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Gertrude Bell

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I've always been inspired by a certain caliber of woman born in the late 1800's, who then went on to blaze a trail in the early decades of the 20th century, breaking ground for a later generation who claimed "women's liberation" as their mantra.

They were among the first generation of women in modern times to go to war during the years 1914-18, and were profoundly impacted by the losses of young men in that conflict. The 1921 census revealed that over two million women in Britain alone would never marry or have children, instead facing a life of spinsterhood alone. There were those who floundered, but many moved into public life and a "man's world" as never before. Gertrude Bell -- writer, explorer, cartographer, historian, politician, intelligence officer -- was one of the older members of that generation, and her life has fascinated me for years.

Born in 1868, she was the grand-daughter of politician, Isaac Lowthian Bell; it is through her grandfather that she likely garnered an early interest in international affairs, travel and politics. She graduated from Oxford with a first class honors degree in Modern History, following just two years of study. In 1892 she traveled to Persia to visit an uncle; this journey not only proved to be the start of a love affair with the Middle East, but it began a decade of travels around the globe. More intensive travel across the Middle East followed during the years 1899-1912, taking her across Arabia six times. She published accounts of her travels and experiences and was responsible for mapping much of Mesopotamia during this time.

Bell tried to put this wealth of knowledge to use when she applied for a Middle East posting at the outbreak of war in 1914. She was turned down. Instead, she volunteered with the Red Cross in France, but was soon summoned to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, where she became known as "Major Miss Bell." In 1916 she was sent to Basra. She knew the region more intimately than any other westerner, thus her encyclopedic knowledge of the area was invaluable. Not only did she draw desperately-needed maps of the area, but she understood the tribal and clannish society in what would soon become the new country of Iraq.

During the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where she advised on the situation in Mesopotamia and gave her recommendations for the way forward, Bell's frustration with the outcome was evident in a letter written from the Conference: "I think there has seldom been such a series of hopeless blunders as the west has made about the east since the Armistice."

Ultimately, Gertrude Bell made her home in Baghdad. In addition to her involvement in the politics of the new country, she founded the Iraq National Museum, and was respected by King Faisal. When she died in 1926, the streets of Baghdad were packed with people following her coffin to its final resting place.

The following obituary, written by David Hogarth, expresses so eloquently why she is, for this writer, such an inspiring woman:

No woman in recent time has combined her qualities -- her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and conditions of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigor, hard common sense and practical efficiency -- all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.

British-born writer Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the award-winning series of historical mysteries featuring psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Look for Jacqueline's new novel, A Lesson In Secrets, on March 22nd and read her blog on Red Room.