Exceptional Women in History Part I:

Scandalous Women, Bad Princesses

and Female Kings

It’s Women’s History Month and I thought I’d provide readers and writers alike with some resources on exceptional women in history. I have a soft spot for a particular a kind of history book; collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. They generally follow a pattern of one to five page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.Some of these books are little more than gimmicks or novelty books, best known for their wretched research. Usually there are one or two women that I’ve studied or read about extensively. How accurate the author is with that particular woman is my gauge on how well she’s researched the others.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration. In this post, I’ll do quick reviews of three of my favorites. Next week I’ll do three more.

Scandalous Women

The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women

by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

scandalous women“Throughout history women have caused wars, defied the rules, and brought men to their knees. The famous and the infamous, queens, divorcees, actresses, and outlaws have created a ruckus during their lifetimes-turning heads while making waves. “Scandalous Women” tells the stories of the risk takers who have flouted convention, beaten the odds, and determined the course of world events.”

I collect these “exceptional women in history” books because there are always a few women I haven’t heard about. Mahon’s collection is a cut above the average for this type. There is a nice mix of well-known and not-so-well-known women divided into seven categories:

  • Warrior Queens
  • Wayward Wives
  • Scintillating Seductresses
  • Crusading Ladies
  • Wild Women of the West
  • Amorous Artists
  • Amazing Adventuresses

Mahon spends several pages on each woman giving much more detail than might be expected. Her writing is clear and storytelling quite readable.Two women (among several!) were new to me:

Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1748), a mathematician, physicist, author, and paramour of one of the greatest minds in France, Voltaire. She shocked society with her unorthodox lifestyle and intellectual prowess. Most surprising, she became a leader in the study of theoretical physics in France at a time when the sciences were ruled by men.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) had a passion for archaeology and languages. I recently ran across her story again while reading Lawrence and the Arabs by Robert Graves. Bell left her privileged world behind to become one of the foremost chroniclers of British imperialism in the Middle East, and one of the architects of the modern nation of Iraq.


Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara

by Kris Waldherr

bad princesses“Welcome to Bad Princess by Kris Waldherr (author of Doomed Queens), where you’ll discover what really happens after “Happily Ever After.” From the war-torn Dark Ages of Medieval Europe to America’s Gilded Age, and all the way up to Kate Middleton, Bad Princess explores more than 30 true princess stories, going beyond the glitz and glamour to find out what life was really like for young royals throughout history. A mix of royal biography, pop culture, art, style, and pure fun, Bad Princess is a whip-smart, tongue-in-cheek spin on the traditional princess narrative, proving that it takes more than a pretty crown to be a great leader.”


Bad Princesses is an excellent example of the “exceptional women in history” genre geared to tweens/teens. I very much enjoyed the framing theme of fairy tale princesses vs. the lives of real princesses as a poke at the Disney-fication of the princess image. In fact, the purpose of the book is to introduce some much needed reality to the princess myth for girls and young women and slyly redefine the role of “princess” in more modern terms. The gorgeous illustrations provided by the author are an added bonus.

My only gripe is the Euro-centric nature of the bios. A couple of non-European princesses are included in a rapid review of modern princesses doing interesting things at the end of the book. Among the many princess books on my shelf are the stories of historical South Asian, African, etc. princesses. It would have been nice to have a couple of their stories included in the main text. Still, Bad Princesses is a fun read and imparts an important message. Highly recommended.

The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800

by William Monter

female kings in europe“In this lively book, William Monter sketches Europe’s increasing acceptance of autonomous female rulers between the late Middle Ages and the French Revolution. Monter surveys the governmental records of Europe’s thirty women monarchs—the famous (Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great) as well as the obscure (Charlotte of Cyprus, Isabel Clara
Eugenia of the Netherlands)—describing how each of them achieved sovereign authority, wielded it, and (more often than men) abandoned it. Monter argues that Europe’s female kings, who ruled by divine right, experienced no significant political opposition despite their gender.”

I spent my early career working at two major universities and part of that time assisting PhD candidates with their dissertations (primarily crunching data). I recognize the formula when I run across it in academic non-fiction. William Monter tried to fill an empty niche in academic research with his book by analyzing the reigns of thirty women who ruled as kings: jointly with their spouses, singly as heiresses or widows, and married with husbands as subordinate consorts. It’s a fascinating array of women from the little known St. Jadwiga of Hungary, to Juana “the Mad” of Spain, to the flamboyant cross-dressing Christina of Sweden, to Catherine II the Great of Russia. He sprinkles in a good number of women who ruled as regents which bridge a number of the reigns, but admits, ruling women were a distinct minority during the five hundred years covered.

Monter did his research and presents it in a logical straightforward way, which makes the book readable, but on the dull side for the casual reader. Another problem with a “survey” book of research is that it is impossible to get into much depth on any one subject. Each women merits a few pages putting her accomplishments in context, but you must turn to the sources listed in the bibliographic essay at the end to go deeper. This book works as a survey of a niche in history, but it’s not gripping. If a historical fiction writer is looking for inspiration, or a history buff wants an introduction to this topic, this is a useful book.

Next week we move away from the royals with Exceptional Women in History Part II: She Captains, Scientists, and Musicians.


How Science Got Women Wrong—

and the

New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

by Angela Saini


I love science and history and truly enjoy it when they overlap in books such as Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. As a feminist, I keep up with gender-based research and have for several decades. Disproving bad science that stated women’s minds, bodies, and emotions were inferior to men’s was a key element of my job when I worked with school systems to implement Title IX in the 70’s. Title IX was known as “the law that will destroy boys sports” in football-crazy Ohio and basketball-obsessed Indiana where I did most of my work. Maybe those coaches and teachers were right. Look who took home most of the medals on the US teams from the last two Olympics. But Title IX was about so much more than sports. It guaranteed equal access for girls and women to all aspects of education. Continue reading

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

Notorius RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsbergIt’s Women’s History Month so here is another entry in books by and/or about women. I’ve been a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg since my earliest feminist days. The second woman to join the Supreme Court (appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993), she’s served for twenty-five years as a liberal voice, sometimes shouting into the wilderness; other times changing minds. As the sole women in a tenured position in the Columbia Law School, she co-founded the Woman’s Rights Project at the ACLU in 1971. RGB shepherded some of the most ground-breaking sex discrimination suits through the courts, arguing six cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. She carefully built a foundation of decisions that led to an inevitable conclusion. Discrimination based on gender was unconstitutional. Continue reading

Hidden Figures:

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

“Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians know as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that woHidden Figures Coveruld launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women. Originally math teachers in the South’s segregated public schools, these gifted professionals answered Uncle Sam’s call during the labor shortages of World War II. With new jobs at the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, they finally had a shot at jobs that would push their skills to the limits.”

Hidden Figures is my transition book from Black History Month to Women’s History Month. It showcases a quartet of significant–but little known–African American women mathematicians. I saw the movie and knew I wanted to read the book. It was obvious that the movie took a lot of “artistic license,” but the underlying story of black women mathematicians at NASA was so compelling, I had to find out the “real” vs. the “reel” of the movie.

Shetterly did not disappoint. Continue reading

March: Book Three

by John LewisAndrew Aydin (co-authors), Nate Powell (Illustrator)

I finished the third volume in civil rights icon John Lewis’ graphic memoir about his early days in the movement leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. (If you missed it my review of the first two books is here.) March: Book Three is the longest of the trilogy and covers the shortest amount of time. It opens in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four young girls. Everyone remembers the horror of that act of terrorism, but I didn’t know this was the church’s annual “Youth Day” and 24 other children were injured. The terrorists deliberately targeted African American children in their church. Shortly after that, a group of Eagle Scouts, who had just attended a clan rally, shot a 13-year-old black boy from his bicycle and killed him; and a police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old black youth who chucked a rock at a car full of teens who were celebrating the deaths of the girls. The book continues through to March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday in Selma which included the beating death of Unitarian minister James Reeb, the later peaceful march to Montgomery, and the assassination of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Detroit who was shuttling volunteers from Birmingham back to Selma. Four months later on August 6, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. Continue reading

March: Book One and March: Book Two

by John LewisAndrew Aydin (Co-authors), Nate Powell (Artist)


March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Continuing with my Black History Month project, I finished Representative John Lewis’ trilogy of graphic books: March. These three books are a remarkable achievement and recommended for adults and children alike. Lewis, a true American treasure and Civil Rights icon, wrote a couple of traditional memoirs based on his role in the Civil Rights struggles. This graphic project was inspired by an early “comic” about Dr. Martin Luther King that circulated during those turbulent times and inspired many young people to join the fight. The lead up to, and march for, voting rights in Selma, Alabama is laid out in touching detail.

Book One is the shortest of the three but covers the most time of the trilogy. It deals with Lewis’ early years, his struggle (even against his parents) to get an education and his growing sense of injustice in the segregated south. John Lewis struggled and “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” against enormous odds. This book lays the foundation for everything that is to come, everything that shaped his personality and made him the formidable man he was to become. It concludes with the successful integration of Nashville, Tennessee’s downtown drug store counters. We get a behind the scenes look at the politics and strategies employed by a dedicated group of young people working to make their world more fair: the first steps in the Civil Rights movement. I particularly liked the framing story–the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration–which gave the narrative poignancy. Continue reading

Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Other Writings


“This dramatic autobiography of the early life of an American slave was first published in 1845, when its young author had just achieved his freedom. Douglass’ eloquence gives a clear indication of the powerful principles that led him to become the first great African-American leader in the United States.”

Welcome to Black History Month!

Frederick Douglass c 1874

I always look forward to February and March because it puts the spotlight on two marginalized groups in history. As a history geek, I would prefer that we didn’t need those spotlights, but given the current political backlash against all “others,” I don’t think we’ll be reaching that point soon. So one of my contributions this year is a review of the venerable autobiography of Frederick Douglass, an escaped american slave, abolitionist, preacher and revered leader of the African American community. As a scholar of ancient history, I value primary sources (which are few in my chosen time of 5C Rome). This autobiography is a precious record of a troubling period in our American History from a man who experienced it first hand. This is a classic of American literature and a rebuke to all folks who insist that the Civil War was fought over “heritage.” Continue reading

“My Hair!” A Birthday Adventure

Yesterday was my birthday and I learned something new. I usually love learning something new. Yesterday’s lesson—not so much. Have you heard of 4DX? Neither had I. Until yesterday.

But let me set this up. I have a few modest birthday traditions. I try not to work on my birthday. I like to dress up, get my hair done or try new makeup, and go out to a movie or Broadway show. I always enjoy a lovely dinner at a fancy restaurant. Since I left the corporate treadmill to write novels, it’s even more fun to skip the ponytail and sweatpants, dress up a little and get out in the world.

I’ve also noticed that Monday birthdays are usually disastrous. I hate Monday birthdays. My thirtieth was a Monday and everything went wrong. I ended up passed out on the bed wearing tights, a hat and a tie and no memory of how I got there. 2016 is a leap year and my birthday should have been on a Monday, but skipped to Tuesday. I thought I was safe. Continue reading

A Day at the Pompeii Arena

gladiator mosaicIt’s a sunny day in Pompeii on April 8th in this first year of the reign of Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (AD 79). The crowds surge toward the amphitheater for the games given by D. Lucretius Stater Valens, a lifelong priest to the cult of the deified Nero Caesar Augustus. The placards pasted on the walls in the forum promise, “ten pairs of gladiators owned by his son D. Lucretius Valens and wild animal hunts, as permitted by law. The seats will be shaded with awnings.” Pompeii’s is the oldest stone amphitheater in the empire. For one hundred-fifty years it has proudly hosted games and religious festivals, but it’s looking dated next to the modern Flavian Amphitheater which will open next year in Rome. The frescoes of gladiatorial combat and beast hunts decorating the walls surrounding the sand are fading, but the patrons come for the blood sports, not the art.

The spectators pass into the open spaces surrounding the arena where merchants and food vendors hawk their wares. The scent of fresh bread, roasted meats, and sour wine waft through the crowd to mingle with the odor of sweat and hair pomade. People look at their wooden tickets and enter the appropriate gate to spread throughout the amphitheater: the front rows reserved for the leading citizens; the middle for the lesser knights and merchants; and the top for the poor, slaves, and women. Some resent the class divisions at the arena. At the chariot races in the hippodrome, it’s open seating (except for the emperor, of course!) and women mix with the men. Continue reading

Busting Gladiator Myths

Before I researched my newest novel, Sword of the Gladiatrix, I got most of my ideas and impressions of gladiators from the media: Russell Crowe in Gladiator and (for those of us of a certain age) Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. More recently Starz had a fantastic (in more ways than one) show that ran for three seasons titled Spartacus: War of the Damned. All of these shows perpetuate some gladiator myths that I hope to bust wide open in this post. They also got a couple of things right, which I’ll point out.

Myth #1:

All gladiators were men.


Bronze statue of a gladiatrix

Most were, but not all. Here I’ll give Gladiator a weak thumbs up—they had women in chariots fighting against a group of men in a re-enactment of a classic battle in an arena scene, but other than that, women gladiators don’t show up in most visual media. It’s left to us lowly writers to correct the balance. If you look closely, women in the arena show up in art, literature, and law.

Sword of the Gladiatrix was inspired by a particular stone carving of two female gladiators in the British Museum. More recently, archaeologists have uncovered a bronze statue of a gladiatrix holding a sica—a curved sword. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Martial, and Juvenal all write about female gladiators—usually (except for Martial) with some element of dismay or sarcasm. An organizer in Ostia brags on his tombstone that he was the first person to put women in the arena as fighters. My favorite evidence is in the law: The first Roman Emperor Augustus forbade recruiting noble and free women as gladiators. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Septimus Severus banned single combat by women in the arena. If women weren’t being recruited and fighting, why have a ban? Human nature being what it is, these prohibitions probably made the fights all the more popular because they were illegal. I’m sure female gladiatorial contests continued for some time. Continue reading