real life

Let's celebrate 6 women who lived in the background.

‘Behind every great man is a great woman, and behind every great woman is a man who tried to stop her’.  

It’s a saying that triggers a sarcastic snort rather than a laugh, possibly because it’s true.

Cynthia Lennon died last week aged 75 and it only made the news because she was married to John.  Yet the news touched many of us who loved the Beatles and who knew about her life.

I interviewed Cynthia when she released her book ‘John’ in 1995 and sensed she was an intelligent woman whose great weakness (John) was also her greatest strength.

It must have been strange and rather awful to have her entire life defined by the man she loved, a man who treated her appallingly and who left her for another woman.  Yet I didn’t feel sorry for Cynthia, rather, she inspired me. 

Cynthia Lennon with husband John.


Cynthia Lennon was a middle class girl and a brilliant budding artist when she met John in calligraphy class.  She was on a scholarship; quiet, dedicated, focused and serious about her ambitious to be an artist and teacher.  Lennon was a loud, sarcastic Teddy Boy; a rebel who used to tease her and steal her pens.

Then John sang her a song and she fell.  Cynthia said he was irresistible and brilliant.  So, she nurtured his genius and forgave him his ‘artistic temperament’ and flaws which she felt came from trauma, loss and a tough upbringing.

Cynthia Lennon’s book was an uncomfortable read. The brilliant John Lennon was cruel and selfish.  He was ‘a jealous guy’ who flirted with others but was possessive about his girlfriend. Lennon was also violent. He once slapped Cynthia after she danced with another,  causing her head to hit a wall.


Cynthia and John got married because she was pregnant and then she was hidden away while he travelled the world being screamed at and adored.

Related content: Cynthia Lennon, first wife of John Lennon, dies aged 75.

The affair John had with Yoko Ono was painful and humiliating for Cynthia; she discovered them in her home, sitting crossed legged on the floor clad only in robes.  But even though Lennon was then largely absent from his son’s life and she was rather airbrushed from history, it was clear to me thirty years after they’d parted that Cynthia still loved her first love. She was clearly proud of her role in nurturing and caring for his genius.

Cynthia Lennon made me think about how much we give those brilliant souls amongst us and how much we forgive them if they hurt us.  Women in the background are often pitied but I don’t pity Cynthia.  She died in Spain with her son Julian by her bedside.

She raised him without much help from John and he clearly adored her.  Cynthia may have lived a life in some shadow but to her son she was the light.  She also had inner strength, style and grace her ex-husband seem to have lacked.

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So let’s celebrate some women in the background.


The women who may not be worshipped and adored but who are, part of the story of genius.

1. Alma Reville

Alma Reville (married to Alfred Hitchcock) was a film director, screenwriter, and editor who married Alfred and was his collaborator, sounding board, scriptwriter and assisted director.  The film ‘Psycho’ (Helen Mirren plays Alma) played some tribute to her huge role in the making of Hitchcock’s brilliant thrillers.

Alma with her husband Alfred Hitchcock. Image via Tumblr.


2. Mileva Maric 

Mileva Maric studied with her future husband Albert Einstein. There have been claims she collaborated with Einstein on his celebrated 1905 papers but there is little evidence.  He dumped her for his cousin.


Mileva Maric with husband Albert Einstein. Image via Tumblr.


3. Eleanor Roosevelt 

Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of US President Franklin.  She actually refused to stay quiet and in the background.  Eleanor held press conferences, wrote a newspaper column and spoke out often, even against her husband’s own policies.  Eleanor had some great quotes about life as a woman amongst them ‘A woman is like a tea bag you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’



Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of US President Franklin. Image via Tumblr.


4. Zelda Fitzgerald 

Zelda Fitzgerald was herself an iconic novelist but lived in the shadow of her acclaimed husband F. Scott Fitzgerald who often pilfered her life in his writing - often against her will.  He even lifted snippets of his diaries but was furious when she used their life as fodder.



Zelda Fitzgerald with husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Image via Tumblr.


5. Melinda Gates 

Melinda Gates met Bill Gates at work in 1987 and turned him his first offer of a date. She left Microsoft to have the kids and work in philanthropy. She helped found and then transformed the  Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which  strives to improve global health and education.


Bill and Melinda Gates. Image via Tumblr.


6. Kasturba Gandhi 

Kasturba Gandhi was married at 13 to Mohandas Gandhi.  She also became a political activist who spent time in prison in South Africa and often took her husband’s place when he was under arrest.  Kasturba accompanied him to India and took part in the salt march and the struggle for independence from the British.


Kasturba Gandhi with husband Mohandas Gandhi.