Emirates Lit Fest’s Nod to Women in History

The first seminar of the Emirates Literature Festival was an ideal way to begin a dialogue about women in history a week prior to Women’s Day. The panelists were authors Sue Nelson, Kate Pankhurst and Nicola Tallis. The three women took the stage to engage in a conversation about legendary women who shaped the world. 

Whether pioneer women were aviators or suffragettes, they all had to overcone whatever roadblocks they encountered. Kate Pankhurst, I learned, is a descendent of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), founder of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She’s remembered for her fight to help get British women the right to vote, which was achieved in 1918 for women over 30.

Sue Nelson is the author of Wally Funk’s Race for Space, a biography of the renowned Female Aviation Pioneer who was part of the first group of American pilots to pass the Woman in Space Program. 


“When I was younger, I wrote a letter to NASA telling them I wanted to be an astronaut,” recalls the 57-year-old author. “They actually wrote me back. But what they didn’t tell me, and I’m glad they didn’t, is that women were not allowed to be astronauts back then.” 

Nelson insisted on the importance of recording historical events. The reason why women are rarely mentioned in history books is because they were not allowed to be there, she said. But now times have changed. The only way to make sure no one forgets women’s role in shaping History is to record their achievements. “Have the books in every library, every school,” she says.

“In 1961, Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to pass the ‘Women in Space’ program. Wally sailed through a series of rigorous physical and mental tests, her scores beating many of the male candidates’, including those of John Glenn, the first American in orbit. But just one week before she was due to enter the final phase of training, the program was abruptly cancelled. A combination of politics and prejudice meant that none of the women ever flew into space. Undeterred, Wally went on to become one of America’s first female aviation inspectors and civilian flight instructors, though her dream of being an astronaut never dimmed,” states the description of Nelson’s book on Google Books.

Ultimately, what I took away from this seminar is the power of words, and also of but history books that can teach the next generations about the achievements of women to help them gain their long-overdue recognition and equal rights in society.

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Falak Al Refai

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