Author Hannah Jewell admits that “writing can be a lonely process.”
But while she was working on her latest book, Jewell was never really alone. She spent time with 100 inspiring women, like African American poet Phillis Wheatley and Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish revolutionary socialist who lived in Germany after World War I.
Granted, most of Jewell’s new acquaintances are dead. And before she began researching her new book, they were mostly strangers to her. Now, with the U.S. release of Jewell’s “She Caused a Riot: 100 Unknown Women Who Built Cities, Sparked Revolutions and Massively Crushed It,” you can meet the inspiring and overlooked women Jewell encountered during her research.
“I hope people will realize that the historical figures we learn about in school like Jane Austen or Helen Keller or Harriet Tubman were indeed exceptional – but they were not the only exceptional women of the past,” Jewell says.
She also hopes her book will inspire historians to dig deeper into lesser-known women’s stories. While writing, she sometimes struggled to find more than one reliable source. There are more biographies than anyone could possibly read about someone like Winston Churchill, Jewell notes, but not many papers or books written about British spy Noor Inayat Khan or Te Puea Herangi, a Māori leader from New Zealand’s Waikato region.
“Women have not only just begun to accomplish great things,” Jewell says. “As I say in the book, women have been there all along.”
To pay tribute to some of these inspiring figures for Women’s History Month, Jewell worked with The Lily to create videos about three women she profiles in “She Caused a Riot.”
The Lily: Do you look at Hawaii differently now that you know how it became a state?
Hannah Jewell: Once again, American history isn’t as rosy as it’s usually sold. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898 thanks to the dismantling of native Hawaiian sovereignty in the name of protecting white settlers’ economic interests. In 1959, though, 93 percent of Hawaiian voters wanted statehood. Many American lawmakers were opposed to admitting Hawaii as a state due to its diverse ethnic makeup.
The next time I visit Hawaii — which I hope will be very soon — I’ll be sure to visit museums as well as the beach.
TL: What is one quality about Queen Liliʻuokalani that you wish you had in yourself?
HJ: Pretty much anything to do with being a queen: poise, courage, leadership. I have a lot to learn.
TL: How would you characterize the way President Cleveland treated Queen Liliʻuokalani?
HJ: President Cleveland and Liliʻuokalani had quite a brief meeting, and a friendly one. Cleveland was supportive of her cause and opposed the annexation of Hawaii. It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall in that moment.
TL: Lilian Bland made her own airplane, using a whiskey bottle to create the engine petrol tank. Would you have gotten on that plane with her?
HJ: I suppose this depends. Was the whiskey bottle empty because Lilian and I had just finished drinking it? Then yes, probably. But drunken decision-making aside, I don’t know if I’d have the guts. As cool as it would be to achieve a historic first, I might let her try on her own once before getting in the plane…
TL: What can Bland teach us about taking risks?
HJ: What I love about Lilian Bland is that she was bold not only in terms of her bravery in building and flying an aircraft, [but] she was a risk-taker in all areas of her life. She totally defied the expectations that society placed upon young ladies of her era. I don’t advise anyone to follow Lilian’s lead in building a plane using an ear trumpet, but I DO hope we can all emulate the way she brazenly flaunted restrictive gender norms, and be inspired by her inventive engineer’s mind.
TL: Her father offered to buy her a car if she stopped flying. If you were her, which would you choose? Car or airplane?
HJ: Personally, I’d take the car. It’s more boring, but alas, more practical. It might be hard to fly an open-top plane to Target.
TL: What were you surprised to learn about Phillis Wheatley?
HJ: I was most surprised to learn just how influential and renowned she was in her time – and the fact that I hadn’t ever heard of her. As a person who went to school in America, where we learn about U.S. history for at least three years before we finish high school, I was angry that she was not prominently featured in any of that education.
TL: How much of her poetry did you read while researching this book?
HJ: I read plenty of her poetry and it all made me feel like a terrible writer (in a good way).
TL: If Phillis Wheatley could replace one Founding Father, who would you vote off the island?
HJ: This is an excellent question, and I’m tempted to say Thomas Jefferson because he was a jerk to her. However, I think the best way we could learn about the history of the founding of the United States would be to learn about both Wheatley and Jefferson, the ideologies they represented, and how those beliefs were in conflict. I think sometimes we learn about the Revolutionary War as kids as if it was a bunch of happy united Americans bravely fending off the British in the name of “liberty.” If we had learned about Phillis Wheatley at the same time, we’d know more about the hypocrisy of that founding myth in light of the fact that so many of the founding fathers were slaveholders like Jefferson.