Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers is a celebration of women who have influenced socio-political change across the globe. It’s a beautifully written and visually striking offering; an archive of inspiration exploring women across varying professions.
Kira is now the Opinion Editor at The Guardian after working as their Women’s Editor for several years. She’s had a dynamic and varied career in journalism, much of which she’s dedicated to debate, discussion and exploration of the feminist movement. The author of two novels, The Naked Season (2004) and Escape Routes for Beginners (2005), Kira also created the non-fiction work All The Rebel Women in 2010, which explored fourth wave feminism and its specific challenges.
Kira talks with great passion about her time as The Guardian’s Women’s Editor, having taken it as an opportunity to revivify the feminist conversation, which in 2006 was less than visible across British media. “I always felt it was my duty to run pieces about the more enjoyable sides of women’s lives, as well as the everyday sexism and horror,” she says. “To try and reflect the reality of our experiences.”
Her protagonist in The Naked Season has a feminist upbringing, but Kira says feminism wasn’t a part of her early influences. “My mother definitely doesn’t consider herself a feminist,” she says. “But she was an extraordinary example to me when I was growing up.” At only two, and while her mother was pregnant with Kira’s younger brother, Kira’s father died of a heart attack. More family tragedy shortly followed. “When I was six, my older brother was run over and killed. So my mother had a huge amount to cope with. She had left school at 16, and she was really a warrior presence in my life throughout my childhood – very creative and intensely capable. If someone had suggested to me, as a child, that women were in any way less capable than men, I would have been astonished, because there was nothing in my experience that could have made sense of that statement.”
Noting the pain of her early life, Kira says it’s not surprising that she escaped into books growing up. “I remember when I was six my mother saying I would be a writer – this wasn’t really said as an aspiration, as much as a simple statement. So when I started reading feminist literature in my early teens, I think a lot of it just made sense to me.”
The threats to feminism’s hard-won gains resonate loud and clear in the current political climate. Attending recent UK protests against the attacks on gender equality, Kira says she felt strength in the swell of solidarity. She’s particularly eager to find ways to combat the sexual violence epidemic. Current Rape Crisis figures report that around 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales alone. “We have to improve rape conviction rates, services for survivors. We have to facilitate education around consent,” she says, but despite the bleak outlook, she feels the wave of opposition is strong. “I’ve read accounts in the last few weeks of reproductive rights meetings which have been busier than ever, and it’s been interesting to see some of the ideas of women who are included in Modern Women – Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde among others – being discussed in the light of the current political moment.”
The book really wouldn’t have been possible without the feminist revolution in biographical writing that’s taken place over the last half century.
Modern Women includes pioneers from an impressive spread of locations, historical periods, and professions: artists, political activists, writers, sportswomen, musicians, aviators and even a cosmonaut. “I wanted each woman to be someone who shifted the world’s sense of what might be possible for women,” she explains. “Whether that was because, in the case of, say, Junko Tabei, who climbed Everest at a time when some people genuinely thought women’s bodies were too weak for the task, or because, in the case of Virginia Woolf, she had taken us into women’s consciousness and shown that even a life circumscribed by the domestic, by gendered expectations, could be epic.” She also wanted to include women who helped bring into being what we would now think of as modern feminist values, even if they were living two or three centuries ago.
When I ask her which women she was personally drawn to, she mentions Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who became co-founders of the first lesbian organisation in the US in 1955. “At a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt had broadened to target gay people, applicants for certain government jobs had to undergo a lie detector test regarding their sexual orientation, and the police would raid private parties as well as gay and lesbian bars,” she says. “Martin and Lyon’s activism for gay rights and women’s rights continued throughout their lives. In February 2004 they were the first gay couple to be married in San Francisco.”
Kira was also deeply inspired by the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in the US in September 1849, and might have avoided ever setting foot in a slave state again. “Instead, she undertook around thirteen rescue missions in eight years, leading approximately 70 people to freedom, including her own parents – she then became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the American Civil War, freeing more than 750 people from slavery in the process,” she says. “The courage of these women is awe-inspiring.”
Kira also features photojournalist Lee Miller in the book, who recorded key events across the Second World War, such as the liberation of Paris and the battle for Alsace. “The work she did in bearing witness to the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps in the immediate wake of the Second World War is still breathtaking. ‘I got in over my head,’ she told her biographer Carolyn Burke, years later. ‘I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils’.”
And of course the awe-inspiring Sophie Scholl had to be included. Scholl was executed by the Nazis, aged 21, after speaking out against them as part of the non-violent resistance group, the White Rose. “When asked, under interrogation, to say she supported Hitler, she refused. She’s one of the strongest examples I can think of, of pure courage.”