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Washington, Tyne & Wear, UK
The first western woman to map and travel across Arabia
Gertrude Bell was the first woman to map Arabia, then navigated the male-dominated world of diplomacy, helping to create a new country: Iraq.
It’s so nice to be a spoke in the wheel, one that helps to turn, not one that hinders.
1. She was the first woman to gain a First in History at Oxford
Bell was a pioneer from the outset - her First in Modern History was the, er, first in that subject Oxford ever gave to a woman. Bell’s formidable achievements through her life were made when most women weren’t expected to be independent or intellectual.
2. She was the first western woman to cross Arabia
Bell was into archaeology, map-making, photography… with her awe-inspiring skills she was well placed to record and study as she travelled across Arabia, mapping it as she went. In 1909 she bumped into and advised another archaeologist TE Lawrence before he shot to fame as Lawrence of Arabia. Her work informed the world’s understanding of the Middle East and the various peoples who lived there.
3. She was integral in the creation of a brand-new country
After World War One Bell was the sole woman at the British top table wrangling over the future of the Middle East. She was instrumental in the creation of modern Iraq but with the region’s ensuing troubles, Bell’s involvement has been debated ever since. What isn’t questioned though is her love of the Arab people and their culture. She set up a museum to house some of Iraq’s cultural treasures – it is still there today; now known as the National Museum of Iraq.