. So, my bond is with all the women who just kept going, despite the obstacles put in their way. Stamina, refusing to take no for an answer, all the warrior queens – and the quiet revolutionaries, who matter just as much.
Which women do your audiences respond to most warmly?
Audiences love American inventor and scientist Eunice Newton Foote, who in 1856 was the first scientist to understand greenhouse gasses and global warming, and they’re enraged she was written out of the history books.
Are readers sending you suggestions for a sequel?
The book began with me asking people to propose an unsung woman from history. Within days of putting out a tweet in January 2021, I had thousands of nominations from all over the world. The show is the beginning of a conversation between us all, so I hope everyone will come to the theatre, read the book, and be inspired to write the sequel themselves! I have another novel to finish, so it’s over to the audience now.
Will readers ever tire of big books on big conflicts, by men?
There is still a daft, if persistent, idea that men are experts and women write about domestic rather than global issues – that men write for everyone and women write “only” for women. But there is an amazing crop of brilliant female historians, scientists, mathematicians, conservationists, music theorists, civil rights campaigners, you name it. Readers deserve more than familiar, established names writing the same old stuff (like “Hitler, cats and golf”, as Alan Coren was told were reliable bestsellers in 1976!) It’s why, this February, we launched the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction, as a sister prize to the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Which non-fiction book first electrified you?
So many, but I loved Leah Broad’s biography of four women who changed the face of classical music, Quartet; Abi Morgan’s extraordinary This is Not a Pity Memoir; and Natasha Carthew’s Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience.
Which woman’s secret diary would you like to read?
My frustration when researching my own family history was how the voice of my great-grandmother was often no more than a whisper. Her husband, Sam, was the archivist in their marriage and though his early diary survived, Lily’s is lost. There are so many extraordinary moments in her life where her voice is silent, such as the death of her twelve-year-old son, widowhood, World War I, her opposition to women’s rights… What I wouldn’t give to have access to her private thoughts.
What period of history draws you next?
I’m becoming increasingly attracted to that strange time between the 1920s and the outbreak of World War II. Within living memory for my parents and mother-in-law, so critical for the ways in which women’s rights and civil rights were promoted, and then rolled back – something we are witnessing again, now, in 2023, from the USA to Afghanistan (and many more). History is a pendulum, swinging backwards and forwards. Sustained change comes from honouring not just the “first” woman to do something, or the myth of the “one extraordinary woman” who stood alone, but also in acknowledging every woman in whose footsteps we walk. Sisterhood works, it is about putting every woman back beside her brothers, fathers, cousins, friends – not just the select few.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve passed down to your daughter?
The same message to my son as to my daughter and my grandson, the lesson my parents passed down to me: be yourself, have a go, if things don’t work out, pick yourself up and try again, contribute, support other people. Tomorrow is always another day.
What would you choose as your epitaph?
Try again. Fail again. Never Mind. Fail better (with apologies to Beckett)
Kate Mosse’s one woman show “Warrior Queens” runs across the UK until 12 April 2023. It is based on her latest book “Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World” (Mantle)