Sunday, March 2, 2008

Determination to do One's Best: Gertrude Bell, The Mother of Iraq

Today one may hesitate to put "Mother of Iraq" on her resume, but that is exactly who English Explorer, Gertrude Bell was. You’ve probably heard of T.E. Lawrence but have you heard of Gertrude Bell?

Gertrude was a few years older than T.E. Lawrence and they both played a critical role in the formation of Iraq. Her legacy, her story is usually completely overshadowed by Lawrence even though her professional contribution was at least as important. She is an example of female character overlooked when history is written.

Gertrude believed in the formation of an Arab state called Iraq. The British government was intent on creating a western-type nation and government in the Middle East but few Western citizens who were in charge of this project understood the needs and psychology of this region better than Gertrude.

Our current place in history offers hindsight to the challenges that were to come because Westerners imposed their form of government and organization in a region who thought differently. I am reminded of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, when her ideal creation took on a life of its own and became uncontrollable and unpredictable. It may be some time before Gertrude Bell is fully recognized by people today because of the collective frustration and disassociation with Iraq.

Gertrude, born in 1869, was born into incredibly wealthy family in England. Her grandfather was a steel tycoon, Isaac Lowthian Bell. His wealthy fostered business ambition and opportunities for several generations of Bells. Graduating from Oxford (an unusual accomplishment for a woman in this time), Gertrude took up travel. I think it was to escape the confines of her wealthy, upper class circle, that she chose to travel where she wouldn't bump into other members of her society. Gertrude traveled extensively in what we now call the Middle East. Very few women ever explored this region and it was here that Gertrude could break free from Victorian-laden expectations of proper female behavior.

Her wealth was an asset as she traveled and dined with Arabian sheiks. Even though she was a woman, most welcomed her as a peer because of her obvious wealth. During her travels she recorded her experiences, the political dynamics, and photographed several centuries' worth of archeological treasures.

Gertrude was seemingly fearless. She was strong, determined, and a creative problem solver. She wasn't always recognized as a leader, in fact, she spent several professional years in administrative, supportive roles. Her frustration would mount but she would excel at her work and keep her eyes open for opportunity. She was quick to use the influence of other powerful men to gain position on key projects.

Georgina Howell, author of "Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations" (2006) wrote a fascinating version of Gertrude's story. While Gertrude had some serious weaknesses and vulnerabilities, her strength and integrity and the way she carved a respected role for herself in a male dominated world make her an excellent role model for women today.

Looking for more?

Audio NPR story: 7 minutes, 49 seconds

Photographic Journal of Gertrude’s travels

Build Your Own Success, Learn from Women Who "Made It"

About the author: Allison Frederick is a writer and online marketing educator for other creative women. offers free Web 2.0 resources. She is also the author of an upcoming novel, A Portrait of Josephine, an academic-lite thriller. Find out how to receive a free copy of the novel by visiting

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