March is Women in History Month. Let us toast to the Grande Dames of Theosophy, the women who shaped our world and changed the course of history. They fought for our rights, struggled to be free of discrimination and stereotypes, and refused to be locked into roles set forth by society. They raised babies, but they also raised some hell and broke free of conventions. We come into the world on the shoulders of those who came before us, from Blavatsky and Besant to the lesser-known suffragettes and delightfully fierce women I’d like to honor here – Clara Codd and Alexandria David-Neel.
Let me in, I bring new light. – Women’s Suffrage Dutch Poster 1918
An early initiative of the TOS in 1914 was the formation of a league to promote women’s suffrage, to further the women’s movement and to cooperate with those working for the same cause. World War I brought an end to the TOS’s efforts for women’s suffrage, yet the significant contributions of women to the war effort led to some of them getting the vote in the UK at the end of the war, and eventually all women by 1928. The formation of this TOS group bore witness to this contribution of Theosophical Society members.
Blavatsky; Breaking the Chains
HPB and Her Mother – H. P. B. Museum in Dnepropetrovsk. Painter unknown.
If man is endowed with stronger muscles, woman’s nerves surpass his in capacity for endurance. The biggest brain ever found—in weight and size—is now proved to have belonged to a woman. If so many women were found good enough to reign and govern nations, they surely must have been fit to vote. Law was ever unjust to woman; and instead of protecting her, it seeks but to strengthen her chains. – H. P. Blavatsky, The Pioneer December 2 1880
I was asked recently what attracted me to theosophy. Blavatsky carried the torch that fed the fire still burning in me today, a larger-than-life icon who broke out of the chains, a woman who’s astounding legacy of work was birthed during an era when women didn’t have a whole lot of rights. HPB’s mother, Helena Andreyvna Fadeyev, a novelist known as the Russian George Sand, was an early advocate of women’s rights. HPB herself was passionately involved in the movement, her enormous legacy of work birthed during an era when Jewish men were being given the right to vote in most European countries, yet women wouldn’t be granted the right until the early 20th century, after Blavatsky’s death. HPB seemed to shrug it all off as a minor annoyance. The twinkle in her eyes gave it all away for those who could see, for perhaps she knew nonviolence to be natural law, and that the future would ride on women. Who, after all, can make a more effective appeal to the heart than a woman?
Blavatsky is now well respected as a feminine powerhouse in esotericism, yet if she were to be taken seriously during her time, it was essential that the Theosophical Society be headed by a man – Colonel Olcott. It seems strange to many that HPB would need a man in the first place. She did. Most strong women had a prominent man beside them back then, perhaps for the greater good of the cause. It’s just the way it was.
Clara Codd – So rich a life.
Clara was special. She must have been in her seventies at the time, but she seemed ageless, as old and wise as mother Isis, and as young and charming—and sometimes mischievous—as the virgin Kore. Rumor had it that she was on such intimate terms with the Masters that she knew how they saw Theosophy. As a young woman she had been put into an English jail because of her protests over female suffrage. Now she was one of the Wise Old Women of Theosophy, a patron of the young. To be in her presence was to receive the sort of grace called darshan in the Hindu tradition. She was an old dear, but a somewhat mysterious and quite marvelous old dear, whose given name was an apt one, for Clara means bright and shining but also renowned and distinguished. — Excerpted from “Clara Codd: A Personal Recollection”- John Algeo, May-June 2004 issue of Quest Magazine
I first started reading about Clara in the early seventies during my art college years steeped in rebellion, protest, and wondering. I recognized a kindred soul in her; even as a child she questioned the meaning of life, and felt moved into a search for something. As a young woman her strong sense for freedom and justice moved her to work for the enfranchisement of women. Despite a natural shyness, she spoke passionately for women’s rights from street platforms and in crowded halls, enduring heckling, physical abuse, and imprisonment.
Clara joined the Theosophical Society at age 27. In her autobiography So Rich a Life she states, “I had come home at last after long wandering. I had found the beginning of the way.” Three years later she was appointed the first national lecturer for the English Section. Later she served as National Secretary (president) of the Australian and South African Sections.
Clara was unassuming and sincere; her ability to communicate directly across class and cultural barriers contributed to her international success as a lecturer. Her history of addressing working men and women in the socialist and suffrage movements had developed her skills as a public speaker, while her experiences as a young woman in Geneva society contributed to her becoming accomplished, informed and self-reliant.
Clara Codd’s dedicated theosophical career lasted nearly 70 remarkable years, during which time she traveled to just about every continent spreading the teachings. Her contribution to theosophy is unmatched and I remain in gratitude for her service.
Alexandra David-Néel – The Wanderer
She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their haunted expression. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
When I first came across Alexandra’s photo I was floored; who was this woman with long flowing braids, part Indian princess, part gypsy wonder lust? Alexandra David-Néel stood all of five feet tall, and from the age of two was wandering away from her parents through the streets of Paris. At 18 she climbed on a bicycle and rode from Brussels to Spain — without telling her parents. It was 1886! The roads were dirt and she was a woman alone. But not a problem; Alexandra continued on to the French Riviera and then through the Alps and finally back home. And that was only the beginning.
Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David was born in Saint-Mandé, a suburb of Paris, on October 24, 1868. In her early twenties she was introduced to HPB, whose esoteric ideas had a significant influence on Alexandra. She formed a close allegiance with Annie Besant and joined the European Section of the Theosophical Society in London on June 7, 1892. In 1893 she went to Adyar and spent much of the year there studying Sanskrit.
If heaven is the Lord’s, the earth is the inheritance of man, & that consequently any honest traveller has the right to walk as he chooses, all over that globe which is his. – Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa
Alexandra brings the “cool” factor to our rich heritage of women theosophists. She explored the East at a time when ladies were not encouraged to travel on their own; she was a theosophist, spiritualist, Buddhist and gifted writer. Alexandra wrote her first book when she was 30, and when she was in her forties travelled to India to study Buddhism, met a prince, and possibly had an affair with him. During her travels in Asia she lived in a cave, adopted a monk (yes, adopted) and travelled to Tibet at a time when it was closed to foreigners. In Tibet she met and hung out with the 13th Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, which no European lady had ever done before. Despite rigorous study that let her perfect her fluency in Tibetan and an intense focus that led other Buddhist clergy to fear her — some thought she might be the reincarnation of a goddess — she needed local knowledge and often the assistance that having a male counterpart demanded in that era. Alexandra kept travelling with her adopted monk companion until she was 78. She chose a hyphened surname when she married instead of giving up her name for her husband’s long before it became popular.
Alexandria was still writing about her travels and spirituality when she passed at the age of 101. Her ashes and those of her adopted monk Yon Lama Yongden were scattered on the waters of the Ganges in 1973 – bearing witness to an extraordinary life. Just as Alexandra wanted.
Nancy Bragin resides in Southampton PA where she maintains agency-b, an advertising and video production company, and Tuesday Afternoon Philly Outreach homeless non-profit. She is President of Abraxas Lodge and is a Mentor in the TOS Prison Program.
The above article by Nancy Bragin originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of The Theosophical Order of Service USA publication, For the Love of Life.