Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Battling Bella

Bella Abzug (died 31 March 1998)

A 1971 photo of Bella Abzug
in one of her trademark hats

Political activist, critical voice in the second-wave feminist movement, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and notable hat-wearer, Bella Abzug is the woman who memorably stated, in her 1970 political campaign, "This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives."

Born in 1920, the same year women in the U.S. finally achieved the right to vote, Abzug dedicated her life to social and political activism. Asked about why she always wore a hat, Abzug once explained, "I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee."

If you want to get a sense of Bella Abzug, check out the short video, "Bella Abzug: In Her Own Words." There are lots of great books, but you might start with this one, an oral history edited by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom: Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way.

Some Memorable, Prescient, and Important Abzug Quotations
  • I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy.
  • Maybe we weren't at the Last Supper, but we're certainly going to be at the next one.
  • They used to give us a day--it was called International Women's Day. In 1975 they gave us a year, the Year of the Woman. Then from 1975 to 1985 they gave us a decade, the Decade of the Woman. I said at the time, who knows, if we behave they may let us into the whole thing. Well, we didn't behave and here we are.
  • The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.
  • Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.
  • Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.
  • We are coming down from our pedestal and up from the laundry room. We want an equal share in government and we mean to get it.
  • I am not elevating women to sainthood, nor am I suggesting that all women share the same views, or that all women are good and all men bad.
  • If we get a government that reflects more of what this country is really about, we can turn the century--and the economy--around.
  • Abortion doesn't belong in the political arena. It's a private right, like many other rights concerning the family.
  • I prefer the word "homemaker" because "housewife" always implies that there may be a wife someplace else.
  • The establishment is made up of little men, very frightened.
  • All of the men on my staff can type.
  • I am not being facetious when I say that the real enemies in this country are the Pentagon and its pals in big business.
  • The inside operation of Congress -- the deals, the compromises, the selling out, the co-opting, the unprincipled manipulating, the self-serving career-building -- is a story of such monumental decadence that I believe if people find out about it they will demand an end to it.

From the left, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm (speaking),
Gracia Molina de Pick, Betty Friedan, and LaDonna Harris

Monday, March 30, 2015

Louise Vigée-le Brun: A Court Favorite and an Incredible Talent

Louise Vigée-le Brun (died 30 March 1842)

Born in 1755, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portrait and fan painter, from whom she received both training and encouragement and who delighted in allowing his daughter the freedom to experiment. In her father's home Louise Vigée was also exposed to other artists who offered her additional instruction. Although her father, Louis Vigée, was a moderately successful artist, Louise's abilities and accomplishments far exceeded his relatively quickly.

A self-portrait by Louise le Brun,
Louis Vigée died in 1768, when his daughter was just thirteen, by which time Louise Vigée must have already learned a great deal--she had learned enough that she was soon able to support her widowed mother.

She also began to attract a wealthy and influential clientele while she was still in her teens; in 1774, when she was nineteen, she was accepted into the the Académie de Saint-Luc. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, himself an artist and art dealer. 

In 1779 Vigée-le Brun painted her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. Over the course of the next decade, she painted an additional thirty portraits of the queen.

With the French queen's support, Vigée-le Brun became a popular painter for members of the court and of the aristocracy, and the queen's patronage led also to Vigée-le Brun's 1783 membership in the most important professional artists' organization, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.

Louise Vigée-le Brun avoided the catastrophe of the French Revolution--she left the country in 1789. By 1802 she was able to return briefly, but she spent the years between 1803 and 1805 in London. She did return permanently to France in 1805 and continued to paint throughout the rest of her life. She published a three-volume memoir, Souvenirs, between 1835 and 1837.

There is a wonderful website devoted to Louise Vigée-le Brun (it includes a comprehensive gallery), The Art of Elisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun--you can access it by clicking here. The online Art History Archive offers an excellent biography and overview of her work, but there are also full-length biographies, including Angelica Goodden's The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun and Gita May's Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution

For an excellent analysis of Louise Vigée-le Brun and the woman artist in the eighteenth century, you might enjoy Mary D. Sheriff's The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art.

Le Brun's portrait of Countess Skavronskaia,

Edited (January 2016) to Add: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) is hosting an exhibition, "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France," 15 February 2016 to 15 May 2016.  It's a short one! Here's the link: click

Update, September 2016: As of September 2016, although the exhibition has closed, the link remains live--there are images, a good biographical essay, and a bibliography. A recent New York Times piece (28 August 2016) asking whether "old masters" can remain "relevant" today notes that "there is still a public appetite for viewing old masters, citing attendance figures for this exhibition: "The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” for example, drew more than 165,000 visitors." 

Checking In Again, 30 March 2023: The MOMA link to the exhibition is still working . . . 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Vera Brittain's Testament to War and Peace

Vera Brittain (died 29 March 1970)

I discovered Vera Brittain through the remarkable 1979 BBC dramatization of Testament of Youth, the first volume of her memoir, originally published in 1933. (The second volume, Testament of Experience, was published in 1957).

Born in 1893, Brittain became a nurse, a writer, a peace activist, and a pacifist. I found reading her Testament of Youth a transformative experience--it details Brittain's struggle for an education, her experiences at Somerville College (Oxford) in 1913, the devastating impact of the war that began in 1914, her experiences as a nurse during the war, and the consequences of war not only on the lives of the men who fought and died but also on the lives of women--the mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and lovers of those men. (Testament of Youth covers the years 1900 to 1920.)

There's an excellent online biography here. There is also an excellent full-length biography, Paul Berry's Vera Brittain: A Life. But why not start with Bittain's own account of her life, Testament of Youth--you will never forget it.

(And, by the way, on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary commemoration of the beginning of World War I, the BBC produced a new film version of Testament of Youth.)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Remembering Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (died 28 March 1941)

I've already noted Virginia Woolf as one of the founding mothers who have inspired this daybook project. Today there is perhaps no more popular figure in English departments and women's studies courses alike than Virginia Woolf.*

And if products are any indication, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own has moved out of the classroom and into pop culture. You can buy t-shirts, mugs, aprons, refrigerator magnets, towels, and totes emblazoned with the title of Woolf’s book or with quotations from it. All these products, and more, are available online with a search engine, a few mouse clicks, and a credit card. You might even be able to buy some of these items at the A Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, though I’m not sure about that.

Virginia Woolf, 1927
You might remember the Roz Chast cartoon, published in the 26 May 2007 New Yorker, which “updates” Woolf’s title—among other things, the twenty-first century woman is looking not just for a room of her own, but a room with “adequate ventilation,” “near a grocery store,” and not “please God” in Queens, all for “under $2000 a month.” You can buy a matted print of this cartoon at the New Yorker website for $139.

Meanwhile, The New York Review of Books gallery displays five different David Levine caricatures of Virginia Woolf, from 1966, 1970, 1977, 1978, and 1980, but the Woolf t-shirt that first went on sale in 1983 isn’t offered any longer. There’s no reason to be disappointed, however. You can still buy a Levine caricature of Woolf on a postcard—in fact, two different postcard books include Woolf. She’s in the “Women Writers” set, of course, but I am happy to see that she’s also included in the series of “Writers” postcards, and either collection is a bargain—twenty cards cost just $9.95. She is also one of the writers pictured on the David Levine mousepad, available for $12.95.**

Cartoons and caricatures published in the New York Times and in The New York Review of Books may suggest Woolf appeals just to elitists or to snobs, but all the t-shirts and mugs show that her reach extends far beyond the realms Manhattan and academia. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962. I was only eleven then, and just fifteen when the 1966 film version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, played in theaters. I was too young to see the movie but old enough to conclude that Virginia Woolf must be a terrifying figure. (The show's fiftieth-anniversary Broadway revival was critically acclaimed.) In fact, Albee’s title, if not the play itself, seems to have generated a lot of anxiety about Woolf. 

Even so, Masterpiece Theater invited Virginia Woolf into the living rooms of American homes in 1991, airing Eileen Atkins’s one-woman dramatization of A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s life and work have also inspired a few feature films—Orlando was released in 1992, Mrs. Dalloway in 1998, and Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Woolf in The Hours, released in the U.S. in 2003. Not that these have necessarily been huge box-office hits—more of my students know that Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell starred in A League of Their Own than recognize the allusion to Woolf in the film’s title. 

Still, this 1992 Penny Marshall film proves that it’s not just snobs who love playing with Woolf’s title. I admit that we academics do seem to be particularly fond of this sin—the allusion to Woolf has become something of a staple of critical essays about women writers. Sally Alexander’s “Room of One’s Own: 1920s Feminist Utopias” (2000), José Esteban Muñoz’s “A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in New America” (2008), and Turgay Bayindir’s “A House of Her Own: Alice Walker's Readjustment of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own in The Color Purple (2009), to name only three examples, show how irresistible Woolf’s title is. 

Even more audacious, perhaps, is multi-media artist Kabe Wilson’s 2014 novella Of One Woman Or So, by "Olivia N'Gofri," a "painstakingly rearranged" assemblage of "the 37,971 words" found in A Room of One's own. Wilson describes his process as a four-year exercise in "linguistic mathematics": he spent “day after day in a hot computer room combing through the latest draft, trying to balance out conjunctions and pronouns across the sentences, needing to stay extremely focused in case [he] made a mistake."

And yet it’s not just writers, literary critics, and filmmakers—there is Deborah Felder’s 2005 A Bookshelf of Our Own: Works That Have Changed Women’s Lives, Deborah Owens’s 2009 A Purse of Your Own, a finance book for women, and Rachel Bowlby's 2013 A Child of One's Own: Parental Stories. In 2007, to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary, the Canadian journal A Room of One’s Own shortened its name to Room, but added the tagline “A Space of Your Own” to its print cover and online logo. A 2009 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (Paris) featured “A Room of One’s Own,” a display of the work of several women artists “exploring the notion of private space, weaving new connections between mental projections and exhibition space.” In Istanbul, “Room of One’s Own” was the title of the first exhibition of 2010 at the Outlet Independent Art Center and featured the work of eight Turkish women artists. And Jazz pianist Rachel Z's 1996 Room of One's Own is available as a CD or as an MP3 download. 

Woolf’s title is so popular that “a room of one’s own” even has an entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions, and the online Urban Dictionary offers this definition for “Virginia Woolf”: “FemmeNazi lesbian psycho bitch whore who wrote books such as A Room Of One's Own.” (With two clicks of your mouse you can get this definition on your own “custom Urban Dictionary mug” for $21.95). There is also “A Doghouse of One’s Own,” a 2008 blog post from a writer who calls himself the “Spanish Inquisitor.” One reader of the piece wondered whether this is a pseudonym for “Virginia Wolf,” but the Inquisitor identified himself as a “55 year old, white, married male, a lawyer by trade, living in America, and an atheist.” 
As all of these products and references indicate, Virginia Woolf’s book is thoroughly embedded in the popular imagination, but it wasn’t always this way. A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929 by Woolf’s own Hogarth Press in England and by Harcourt Brace in the U.S., sold well. As Woolf notes in her diary, her “next year’s income” had been “made” by the book’s sales. But, despite the book’s popular success and the range and significance of Woolf’s literary output, interest in her work began to wane after World War II. Like so many women writers before her, Woolf all but disappeared. 

If any single work can give us a glimpse of her “official” status and reputation some twenty years after her death, it may be the multi-volume Oxford History of English Literature. J. I. M. Stewart’s Eight Modern Writers, published in 1963, includes a chapter on James Joyce, born in 1882, the same year as Woolf, and a chapter on D. H. Lawrence, born three years later. But Woolf is not one of Stewart’s select “eight.” In more than six hundred pages of literary history, he mentions Woolf’s name only three times, once noting the influence of Joyce’s Ulysses on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and a second time citing the “revealing absurdity” of her view of Joyce himself. (The third reference, from Stewart’s introduction, remarks that Woolf dismissed the Edwardian novelists and poets writing before the First World War because they represented the “thick dull middle class of letters.”) 

Today, although new books go out of print faster and faster, there are at least ten print editions of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own currently available at Amazon, in paper back and hardbound, and several Kindle editions. There is a bilingual edition (Chinese-English), and there are translations available in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Polish, Czech, and Japanese--I don't claim this as a comprehensive list. Romania even issued a Woolf postage stamp in 2007.

All the literature courses and women's studies students in the world can’t account for those numbers. 

As we know, historical memory can be brief--so today is a day for remembrance.

**Many of the products listed here are no longer available, but (at least as of March 2021), you can still buy a couple of different Levine prints and the mousepad! OOOOPPSS! As of March 2022, no more mousepad!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Gloria Swanson: A Force to Be Reckoned With

Gloria Swanson (born 27 March 1899)

Although she is most remembered--if she is remembered at all--as the aging, crazed Norma Desmond in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, Swanson's career as a film actor and producer began in 1914. Over the course of nearly 70 years (she died on 4 March 1983), Swanson starred in dozens of silent shorts and feature films, made the transition into talking films and then television, turned down a million-dollar-a-year contract with Paramount pictures in 1927 to join United Artists, and ultimately started her own company, Gloria Productions.

In addition to acting, her film credits include singing and costume design. In 1938, she established Multiprizes, ostensibly a patent and invention company, though its purpose seems to have been aimed at helping Jewish scientists escape Europe and find refuge in the U.S. Swanson was nominated for a best actress Academy Award three times, including in 1927/28, the first year of the awards (she never won).

Swanson in Male and Female, 1919
Swanson was famous for her fashion, her many marriages and sexual liaisons, and her dedication to a vegetarian diet long before it became fashionable. In 1980, she published her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, and although there are more than a few biographies written about her, her own account of her life seems the best place to start--it's as compelling on the page as Swanson herself is on screen.

If you haven't seen Swanson on film, you of course need to see Sunset Boulevard, but you should also see her in some of her great silent films, especially Male and Female (1919), Why Change Your Wife (1920), Beyond the Rocks (1922, with Rudolph Valentino), and Sadie Thompson (1927). It's too bad that none of Swanson's films is currently on Netflix's streaming service, but many are available on DVD, and they are frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies.

For an excellent review of Gloria Swanson's contributions to the emerging film industry, see the profile at the Women Film Pioneers Project. This site includes biographical information, a bibliography, and a well-documented filmography. And, obviously, there's great info on Swanson at IMDb

Swanson in Sadie Thompson, 1928

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Geraldine Ferraro: A Woman Runs

Geraldine Ferraro (died 26 March 2011)

Fittingly, Geraldine Ferraro was born on 26 August 1935--the fifteenth-anniversary of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In 1984, Ferraro became the first woman nominated by a major political party (Democratic) to run for the office of Vice President of the United States.

Geraldine Ferraro, U.S. House of Representatives
from the Biographical Dictionary
of the United States
If you're not familiar with Ferraro's historic run, you may be interested in the documentary film, Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way. And for a brief overview of her life and career, here's the New York Times obituary, "She Ended the Men's Club of National Politics," accompanied by a photo gallery, several multi-media features, including the video feature "Last Word: Geraldine Ferraro" and a slide show entitled "A Barrier-Breaking Woman on a Major-Party Ticket," and, finally, a link to Joyce Furnick's essay, "Why Gerry Ferraro Mattered" (I added a link here, in case it disappears from the obituary).

You will find Robin Pogrebin's excellent New York Times essay "Ferraro Remembered as Inspiration to a Nation’s Daughters," by clicking here

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin (born 25 March 1942)

Today is Aretha Franklin's birthday. What more needs to be said? Put on the music and enjoy. 

All hail the Queen!

Aretha Franklin, 1967 trade ad for
"Baby I Love You"
Update, 16 August 2018: Today Aretha, the Queen of Soul, died. No one's tribute beats Paul McCartney's, who calls her "the Queen of our souls."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Catherine of Vadstena, Her Mother's Daughter

Catherine of Sweden (died 24 March 1381)

Catherine of Sweden (or Catherine Ulfsdotter) was the daughter of Ulf Gudmarsson, lord of Ulvåsa, and Birgitta Birgersdotter of Finsta--who would become St. Birgitta of Sweden

A sculpture of Catherine of Sweden,
Trönö church, Hälsingland
Born in 1332, Catherine would, like her mother, marry before she entered into the religious life. And, also like her mother, Catherine would be recognized as a saint.

At the age of seven, Catherine was sent to be educated at the convent of Riseburg, where she received spiritual training. Although the girl preferred her convent life, when she was about twelve or thirteen, her father arranged her marriage to Egard Lydersson von Kyren, a German noble. 

Unlike her mother, however, who had eight children, Catherine convinced her husband to enter into a chaste marriage, and both took vows of perpetual virginity. After a few short years of marriage, Catherine traveled with her mother to Rome in 1349 to visit relics of holy martyrs and to gain recognition for the new religious order that Birgitta, now widowed, hoped to establish. Shortly after their arrival, Catherine learned of the death of her husband.

She remained in Rome with her mother, assisting her in her charitable work and accompanying her mother on several pilgrimages, including a trip to the Holy Land. After Birgitta's death in 1373, Catherine returned to Sweden and became the abbess of the Brigittine convent at Vadstena abbey, a convent that had been founded by her mother.

As abbess, Catherine insured that the established conformed to the Rule established by her mother. She also returned to Rome, working toward her mother's canonization, and while in Rome, she became a friend of another famed religious figure, Catherine of Siena (whom we will meet next month).

Birgitta had originally been buried in Rome, but Catherine received permission to have her mother's remains moved and reburied at Vadstena. Catherine of Sweden served as abbess of Vadstena until her death on 24 March 1381.

The convent at Vadstena
Catherine was never formally canonized, but in 1484, a century after her death, Pope Innocent VIII gave permission for her to be venerated as a saint. (Although Catherine died on 24 March, her feast day is assigned to 22 March.)

Catherine is also known to have written a devotional work, Själens tröst (Consolation of the Soul), but no copies are know to have survived (despite what Wikipedia may say).

Update, 30 January 2018: Nikos Steves writes to say that he has posted a link to this entry on St. Catherine on the podcast page for his history of of the Virgin Mary, Constant Procession . . . If you'd like to hear his podcast on St. Catherine, please click here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Margaret of Anjou: A "Tiger's Heart Wrapped in a Woman's Hide"?

Margaret of Anjou (born 23 March 1430)

Margaret of Anjou has been endlessly vilified, most famously by Shakespeare in his memorable descriptions of her as the "she-wolf of France" and, as quoted in the headline to this post, a "tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide."* But, despite that vilification, Margaret of Anjou has been an inspirational figure for many women--and I include myself among them.

Margaret of Anjou,
from a manuscript image, c. 1445
Married to Henvy VI of England in 1445, when she was fifteen, Margaret initially failed in her most important duty as queen, the production of a male heir. To make matters worse, when the ineffectual king was incapacitated by some kind of mental breakdown in July of 1453, the void he had left was filled by his wife.

And so contemporary opinion justified the opposition of Richard of York, who was credited with having perceived that "the king was no ruler:" "the whole burden of the realm," according to York, had come "to rest in the direction of the queen."

When Margaret of Anjou finally did manage to produce a son and heir a few months later, in October 1453, her "success" became just one more failure; as one historian has recently commented, the birth of her son "served to . . . bring the queen into politics as a ruthless, even fanatical, supporter of Prince Edward of Lancaster's right to succeed his father."

In an effort to protect her son's rights during her husband's illness, Margaret attempted to secure the regency for herself, a newsletter circulated in January of 1454 reporting that she had "made a bill of five articles" which, if granted by Parliament, would have had the effect of giving her "the whole rule of this land."

Although Henry recovered in January of 1455, when he fell ill again in October, York was made protector, and the result was civil war. Margaret of Anjou's subsequent efforts to preserve the English crown for her son--her establishment of what amounted to her own court, her leadership of this court party, her negotiations with Scotland and France for support, her ultimate role on the battlefields of the War of the Roses--resulted in the deterioration of her own reputation. 

She became, in one contemporary judgment, "a great and strong labored woman" who "spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power." She was judged to be "inexorable" and arrogant: "All marveled at such boldness in a woman, at a man's courage in a woman's breast."

For Edward Hall, writing during Henry VIII's reign, Margaret was a "manly woman using to rule and not to be ruled"; deciding "to take upon her the rule and regiment," she fought not for her son but for herself, "desirous of glory and covetous of honor."

By the time the Elizabethan chronicler Ralph Holinshed described her, she had become the archetypal virago: 
a woman of great wit, and yet of no greater wit than of haute [high] stomach . . . desirous of glory and covetous of honor, and of reason, policy, counsel, and other gifts and talents of nature belonging to a man; full and flowing of wit and wiliness she lacked nothing, nor of diligence, study, and business she was not unexpert; but yet she had one point of a very woman, for oftentime, when she was vehement and fully bent in a matter, she was suddenly like a weathercock, mutable and turning.
She was widely reported to be sexually promiscuous, her enemies claiming that Edward was not Henry's son at all but the child of Margaret and one of her lovers, most likely Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Such hostile representations of Margaret of Anjou depict her as unnatural and her actions as a violation of woman's nature. 

And yet, in an interesting way, Margaret of Anjou's role in England was not only a response to the political crisis in that country; the role she assumed as queen and mother had been shaped by the political circumstances of her own childhood and by her own experience of women's abilities and capacities. As Margaret's biographer J. J. Bagley notes, "Politics, war, and administration seemed to be the natural vocations of women in her family."

A manuscript illustration of the marriage of
Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou,
from Vigiles of Charles VII, 1484
Margaret of Anjou was the daughter of Isabelle of Lorraine, who both fought for her husband René of Anjou in Sicily and served as his regent there.

While her mother was engaged in pursuing and defending René of Anjou's interests in Sicily, Margaret spent eight years with her grandmother, Yolande of Aragon, who was regent of Anjou for her oldest son, Louis III.

After Louis' death, Yolande remained active in politics and in her family's fortunes, marrying her daughter Marie to the French dauphin and encouraging him in his efforts to recover his throne.

Margaret of Anjou had been shaped by the example of these active and powerful foremothers.

England neither offered such powerful, independent exemplars for women, nor accepted them. Indeed, it was Margaret of Anjou herself who became a powerful exemplar for women--an example of the dangers of the determined woman who, ignoring "proper and permissible feminine activity," behaved, or tried to behave, like "ruling princes."

In the end, Margaret could not keep her husband on the throne or ensure her son's succession to that throne. Henry VI was deposed in 1461, briefly restored in 1470, then deposed again and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died on 21 May 1471. Margaret campaigned endlessly after Henry's initial deposition, and it was due to her tireless efforts that he was restored in 1470. She fought to defeat her Yorkist opponents, but she was defeated at the battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, her son Edward, fighting with her, killed on the field. (Margaret's son Edward was married to Anne Neville, whom we have already met.)

After the battle, Margaret was taken captive and held prisoner, but she was ultimately ransomed by her cousin, Louis XI of France. She lived in poverty and obscurity until her death, in Anjou, in 1482. She was buried in Anjers Cathedral with her parents, but as a final insult, her remains were scattered and lost during the French Revolution.

Margaret of Anjou has been the subject of several recent historical novels, and a character in others, most notably Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series. But her life is too rich to need fictionalizing. She is included in Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, its title a nod to Shakespeare's description of Margaret of Anjou, and in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. But I recommend Helen Maurer's excellent full-length biography, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Are Women "Equal"? Of Course Not

The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (passed Congress, 22 March 1972)

First proposed as the "Lucretia Mott Amendment" by Alice Paul in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was so radical that its audacity terrorized all who considered it: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

This shocking amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced in every Congress between 1923 and 1972. It finally passed the Senate and then the House of Representatives in 1972--on 22 March, the proposed 27th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification. 

Obviously, since the ERA is still not part of our Constitution, it was never ratified. Why not? Well, because it's still so horrifically scary and clearly unfair. Who could possibly accept these crazy three propositions:
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification
The ERA has been reintroduced in every session of the U.S. Congress since 1982. It is still not part of the U.S. Constitution.

Update, January 2017: An Equal Rights Amendment was introduced into the 115th Congress shortly after it was convened in January. In the Senate, on 20 January 2017, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) once again introduced the amendment; in the House, on 24 January 2017, the bill was once again introduced by Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). In both houses, the resolution was sent to committee. Where, once again, it died.

For the text of the bill, a history of "all actions," and list of the resolution's co-sponsor's in the House of Representatives, click here.

Update, 20 April 2018: Could it be that there is some movement on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment? The New York Times Editorial Board suggests that there might be. To read "A Rebuke to Trump, A Century in the Making," click here. (Wish I could be as hopeful . . . )

Update, 2019: An Equal Rights Amendment was introduced into the 116th Congress shortly after it was convened. On 29 January 2019, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the amendment in the House, and on 27 March 2019, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 15 in the Senate. Both resolutions proposed a "fresh start," removing the 1972 deadlines for ratification of the amendment.

Update, January 2020: On 15 January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. As NPR reports,
Under the U.S. Constitution, amendments become law when they're ratified by at least three-fourths of U.S. state legislatures — or 38 out of 50. However, the ERA's original deadline for ratification expired in the 1980s, putting its future on uncertain legal ground. That didn't stop backers in Virginia from welcoming a long-awaited day.

In the 117th Congress, a renewed effort was made to pass the Equal Rights Amendment with the introduction of "Three-State Strategy" bills:

Current efforts are in support of Congress removing the deadline originally assigned to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, and extended in 1979 by members of Congress. Legal scholars have stated that if Congress has the legal standing to instate a deadline for a constitutional amendment, they also have the legal standing to remove a deadline. Legislation has been proposed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to officially remove the deadline for the ERA. If passed by both houses, legal scholars state that the ERA could potentially be ratified when the 38th state votes to ratify the amendment.

The potential legislation to remove the deadline was debated on April 30, 2019, the first hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment on Capitol Hill in 36 years.

Update, March 2021: Could we finally be on the verge of passing the ERA? Perhaps--as Rebecca Wolf writes in the Washington Post, "2021 Could Finally Be the Moment for the Equal Rights Amendment": "The turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic could push the amendment across the finish line after a century of work." Could it be that all it took was a deadly plague? 

Senate Joint Resolution 1 was introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardozo (D-Maryland) on 17 March 2021. On 23 March, by a roll-call vote of 222-204, the House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 17, removing the deadline for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Astonishingly, four Republicans joined Democrats to approve the resolution that was introduced by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier and Republican Rep. Tom Reed.  Oh, yay.

And then, nothing.

Update, 22 March 2023: Still waiting . . . 

Legislation for removing the deadline for ratification of the ERA was introduced in both houses of the 118th U.S. Congress in January 2023--Senate Joint Resolution 4 was introduced on 24 January 2023 by Senator Benjamin Cardozo (D-Maryland) and House Joint Resolution 25 on 31January by Representative Ayanna Presley (D-MA). The House bill was referred immediately to the House Judiciary Committee, which is now chaired by Gym Jordan. Need I say more?

Of course it is languishing in the U.S. Congress--it's only been 100 years since the ERA was first proposed and only 51 years since the ERA was passed by both Houses of Congress in 1972 . . . 

Update, 1 May 2023: Okay, just in case you thought you might not be living in a new hellscape, one in which women are no longer regarded as full human beings, judged to be incapable of reason and having no right to bodily autonomy, here's the bad news. The ERA is once again dead. On 27 April, "Senate Republicans blocked a procedural measure on a joint resolution to remove an expired deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which has never been added to the Constitution, a century after it was first introduced to Congress." The measure failed by a vote of 51-47--it needed a super-majority of 60 votes to pass. (All the no votes were by Republicans--two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, voted yes.)

Again, here's what is too scary for the ERA to pass: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Update, 13 July 2023: Okay, time for something new? Equally doomed, I'm sure, but here's a New York Times piece outlining a "novel tactic" that might "revive" the ERA (click here). 

Update, 22 March 2024: Just in case you were wondering, there are no updates . . .

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Angela Merici: Franciscan Tertiary, Visionary, and Saint

Angela Merici (born 21 March 1474)

Born in a small town in the Lombard region of Italy, Angela Merici dedicated herself to a religious life as a young woman. Orphaned at the age of ten, and devastated by the untimely loss of her sister, who died so suddenly she could not receive the last sacraments, Merici became a tertiary of St. Francis--that is, she became a member of a "third order" of the Franciscans, someone who, for a variety of reasons, may not take formal vows to join a religious order but who, as a lay person, lives outside the convent according to the ways of life of those who live inside. Her prayers to God about the fate of her sister were answered by a vision assuring her that the soul of her sister was at peace.

A seventeenth-century painting
of Angela Merici
Another visionary experience, when she was fifteen, led to her commitment to found an institution dedicated to the religious instruction of girls. When she was twenty, Merici established a school for young girls with the aim of instructing them in the precepts of their faith. She also received a revelation that it was her duty to found a religious organization devoted to the religious training of girls.

Despite her efforts, it wasn't until 1535 that the Company of St. Ursula, the Ursulines, was formally established. (St. Ursula was a woman living in Roman Britain.) The Ursulines were the first Catholic religious order dedicated to teaching girls.

Merici died on 27 January 1540. She was beatified in 1768 and canonized in 1807. Her feast day has been moved several times, but she is now memorialized on the day of her death, 27 January. 

For an introduction to Merici and the Ursulines, see Querciolo Mazzonis's Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Best-Selling Novel of the Nineteenth Century

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (published in book form, 20 March 1852)

Although Harriet Beecher Stowe's enormously influential anti-slavery novel was first published serially in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era (in forty weekly installments, beginning with the 5 June 1851 issue), Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form by publisher John P. Jewett on 20 March 1852.

Title page of the 1852 first edition
of Uncle Tom's Cabin
The book was an enormous success, running quickly through several printings. By late spring of the next year, Jewett reported that he had sold more than 300,000 copies of the novel. But at that point, the novel went out of print, and by 1860, Jewett was out of business, the rights to the novel transferring to the publisher Ticknor and Fields. 

Although we associate Stowe's novel with the Civil War, surprisingly few copies of the novel were published during the 1860s. For a discussion of the novel's publication history, you can read Michael Winship's excellent essay, "Uncle Tom's Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States" online by clicking here.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Anne Stuart, Queen Regnant of Great Britain and Ireland

Anne Stuart, queen of England, Ireland and Scotland (reign begins, 19* March 1702)

Although we tend to think most often only of the reigning Tudor queens, Mary and Elizabeth, and maybe, on occasion, of Queen Victoria, there are two other female monarchs who have sat on the English throne (other than the current one), two sisters, Mary and Anne Stuart.

Queen Anne,
1705 painting by Michael Dahl
Today, 19 March,* the younger of those two women, Anne, became queen of England. The daughter of the deposed King James II, Anne ruled for a relatively short time, from 1702 until 1714.

She is most frequently remembered (if she is remembered at all) for having been pregnant seventeen times--most of these pregnancies ending in miscarriage or stillbirths, none of her children surviving childhood.

More cruelly and callously, she is often reviled for being fat. This focus on her body, and on its reproductive "failings," along with dismissal of her as being stupid, weak, and manipulated by favorites, is unfair, and recently historians have begun a reassessment of her role as queen. 

In his biography of Anne, David Green argues that "Hers was not, as used to be supposed, petticoat government. She had considerable power; yet time and time again she had to capitulate." Maureen Waller notes that traditional assessments of Anne may have more to do with the biases and assumptions of male historians than with Anne's abilities--or lack of them.

There are several full-length biographies to choose from--David Green's Queen Anne, Edward Gregg's Queen Anne, and Anne Somerset's Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion. Maureen Waller, to whom I referred, above, includes a discussion of Anne in her Sovereign Ladies: Sex, Sacrifice, and Power, the Six Reigning Queens of England, and treats both Stuart queens, Mary and Anne, in her Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown, but she presents an extremely negative view of Anne.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Anne's life is her passionate and disastrous friendship with Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough and, later, with Abigail Hill, baroness Masham. Somerset is particularly good with her analysis on the significance of these relationships. 

*Dating for William's death and Anne's accession often vary in sources, depending on whether the date is given in the Old Style or New Style [the calendar shifted in 1752]--in the Old Style, Anne's becoming queen occurred on 8 March, but for the purpose of this blog, I'm posting about Anne today, using the New Style!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Madame de la Fayette and "La Princesse de Clèves"

Madame de la Fayette (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de la Fayette, baptized 18 March 1634) 

Born in Paris, educated in Greek, Latin, and Italian, appointed maid of honor to the French queen, Anne of Austria, and married to a widowed nobleman, the comte de la Fayette, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, madame de la Fayette, became one of the foremost cultural figures in seventeenth-century Paris. While literary history has often focused on male writers as originators of the novel, Madame de la Fayette has been frequently been called the creator of the modern novel.

Madame de la Fayette's first published work, a novella, La Princesse de Montpensier, was published anonymously in 1662. In 1669, the first volume of her historical romance, Zaïde, appeared. Set in Spain, the novel was published under the pseudonym Segrais; the second volume was published two years later, in 1671.

La Fayette's most important--and influential--work is also attributed to "Segrais." Published in 1678, La Princesse de Clèves is a historical novel, set in the mid-sixteenth century at the court of Henry II of France. The novel was enormously popular, both a critical and commercial success.

I like its presentation of a young, married woman who is awakened to romantic love--but who also has a strength of character and sense of self that allow her to act honorably. She is neither faithless to her worthy husband nor a victim of her own desires and passions.

Three additional works were published after Madame de la Fayette's death on 15 May 1693: a novel, La Comtesse de Tende (1718), a memoir of her friend, Queen Henrietta Maria of England, Histoire d'Henriette d'Angleterre (1720), and Mémoires de la Cour de France (1731), her memoirs of the court of Louis XIV.

The Princess of Montpensier and The Princess of Clèves are both available online, in the original French or in English, at Project Gutenberg and at the Internet Archive.

But there's nothing like a real book, in my estimation, and so I'd recommend an affordable, accessible paperback edition--Penguin and Oxford's Worlds Classics both have editions for under ten dollars. 

There is no full-length biography of Madame de la Fayette in English, but there is an excellent biographical essay by Elizabeth Goldsmith in Europe, 1450-1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, which you can access by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Philippa of Hainault: A Productive and Compassionate Queen

Philippa of Hainault, queen of England (1314-69)

I will be the first to admit that posting about Philippa of Hainault today is a bit of a stretch--but I have used every date possible in order to include my favorite historical figures. And so, here's why I'm writing about Philippa today--on 17 March 1337, Philippa of Hainault's eldest son, Edward, was created duke of Cornwall, the first creation of a duke in England. So, while admitting that this is an odd reason to write Philippa of Hainault today, I've done it anyway.

Philippa of Hainault,
detail from a fifteenth-century
The daughter of William, count of Hainault, and his wife, Joan of Valois, who was the sister of King Philip VI of France, Philippa of Hainault was married to Edward III of England in 1328. As a queen consort, she fulfilled her expected duties more than well--she gave birth to fourteen children, eight sons and six daughters. Nine of these children survived infancy, including five sons who grew into adulthood. (Three of the children died of the plague in just one year, 1348.)

Today we know the story of Henry VIII only too well--all the turmoil and anguish that can result if a king does not have a single male heir. The story of Edward III's sons illustrates the opposite--all the turmoil and anguish that can result when a king has too many sons. But that is another story.

As queen consort, then, Philippa is a paragon, a reliable producer of heirs. But she is also more.

She served as regent of England on several occasions during Edward's absences. Throughout Edward's Crécy campaign in 1346, for example, while her six-year-old son Lionel was technically "guardian of the realm," Philippa was acting as regent--when the Scottish king took advantage of the English king's absence to raid in England, Philippa headed north, rallying her English soldiers by riding among them.

She was also noted by her contemporaries for her gentle disposition--she was at times a calming influence on the king, interceding for the people of Calais in 1347 when, after a siege of more than a year was finally broken, her husband offered to execute six of the city's leading citizens instead of exacting vengeance on the entire population. In order to save the city's inhabitants, six men volunteered--but Queen Philippa intervened, persuading her husband to be merciful and spare their lives.  

Used copies Blanche C. Hardy's 1910 biography Philippa of Hainault: Her Life and Times are available, but the best modern account of the fourteenth-century queen is in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens

Philippa of Hainault's tomb,
Westminster Abbey

Monday, March 16, 2015

Anne Neville, the Kingmaker's Daughter

Anne Neville, queen of England (died 16 March 1485)

Isabelle and Anne Neville were the sole heirs of their wealthy and powerful father Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick, a man whose role in the so-called War of the Roses earned him the title of "the Kingmaker." Anne's role during that tumultuous period illustrates the lives of so many women in the deadly political games that were always being played.

Richard III with Anne Neville as queen,
depicted at their coronation, 6 July 1483,
from the Salisbury Roll
Warwick was originally a supporter of King Henry VI of England, and with his enormous wealth and military success, Warwick fought on behalf of the Lancastrian king against the rebellious duke of York.

But as Warwick's interests and allegiances shifted, so did the political marriages he ultimately arranged for his two daughters.

By the time Anne was born in 1456, Warwick had switched sides, no longer supporting King Henry but fighting for the Yorkists at the battle of St. Albans.

He ultimately helped to bring down King Henry and to secure the throne for the Yorkist claimant, who became Edward IV in 1461.

Having helped Edward to the throne, Warwick's goal was to marry his own two daughters to the new king's brothers, George, duke of Clarence, and Richard, duke of Gloucester.

But Warwick's ambitions were thwarted, and he grew increasingly alienated from the king. Despite Edward's opposition, Isabelle and Clarence were secretly married in 1469--but by 1470, Warwick had once again changed political sides.

Warwick switched his allegiance back to the Lancastrians--and his "new" ties were confirmed by the betrothal on 25 July 1470 of his younger daughter, Anne, to Edward of Lancaster, the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. The two were married in December, when Edward was seventeen and Anne fourteen. Within a year's time, however, Anne's father was dead, killed at the battle of Barnet, and her husband was defeated and killed at the battle of Tewkesbury. At fifteen, Anne was a widow, no longer princess of Wales.

Although neither Edward IV, newly restored to his throne, nor Clarence, hoping to secure the entire Warwick inheritance for himself, wanted Anne to remarry, she was eventually to become the wife of the man her father had first selected for her, Richard, duke of Gloucester. The two were married in 1473, but the legal wrangling about her inheritance dragged on for some time. Anne gave birth to a son, named Edward, in 1476.

Anne Neville, center, with her two husbands,
from The Beauchamp Pageants, c. 1485
The story of Richard, duke of Gloucester's usurpation of the throne in 1483, following the death of Edward IV, is well known. Less well known is Anne's story. Her only child, Edward, died in April of 1484. The emotional response of both the king and queen to this loss was widely reported; according to a contemporary chronicler, "you might have seen his [Edward's] father and mother in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief." Anne died less than a year later, on 16 March 1485. 

Richard III would be defeated and killed at the battle of Bosworth a few months later, on 22 August 1485. 

There are several good online accounts of Anne Neville's life; I recommend the one posted by the Richard III Society.

For many readers, Philippa Gregory's historical fiction has inspired an interest in the women of this period. But there are many excellent historical sources for those interested in moving beyond fiction. While accounts of Anne Neville, queen of England, are included in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens, J. L. Laynesmith's The Last Medieval Queens, and Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, there is one book-length biography of her, Michael Hicks's Anne Neville: Queen to Richard III--there is actually very little historical evidence about Anne's life, and this biography focuses heavily on the men of the period, but, still . . . 

And while you're at it, you may be interested in reading about Anne's aunts, the six sisters of Richard Neville--David Baldwin's The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses expands the story of the Wars of the Roses beyond the battlefield and into the lives of the women affected by this period of civil war.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Caroline Herschel, "Whose Eyes . . . Sought . . . the Starry Skies"

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (born 15 March 1750)

Caroline Herschel's first career, which she shared with her brother William, was in music. Born in Hanover, Germany, the two younger Herschels, like their father, were musicians--William eventually moved to England as an organist, conductor, and music teacher. At his invitation, Caroline joined him in 1772, relocating to Bath where, in her words, she could act as "a useful singer for his winter concerts and oratorios" (for the full text of Caroline Herschel's memoirs, click here).

An 1829 engraving of Caroline Herschel
When William left music for astronomy, his sister followed him, first as his assistant, secretary, and general housekeeper--polishing and mounting his telescope, copying books for him, organizing and recording his observations. But she developed into an astronomer herself, making her own series of astronomical discoveries, including eight comets and deep sky objects

After William's death in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover where she continued her astronomical work.

In 1828, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, its highest honor. The Society also elected her an honorary member in 1835. (She was an "honorary member" because the Royal Astronomical Society did not permit women to become members until 1945.)

Three years later, in 1838, Herschel was also made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846, when she was ninety-six years old, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the king of Prussia. 

Herschel died in 1848. She wrote her own epitaph: "The gaze of her whose eyes are now opened sought while here below the starry skies."

On the subject of women in science, you may want to begin with Richard Holmes's article in The Guardian, "The Royal Society's Lost Women Scientists," which I've linked to here and above. There are several biographies, including Michael Hoskins's Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens and his dual biography of the Herschels, Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. A link to Herschel's own memoirs and correspondence, available via Google books,  is provided above.

On this day, you may consider reading Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium," a poem with the epigram, "Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) astronomer, sister of William; and others" (for the poem, click here).

Update, 14 November 2021: In its latest episode, the BBC In Our Time podcast features a discussion of William and Caroline Herschel, "the pioneering brother and sister who, between them, discovered Uranus, comets, double stars and infrared light at the end of the 18th century." To listen, click here.

New Catalogue Galaxy 891, in Andromeda, discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel