Friday, May 20, 2011

Five Things on a Friday - Strong Women

Occasionally strong women rather get the shaft from history. Their contemporaries may judge them and latter historians may assign the worst possible viewpoint to their motivations and actions. I'm not a radical feminist, but I do know that in a man's world, a woman is judged twice harshly. Never did I set out to do this, but lately I've read a lot of books written by female authors relooking at some of the famously strong women of history.

  1. Notorious Victoria: the life of Victoria Woodhull, uncensored by Mary Gabriel
    Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of Victoria Woodhull. She was one of the early suffragettes, was extremely successful with her sister on Wall Street as the first female brokers, edited a newspaper, and most impressively was the first woman to run for President of the United States. So why then do we remember her contemporaries Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and not her? Well those aforementioned ladies at first hailed her as one of the leading lights of the suffragette movement, and then dropped all support for her. While she was campaigning for women's right to vote, she also campaigned for some more out-there ideals such as free love, workers rights (in the Karl Marx sense), and spiritualism. Previously she had worked as a medium and spiritualist. Those views were a little too far afield for the suffragettes who tended to be fairly straitlaced Christians. And so Woodhull was dropped from the suffragette movement and from most history books as anything but a footnote.

  2. Eleanor of Aquitaine: a life by Alison Weir
    Eleanor of Aquitaine was the richest and most important heiress of her day. By birth she controlled large areas, then by marriage she would be Queen of France and later Queen of England. Throughout her life she was a patron for artists and writers of her day as well as an accomplished politician. Never was she content to sit quietly in a corner doing needlework, but rather she actively participated in a crusade. Eventually she was imprisoned for her meddlesome ways, by her husband for encouraging her son to rebel against him. After his death, she ruled as regent for her children and continued to plan marriages, alliances, and other matters of state up until her death in her 80s.

  3. Lucrezia Borgia: life, love, and death in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Bradford
    One of the most famous villains in history, or at least that's how we remember her. What's harder to see is the woman who was intelligent and capable, much at the mercy of her father's plays for power, and worked to turn situations she was thrust into to her advantage. However her name became forever linked with the worst abuses of power by her family, even those she was not involved with or had no control over. That is not to say that she wasn't ambitious for herself, only that she is not the pure evil her name has become a synonym for. Highly fascinating book, and subject. If you want to take the easy way out, Showtime has a new series following the Borgias, but I can't promise their portrayal will be balanced.

  4. Cleopatra: a life by Stacy Schiff
    Yes, I have mentioned this book before. I'm still reading it on my Nook, almost done, and still loving it. When you think about Cleopatra, words like temptress, seductress, beautiful come to mind. Perhaps what should spring to mind is politically astute, powerful, smart, ambitious, and doing her best in a desperate situation. Her history was written by those who defeated her in a culture that viewed women as political property to be traded in marriage not as able to rule. It is amazing to look at her story and think, she didn't seduce Caesar in a wanton play for power; she was trapped with him in a castle during a war, fighting for both their lives. They had a lot in common, it was inevitable. It's great to be able to toss out the Shakespeare, Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra and see a real woman, not perfect, but doing her best and better than many of us would have done.

  5. East to the Dawn: the life of Amelia Earhart by Susan Butler
    Definitely not a vilified female, Amelia Earhart is the other extreme, she's been sainted in our cultural remembrance. However our common mythos about her is "daredevil pilot, flew a lot, broke some records, disappeared in the Pacific Ocean". That story, especially that ending, has overshadowed many other fantastic achievements in her lifetime. She was a dedicated social worker, spending much of her time with poor and immigrants. Earhart helped promote the idea of commercial aviation at a time when flying for travel was not considered feasible; without her we might not have the aviation travel industry as we know it. And of course who can forget her many feats in promoting the rights of women as pilots, including helping to found the 99s. I listened to this biography on audio and it completely changed my mind about Amelia Earhart. I would still put her on any hero/heroine list, but for completely different reasons.

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