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Mary Ward: First Sister of Feminism (ePub)

P&S History > British History > Tudors & Stuarts P&S History > By Century > 17th Century Women of History

By Sydney Thorne
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
File Size: 19.7 MB (.epub)
Illustrations: 16 pages of black and white plates
ISBN: 9781399005241
Published: 26th August 2021


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Almost exactly 400 years ago, an English woman completed an astonishing walk to Rome.

An English Catholic, Mary Ward had already defied the authorities in England. In 1621 she walked across Europe to ask the Pope to allow her to set up schools for girls. 'There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things,' she said.

But Mary’s vision of equality between men and women angered the Catholic Church and the Pope threw her into prison. This is a story just waiting to be told!

The story shines a refreshingly new light on the popular Tudor/Stuart era. Mary’s uncles are the Gunpowder Plotters. Her sponsors are Archdukes, Prince-Archbishops and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In Rome she spars with Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition, just as they are also dealing with Galileo.

As the story sweeps from Yorkshire to Rome, from Vienna and Munich to Prague and back to England, we see Mary dodging pirates in the Channel, witch hunts in Germany and the plague in Italy. We see travellers crossing the Alps, and prisoners writing letters in invisible lemon juice to smuggle them past their gaolers. The settings range from the resplendent courts in Brussels and Munich to the siege of York in the English Civil War. The reader is immersed in seventeenth-century life.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a fascinating book this turned out to be. I’d never heard of Mary Ward and I’m so glad I now have. Religious sister Mary Ward (1585-1645) was a remarkable woman. Her sole aim in life was to establish schools for girls. She believed in the equality of men and women in an age where few agreed with her, and that girls should be educated as well as boys. She also believed that women should be actively involved in the life of the Catholic Church, not simply as members of the congregation or as nuns, and that nuns should not be cloistered, Not difficult to imagine how these ideas were received by the establishment. So determined was she to set up her schools that she did it in defiance of the Catholic Church, with her band of devoted followers, even walking all the way to Rome to try to convince the Pope. Although she faced opposition throughout her life, her legacy lives on and there is now a network of around 200 Mary Ward schools in over 40 countries.
Stylistically I had a few gripes, not least the author’s predilection for exclamation marks. And one or two flights of fancy sometimes intrude, for example, “…as Mary Ward was standing in front of mirror one morning getting dressed….”. Not sure as a religious she would have had a mirror at that time, nor can the author know she stood in front of one.
What I did like were the codas at the end of chapters, with such refrains as “walking walking, walking, venturing, taking chances” and similar, followed by some general historical points about the times.
However, overall this is a well-written, thoroughly researched and engaging biography and a worthy tribute to this amazing woman.

NetGalley, Mandy Jenkinson

This is the amazing story of a lady who changed the course of history - her forays into battle against the Catholic church whilst so much of the Inquisition was centering on staggeringly famous historical figures are amazing, and, as the blurb says, this was a story just waiting to be told. Mary's lineage is quite incredible, and the story is told with verve and excitement. Thoroughly enjoyable account of a remarkable lady's life.

Books Monthly

I love reading about powerful women in history, and Thorne did such an amazing job bringing Mary Ward's story to life. At times I felt like I was walking and fighting right along with her. Ward's story is a fascinating one, I am definitely going to read up on her and her sisters more.

Even if Catholic history isn't your thing, you will definitely enjoy this book.

NetGalley, Aiya Messina

As an alumni of a Loreto school, I was really honoured and intrigued to be able to read this book. It was amazing to read about the journey that Mary Ward took to establish her schools and it was particularly awe-inspiring to be able to reflect on my years at school and the lasting impact that what Mary Ward did over 450 years ago.

I went into this book a little hesitant as I find that faith in the written word to sometimes come across as quite intense so it was very refreshing to discover that the author is somewhat agnostic (it is not overtly stated however there are points where they insert their interpretation of visions from God) and in fact were just so wholly impressed by the lasting impact of Mary Ward and the many ways that their life had been touched by her. This book also provides a really interesting snapshot into Europe in the late 1500s to mid 1600s.

NetGalley, Sephi Coleman-Tunney

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What an absolute joy it was to read this book about an amazing figure of early feminism, written by a man!

Finally, not only female authors find it important to learn and tell the world more about influential women in history. Here comes a man, Sydney Thorne, introducing rarely-discussed Mary Ward to us, and paying her due respect. This is an informative read, and since the tone of voice is not too formal, very entertaining and easy-going too.

You'll be shocked to learn how many things have not changed a bit in women's life, rights or status since the 17th century, and how much Mary Ward did to empower other women, facilitate girls' education and take a step towards gender equality.

NetGalley, Anita Salát

About Sydney Thorne

Sydney Thorne holds an MA (Oxon) in Modern Languages and has taught languages in England and at the University of Augsburg in Germany. Since 1991 he has been a full-time author of school text books, and currently writes English language books for schools in Germany. His interest in the story of Mary Ward dates back to 1982, and his passion has grown over the eight years or so in which he has been writing her story. Sydney has travelled widely in Europe, and has personally visited many of the key locations in Mary Ward’s life.

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