Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes: Victims of Violence

Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes (murdered 30 September 1888)


Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered in Whitechapel, London, on 30 September 1888. 

Elizabeth Stride,
photo from 1872
Elizabeth Gustafsdotter was born in 1843 in Torslanda, Sweden, the daughter of Gustaf Ericsson and Beata Carlsdotter. She arrived in London in 1865 and married John Stride in 1869. He died of tuberculosis in 1884. 

Catherine Eddowes was born in the West Midlands city of Wolverhampton in 1842, the daughter of George Eddowes and Catherine Evans Eddowes. She arrived in London with Thomas Conway, and after separating from him in 1880, she began living with a new partner, John Kelly.

Stride's body was found at 1:00 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, 30 September 1888, Eddowes's less than an hour later, at 1:45 a.m.

Many of the women I've written about this year have been assaulted, tortured, and killed--but they were regarded as having suffered "for their faith," and they are now known as saints.

Catherine Eddowes,
photo from 1883
Far more women--nameless, numberless--have been victimized and forgotten. Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would probably be included among those countless nameless, faceless, and unremembered murdered women, except for the fact that they are the third and fourth victims of "Jack the Ripper."




Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Donna Leon, "An American in Venice"

Donna Leon (born 29 September 1942)


While I love mysteries, I adore the series written by Donna Leon, set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti (and his wonderful wife, Paola--wife, mother, feminist, university professor, incredible cook).

Donna Leon
The first novel in the series, Death at La Fenice, was published in 1992, the most recent, the twenty-fourth in the series, Falling in Love, was published in April of 2015. (I just checked my Amazon account--I pre-ordered it on 23 November 2014!)

For many years, I would order the new Brunetti as soon as the new volume became available for purchase--it would arrive in March or April, but I wouldn't read it right away. Instead, I left it on my nightstand--it was there, waiting for me, and as soon as I turned in my spring semester grades every May, that was my treat.

This year, newly retired, I opened the book and sat down to read the very day it arrived. 

Don't wait another minute!!

Here's a link to Washington Post writer Bob Thompson's wonderful profile of Leon, "An American in Venice" (a phrase I've used in the title of today's post).

Update: The Waters of Eternal Youth was published in 2017, Earthly Remains in 2018.







Monday, September 28, 2015

Eustochium of Rome, Desert Mother

Eustochium Julia of Rome (died 28 September 419/20)


Although the lives of the Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks, often known collectively as the "Desert Fathers," are very well known--think St. Anthony ("the Great") or Hilarion (whose biography was recorded by St. Jerome) or John Chrysostom ("golden mouthed")--there were Desert Mothers, too, including Eustochium of Rome, probably born around the year 368.

A mosaic of St. Eustochiu, St. Paula,
St. Jerome, and St. Eusebius in
Bethlehem, St. Jerome's Chapel,
Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria
The daughter of a Roman senator named Toxotius and his wife Paula, who was herself a member of a powerful and wealthy senatorial family (the family claimed descent from the legendary Greek warrior Agamemnon), Eustochium Julia was the third of the couple's four daughers: her older sisters were Blaesilla and Paulina, her younger, Rufina. (There was also a son, named Toxotius, like his father.)

After the death of Toxotius, about the year 380, Paula turned her attention to religion and became one of the followers of the the widowed Marcella, who had devoted herself to an ascetic life of prayer, charitable works, and mortification of the flesh. In 382, Jerome arrived in Rome and spent three years with Marcella, about whom I've posted earlier in the year. Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, put themselves under Jerome's spiritual guidance.

Despite the urgings of her paternal family, Eustochium dedicated her life to perpetual virginity in 384. Jerome's treatise on virginityDe custodia virginitatis, was addressed to Eustochium.

In 385, Eustochium traveled with her mother to the Holy Land; after Jerome's return in 386, they traveled with him to Egypt, studying the lives of Christian hermits. Returning to the Holy Land, Paula and Eustochium established a series of monasteries in Bethlehem, one of them housing Jerome, the other three for the many women who arrived to live with Paula and Eustochium.

Paula died in 404. but Eustochium stayed on, taking on the leadership role of her mother. In 416/17, her institutions were attacked, Eustochium and her niece Paula (her younger sister's daughter) reporting on the devastation to Pope Innocent I, who responded that he "deplored the plundering, slaughter, arson, and every outrage perpetrated against the places of your church by the devil," In this case, however, the "devils" were not pagans but Jerome's enemies, the attacks probably instigated by John II, the bishop of Jerusalem.

Eustochium died about 419/20. Her niece, the younger Paula, assumed supervision of their monasteries in Bethlehem.

Eustochium's mother is recognized as St. Paula of Rome, Eustochium as St. Eustochium. And both are among the Desert Mothers.

An excellent biographical essay and the texts of all of Jerome's letters to Eustochia can be found at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters by clicking here. And here is a letter attributed to Paula and Eustochium, addressed to Marcella.

And for an introduction to the Desert Mothers, I recommend Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.




Sunday, September 27, 2015

Grazia Deledda, "The Voice of Sardinia"

Grazia Deledda (born 27 September 1871)


Born in Nuoro, Sardinia, Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda ended her formal education by the time she was eleven--but after her schooling ended, she was tutored by a local teacher and, on her own, read widely in Italian, Russian, French, and English literature. She also studied the people around her. As she later wrote, her father frequently invited guests into their home: "[w]hen these friends and their families had to come to Nuoro on business or for religious holidays, they usually stayed at our house. Thus I began to know the various characters of my novels."

Grazia Deledda's Nobel portrait
She began publishing stories and poems when she was just thirteen, much to the dismay--and opposition--of her family and the inhabitants of Nuoro. She published her first novel, Fior di Sardegna (Flower of Sardinia), in 1892. 

After she married, Deledda moved to Rome with her husband, where she remained for the rest of her life. She died there on 15 August 1936.

Grazia Deledda was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926 (awarded in 1927) and is the only Italian woman, to date, to have won this international recognition.

Margaret Kern's excellent biographical essay on Deledda is available here, from the Italian Women Writers website. At the same site is an amazing array of digitized works by Deledda.

You can find biographical information, the presentation speech, a brief documentary, a short story, and a host of other information at the Nobel Prize website by clicking here.

Happily, many of her works have been translated into English and are accessible and affordable.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith (died 26 September 1937)


Stories about the tumultuous life and tragic death of Bessie Smith have too frequently overshadowed her life and accomplishments as a musician.

There are plenty of accounts of her life online--I'll link you here to Robert Dupuis's excellent essay in Contemporary Black Biography, and there you will find a complete discography and an ample bibliography.

But here's the best way to remember Bessie Smith today--here's "Young Woman's Blues" (recorded in 1926), here's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (recorded in 1927), and here's "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" (recorded in 1931).


Friday, September 25, 2015

Arbella Stuart--She Might Have Been Queen?

Lady Arbella Stuart (died 25 September 1615)


The unfortunate Arbella Stuart was born to great potential, but her life ended in great tragedy. She might have become queen of England. Instead, she died in the Tower of London.

Arbella Stuart
Arbella was the great granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's elder sister: queen of Scotland, mother of James V of Scotland and, by her second marriage, mother of Margaret Douglas.*

Lady Margaret Douglas married Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox, who was himself a descendant of James II of Scotland; when her son Henry, lord Darnley married Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, uniting and reinforcing these claims, Lady Margaret Douglas was imprisoned. 

Undauted, in 1574 Margaret Douglas arranged for her younger son, Charles, earl of Lennox, to marry Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of Elizabeth Hardwick, then countess of Shrewsbury; Queen Elizabeth sent Lady Margaret to the Tower once more. She was released by November of the next year, however, when she wrote to her niece Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland, to announce the birth of a granddaughter, Arbella.

Little is known about the early period of Arbella Stuart's life. Her father died in April of 1576, when she was about six months old; in 1582, when her mother died, she was sent to live with her grandmother Elizabeth Hardwick,

Arbella Stuart aged twenty-three months,
1577
Elizabeth Hardwick's fourth husband, George Talbot, had been Mary Stuart's "guardian" while she was imprisoned in England, and although there is no evidence about the relationship between Arbella and her aunt, the exiled queen, may have been, Sara Jayne Steen, who has written extensively about her, concludes that Arbella's subsequent "letters and actions suggest that she was influenced by [the queen of Scotland's] trial and execution." Arbella was eleven years old when Mary Stuart was executed in 1587.

Throughout her childhood, Arbella Stuart was "useful" to Queen Elizabeth as a "marrigeable property": "As a claimant who could bring the dowry of a crown, she was a commodity, one of high worth on the matrimonial market," Steen writes, but her status as a claimant "fluctuated with English and European politics and the rise and fall of Elizabeth's favor." 

Margaret Tudor's descendants had been cut out of the succession by Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, but Queen Elizabeth had also acted to bar the descendants of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister, from the throne. In such a complicated situation, James VI of Scotland, Mary Stuart's son, seemed to have the best claim to the English throne: he was the oldest unquestionably legitimate male descendant of Henry VII and Henry VIII. But he was also unquestionably a foreigner, and foreign birth was generally regarded as a bar to the English succession. 

After James VI, Margaret Tudor's daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas, might be considered "next in line" for the English crown. She had been born in England and had spent much of her life at the English court, but as Steen notes, she was older than Elizabeth Tudor and "unlikely to outlive" her. Lady Margaret's oldest son, Darnley, had married Mary Stuart, but he died in 1567; her younger son, Charles, was thus next in line for the throne, after James VI. After Charles's death in 1575, his daughter Arbella would inherit his claim. 

When Arbella was still a child, her grandmother had promised her to the four-year-old son of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who, perhaps fortunately for Bess of Hardwick, died; the queen had been angered by the proposal and took upon herself the task of arranging Arbella's future.

As queen, Elizabeth used Arbella as a "bargaining chip in foreign policy, tantalizing continental nobility with the prospect of marriage accompanied by the declaration of succession." At various times those prospective alliances included Esmé Stuart, who had inherited Arbella's Lennox title and lands after her father's death; the king of Scotland himself, James VI; Rainutio Farnese, the son of the duke of Parma; Henry IV, king of France; the prince of Condé; and the duke of Nevers. Various alliances with members of the English nobility were also proposed, including Robert Cecil.

But none of these marriages ever took place. Arbella came briefly to court in 1587 and again in 1588, but she was sent away in disgrace for some offense. At the time it was rumored, on the one hand, that her presumption had resulted in her dismissal, on the other that a romance with the earl of Essex had precipitated her removal from court. Arbella herself, writing about the incident later, indicated that at first she had enjoyed the queen's approval. Queen Elizabeth had examined the young woman for herself when she arrived at court and "by trial did pronounce me an eaglet of her own kind . . . worthy . . . even yet to carry her thunderbolt." 

It wasn't until 1591 that Arbella was recalled to court, during the period when her marriage to the son of the duke of Farnese was being discussed. She remained with the court into the summer of 1592, but when the duke died and marriage negotiations failed, she was once again dismissed. She was with her grandmother later in that year when a plot to abduct her came to light. A Catholic priest revealed a plan to kidnap Arbella and then marry her to a foreign Catholic noble, who would invade England and claim the throne on the young woman's behalf. Arbella was not implicated in the plot, but neither was she recalled to court by the queen. 

Despite the dazzling array of marriages proposed for Arbella, the queen was no more interested in finding a husband for Arbella than she was in finding one for herself. Instead, she left the young woman in the care of her grandmother. Arbella was well educated, but she was completely isolated, and she came to regard her seclusion as an imprisonment rather than a retirement. 

Life at Hardwick Hall grew intolerable. A twenty-seven-year-old woman, Arbella still slept in her grandmother's bedroom and had her nose "tweaked" for punishment. After a decade of being cut off from court and court contacts, in 1602 Arbella sought permission from Bess of Hardwick to "present" herself to the queen, but even that "small and ordinary liberty" was denied to her, at which she "despaired."

At last she took matters into her own hands. Arbella proposed a marriage with Edward Seymour, Lady Catherine Grey's grandson and thus, himself, a claimant to the English throne--despite the fact that Elizabeth I had declared Catherine Grey's marriage invalid and the children of that marriage illegitimate. On Christmas Day Arbella sent a message to Seymour's grandfather, the earl of Hertford, indicating that she would be interested in an alliance with his grandson. If the earl approved, he should send his grandson to her in disguise so that they could meet one another and, after having met, "see how they could like."

But Arbella's plot failed. The earl of Hertford forwarded her message to Sir Robert Cecil, and within days Henry Brounker was sent to Hardwick Hall to investigate. By January he had cleared things up to his own satisfaction and the queen's. Arbella apologized in a letter to the queen, expressing her sorrow for having given "the least cause of offense"; "I humbly prostrate myself at Your Majesty's feet," she wrote, "craving pardon" and hoping that, out of "princely clemency," the queen would "signify" her "gracious remission" to Arbella's grandmother, whose "discomfort" she, Arbella, would be until then. 

Arbella was "forgiven," but her restrictions were "redoubled." "Educated for command," as Steen notes, Arbella "seemed powerless, politically and personally enclosed: chaste, with no opportunity to be otherwise; silenced, forbidden unmonitored conversations or letters; and obedient, under the very real threat of the Tower or death." Although she acknowledged herself as a "poor silly infant and wretch," Arbella insisted that she had taken as "great care" to preserve the queen's "royal lineage from any blot as any whosoever"; she would, she wrote, have judged herself "unworthy of life" if she had "degenerated from the most reknowned stock whereof it is my greatest honor to be a branch."

Despite her apologies, Arbella's efforts to escape her confinement continued. She fabricated another marriage plot, used her poor health to effect a move to another residence, and ultimately attempted to escape. The escape failed, however, and early in March Arbella was once more at Hardwick Hall, under investigation. This time her apologies were less abject: 
When it shall please Her Majesty to afford me those ordinary rights which other subjects cannot be debarred of justly, I shall endeavor to receive them as thankfully now as if they had been in due time offered.
She would bear her yoke, she wrote, "as long as I think good to convince them that impose it of hardness of heart," and then "shake it off when I think good to take my Christian liberty." If it were "denied" her, the "whole world" would be "made judge upon what cause, or color, or how justly given or taken and by whom." If she could be left to be her "own woman," then everyone's "trouble" would cease.

Arbella Stuart, 1590
Queen Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, just days after Arbella's letter was written. Arbella acknowledged the authority of the queen's successor, James VI of Scotland, now James I of England, and she was once more welcomed at court.

Again rumors about a prospective marriage for her circulated, but in July two plots against the new king were discovered, one of which included a plan to place Arbella on the English throne. She was cleared of suspicion, and while in the years that followed she was able to exert a certain amount of influence and patronage, she remained both unmarried and without adequate financial support. 

By the end of 1609 she was again under guard; "rumors abounded" about her political plans, her religious preferences, and her marriage prospects. She was investigated once more, cleared of suspicion once more, and restored to favor once more. By 1610 she had taken her destiny into her own hands, secretly arranging to marry. 

Arbella Stuart married William Seymour, Edward Seymour's younger brother, on 22 June. By early July, both were imprisoned and under investigation, Seymour in the Tower and Arbella in a private residence in Lambeth. In a letter to her husband written shortly after their arrest, Arbella wrote that she had heard he was not well, suggesting his illness represented the "sympathy" between them since she herself had been sick at the same time. She looked forward to a return of the king's favor, however, and wanted to make sure that Seymour's "grief of mind" did not "work" upon his body. If they were not "able to live to" the return of the king's favor, she wrote, "I for my part shall think myself a pattern of misfortune in enjoying so great a blessing as you so little a while." 

Arbella's belief that James would restore the pair to favor derived at least in part from her conviction that the king had given her permission to marry a husband of her own choice. In a letter to the king she wrote that his "neglect" of her and her lack of money "drove" her to her "contract" with Seymour before she informed the king of her intentions; nevertheless, she wrote, 
I humbly beseech Your Majesty to consider how impossible it was for me to imagine it could be offensive unto Your Majesty, having few days before given me your royal consent to bestow myself on any subject of Your Majesty's (which . . . likewise Your Majesty had done long since), besides never having been either prohibited any or spoken to for any in this land by your Majesty these seven years that I have lived in Your Majesty's house I could not conceive that Your Majesty regarded my marriage at all.
Despite Arbella's hopes, in January 1611 William Seymour was condemned to life imprisonment, and she was exiled to the north of England, where she was to live out her life guarded by the bishop of Durham. She attempted to fight the decision, at first by law, but when the courts failed her, she again fell ill. As Steen notes, she "became--whether by policy, from illness, or some combination of the two--too weak to travel."

She was sent on her way north on 21 March, but she traveled only six miles before stopping. There she remained until 1 April, when King James had her examined by a physician, who determined that she was, as she claimed, too weak to travel. By the end of April James was insisting that Arbella be forced to leave for Durham, but again she appealed, using her continued illness. She was granted an extension until 5 June, but on 3 June she escaped from custody, dressed in men's clothing

Her husband had escaped from the Tower, and the pair planned to be reunited in France. Arbella reached Calais on 5 June, but she was caught immediately and returned to England, this time to imprisonment in the Tower. Seymour, meanwhile, remained in France. He returned to England five months after Arbella died, restored to the king's favor. 

It is generally claimed that while she was imprisoned in the Tower, Arbella became insane. "The primary source for the idea that Stuart became deranged," Steen writes, "was court observer and letter-writer John Chamberlain, who in 1613 and 1614 repeatedly commented on Stuart's distraction; in April 1613, for example, he wrote that she was said to be 'cracked in her brain.'" The Lieutenant of the Tower, too, described Arbella's "fits of distemper and convulsions." 

Most later historians have accepted the diagnosis that Arbella Stuart "lost her sanity," but Steen effectively disputes the notion that she spent the last years of her life "as a lunatic prisoner." The evidence does "suggest that Stuart indeed was distressed, perhaps even intermittently delusional," suffering from illnesses that were "physiological, strategic, or a combination of the two," but also that Arbella "remained active on her own behalf." 

Throughout the period of her supposed madness, Arbella Stuart continued to manage her financial affairs. Her relatives and friends continued to work for her release, and various political supporters continued to focus on her as a replacement for King James. At least one rescue attempt was made, and at least one plot to place her on the throne dates from this period, unlikely efforts if she were "irrecoverably deranged": 
The phrase "went insane" conveniently labels Stuart a female hysteric, a woman exhibiting the mental instability and melancholia often attributed to learned women, thus allowing observers such as John Chamberlain to dismiss her transgressions of the code of appropriate female behavior as "madness," without calling the system into question. Those who were acquainted with and attended Stuart consistently characterized her illnesses either as intentionally deceitful and obstinate or as psychosomatic in origin . . . , as arising from her grief of her unquiet mind.
James and his examiners may well have used "madness" as a way of explaining Arbella's gender "transgressions," but such a determination was an effective political tool. If Arbella Stuart were "cracked in her brain," her continued "imprisonment" in the Tower could be justified, and she could more effectively be eliminated as a rival or as a threat. 

Arbella's story parallels those of other women whose claims to the throne for themselves or their children resulted in their containment as nuns, lunatics, exiles, or prisoners. In Spain, for example, Juana la Beltraneja was discredited as illegitimate and compelled to become a nun, while Juana of Castile was declared insane and secluded (or imprisoned) at Tordesillas. 

In England, Margaret of Anjou had fought to maintain the crown for her son; having lost her son, she was defeated, discredited, and exiled. Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned in the Tower after her brief rule, but no further action was taken against her; it was only after an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Mary that her imprisonment was not enough, and she was executed. Her sisters Catherine and Mary were both imprisoned in the Tower as well. 

The potential threats offered by such women could be controlled in other ways, however, if they were willing to accept more traditional and subordinate female roles. Elizabeth of York offered no challenge to the new Tudor king because he married her. She became a queen consort rather than a queen regnant, her own claims to the succession united with her husband's in their children. And having worked to secure her son's succession throughout her lifetime, Margaret Beaufort was certainly no challenge to his kingship; she was, as we have seen, able to exert considerable influence in her "natural" role as his mother. 

But Arbella Stuart was either incapable of or unwilling to accept a subordinate role. She died in the Tower of London on 25 September 1615, her death almost certainly complicated by her refusal to eat.  

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

I have quoted here from Sara Jayne Steen's The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, a volume in the Oxford Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 series.




Thursday, September 24, 2015

Isabeau of Bavaria: Wicked?

Isabeau of Bavaria, queen of France (died 24 September 1435)


Probably born about the year 1370, Isabeau of Bavaria was the daughter of Stephen III, duke of Bavaria-Ingoldstadt, and his first wife, Taddea Visconti, who was the daughter of Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan. Isabeau was also the great-granddaughter of the Holy Roman emperor Louis IV.*

The entrance of Isabeau of Bavaria into Paris,
for her coronation, 23 August 1389
In the late fourteenth century, her father's Bavaria was the most powerful of the German principalities. It was Isabeau's uncle, Duke Frederick of Bavaria-Landshut, who in 1383 first suggested her marriage to the French king, Charles VI, a suggestion supported by his uncle, the duke of Burgundy, who thought the connection to the Holy Roman Empire would strengthen France against the English.

According to the French chronicler Jean Froissart, Isabeau of Bavaria was about thirteen or fourteen years old when the marriage was first proposed and about sixteen when she was married to the French king on 16 July 1385.

Unlike so many marriages arranged for political advantage, this one worked out well, at least at first. The young couple seemed happily matched and mutually pleased.

As Froissart reports, when Charles first laid eyes on his potential bride, "happiness and love enter[ed] his heart, for he saw that she was beautiful and young, and thus he greatly desired to gaze at her and possess her." For her part, she seemed equally delighted with her husband. And their families were satisfied with their arrangements.

Charles planned a lavish coronation for his bride in 1389, with a ceremonial entry, a day-long procession, an evening ceremony at Notre Dame followed by another procession, this one lit by candles, a royal feast, and a series of pageants for entertainment. By the time of her coronation, Isabeau was seven months pregnant.

But by 1392, Charles fell ill, suffering the first of what would become a series of bouts of insanity: on a hot August day en route to Brittany, he attacked his knights, killing four of them, and then collapsed in a coma. His uncles took advantage of the king's illness to seize power.

Charles soon recovered, however, and by September he was back in Paris. A second collapse occurred the following June, and this time he was rendered incompetent for about six months before his sanity was restored. This was the pattern of his life for the next twenty years.

After his illness, and in the aftermath of his uncles' seizing power, Charles made arrangements for Isabeau to be "principal guardian" of his son and heir until the boy reached the age of majority, thirteen, and Charles gave Isabeau additional political power on the regency council. 

As Charles began to suffer further periods of insanity, Isabel's role was expanded in a series of ordinances; in 1402 he turned over control of the treasury to her, and by 1403, she was "acknowledged as the leader of a new regency council" empowered to mediate and to deal with matters of finance in addition to acting as principal guardian of the dauphin. 

As Charles's various male relatives fought each other to control the country, Isabeau sought to shift her allegiances in order to find the best support for her son. When she favored Louis of Orléans, Charles's brother, his Burgundian rivals accused them of adultery; when she turned to John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, she was imprisoned. 

It was at this point that the writer (and the inspiration for this blog) Christine de Pizan addressed a letter to Isabeau, written on 5 October 1405. Recognizing, like the queen, that the intense rivalry between the dukes of Burgundy and Orléans threatened the peace and stability of France, Pizan urged Isabeau to intervene in order to preserve the peace.

In addressing the queen and sometime regent of France, Pizan employs a critical image; rather than offering a threat to the realm, "at present sorely and piteously wounded,' the queen’s intervention "can be the medicine and sovereign remedy to cure this realm." Thus the queen can assume a role outside the usual "office" of a woman--that is, a political role--even while staying within a woman’s usual office--Isabeau can act, since her actions are healing. 

The queen herself stands to gain in the process, Pizan notes. The first benefit "pertains to the soul": Isabeau will acquire merit if she keeps blood from being shed. Second, while "instigating peace" she will be the "restorer of the welfare" of her children and "of their loyal subjects." Finally, the queen will acquire fame: the "third benefit, which is not to be despised," Pizan writes, is that that the queen, "would be perpetually remembered and praised in the chronicles and records of the noble deeds of France."

Despite Isabeau's efforts and Pizan's hopes, there would be no lasting peace within France--and no victory over the English in that long-standing conflict we now refer to as the Hundred Years' War. 

In 1415, after the victory of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt, the situation in France had gone from bad to worse. According to the terms of the treaty of Troyes, signed on 21 May 1420, the son of Isabeau and Charles was disinherited--after Charles's death, the crown of France was to pass to Henry V, who would marry the French princess, Katherine of Valois, about whom I posted way back at the beginning of the year. 

Christine de Pizan (kneeling) presenting
her work to Isabeau of Bavaria,
manuscript illustration c. 1410-14
Like Margaret of Anjou in England and, later, Caterina Sforza in Italy, Isabel was vilified and condemned for her political ambitions and for what was perceived as her pursuit of personal wealth and power.

As historian Rachel Gibbons notes, Isabeau was accused of "adultery, incest, moral corruption, treason, avarice and profligacy," her "reputed beauty" used as "'proof' of her evil," her sexual activity necessarily resulting in her "neglect" of her children.

"As is often the case today," Gibbon concludes, "the most accessible weapons . . . to use against a woman were criticisms of her looks and her sexual conduct," an "adulterous woman who also neglects her children . . . being totally beyond redemption."

Charles VI died in 1422. Living in a city occupied by the victorious English, Isabeau retired to the royal residence of Hôtel Saint-Pol, where she died on 24 September 1435. 

And here's the final line of the entry on Isabeau of Bavaria, queen of France, from the Encyclopedia Britannica (the source that never fails to make me angry): "She died despised by both the French and the English."

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan) and from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

I have quoted from Rachel Gibbons's essay "Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (1385-1422): The Creation of an Historical Villainess," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 6 (1996), 51-73.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Candidate for President

Victoria California Claflin Woodhull (born 23 September 1838)


Victoria California Claflin Woodhull Blood Martin lived an extraordinary life--spiritual medium and fortuneteller, supporter of free love, advocate for women's rights, stockbroker, founder and editor of a newspaper, and the first woman to run for president, the 1872 nominee of the Equal Rights Party.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, 1870,
photo by Matthrew Brady
She had an inauspicious start in life--one of ten children born to Reuben Buckman Claflin, a one-eyed conman accused of theft, counterfeiting, and arson, a man who "could see more deviltry to do with that one eye than any two men with their four eyes." Her mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, was illiterate, a "religious zealot" given to praying--and cursing--loudly. 

While Victoria had almost no formal education, she was successful in her father's most lucrative business--she acted as a medium, sold various elixirs, told fortunes, and helped to "cure" all kinds of ailments. (Her sister Tennessee was once indicted for manslaughter after her patient died!)

Victoria Claflin married Canning Woodhull when she was fourteen, had two children with him, and divorced him eleven years later. She then married James Harvey Blood, probably about 1866--she would be divorced from him in 1876. In the mean time, beginning in 1872, she had a long-term relationship with Benjamin Tucker, a proponent of anarchism and free love, a social movement that rejected traditional notions of marriage as a kind of slavery.

In the mean time, Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, opened a successful brokerage firm on Wall Street, Woodhull, Claflin & Co., becoming the first female stockbrokers. Then they founded a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Victoria Woodhull became involved with the suffrage movement in 1869; on 11 January 1871 she became the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee--she addressed the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that women had already won the right to vote with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.


On 10 May 1872, Victoria Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party at their convention held in Apollo Hall, New York. (Frederick Douglass was nominated as vice president, but he did not attend the convention or acknowledge the nomination.) Woodhull would run again for president in 1892.

Later, however, Woodhull would lose the support of suffrage activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton--her personal and professional life had just become too scandalous. After she divorced her second husband, Victoria Woodhull left for England.

Once in England, she continued lecturing. She married John Biddulph Martin in 1883 and turned again to publishing. Under the name of Victoria Woodhull Martin, she produced The Humanitarian, a magazine that included features about literature, politics, spirituality, and science--especially eugenics--a publication that continued from 1892 until 1901.

Woodhull retired in 1901, after her third husband's death. She died in England on 27 June 1927.

There are many biographies--but, as a place to start, I'll link you here to the National Women's History Museum website, where you'll find a biography, bibliography, and links to many other online resources.

Update, 23 September 2017: Two years after writing this entry, I checked the links again, only to discover that Woodhull has been disappeared from the National Women's History Museum website! I thought that was worth noting  . . For once I'll suggest looking at the entry for Woodhull in Wikipedia--it's quite good! An excellent place to head for all of the biographical and bibliographical details, with lots of great links to primary source material.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Anne of Cleves, the "King's Beloved Sister"?

Anne of Cleves (born 22 September 1515)


I am sure I am not alone in thinking that Anne of Cleves was probably the luckiest of Henry VIII's six wives. 

Anne of Cleves, portait by
Hans Holbein, the Younger, c. 1539
Married to the king on 6 January 1540, Anne was dismissed from court on 24 June, and by 6 July, six months after her marriage, she was informed that her husband was seeking an annulment--which was forthcoming in short order, on 9 July. 

A generous settlement was made for Anne's compliance with the king's wishes. She received Richmond Palace and Hever Castle (the family home of Anne Boleyn, which had come into the king's possession in 1539 after Thomas Boleyn's death). Rather than queen of England, she became "the King's beloved sister."

She outlived all of Henry's wives, the king himself, and his son, Edward VI. She was at court and took part in Mary Tudor's coronation on 28 September 1553, though the queen grew suspicious that Anne was plotting on Elizabeth Tudor's behalf. After 1554, Anne of Cleves did not return to court.

She died on 16 July 1557, only forty-one years old. But her life, though quiet, seems to have been a satisfying one. 

(By the way, Anne of Cleves's brother, William of Cleves, was the young man to whom Jeanne d'Albret was first married, much against her wishes. That marriage, too, was annulled.)

Although it is now out-of-print, I recommend Mary Saaler's biography, Anne of Cleves: Fourth Wife of Henry VIII--there are a few factual errors, but it is focused on a woman who receives relatively little attention from historians. I also highly recommend Retha M. Warnicke's The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Tudor England, which focuses on the making--and unmaking--of royal marriages.
Hans Holbein's miniature of
Anne of Cleves


Monday, September 21, 2015

Sandra Day O'Connor, FWOTSC

Sandra Day O'Connor (confirmed 21 September 1981)


Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan on 19 August 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor (born 26 March 1930) was confirmed on 21 September 1981 by a Senate vote of 99-0.

In a letter to the New York Times on 5 October 1983, O'Connor referred to herself as "FWOTSC"--First Woman on the Supreme Court.

Noting that the Times had recently referred to the "nine old men" on the Supreme Court, she wrote:
According to the infomation available to me, and which I had assumed was generally available, for over two years now SCOTUS has not consisted of nine men. If you have any contradictory information, I would be grateful if you would forward it as I am sure the POTUS, the SCOTUS and the undersigned (the FWOTSC) would be most interested in seeing it.
Although she retired from the Court in 2006, she continues to be an inspiration to women in the U.S., not least for breaking the Supreme Court's glass ceiling.

Sandra Day O'Connor, Sonia Sotomayor,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Elizabeth Cary, Poet and Playwright

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, lady Falkland (20 September)


Elizabeth Tanfield Cary's birth and death dates are uncertain--suggested dates for her birth range from 1584 to 1586, and only the year of her death, 1639, is known. I am writing about her on 20 September because her eldest son, Lucius, died on this date in 1643. A bit of a stretch, I know, but it provides a reason for posting about Elizabeth Cary, lady Falkland, today.

Elizabeth Cary,
portrait by Paul van Somer
Elizabeth Tanfield was the daughter of Lawrence Tanfield, a wealthy Oxford lawyer who was to become "Sir Lawrence" and Lord Chief Justice of the Exchequer. Her mother was Elizabeth Symondes, the daughter of Giles Symondes. Elizabeth was the couple's only child. (After his first wife's death in 1629, Lawrence Tanfield remarried.)

Elizabeth Tanfield was exceptionally well educated--her tutors may have included the Renaissance poets Michael Drayton and John Davies, both of whom later praised her and her learning. Drayton suggest in a dedication to Elizabeth that he was a member of her father's household and had been one of her teachers, while Davies addressed her in a dedication as his "pupil."

According to a biography of Elizabeth Tanfield written by one of her daughters, the young Elizabeth knew French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Latin--her daughter says that she spent so much time studying that her parents refused to provide her with candles.*

Elizabeth Tanfield's earliest surviving work is The Mirror of the World, a translation of Abraham Ortelius's geographical atlas, Le Epitome du théâtre du monde, a work she dedicated to Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armoury for Queen Elizabeth. (Lee was Elizabeth's maternal great-uncle.)

In October of 1602, Elizabeth Tanfield was married to Sir Henry Cary who, in her daughter's words, "married her only for being an heir, for he had no acquaintance with her (she scarce ever having spoken to him) and she was nothing handsome" (but her daughter adds, "though then very fair").

For the first few years of her "marriage," Elizabeth Tanfield Cary remained in her father's home, while her husband spent the time at court or in his own father's house. Then, at least according to her daughter's biography, her husband's mother, Lady Katherine Cary, insisted that Elizabeth reside in the Cary household, although Henry Cary was at war in the Low Countries. Lady Cary "used" the young Elizabeth "hardly," confining her to her own chamber and denying her books. 

So, since she couldn't read, Elizabeth Cary decided to write: a tragedy set in Syracuse and dedicated to her husband (1604?); a second play, The Tragedy of Mariam (1604-1608?); and a verse life of Tamburlaine, the Mongol conqueror who had been the subject of two plays by Christopher Marlowe. Later, she would composes verses to the Virgin Mary; write the lives of St. Agnes, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, and St. Mary Magdalene; complete translations of Seneca; and write The History of the Life, Reign and Death of Edward II and The History of the Most Unfortunate Prince, King Edward II.

After 1606, when Elizabeth Cary and her husband began living together, she also began producing children--between 1609 and 1623, gave birth to eleven children, six daughters and five sons.

In 1625, Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, now lady Falkland, converted publicly to Catholicism, earning the disapproval of her husband, her father (who disinherited her), and the king (Charles I put her under house arrest).

The king released her after six weeks, noting that he hadn't meant to imprison her for so long, but Cary's husband proved much less forgiving. He demanded a formal separation and refused her any financial support.

He also wanted his wife to return to her mother's household--unfortunately, Elizabeth Cary's mother was no more welcoming to her daughter under the circumstances than Elizabeth's husband, who seemed to think he could starve his wayward wife into obedience. As a result, Cary lived in the utmost poverty. After her husband's death in 1633, she sued to regain custody of her youngest children, who had been living with her oldest son, Lucius. She managed to get custody of her four daughters, but in 1636 she had to resort to kidnapping her two youngest sons. She sent her four daughters to live on the continent, where they could be instructed in the Catholic faith. Her daughters ultimately became Benedictine nuns, one son a Catholic priest. 

Elizabeth Cary died in 1639.

Elizabeth Cary is to be noted for being the first woman playwright to be published in English--Mariam was published in 1613, though her daughter says that the play had been "stolen" out of her sister-in-law's chamber and printed without Cary's permission. Her history of Edward II, written in 1626, was not published until 1680. A polemical piece, Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron, a work of Catholic propaganda, was published in 1630. Cary's Mirror of the World was first published in 2012. The rest of her work appears to have been lost.

There are several editions of Elizabeth Cary's Mariam: the New Mermaids edition is very affordable, while Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson's edition includes the biography of Cary written by her daughter. Lesley Peterson's edition of Mirror of the World is expensive, but it is the first printed edition of Cary's earliest known work. 

*Lady Falkland, Her Life, written by "one of her daughters," was completed between 1643 and 1649, probably in Cambrai, where four of her surviving daughters--Anne, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Mary--had joined a Benedictine convent. (Elizabeth Cary's eldest daughter, Catherine, married.)










Saturday, September 19, 2015

Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

Joan of Kent, countess of Kent and Princess of Wales (born 19 September 1328)


By and large I'm not that interested in posting about women who are known just for their beauty--and history has mostly reduced Joan of Kent to the description I've used in the title of today's post, "the Fair Maid of Kent." 
Joan of Kent,
manuscript
illustration

Although this phrase is a descriptor used by later historians, rather than by Joan's contemporaries, the chronicler Jean Froissart, who was at the court of Edward III and who knew Joan of Kent, wrote that she was the most beautiful woman in England. 

But she was also more than beautiful.

Joan of Kent, beautiful or not, is one more great example of how "traditional" marriage worked. 

Joan was the daughter of Margaret, third baroness Wake of Lydell, and her husband Edward of Woodstock, earl of Kent. Edward of Woodstock was a son of King Edward I of England, and thus the younger half-brother of Edward II. Unfortunately for Joan, her father was executed for treason after Edward II's deposition.

After her father was beheaded on 19 March 1330, Joan and her mother were at first placed under arrest in Arundel Castle, but by October, at least according to Froissart, Philippa of Hainault, Edward III's queen, took over her care. Joan's wardship was assigned to William and Catherine de Montacute, the first earl and countess of Salisbury.

Although the earl was determined to marry Joan to his son, William, Joan decided matters for herself. In 1340, when she was twelve years old and still living in the queen's household, Joan entered into an irregular (and secret) marriage contract with Thomas Holland, a knight. The two then consummated their marriage. 

Holland was sent away to the continent for military service the following year, in 1341, and when he returned, he wanted his wife, but Salisbury--and, presumably, Joan's mother--refused to believe the marriage was a valid one. When Holland was sent overseas again, in 1342, Salisbury took advantage took advantage of Holland's absence--and married Joan of Kent to his son, William de Montacute, as he had planned.

When Holland returned to England in 1347, he confessed his secret marriage to Joan to the king and sued for the return of his wife. His appeal went all the way to Rome, and he petitioned Pope Clement VI to have his wife returned. It took the pope some eighteen months to decide the issue, but on 13 November 1349, Clement made up his mind. After several years of "marriage" to William de Montacute, Joan was returned to her husband, Holland. (According to some accounts, after William learned of his "wife's" preference for her first husband, he kept her imprisoned.)

Joan spent the next eleven years with Holland, and together they  had five children. Meanwhile, in 1352, at the death of her brother, Joan inherited his titles and became countess of Kent and lady Wake of Liddell in her own right.

After the death of Thomas Holland in 1360, Joan once again--and rather quickly--entered into a secret marriage. This time Joan's clandestine marriage was with Edward, prince of Wales--Froissart says that theirs was a love match, but one that had been made without the knowledge or permission of the king and one that Philippa of Hainault, Joan's earlier protector, found objectionable.

There was after all still the sticky problem of William de Montacute--though his marriage to Joan had been put aside, he was still living, and Joan's marital history could complicate questions of the legitimacy of any children born to the royal couple. And Joan, now countess of Kent, and her new "husband," Edward, were related within prohibited degrees. (Sources identify them as first cousins, once removed--I'll take their word for it, since the relationship is so complicated!) And one more sticky point--Edward was the godfather of Thomas and Joan's eldest son and heir--which was also a bar against their marriage.*

Once again there was recourse to Rome to "fix" the problems--so the secret marriage was annulled, a papal dispensation was arranged, and Joan of Kent was married to Edward on 10 October 1361--the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Islip, officiated.

Joan of Kent, c. 1385
engraving of wooden sculpture
Aside from having such a complicated marital history--and for being "beautiful, pleasant, and wise"--Joan was with her husband during his military campaign in Aquitaine, where she gave birth to two sons (the eldest, Edward, died at age six, but the younger son became King Richard II). 

When her husband was in Castile, fighting on behalf of the deposed king, Pedro II, Joan of Kent remained in Aquitaine, where she had to raise an army to protect her absent husband's interests. 

After his Spanish campaign, a gravely ill Edward returned to England, where he died on 7 June 1376. Now the dowager princess of Wales, Joan was also the mother of the heir to the English throne, her son Richard. When Edward III died on 21 June 1377, her ten-year-old son became the king.

Although Joan was not officially a regent for the minor king, she is believed to have been an ameliorating effect on him, protecting the religious reformer John Wycliff (1377), having a positive influence on Richard at the time of the Peasants' Revolt (1381), and healing a breach between her son and his uncle, John of Gaunt. When her son, now king, was planning to execute his half-brother (John Holland, one of her sons with her first husband, who was accused of murder), she interceded with one son on her other son's behalf.

For four days she implored Richard for mercy--her grief at his refusal is said to have led to her death on the fifth day, 7 August 1385. Richard then relented and pardoned his brother (who was sent on a prilgrimage to the Holy Land).

At her request, Joan, countess of Kent and princess dowager of Wales, was buried not with Edward, the so-called Black Prince, in Westerminster, but beside Thomas Holland, in the chapel of the Greyfriars at Stamford.

Penny Lawne's Joan of Kent: First Princess of Wales is the first full-length biography.

*Among the marriage canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) were several relating to godparents, including one that prohibited the marriage of a person to his/her child's godparent. To be a godparent established a spiritual consanguinity (blood relationship)--so the marriage of a godparent to a godchild, of two godparents to one another, or, as in the case with Prince Edward and Joan, of a spiritual and natural parent, were all considered incestuous. (And the Fourth Lateran council extended consanguinity to the fourth degree, so that marriages of fourth cousins, or any nearer relatives, were prohibited--thus the couple would have needed a papal dispensation, since their relationship was much closer.)





Friday, September 18, 2015

Francesca Caccini, Composer, Singer, Poet, Teacher

Francesca Caccini (born 18 September 1587)


Francesca Caccini was born into a musical family: her father, Giulio Romolo Caccini, was a performer and composer for the Medici court, particularly supported by Francesco de' Medici, grand duke of Florence; Francesca's mother, Lucia Gagnolanti, her younger sister, Settimania, and, eventually, her step-mother (Giulio's second wife), Margherita della Scala, were also noted performers, the women sometimes performing together, at times referred to as "le donne di Giulio Romo[l]o."

A cameo engraving of 
Francesca Caccini not only received an excellent and multi-faceted musical education--as a virtuosa singer and performer, who played guitar, lute, harp, and keyboard--but also a literary education. She studied the classical languages, modern languages and literature, and mathematics. 

In 1604, she traveled with her family to the court of Henry IV of France--the queen, Marie de' Medici, offered Francesca a place as an official court singer, which included a salary and a substantial dowry. However, Francesca was not released from the service of the grand duke, so, along with her family, she returned to the Florentine court, where she remained as a performer, composer, and teacher until 1627.

In Florence, she was also able to enjoy the patronage of two powerful women, the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine and her daughter-in-law, Maria Maddalena of Austria. Christina of Lorraine was the granddaughter of the French queen Catherine de' Medici, Maria Maddalena the granddaughter of Anna Jagiellon, queen of Poland. The two women together, as the "Tutrici," were acting as regents of Tuscany following the Francesco's death.

At the Medici court, Francesca Caccini married Giovanni Batista Signorini in 1607, giving birth to Margherita, named after Caccini's stepmother, in 1622. In 1626, after the death of her husband, Caccini left Florence for Lucca, where she married again and where, in 1628, gave birth to a son, named Tomaso Raffaelo, after his father. 

Widowed in 1634, Francesca and her children returned to Florence, where she again entered the service of the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine. Although Maria Maddalena had died in 1631, and her son, Ferdinando II had married in 1633 (making Vittoria della Rovere the new grand duchess), Christina of Lorraine remained very influential at the Medici court until her death at the end of 1637.

Caccini and her daughter performed together at the court of the grand duchess, but in 1638, worried about the effect it might have on her daughter's reputation, Francesca refused to allow her daughter to perform publicly in a commedia; in 1642 Margherita Signorini became a nun in the Franciscan convent of San Girolomo in Florence, a convent known for its music and, despite edicts of the Inquisition, for public performances by the convent's inhabitants. There, according to one contemporary observer, "crowds raced to hear her sing divine praises by herself, and sometimes in ensemble with other skilled virgins who are her companions, notwithstanding the church's inconvenient location on a steep hill."

(In the 1660s and 1670s, Margherita Signorini taught many young women being educated in the convent, including her niece, Maria Francesca Rafaelli, as well as several young women who would go on to serve in the court of the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere. Margheriti Signorini died in 1689.)

Francesca Caccini is "the most prolific composer of her time," and the first woman known to have composed opera. In 1618 she published The First Book of Music for One and Two Voices (II primo libro delle musiche a una e due voci), a collection of thirty-two solo songs and four duets for soprano and bass voices. But only one opera survives, The Liberation of Ruggiora from the Island of Alcina (La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina), commissioned by Maria Maddalena of Austria and first performed on 3 February, 1625. 

Francesca Caccini's date of death is unknown, though guardianship of her son was transferred to Girolomo Raffaeli, her husband's brother, in February 1645, suggesting a likely date for Caccini's death.

For Francesca Caccini's biographical entry in The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, click here. This entry includes a comprehensive list of Caccini's known works, including those that have not survived, as well as an excellent bibliography.

Nate Zuckerman's biographical essay, from Italian Women Writers, is available here. But long before the Internet made information available with the click of a mouse, I discovered Francesca Caccini in Diane Peacock Jezic's Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found, first published by The Feminist Press in 1988.

There are also a couple of excellent performances available on YouTube, such as this one or this, an instrumental featuring guitar, violin, harpsichord, and viola da gamba.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harriet Tubman, "Moses" for African American Slaves

Harriet Tubman, born Araminty Ross (escaped slavery 17 September 1849)


Although the date of her birth is unknown (she was born in Manchester County, Maryland, probably probably between 1820 and 1822), the woman whom we know today as Harriet Tubman lived a long life, dying on 10 March 1913, almost fifty years after the end of the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman, c. 1885
I am posting about Tubman today because on 17 September 1849 she escaped from slavery. 

The daughter of slave parents, Ben Ross and Harriet Green, Araminta (or "Minty") Ross, as she was known then, was born as the property of Mary Patisson Brodess. At the age of eleven, Araminta began calling herself "Harriet," after her mother. After Mary Patisson Brodess's death, her slaves became the property of her son, Edward Brodess. In 1844, Harriet Ross married a free black man, John Tubman.

But after Brodess's death, and fearful that his wife Eliza would sell off the slaves, Harriet Tubman escaped.

Although she would be returned after that first escape, Harriet Tubman eventually escaped again and arrived in Philadelphia. Her glorious story from that point--as an abolitionist; as a woman who returned to slave-holding territories to help other enslaved people to freedom; as a nurse, scout, and guide (and perhaps a spy) during the Civil War; and as a suffragist after the Civil War--has become iconic.

Her gravestone is on the National Register of Historic Places, she's had a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor, and in 2013 Barack Obama signed a proclamation creating the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. She has an asteroid named after her, and dozens of schools, and her very own Google Doodle. She's also included in the calendar of saints in both the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America. 

An 1849 reward notice for "Minty," about
twenty-seven years old
But rather than summarizing her life or enumerating her accomplishments, I thought I might link you here to Ethan Kytle and Carl Geissert's excellent New York Times editorial, "Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad." 

After the Civil War, of course, everyone claimed to have been involved with helping enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. But, as Kytle and Geissert note, "Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts."

And, as Kytle and Geissert also observe, "postwar accounts--nearly all of which were produced by white Northerners--tended to portray runaways as 'passengers' [on the Underground Railroad], effectively reducing them to a supporting role in their own liberation. Some authors inflated the number of fugitive slaves that they had helped, while others neglected the work of black railroad operatives. Over all, they painted a picture of the Underground Railroad as a white-dominated enterprise in which runaways were spirited to freedom by their Northern guardians."

"Even more troubling," they conclude, "many memorialists failed to connect their stories of the Underground Railroad to the postwar struggle for black civil rights": 
Instead, they served up what the historian David Blight describes as "a mythos of accomplished glory, a history of emancipation completed." Just as Lost Cause ideologues strove to conceal the rise of Jim Crow--from segregation and disenfranchisement to an epidemic of lynching--behind a facade of Old South harmony, Northerners told "self congratulatory adventure tales" that implied that the nation had solved its racial problems decades earlier. In this way, they joined their Southern counterparts in turning nostalgia for life before the war into a refuge from the disturbing realities of the postwar racial landscape.
So today might be a good day not only to remember Harriet Tubman--the real woman, not the fictionalized, glossy image of our imaginations--but to focus on what Blight has termed "race and reunion."

Harriet Tubman, photo from 1911
There are many biographies of Tubman (at least thirty aimed at juvenile readers, by my count)--I recommend Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.

I also suggest David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

On the larger question of the role of African-American activists in abolition and the end of slavery, Ira Berlin's The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States is essential. As New York Times reviewer Edward E. Baptist notes, "The Long Emancipation offers a useful reminder that abolition was not the charitable work of respectable white people, or not mainly that. Instead, the demise of slavery was made possible by the constant discomfort inflicted on middle-class white society by black activists."

Update (16 October 2016): As Kathryn Schulz notes in her recent New Yorker essay, "Derailed: The Troubling Allure of the Underground Railroad," there has been an "outpouring of interest" recently in the Underground Railroad--she counts two new novels, Carson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad: A Novel (an Oprah Bookclub selection!) and Ben Winters's counterfactual Underground Airlines, WGN America's television series Underground, as well as a forthcoming HBO biopic about Harriet Tubman, not to mention scholarly publications on the railroad and Tubman. But Schulz reminds us that, in many ways, the Underground Railroad remains "our favorite piece of mythic infrastructure." This is an excellent contextualizing essay--I did not know that, as Schulz clarifies, "most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north." "In fact," she continues,
despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, most who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, free-black neighborhoods in the upper South, or Maroon communities--clandestine societies of former slaves, some fifty of which existed in the South from 1672 until the end of the Civil War. Together, such runaways likely outnumbered those who, aided by Northern abolitionists, made their way to free states or to Canada.

Finally, she reminds us, most slaves did not run at all--some attempted to purchase their freedom and some sought legal judgments to end their freedom, but, "from the vast, vicious, legally permitted, fiercely defended enterprise that was American slavery, almost no one ever escaped at all."

For Schulz's essay, click here.