and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” ~ Abigail Adams
As Abby advised, I don’t plan to forget the ladies. On this Independence Day, let’s celebrate some Independent Ladies!
Since Eve took the apple from the serpent, women’s narratives have been overlooked. Underrated. Or, the worst crime: lost in the mists of history. Okay, I know Eve was not real or rather the biblical Eve isn’t. Genetic Eve is a separate thing far about my pay grade. But you get the idea.
In other words—history is written by those with penises. As is the literary canon, politics, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I’m a fourth-wave feminist; my childhood is peppered with strong female characters who kick ass and take names. Or at least the ones post-Beauty and the Beast. And don’t get me started on Anastasia’s complicated mess. That’ll probably be a separate post about the Last Czars.
Aside from the few women history couldn’t overlook (Queen Elizabeth I & II, Marie Antoinette, Isabella of Spain, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt etc.), the stories of so many powerful, influential, and crazy brilliant women are hidden by those with penises.
Fortunately for us, over the last few years, these stories have begun to pop out of history’s snowy blankets—like daisies!
They started to bloom a bit with those wonderful middle grade series The Royal Diaries and Dear America, but the rest of the world is finally catching up. Hidden Figuresand The Astronaut Wives’ Clubkicked down the hyper-masculine door of the space race and made a splash. My previous post (here) I covered well-known women in power and how pop culture portrays them.
However. There are still so many women that the mainstream has ignored for far too long.
Today, I want shed some light on the those I’ve discovered recently.
Women I Think You Need To Know About/Learn More About
1) Elizabeth Woodville (1437 – 1492): Widowed, impoverished mother of two sons who became Queen of England, survived multiple coups, and gave birth in Westminster Abbey while claiming sanctuary there because Henry VI’s forces had chased her hubby out of the country.
Oh yeah, then that baby and his younger brother (they were pre-teens at this point) ended up being “lost” in the Tower of London and his uncle stole his crown.
But it’s okay, because she ultimately arranged for her oldest daughter to wed the dude who kicked the uncle’s ass, making her the ancestress to every ruler of England since Henry VIII.
2) Queen Juana I of Spain (1479 – 1555): daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Mother of Charles V. Queen of Spain in her own right—except that she wasn’t because of penises. Her husband was a cheating jackass, but she really, really loved him anyway. Her father was crazy as a fox and used her grief to convince everyone she was insane—hence the sobriquet Juana La Loca—and had her imprisoned. Her son kept the imprisonment up.
FOR ALMOST FIFTY YEARS.
That’s right. From 1507 until her death, she was held captive because men wanted to use both her intelligence, her female-ness, and the fact that she had FEELINGS to rule the kingdom that should have been hers from day one.
She’s a prominent example of how mental health/illness was treated back in the day.
Thankfully, her letters and other first-hand sources survived to be discovered and tell more of her story than the myth of Juana La Loca.
3) Katharine of Aragon (1485 – 1536): Out of everyone on this list, she’s probably the most well-known. OR SO YOU THINK. All we ever see of Katharine is the dutiful, aging wife Henry VIII tossed aside because he decided he wanted the wily Anne Boleyn. She was actually kind of a badass. A lot of her badassery is covered with a modicum of accuracy in STARZ’s tv series The Spanish Princess, but they’ve only covered the early years.
Girlfriend got shit done. Aside from the whole not having a living son thing. Not her fault though, because you know, genetics, lack of medical knowledge, etc. While Henry was busy being Henry in France, she led an army and beat back Scottish invaders. She was far more politically savvy than she gets credit for, and sadly, like her big sister Juana, she died alone in captivity because she was an inconvenience to the men in her life.
4) Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596 – 1662): aka Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of Mary Queen of Scots and great-great-great-great granddaughter of Elizabeth Woodville. She went from being the mildly impoverished daughter of the King of Scotland, to the only daughter of the King of England and Scotland, to the wife of a lowly German prince, to the Queen of Bohemia for one winter, to professional exile and political operator.
Even after she’d gotten her husband’s territories back for her son after German wars over who has the most land, she continued to advocate and maneuver, both to have her children married well—except the ones who became Catholics or nuns (the nuns were fascinating in their own rights. One was BFFs with Descartes). She also did her best to help her nephew, Charles II get his crown back. Yet history only remembers her ineffective brother who got his head cut off and her spoiled nephew who let one of his mistresses tear down a freaking palace to get cash for all of her illegitimate children. Go figure.
5) Sophia, the Electress of Hanover (1630 – 1714): She was the youngest daughter of a king’s daughter. Sure, she married well and had kids etc. but no one expected what she and her progeny would become. Even after her mother (Elizabeth of Bohemia) achieved her goals and Charles II was living the high life in England, no one thought Sophia had a prayer of being anything more than what she was.
Yet in her life time she: played her connections until her husband—originally landless—was an Elector in the Holy Roman Empire; was a patron of the arts and philosophy; and she maneuvered matters until as the only Protestant grandchild of James I, she was heiress to her cousin Queen Anne.
She died two months shy of becoming queen herself. Instead, her son took the crown as George I. And every monarch from George I to the future George VII (Wee cutie Prince George of Cambridge) is part of her legacy.
6) Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922): For a bit of break from royalty and Britain, I want to switch to another woman I wish I’d learned more about. I grew up in the household of a journalist where names like Cronkite, Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein were part of the vernacular, but Nellie never came up (not blaming my awesome dad, just saying). She’s best known for her race around the world to beat Jules Verne’s 80 days—she did it in 72 days and some change. That alone was a huge as hell deal at the time because, hi, women did not travel alone to the next state, let alone around the world.
But more impressive than that, she had herself committed to a mental asylum for 10 days. These were the scariest of scary mental asylums, where the poor people of New York were sent for all manner of issues—including “female” problems. Thanks to her, asylums began to reform and mental health issues were part of a wider conversation.
7) Missy LeHand (1896 – 1944): FDR’s private secretary was essentially his de facto Chief of Staff (before that was a thing)—the only woman to do that job. She worked for him from 1921 to her debilitating stroke in 1941, through his battle with polio, his time as governor, and ultimately, his presidency.
By his second term as POTUS, she was the gatekeeper and performed the more mundane FLOTUS tasks Eleanor or the Roosevelt’s daughter didn’t want to take on. She was the one who had to wake him up to tell him about Hitler invading Poland.
But the only time we hear about her is usually in the salacious whispers about her possibly having an affair with FDR. Because heaven forbid women be recognized for being competent, reliable, and all around awesome at their job.
This list, of course, is barely the tip of the ice berg. I’ve started a new shelf on my Goodreads profile titled feminist-af (link below) that has both fiction and nonfiction recommendations for feminist reads.
The books to start with to learn about these lovely ladies:
The Women of the Cousins War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael K. Jones (Elizabeth Woodville)
Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
Daughter of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World By Matthew Goodman
The Gatekeeper by Kathryn Smith (Missy)