Here throughout history

Gwenyth Withers

People who exist at the intersection of minority identities have left their mark throughout history. In this instalment of At the intersection series, we have chosen a couple of these historical figures to highlight as part of Disability History Month.

It is essential to recognise that though the term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989, the experiences it identifies are part of any society favouring specific characteristics over others.  

All of the historical figures we’re highlighting existed at intersections of minority identities, which often meant they were underestimated or undervalued. Despite the challenges these people faced, they impacted and contributed positively to the world we live in today.

Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913)

Harriet Tubman was an incredible Black woman who freed many enslaved people and fought for freedom and justice.

She escaped slavery in 1849, fleeing to Philadelphia. Here, Harriet Tubman joined the abolitionist movement. She returned to the south several times to free 70 other enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. Tubman never lost a fugitive, leading them all to safety. 

As a scout, guerrilla fighter and nurse, Harriet Tubman also participated in the Civil War effort and later campaigned for Women’s Suffrage. 

As well as the prejudice she experienced due to her race and gender, Tubman faced challenges caused by her disability. 

Harriet Tubman

At 12 years old, she refused to help an overseer punish a fellow slave, so he threw an iron weight that struck her on the head. The resulting head injury caused seizures, headaches, and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. 

Harriet Tubman faced many challenges as an uneducated ex-slave living in a patriarchal, white, ableist society. But this did not stop her. In fact, it is accredited as one reason she escaped notice; those searching for abolitionist rebels overlooked Tubman because of who she was.

Harriet Tubman is remembered today as a person who, against all odds, changed the world for the better.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

This artist is famous for her self-portraits and still-life paintings, often featuring bright colours and bold imagery inspired by indigenous Mexican culture. 

Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico shortly before a civil war, with a childhood filled with the sound of gunfire and revolution. She was poor but well educated. 

Kahlo was disabled, having had polio at the age of six. As well as this, in 1925, she was injured in a bus accident. 

This accident left her with a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a dislocated shoulder, and a crushed right foot. She went on to have 30 operations in her lifetime. Kahlo also faced bouts of depression and suicidality until her death.

Frida Kahlo

After the accident, whilst stuck in a body cast, Frida Kahlo took up painting from her bed. She continued this for the rest of her life, using it to explore her identity, marriage, miscarriages, and pain. Nowadays, these paintings sell for millions. 

Kahlo is also remembered for being openly bisexual, having had affairs and relationships with both men and women. 

As a person who lived at the intersection of many identities, Kahlo was able to see the world from a unique perspective. She channelled this into her art and poetry. Her lived experiences, joy, and pain led to work that is still celebrated today. Frida Kahlo’s art remains relevant and resonates with people from all walks of life.

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)

Noor Inayat Khan was the first female radio officer sent to occupied France during WWII. She was of Indian descent and Muslim. Khan was born in Moscow and was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore. Her Sufi father and American mother then moved to London and then Paris. She was educated and worked writing children’s stories. 

In 1940 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce before being recruited as a Special Operations Executive in 1942. Khan was trained and sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1943, where she was the radio operator for the French Resistance. Her codename was Madeleine. She remained in the country despite the arrest of her peers, attempting to smuggle more information to British Intelligence. 

Noor Inayat Khan

After being betrayed by a Frenchwoman, Khan was arrested by the Gestapo. They used her signals and codes to lure more spies into their traps. She was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany, where she was tortured but refused to give up any intelligence. In 1944, she was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp and was shot on the 11th of September. Noor Inayat Khan was just 30 years old. 

Khan was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross for her courage. Even nowadays, when challenged to visualise a World War II Hero, few people will picture a young, half-Indian, Muslim woman. Khan broke down barriers of race, gender, and religion to fight against Nazism.

Edward Lear (1812-1888)

Edward Lear was a quirky, closeted Victorian gentleman, a poet and painter known for absurdity and wit. He is known as the man who popularised limericks.

Born the 20th of 21 children, many of whom did not survive infancy, Lear had health problems for his entire life. From 6, he had grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and later on, partial blindness.

At the time, epilepsy was attributed to demonic possession, leading to immense guilt and shame over his disabilities, which he attempted to hide from everyone. Lear also experienced bouts of depression, which he referred to as ‘the Morbids’. 

Edward Lear

He started to earn a living as an artist after his father went to debtor’s prison. He then travelled far and wide around the UK and Europe as a self-proclaimed ‘dirty landscape painter’. In Malta, at the age of 37, Lear met Franklin Lushington, developing an undoubtedly homosexual passion for him as they toured southern Greece. The feelings were never reciprocated, though they remained friends. 

Unsettled and a pedlar of quality art and nonsense poetry, Lear transformed the poetic landscape of the English canon. He struggled to find companionship and was ashamed of his disabilities, yet still brought so much humour and joy to the world.