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Heroic women -famous and humble.

Updated on July 14, 2013
Jehanne D'Arc, better known to us as Joan of Arc. She referred to herself as Jehanne la Pucelle, which means Joan the Maid.
Jehanne D'Arc, better known to us as Joan of Arc. She referred to herself as Jehanne la Pucelle, which means Joan the Maid. | Source

What is a heroine?

Today the meaning of the word 'heroine' has become greatly debased.

From its original Greek meaning of the female version of 'martial or moral courage and self-sacrifice in the face of danger or adversity for the protection or greater good of others ', it has, over time, also come to include the leading female character in literature, film and theatre.

Unfortunately, because of this interpretation, the word, 'heroine' can be used to include fictional females who are far from edifying characters. Remember the shallow thoughtlessness of Jane Austen's Emma? Or Uma Thurman's bloody and vengeful assassin Beatrix Kiddo in the film Kill Bill?

And whilst modern fiction does often portray its heroines as wild, wilful and as feisty as Kathy in Wuthering Heights they are rarely as honourably stoic or as plain as Jane Eyre.

Sometimes, especially in Bollywood films, the heroine is simply a heroine because she is beautiful and I have to admit that, for me, that is not what the word 'heroine' means.

Boudicca and chariot
Boudicca and chariot | Source
Emmeline Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst | Source
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi | Source

Who are the obvious heroines?

These are the women of lasting memory such as Joan of Arc, Queen Boudicca and her doomed revolt to save her tribe and Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft who campaigned to bring women's lives out of the dark ages.

There are the many female saints who died for their beliefs, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale; the list is infinite.

Unsung heroines.

Then there are the unsung heroines such as Eileen Mary Nearne who was one on 39 Special Operations Operatives (we would call them spies), who was dropped behind enemy lines in World War 2 to send back information vital to the Allies.

She was only one of the many who worked and often died, in secret and unrecognised.

Throughout history there have been countless heroines from Marie Curie who worked tirelessly with radiation until it killed her to today's immensely brave Aung San Suu Kyi who, after being released from house arrest after nearly 20 years, is still dedicated to bringing democracy to Burma.

These are examples of true heroines and their name is legion.

But there is another sort of heroine.

These are the everyday heroines. The sort of heroines who would never recognise themselves as in any way heroic. Theirs is a different sort of heroism, the sort that is recognised only by those around them and is held as a sacred memory in our hearts.

When you look for it, quiet, understated heroism is all around us. It is the heroism of these everyday heroines and it is built of such qualities as resilience, endurance and stoicism. These are not the sort of women who whine or make excuses for their faults, they do not seek to blame or seek to shift responsibility.

In my life I have personally known two such outstanding women; they were my grandmothers and they have been my role models. When I am feeling weak or self-pitying I remember them and, although I may not always live up to their ideals, the memory of them gives me the heart to keep trying.

Grandmother heroines.

My grandmothers are both long dead now but the lessons of their lives stays with me.

My maternal grandmother was raised in a genteel middle-class family before marrying my grandfather who worked for a newspaper in Manchester. It was the era between the wars and they lived well. As a child my mother remembered moving from big house to big house and having many toys and expensive dresses.

But the marriage fell apart and with my grandfather's subsequent early death, my grandmother was left with six children to bring up and little money with which to do it. For some years she lived in a tiny cottage on the cold lower slopes of the Pennines in Lancashire, holding at least one of her children on her knee as he died of diphtheria. As early as she could she went to work in the cotton mills and worked there amongst the dust and noise until it turned her stone deaf.

She stopped working only when she had a stroke and was left physically impaired. Even then her generosity was legendary and has left a lasting legacy in my mind. She had little in the way of worldly possessions but would still give away those she had to anyone who admired them, which could be a source of great irritation to those who gave her gifts.

Her legacy to me is endurance and stoicism.

My paternal grandmother was one of thirteen children brought up in rural poverty in a tiny two bedroom cottage. Her father, my great-grandfather, walked six miles to work as a farm labourer and six miles back at night and still found time to be a lay preacher at the Methodist Chapel in the village.

I believe that it was this background of dogged determination that made my grandmother endure so many of the hardships of her life. Hard-working and compassionate she was always there to help others, often nursing family members and offering help and unlimited hospitality to anyone in the village whenever it was needed.

She was a reliable stalwart behind-the-scenes kitchen worker at many a Church Jumble Sale and village fund-raising event. When she died, suddenly of a heart attack, the village became a bleaker place and her memorial service at the church had to be relayed over a loudspeaker out into the churchyard to all those who were unable to fit into the church. She was greatly loved, not just by her family but also by her community.

The legacy she has left me is the ability to work hard and to strive to be always hospitable.

Hannah Hauxwell - humble heroine.

I have one final everyday heroine who also inspires me and has done for the last 40 years. Her name is Hannah Hauxwell and she is now estimated to be around 85 years old.

In 1973 Barry Cockcroft, a producer of small films, made a documentary about the hard lives of the hill farmers in Teesdale. A third of the way into the film we are introduced to a middle-aged woman living alone on a remote farm in Baldersdale, County Durham in the UK.

The film, 'Too Long a Winter' shows Hannah Hauxwell trying to get a bullock to her nearest neighbour so that he can sell it for her. It is winter and in a brief respite from the usual blizzard, dressed in a tattered greatcoat and headscarf, she struggles with the plunging beast. She was 46 years old at the time but, due to her hard way of life, she already looked much older.

At that time Hannah was living on about £5 a week and survived mainly on tea and toast. The farm had no electricity, gas or indoor water but, sitting serenely amidst the towering clutter of a lifetime, she answered Barry Cockcroft's questions in her gentle voice with humility and great good humour. Despite the daily hardships she lived with she had immense warmth and dignity and absolutely no awareness of the emotion of self-pity.

The response to the film was overwhelming and, as usual, the romantic British people took her to their hearts. Money and food parcels flowed into the farm relieving her abject poverty.

Eventually, as age and the inaccessibility of the farm began to be even more of a problem, she retired to a nearby village. Her small cottage had the luxury of electricity and an indoor water supply but the move from the farm where she had lived all her life and the leaving of the countryside she loved so deeply caused her much heartache.

Over the years, from the memory of Hannah, I have taken the lessons of fortitude and optimism, though I fail miserably in any attempt to be as gentle-natured as her.

Finding Hannah ...

There are no photographs of Hannah Hauxwell that are available to me. There is no video of her peaceful gentility on YouTube. I can only tell you that she is a quiet inspiration.

But the original film 'Too long a winter' can be downloaded at LoveFilm if you obtain a £4.99 subscription:

The even more moving story of her having to leave the farm in old age is also available on:

You can even find them on DVD at

The quality of the films is probably not what we are used to these days, but that is not really the point is it? The point is to treasure people, women or men, who are an inspiration to the rest of us and to try hard to emulate their inspiring qualities.


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