By Megha Merani and Bernd Debusmann Jr
From Zelda Fitzgerald to Lillian Disney and Mitza Maric - history has abundant instances of women whose work went unrecognised
Behind every great man there’s a great woman.
Or so goes the old adage, commonly believed to have originated from feminist movements that began in the US back in the 1940s. It was initially used in an attempt to give recognition to the wives or female figures who significantly contributed to the lives of successful men.
But though well-meaning, it’s not hard to see that stating a woman stands ‘behind’ the success of man is both patronising and defeating. Such statements have no place in our world if we are ever to progress towards a gender-equal and gender-neutral society. Women neither need nor want to stand behind.
From Zelda Fitzgerald to Lillian Disney and Mitza Maric - history has abundant instances of women whose work went unrecognised. Jane Hawking also remained unacknowledged for decades as she unfailingly supported her husband, the famed physicist Stephen Hawking’s pursuits. And no matter how substantial her support, not many likely recall Zelda Le Grange’s name as they revere her boss, South African leader Nelson Mandela.
These are their stories.
At 21, a newlywed Jane Hawking got on a plane from England to America with her then 23-year-old husband, British physicist Stephen Hawking, to spend her honeymoon with him at a physics conference.
In her book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, Jane shares how she sacrificed her own identity and career to support her prodigy husband, not just as his wife and the mother of their three children, but as his primary carer through his decades-long battle with motor neuron disease.
He later left her to marry one of his nurses.
The Cambridge scientist was diagnosed with the incurable degenerative disease at the age of 22 and given two years to live. Defying his fatal diagnosis for more than half a century, Hawking died on March 14, 2018, at the age of 76, having been recognised as one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds.
A year on since he died, Stephen Hawking’s profound fame lives on through his work and continues to make headlines. But the world really only began to pay attention to his ex-wife Jane, the woman who washed, clothed and fed her wheelchair-confined husband for 30 years, after she published her book about their lives that later turned into the award-winning film, The Theory of Everything.
Even then, Jane tells Arabian Business, the filmmakers discounted her role, failing to capture crucial elements of the exhausting reality of her life in Stephen’s shadow.
“We went to America for our honeymoon at a physics conference,” she recalls during an interview at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. “Two years later, we went to Seattle for another conference where I had Stephen on one arm and a six-week-old baby on the other. None of our major travels appear in the film and I’m really disappointed about that. They said they were trying to squeeze 25 years into two hours so that wasn’t important. But I think there was a huge amount of work involved in that [travel].”
My advice for people in difficult situations is: do try and be true to yourself, give as much as you can, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of
Her tone isn’t bitter though, and the petite English author is empathetic as she shares her advice to women in circumstances that lead them to shutdown their own ambitions.
Trailing behind her husband for decades, Jane, 74, says she has “been through quite a few situations” when she felt her own personality was “suppressed”.
“But I just had to keep going in that situation,” she says. “I had to persevere because it was my husband and my children who were at stake, and if I wasn’t there I just didn’t know what was going to happen to him.
“And you know I’m glad I did because it’s given me such insights into the human condition. I’m very lucky because my perseverance has been rewarded and I am doing things in my own right, and I’m having a rewarding degree of recognition.
I think any great man has single-track vision and his motivating force is his creativity – and the families do tend to get left behind
“So my advice for people in difficult situations is: do try and be true to yourself, give as much as you can, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of more than you’re capable. [And] remember that one day, your patience will be rewarded and then you’ll be able to shine.”
Jane, who has also written Silent Music and Cry to Dream Again, advises wives who are playing second fiddle to their eminent husbands not to lose sight of their own gifts.
“I think there are a lot of women in that situation,” she says.
“I think any great man has single-track vision and his motivating force is his creativity – and the families do tend to get left behind. I think in this day and age, it’s actually possible for women to have a career of their own and they shouldn’t lose sight of their own potential [and] creativity. And they should make sure that in a marriage, everybody is equal. You don’t put the scientist, the great writer, the great playwright, the great actor – you don’t put them on a pedestal.”
I’m very lucky because my perseverance has been rewarded and I am doing things in my own right
She adds however: “I say that but whether it’s easy to put into practice, I don’t know. I didn’t find it very easy.”
Now married to musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones, Jane says she is “very lucky” now to have a husband who is “caring and so supportive” of her work.
As to why she’s kept her Hawking name after she remarried, she explains that it would be “an awful waste of time” to change it on her passport and documents.
“Anyway, I don’t think my publisher would like that,” she jokes, but adds that the Hawking name is part of her personality and the name her children carry.
Asked how she’d like to be remembered, Jane says: “Primarily of course as Stephen’s first wife, but also as somebody who did have her own personality and did have a life of her own.”
Nelson Mandela’s “right hand woman” is on a mission to humanise the leader and bring his message of understanding to a modern audience.
For 19 years, Zelda Le Grange was the quiet and crucial, but often unsung, companion to South African leader Nelson Mandela. “He was a fair-minded humanitarian,” explains Zelda Le Grange, the late South African leader’s long-time personal secretary. “He irrevocably changed my thinking and outlook on life.”
Beginning with her entry to the presidential typing pool in 1994, the two became even closer. Five years later, he handpicked her to remain in his service after he retired from office. Over the years, she was dubbed Mandela’s ‘rock’, his ‘right hand woman’ and even his ‘white granddaughter’. She became his aide-de-camp, manager, confidante and gatekeeper all rolled into one. Nobody – perhaps with the exception of his third wife, Graca Machel – was as close to the legendary leader.
Mandela and Le Grange were an unlikely pair. When they met in the mid-1990s, South Africa had only recently emerged from decades of a brutal apartheid system, and Mandela had only three years earlier been released after 27 years in prison.
Le Grange, on the other hand, was a child of the apartheid system, a privileged white citizen brought up to believe that people like Mandela were inferior. She was, she now admits, a scared and bigoted proponent of the system that Mandela struggled so hard to topple.
“Growing up, I believed that white people were the superior race. We were conditioned to believe so through our schools, churches and media which were censored to suit the apartheid regime’s propaganda of segregation and superiority,” she recalls. “We were driven by fear that the black majority are dangerous, vicious and hate white people.”
Her relationship with Mandela, however, changed her perspective forever.
We were driven by fear that the black majority are dangerous, vicious and hate white people
“I realised that I was indoctrinated,” Le Grange recalls, thinking back to the first years of her time at Mandela’s side. “I now recognise any human being for their humanity rather than focusing on our differences or what sets us apart. It was a long process of unlearning my thinking and questioning my beliefs, but necessary to arrive at clarity in my own mind.”
Le Grange stayed with Mandela until his death in December 2013. Her memoir, Good Morning Mr. Mandela, was published the following year. Le Grange sees it as her mission to “humanise” one of the 20th century’s most notable statesmen and keep his legacy alive at a difficult time in her country’s history.
“[Mandela] was a kind and gentle human being, but a strong, steadfast strategist and sometimes pragmatist,” she recalls. “He had human frailties like us all but made every attempt to ensure that he is aware of these and that his frailties never affected others…[because of him] I am much more aware of the people around me, their struggles and humanity.”
Le Grange’s words come at a tough time for South Africa. In February 2018, President Jacob Zuma – a member of Mandela’s African National Congress – was forced to resign after nine difficult years characterised by a struggling economy and corruption scandals. Three years earlier, Le Grange found herself in the crossfire after accusing Zuma’s government of making white South Africans feel unwelcome.
I now recognise any human being for their humanity rather than focusing on our differences or what sets us apart
Looking back, she places the blame on the now defunct and discredited Bell Pottinger PR agency, which she accuses of running a smear campaign to “discredit people in South Africa and drive racial divisions. They have dismally failed at dividing us,” she says of the incident. “While there are still occurrences of racism, the majority of South Africans are at peace and learning to live together despite our hurtful past.”
Despite the challenges, Le Grange remains confident that Mandela’s legacy will live on as long as South Africans continue to care. That confidence will be tested at the country’s upcoming election in May, which will see Zuma’s predecessor, Cyril Ramaphosa, attempt to maintain the ANC’s majority.
“They should never give up on South Africa. We are on our way to being the miracle nation that we are,” she says proudly. “We can turn things around and they must vote in the upcoming national elections to help secure a future for our country.” Will this happen? Le Grange thinks so; as Mandela showed the way. “Change is possible, as is the utter metamorphosis of one’s own thinking. It is possible to love irrespective of our differences.”
The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have derived his writing inspiration from his wife Zelda, often lifting excerpts from her diaries for his female characters, much against her will. While Zelda was also a writer, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, her husband “resented” her only novel.
In her recently published memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares how she gave up her much-loved job at the University of Chicago Medical Center to support her husband’s campaign. Michelle, a Harvard-educated lawyer, also took a big step away from her career to play the role of first lady.
According to The Walt Disney Family Museum, Mickey Mouse might have been Mortimer Mouse if Lillian hadn’t intervened. She worked as Disney’s personal secretary and provided input on many of his ideas. Her career includes work as an ink artist on the film Plane Crazy.
Einstein’s first wife Mitza was a brilliant physicist, whose contribution to the theory of relativity is still under debate. Some contend she co-authored Einstein’s papers while others say she was just a sounding board. Regardless, her contribution as one of the world’s first female physicists cannot be ignored.