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.
The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women
by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
“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
“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
“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.