A jack tar and bit of a jack the lad

October 28, 2005

Lord Horatio Nelson, who died defeating the Napoleonic fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, had an elaborate funeral at St Paul's Cathedral. It was the first state ceremony for anyone outside the Royal Family. But it was very much a male affair. No women were invited.

Nelson's mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, a much lampooned figure, was an embarrassment, while Fanny, Nelson's long-suffering wife, was not permitted to attend either. Yet despite the gendered nature of the event, these two women, as well as the country as a whole, mourned the passing of a national hero.

Two hundred years later, I stand on Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory , on October 21, 2005, at 8.45 in the morning. Amid torrential rain, a simple but moving memorial service takes place where the man died. There is no triumphalism. Here is a hero whose life has been picked over in more than 1,300 biographies, warts and all. Although all the admirals who formed a line of honour were men, some senior female members of the Navy were present, while other women, including myself, were among the observers. But it was still a very male affair.

Later that day, the Queen lit a beacon sparking a nationwide chain of 1,000 fires. A firework display and a broadside from the flagship's guns followed. At a dinner on board Victory , which I did not attend, Her Majesty toasted "the immortal memory". The remarkable commemoration served to show the perceived importance of Nelson's triumph two centuries earlier in laying the foundations for today's Britain.

Privileged as I was to partake in some of these events, questions kept reappearing in my thoughts. Why are so few of our women in history honoured in this way? This is mainly to do with the way that "history" has been traditionally defined as the record of men's activities in the public domain, especially in wars, diplomacy, government and politics. The "great men" approach, so evident on our TV screens, not only marginalises women but also implies that they cannot "make" history in the way that men do.

But this is simply not the case. Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, founded the Women's Social and Political Union on October 10, 1903, to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women and hence did more than most to bring about our democracy. Yet the centenary of the WSPU had no sponsorship from the state, apart from the minting of a 50p coin. Our national TV channels ignored the event. Compared with the celebrations for Nelson, there was a noted absence of occasion.

Nevertheless, there has been a cultural shift in our society away from identifying heroism with what men do in wars to recognise the importance of those whose public-spirited service makes a significant difference. Yet what strikes me most about Nelson is that those qualities that distinguish him as a great naval leader are also those commonly identified in Pankhurst. Both had a strong belief in their own success, a self-certainty that inspired devotion in their followers; both defied public opprobrium and held a disregard for their safety; both were decisive and led from the front.

But if Pankhurst, a widow, had led the sexual life that Nelson did, she would have been even more vilified than she has been. And therein lies the rub. We love Nelson not just because he was a brilliant commander who saved our nation from invasion in its hour of need. We also love him because he was a bit of a lad.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

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