Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, August 31, 2015

Empress Theodora--No, Not that One!

Theodora, empress of the Byzantine Empire (died 31 August 1056) 

There is, of course, an Empress Theodora who is fairly well known. The wife of the Emperor Justinian, she was a powerful and influential politician whom some sources refer to as co-ruler of the Byzantine empire with her husband. That Theodora was born around the year 500 and died on 28 June 548. 

on a Byzantine coin
I thought today I'd post about a less-well-known Empress Theodora, this one the co-empress, with her sister, Zoe, for a brief period in 1042, then the empress regnant of the Byzantine Empire from 11 January 1055 until her death on 31 August 1056.

As historian Lynda Garland notes, "Historians, like her contemporaries, have tended to ignore Theodora, but she was still a force to be reckoned with. . . ."

Eudokia, Zoe, and Theodora were the daughters of the Emperor Constantine VIII and his wife, Helena--who was described as a woman who was "not only beautiful but also virtuous," who "bore [her husband] three daughters," and who then promptly died. 

The eldest sister, Eudokia, suffered a childhood illness, probably smallpox, that, according to a contemporary chronicle, "marred" her looks. That is perhaps the reason that she was consigned to a convent. (Theodora was described as being very plain, but at least her appearance hadn't been "marred" enough to shut her away, I guess.)

Zoe had a couple of bad experiences in the marriage market--her first proposed husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, died while Zoe, then twenty-three, was on her way to marry him. Her second proposed husband, another Holy Roman Emperor, turned out to be only ten years old, while Zoe was fifty. Luckily she discovered that before she headed off for the marriage. 

But the third marriage worked out. In 1028, the same year she avoided marriage to a ten-year-old, Zoe was married to Romanos III and became his empress consort. Jealous of the honor he paid to her sister, Zoe had Theodora placed in a convent. (There is some reason to believe that Romanos preferred to marry Theodora but that she rejected his offer. Another reason for Zoe's jealousy . . . )

After the death of Romanos in 1034, Zoe was married to Michael IV, retaining her role as empress consort, and after his death in 1041, she was co-empress with Michael V, Michael IV's nephew, whom she "adopted." (All this while, Theodora was stuck away in the convent of Petrion.)

But when Michael V was dethroned in April of 1042, Theodora was removed from her convent and proclaimed as co-empress with her sister. No one had been in favor of Zoe's sole rule as empress regnant.

In this brief summary, I have skimmed over the surface of Zoe's very complicated personal life--no one seems to have cared for her, least of all her husbands and her adopted nephew, each one of whom thought she was trying to kill him.

But Theodora proved a strong political figure--not least in her dealings with the dethroned Michael V, whom she had blinded and forced into a monastery. Her relationship with Zoe was not a good one, either: Zoe was jealous of her younger sister and though she was not really interested in the task of governing, neither did she want Theodora to have power. 

But Zoe managed a coup after seven weeks of joint rule, and in June of 1042, she ousted Theodora, allying herself with Constantine Monomachos, whom she married in November, elevating her new husband to the role of co-emperor.

On this occasion, Theodora managed to remain in the palace. Also in the palace was Constantine's long-time mistress, Skleraina, who herself had "political dreams." She was officially recognized as sebaste, or "Augusta."

Although there were popular suspicions that Constantine and Skleraina were plotting to do away with Zoe and Theodora, the four seemed actually to live together quite amiably. Whatever Constantine's plans might have been should his much older wife die, Skleraina died in 1045, and Zoe lived on until 1050, dying at the age of about seventy-two.

As he himself lay dying in 1055, Constantine IX supported his council's plans to ignore Theodora's rights and turn power over to another contender after his death. Theodora, however, had other ideas. At the age of seventy-five she was able to exert her rights and was proclaimed autokrator, or  "emperor," by the imperial guard after Constantine's death on 11 January 1055.

Given the many years of her sister's example, Theodora preferred to rule "quite openly taking on the role of a man." As Garland notes, Theodora appointed her own officials, dispensed justice, issued decrees, and gave orders. She dealt handily with rebels. Her decision to appoint clerics riled the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I Cerularius, but he did not dissuade her from exercising what she believed to be her right in the matter.

Theodora ruled as empress regnant for about a year and a half, until her death on 31 August 1056. She was the last Macedonian emperor of the Byzantine Empire. She chose her successor, Michael VI, as she lay dying. 

For a brief entry on Theodora, from the Encyclopedia Britannica, click here. There is an excellent chapter on this Theodora (as well as on Zoe) in Lynda Garland's Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. Garland's book is, unfortunately, very expensive--maybe Interlibrary Loan?

(And here's a link to James Allen Evans's wonderful biographical essay about the sixth-century Empress Theodora, if you'd also like to read a bit about her . . . )

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni (30 August)

Boudica, the Iceni queen,
from Thomas Thornycroft's sculpture,
Westminster Bridge,
As is sometimes the case in selecting topics for this blog, I need to explain why I'm writing about Boudica today. 

We have relatively little biographical material about Boudica, a Celtic queen, and no firm dates. 

The principal sources of information about her are both Roman.

In The Annals, the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-after 117) describes the rebellion of Boudica, which occurred in 60 or 61 CE (to read an English translation of The Annals, Book 14, chapter 29-37, click here). 

Although he was writing much later (and from Rome), Tacitus would have had access to a first-hand account of Boudica and her revolt--his father-in-law, later himself a governor of Britain, was an assistant to the Roman governor, Suetonius, during the time of Boudica's rebellion. 

The other Roman source is the consul and historian Lucius Cassius Dio (c. 155-235), who wrote an extensive history of Rome that included an account of Boudica's rebellion. However, Dio's account survives not in full, but only in a tenth-century epitome, or summary, of Dio's original (to read an English translation of the epitome of Book 52, click here). 

Those sources provide information, at least from the Roman perspective, but no clear dates. However, in 1856 the English sculptor Thomas Thornycroft began work on a bronze sculptural group depicting Boudica and her two daughters. Thornycroft worked on the project until his death, on 30 August 1885. 

The final casting in bronze did not occur until 1902, seventeen years after Thornycoft's death, and the sculpture was erected at Westminster pier in June of that year. And so, to commemorate Boudica's life, I've chosen the date of Thornycroft's death, 30 August, for a post. 

Boudica's rebellion against the Romans was triggered by her treatment after her husband's death. As Tacitus recounts the events, Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, died c. 60. In his will he arranged to divide his wealth between his two daughters and the emperor, Nero, "an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury."

But, as Tacitus writes, the "result was contrary." After the death of Prasutagus, "his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves."

And thus Boudica's revolt. At least in The Annals. For his part, Dio blames the rebellion on financial dealings (the demand for repayments of loans). "But," he says, "the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women." (No mention of whippings, rape, or slavery.)

In 60 or 61, Boudica led a revolt of an alliance of Celts, including her own Iceni, the Trinovantes, and other Britons, "neighboring states not as yet taught to crouch in bondage" in revolt against Rome." As she assembled her army and prepared to lead it against the Romans, Dio provides this description:
In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.
Boudica's army was at first successful, destroying the Roman city of Camalodunum (Colchester), wiping out the Ninth Legion, burning down Londinium, which had been abandoned as Boudica's army approached, and moving on to Verulamium (St. Albans), which was also destroyed.

Suetonius and his Roman troops, numbering fewer than 10,000, eventually caught up with Boudica, whose army constituted "an incredible multitude" (Dio says she has 230,000 troops). The exact location of this battle has not yet been identified. 

Just before the battle began, Boudica drove her chariot, with her two daughters beside her, through her assembled army. 

Here is an account of that moment and her speech (at least as provided by Tacitus):
Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:—"It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords!—If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!"
The battle resulted in "dreadful slaughter." Boudica and her allies were defeated--Tacitus numbered their dead at 80,000, while claiming that the Romans lost only 400 men. 

Boudica managed to survive, but according to Tacitus, she then poisoned herself. Dio claims she fell ill and died. 

Boudica disappeared from the historical record rather quickly, but she reemerged in the Renaissance, with the recovery of Tacitus. She became particularly popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, since Boudica's name is generally translated as "victory" or "Victoria." There have been feature films, documentaries, and historical novels. Boudica has been a character in video games and the subject of several musical works, from Purcell's 1695 Bonduca, or the British Heroine to songs by metal bands and the Irish singer-songwriter Enya.

In 2003, PBS broadcast a fictional account of Boudica: Warrior Queen. I'm also a huge fan of the BBC In Our Time radio show; you can listen to a podcast of Boudica by clicking here.

There are several non-fiction accounts of Boudica, but I like Vanessa Collingridge's Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen. It's out-of-print, but used copies are usually available. 

For Boudica's contemporary, Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, click here.

The inscription on the front of Thornycroft's sculpture reads:


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saint Sabina, Martyr

Sabina of Rome (feast day 29 August)

Probably born late in the first century CE, Sabina of Rome is said to have been the daughter of a man named Herod Metallarius and the widow of a Roman senator named Valentinus. She was converted to Christianity by her slave, Serapia--who has her own complicated story.

Sabina's slave, Serapia of Syria, was born in Antioch and had come to Rome with her parents--after their death, she had given everything she owned to the poor and then had sold herself into slavery, thus entering Sabina's household.

St. Sabina, detail of a fifteenth-century altarpiece
showing the life of Saint Sabina,
Antonio Vivarini,
Church of Saint Zaccaria, Venice
After Serapia's martyrdom in 119 (stories about the circumstances vary--she had either been denounced and executed as a witch, or she was arrested after she had refused to honor the Roman gods), Sabina retrieved Serapia's remains and buried them in her family's tomb.

Sabina of Rome was denounced as a criminal and accused of being a Christian. She was executed in 125 and later canonized as a saint. In 430, Sabina's remains were transferred to a basilica on the Aventine Hill, built on the site of her house in Rome. 

Basilica of Saint Sabina at the Aventine,

Friday, August 28, 2015

Shulamith Firestone and the Case for Feminist Revolution

Shulamith Firestone (died 28 August 2012)

One of the key figures in radical second-wave feminism, Shulamith Firestone was an activist, organizer, and writer.

Born on 7 January 1945 in Ottawa, Canada, Firestone was raised and educated in the United States, moving to New York City in 1967. There she co-founded, with Robin Morgan, Carol Hanisch, and Pam Allen, the New York Radical Women, known for its consciousness-raising sessions, hallmarks of the developing second-wave feminist activism.

Firestone is best known for her 1970 The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution in which she developed a radical feminist political theory.

Firestone begins with an excellent history of the first-wave feminist movement, which culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

She then goes on to argue that women must control their own reproductive system--as long as women must bear and rear children, they will lack full equality. She also argued that the "sexual revolution" hadn't liberated women at all, since the sexual double-standard persisted.

Susan Faludi's New Yorker essay, "Death of a Revolutionary," written just months after Firestone's death, is a great place to begin. Responding to Faludi's "not unsympathetic portrait," which she said "amounted to pathologizing Firestone’s catalytic intensity and quixotic personality while extending her assessment to an entire generation of 70s feminists," Kathleen B. Jones's "Legacy of a Feminist Revolutionary" is an essential follow-up.

But don't stop there--The Dialectic of Sex is still in print, forty-five years after it was first published. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Juliana Morell, Yet Another "Tenth Muse"

Juliana Morell (27 August 1637)

First, an explanation. In trying to work in all the women I'd like to write about this year, I have to do a bit of juggling. 

We actually do have dates for Juliana Morell, a Spanish Dominican nun, writer, and student of the law. Morell was born on 16 February 1594 and died on 26 June 1653, but I've already used those dates to write about two other women--27 August 1637 is actually the date of the death of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Why write about Juliana Morell today, then? 

Well, Lope de Vega offers a series of praises to Morell in his poem "El laurel de Apollo" (1630), a purported account of a festival celebrated by Apollo in honor of contemporary poets. In the lines dedicated to Morell, she is described as "the tenth Muse" (Where have we heard that before? Click the label, below, and you'll see where). Lope de Vega adds that Morell publicly lectured on  "all the sciences" (todas las ciencias) in "cathedrals and schools," while noting that, in light of Morell's achievements, even Cassandra and Marcella "lose their fame."

Born in Barcelona, Juliana Morell belonged to a converso family, her father a Catalan banker. After her mother's death, when Juliana was just two or three years old, she was educated by the Dominicans, though sources vary as to whether they were Dominican nuns or Dominican monks. In any case, she learned so much so quickly that these Dominicans said there was no more they could teach her. 

Her education seems to have been continued in her home--where, beginning at the age of four, she was tutored in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When Juliana was seven, her father fled to Lyon, taking the young prodigy with him. (He was accused of murder.) 

There she continued her education, adding rhetoric, ethics, mathematics, astronomy, physics, music, and law to her studies. By the age of twelve, in 1606 or 1607, she wrote and defended in public her theses on ethics and morality, dedicated to Margaret of Austria, queen of Spain (wife of Philip III).

Morell continued her studies in Avignon, applying herself especially to the study of civil and canon law. She was awarded a degree of doctor summa cum laude in 1608 after publicly defending her law theses at the papal palace of the vice-legate in Avignon. 

Morell entered the Dominican convent of San Práxedes Avignon in the same year, taking her final vows on 20 June 1610. Three years later, she became prioress of the convent, a responsibility she fulfilled until her death on 26 June 1653.

While a nun, Morell published several works, including a translation from Latin into French of the Spanish Dominican friar Vincent Ferrer's Vita spiritualis (Spiritual Life, 1617), and a French translation of the Rule of St. Augustine (published posthumously in 1680). She also wrote Exercices spirituels sur l'éternité et une petite exercice préparatoire pour la sainte profession (Spiritual Exercises for Eternity and a Small Preparatory Exercise for the Holy Profession, 1637), a history of the convent of San Práxedes Avignon, and Latin and French poetry. 

There's a good biographical essay here, from El Diccionari Biogràfic de Dones, focusing on "la contribució de les dones a l'esdevenir de la història dels territoris de parla catalana" ("the contribution of women throughout the evolution of the history of Catalan-speaking territories"). 

Update, 27 August 2023: I've had some trouble with the El Diccionari Biogràfic de Dones link--if it doesn't lead you directly to the entry for Morell, click the second link ("focusing on," here), type "Juliana Morell" into the search, and you'll find it.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Women Get the Vote!

The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (certified 26 August 1920)

Those darn women! Always wanting things. Like the right to vote. Here's the text of the amendment that finally extended the franchise to women:*
  1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
  2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.
Passed by the House of Representatives on 21 May 1919 and by the Senate on 4 June 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on 18 August 1920, when Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to approve it. 

Alice Paul, 1920,
raising a glass (of juice) in victory
The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was certified on 26 August 1920.

Just over two months later, on 8 November 1920, some eight million American women voted in the first national elections for which they were eligible to vote. 

(It took more than sixty years for the rest of the states to pass the Nineteenth Amendment--Mississippi didn't get around to ratifying that pesky amendment until 22 March 1984. Go, Mississippi!)

Of course extending the franchise to women by amending the constitution did not go unchallenged--for the Supreme Court case Leser v. Garnett (1922), unanimously upholding the constitutionality of the Nineteenth Amendment, click here.

And here's a bonus note for the day: on the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, on 26 August 1970, women across America conducted a Women's Strike for Equality. Here are a few images from the march in New York City, headed by Betty Friedan:

Betty Friedan at the march

I hope somebody's planning a kick-ass celebration for 26 August 2020!!

*If you consider the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 as the start of the women's suffrage movement, it took more than seventy years for women to achieve this goal. If you missed them, here are posts for the first and second days of the Convention. And if you ever wondered what happened to the Equal Rights Amendment, click here.

Update, August 2019: And the centennial begins! Check out Jennifer Schluesser's "The Complex History of the Women's Suffrage Movement." The New York Times piece notes three exhibitions on the subject of women's suffrage that complicate and expand the discussion of the movement. Schluesser's piece contains links to exhibitions opening at the National Portrait Gallery, the Library of Congress and the National Archives (all in Washington, D.C.).

Update, 26 August 2020: Well, because of the pandemic there were no kick-ass celebrations. At least there was a PBS documentary.  And a postage stamp. For more, click here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hélisenne de Crenne, Tormented by Love

Marguerite Briet, "Hélisenne de Crenne" (died after 25 August 1552)

In a post back in March, I noted that the French writer Madame de la Fayette is frequently said to have written the first modern novel--and yet today's writer, "Hélisenne de Crenne," published her extraordinarily popular novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (The Torments of Love), in 1538, more than a hundred years before La Fayette's La Princesse de Montpensier appeared in 1662.

So popular was Hélisenne de Crenne's The Torments of Love that, by 1560, eight complete editions had been published. And between 1538 and 1541, she published three other works: Les Epistres familieres et invectives de ma dame Hélisenne (The Personal and Invective Letters of Madame Hélisenne, 1539), an epistolary novel; Le Songe de madame Hélisenne (The Dream of Madame Hélisenne, 1540), a dream allegory; and Les quatre premiers livres des Eneydes (The First Four Books of the Aenead, 1541), a prose translation of the first four books of Virgil's Aeneid.

Who was this prolific and popular sixteenth-century woman writer? "Hélisenne de Crenne" is the pseudonym adopted by Marguerite Briet, born in Abbeville, Picardy, about the year 1510.

Little is known of her life aside from the fact that she married a minor noble, Philippe Fournelle, sieur de Crenne, but her work makes clear that she had received some sort of humanist education--she is familiar with biblical and classical sources and and shows a knowledge of Renaissance writers, including Italian writers like Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Jacopo Caviceo as well as a later French contemporary, Jean Lemaire de Belges.

There is also a reference to de Crenne in Nicolas Rumet's Historia Picardiae (History of Picardy, c. 1562): "In the year 1540, in the month of May, a learned woman, originally from Abbeville, named Marguerite Briet (commonly called Hélisenne de Crenne), a Gallic poet, lived in Paris at the sign of Augustus."

Just four legal documents survive, only one of those offering much personal information, and even that is suggestive rather than conclusive. A document from 1552 indicates that Marguerite Briet is "separated" from her husband and living in Saint-Germain-des-Près.

Given the lack of much biographical data, the tendency has been to read Hélisenne's work autobiographically, in particular The Torments of Love, in which a young woman, named "Hélisenne," narrates her own story. "Hélisenne" is beautiful (of course) and happily married (she married at age eleven!!!!) to a young nobleman--until one day her mutually satisfying marriage is destroyed when she looks out a window and sees a young, beautiful, but not noble, man, Guenelic.

A great deal of physical cruelty, torment, and despair follows--ultimately, both lovers die, and it is interesting to see how this story plays out in relationship to Madame de la Fayette's most well-known work, The Princess of Clèves--in which a young and beautiful woman who is happily married to a young nobleman sees and falls in love with another man. But, unlike Hélisenne, the princess does not give in to her passion. And she doesn't die, either, though her unfortunate husband does . . . Even then, however, the princess will not marry the man she loves (and who loves her)--it would dishonor her dead husband. 

While the exact date of Marguerite Briet's death is not known, the 1552 legal document that makes a series of gifts is dated 25 August--and that's why we know her death can be dated "after" that date.

For an online biographical essay, the piece by Jean-Philippe Beaulieu at the SIEFAR (Société Internationale pour l'Etude des Femmes de l'Ancien Régime) website can be accessed by clicking here. (Sometimes the SIEFAR site is unavailable--if so, you can view a cached version of the essay by clicking here.)

For an excellent study, see Diane Wood's Hélisenne de Crenne. At the Crossroads of Renaissance Humanism and Feminism. And The Torments of Love is available in an excellent and affordable translation by Lisa Neal and Steven Rendall (used copies sometimes cost as little as one cent!! why not snag one?)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lavinia Fontana, "The Bolognese Phenomenon"

Lavinia Fontana (born 24 August 1552)

The daughter of Prospero Fontana, a portrait painter and fresco artist working in the city of Bologna, Lavinia Fontana became one of her father's most important and successful students. 

Lavinia Fontana, self portrait,
Although nothing is known about her early life--aside from the fact that she was trained by her father in his workshop and studio--by the late 1570s she was already recognized for her portraits and for Christ with the Symbols of the Passion, completed in 1576.

Fontana's marriage in 1577 to Gian Paolo Zappi was very fortunate. The man responsible for the marital negotiations offered his view on Lavinia Fontana's potential as a wife: "If she lives a few years . . . she will be able to draw great profit from her painting, as well as being god-fearing and of purest life and handsome manners."

The match was made, and Zappi, himself a painter, moved into Prospero's studio. But instead of continuing his painting, Zappi abandoned his own career. He spent their marriage acting as Fontana's assistant, keeping her accounts, and managing the household, including their children. In the eighteen years after they were married, Lavinia gave birth to eleven children (though only three outlived her).

Fontana continued to work in Bologna, in her father's house, until  his death in 1603, when she was summoned to Rome by Pope Clement VIII to produce the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, an altarpiece for San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome (unfortunately, the basilica was destroyed by fire in 1823). 

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, 1581
In Rome, she painted numerous portraits for the papal court, including Clement VIII's and Pope Paul V's. The first woman to receive public commissions, she was elected a member of the Roman Academy.

As only one note of Fontana's distinction, the essay on the painter at the National Museum of Women in the Arts website observes that Fontana "is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent."

Notably, she not only painted portraits and religious subjects but mythological works, some of which included female nudes.

Her work includes some 135 paintings--the largest body of work by any woman artist of her day. 

In The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer notes the unique opportunities offered to women in Bologna during the sixteenth century: "For a brief century women in Bologna were encouraged to play a public role as artists. The astonishing thing is not that the century came to an end, but that it ever happened at all." I've borrowed the title of Greer's chapter, "The Bolognese Phenomenon," here, in honor of Bologna's most productive and notable woman artist, Lavinia Fontana.

Fontana died in Rome on 11 August 1614. 

Unusual for a woman, Fontana painted
classical subjects, and nudes,
such as Minerva Dressing, 1613
There are two excellent books on Fontana: Caroline Murphy's Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna and Vera Fortunati's slightly older Lavinia Fontana of Bologna, 1552-1614.

Update, 16 December 2019: The Prado Museum (Madrid) is now hosting a special exhibition, "A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana" (through 2 February 2020). According to the museum's website, the exhibition has put together "a total of 65 works," including some fifty-six paintings, the art coming from "more than" a score of European and American connections: "the Museo del Prado is presenting a survey of the careers of these two painters, who achieved fame and renown among their contemporaries but whose artistic personalities became obscured over time."

In her splendid review of the exhibition for the New York Times, Deborah Solomon praises the show and the art, but adds, "The Prado show, which was curated by Leticia Ruiz Gómez, takes the form of a double feature, pairing two artists who flourished in the same era, in the same area of northern Italy, but who probably never met. Their works are made to mingle in the galleries in a pas-de-deux. But is this approach appropriate? It is hard to imagine that male artists would have to share the galleries quite this way, and you wonder if the curators at the Prado think that women need to team up to better confront the patriarchy."


(For a post on Sofonisba Anguissola, click here.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sarah Frances Whiting, Founding Mother in Physics

Sarah Frances Whiting (born 23 August 1847)

The daughter of Joel Whiting, a physics teacher, and Elizabeth Lee Comstock, Sarah Frances Whiting not only got her love of science from her father, a physics teacher, she was also tutored by him in a variety of scientific procedures and experiments, mathematics, and the classics, including Latin and Greek.

Sarah Frances Whiting,
c. 1879
Whiting graduated from Ingham College in 1865, when she was just eighteen years old. Located in Le Roy, New York, Ingham was the first women's university in the United States, established as Le Roy Female Seminary in 1835 and granted a full university charter in 1857. (Because of financial difficulties, it closed in 1892, and its property was sold at auction in 1895.)

After her graduation from Ingham, Whiting taught classes there, and then, later, at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. At the same time, she furthered her own education by attending lectures, exhibitions, and demonstrations on current developments in science and scientific experiments.

In 1876, she was appointed as the physics professor at a newly founded Wellesley College. In the process of establishing a physics lab there, and at his invitation, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lectures of Edward Pickering, an astronomer and physicist. All such classes were otherwise not open to women. (After he moved to Harvard, Pickering recruited several women to work for him, including one of Whiting's students at Wellesley, Annie Jump Cannon.)

When Whiting established a physics laboratory at Wellesley, it was only the second such lab in the country--and the first (and only) physics lab for women.

In 1880, Whiting also began teaching astronomy at Wellesley--Annie Jump Cannon, who would go on to be a renowned astronomer, was one of her earliest students.

In 1895, Whiting made the first x-ray photographs in the United States.

In 1900, after a gift was received by Wellesley, an astronomical observatory, the Whitin Observatory, was opened, with Sarah Frances Whiting serving as its first director. (For Whiting's account of the founding of the Whitin Observatory, click here.)

Throughout her career, Whiting published articles in Popular Astronomy, and she also published a textbook, Daytime and Evening Exercises in Astronomy, for Schools and Colleges, which you can access via the Internet Archive (here) or using Google Books (here).

Whiting retired from the teaching faculty at Wellesley in 1912, and from the directorship of the observatory in 1916. 

Whiting died on 12 September 1927. She was memorialized by her former student, Annie Jump Cannon, in Popular Astronomy (click here). As an interesting note, while Cannon writes about the influence of Whiting's father on Sarah Frances Whiting, she makes no mention of her mother. I can find out nothing more about her than the bare details of her life--Elizabeth Lee Comstock Whiting was born in 1818, married in 1846, gave birth to four daughters in ten years, and died in 1893 (for her listing at Find a Grave, click here).

For an accessible biographical essay on Whiting, from the Encyclopedia of World Biography, click here. There is no biography of Whiting, but there is a bit about her, as well as other women scientists, in John Lankford's American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859-1940.

You may also enjoy a Smithsonian article on Pickering's group of female scientists at Harvard, "The Women Who Mapped the Universe and Who Still Couldn't Get Any Respect."

Update, August 2020: John Cameron, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Wellesley, has identified archival material of Sarah Frances Whiting's work with x-rays recently discovered at the college. According to the announcement published by Wellesley:
Cameron . . . discovered the . . . [recently unearthed] boxes contained cyanotypes of Sarah Frances Whiting’s X-rays, with annotations on the reverse in her own hand. He contacted [Professor Jacqueline Marie] Musacchio, and they began to research Whiting’s career, using resources on campus and beyond, to put her experiments into context. Although a number of popular sources mentioned these experiments, they often did so in an exaggerated or inaccurate manner with no evidence, and the cyanotypes had never been published.
The two Wellesley professors (Musacchio is professor of art history), both interested in the history of science, have been collaborating on a project documenting the history of women's science education at Wellesley. Their piece, "Sarah Frances Whiting and the 'Photography of the Invisible,'" was published in the August 2020 issue of Physics Today (click here).

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kate Chopin: Awakening the American Woman

Kate Chopin (died 22 August 1904)

In these daily posts I have mentioned--on more than one occasion, I'm afraid--that in all my years of college and graduate school I never read a woman writer before Jane Austen. I should also add that I had only one American literature class as an undergraduate, and only one more as I was completing my Ph.D. coursework.

Kate Chopin, 1894
So I never read the work of the American novelist Kate Chopin (born on 8 February 1850). In fact, I am not alone--her greatest work, The Awakening, was published in 1899, but it was widely condemned for its treatment of marriage and adultery (a wife's adultery, that is). The book didn't earn her much money in royalties, and after her death, Chopin's name--and her work--fell into obscurity.

Although one book on Chopin's short fiction was published in 1932 (Daniel S. Rankin's Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories), the re-awakening of interest in Chopin occurred during 1969, just as the second-wave feminist movement was taking hold. (Ironically, because Chopin did not consider herself a feminist or support women's suffrage.) Per Seyersted, a professor of American literature in Oslo (yes, that one--Oslo, Norway!) published two works on Chopin: Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography and The Complete Works of Kate Chopin.

Despite the revival of critical attention that followed, I myself didn't read any Chopin until many years later, when a student advisee, working on a project in an education class, asked if she could give a presentation in my course on medieval women's literature. She was so persuasive that I said yes--even though she was working on a short story written by Kate Chopin. Megan's presentation was on Chopin's brief "The Story of an Hour," and she attended my class a week early, her hands full of photocopies, asking students to read the short story before her presentation. (You can read it by clicking here.) It was so short--and Megan herself was so excited--that no one in my class objected.

After that, impressed by my student's work with Chopin--and that she could get a classroom full of students to read something, even something short, that wasn't on their syllabus--I decided to read Chopin's novel The Awakening (although Chopin wrote about a hundred short stories, she wrote only two novels).

I never thought I'd get a chance to read The Awakening with students, however (since I am a medievalist), but in the year before I retired, I finally had the chance to teach a class in which I could assign not only a "modern" novel (for me, anything in the nineteenth century is modern!), but also an American novel.

I can't recommend it enough. The novel's treatment of race is provocative (and some students found it objectionable), but its view of "traditional marriage" and its anatomy of the fate of a woman who acts on her passion are very compelling. Although you can buy very affordable and well-presented modern editions (I particularly like the Norton Critical Edition), you can also access the novel at Project Gutenberg or at the Internet Archive

There are many great secondary materials about Chopin--biographies and critical studies--but a great place to start is at the website of the Kate Chopin International Society, where you will find an extended biography, Chopin texts, criticism, teaching guides, and information about films, translations, and podcasts about Chopin and her work.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem

Melisende of Jerusalem (queen of Jerusalem, 21 August 1131)

The daughter of Baldwin II, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, Melisende followed her father onto the throne, as queen regnant, ruling Jerusalem for more than twenty years, from 1131 until 1153.  

Melisende at her
Born 1105 in the county of Edessa, a Crusader state established in 1098, Melisende was the daughter of Baldwin of Boulogne, the count of Edessa, and Morphia of Melitene, the daughter of an Armenian nobleman who ruled the nearby city of Melitene and became a vassal of Baldwin's.

Morphia was a politically astute companion to Baldwin, undoubtedly a capable model for her eldest daughter, Melisende, and the couple's other three children, all daughters, Alice (later princess of Antioch), Hodierna (later countess of Tripoli), and Ioveta (later abbess of Bethany).

When Baldwin became the king of Jerusalem in 1118, he was "encouraged" to put aside his wife, because Morphia had only given him daughters (three at the time) and as a king, Baldwin would, obviously, need a male heir. Instead, Baldwin raised Melisende as his heir, styling her "daughter of the king and heir of the kingdom of Jerusalem"; she was named officially as his successor in 1128.

Even so, Baldwin thought Melisende would need a husband to protect her status as queen regnant, and he arranged for her marriage to Fulk of Anjou in 1129, which proved to be a bad decision. (Fulk's son by a previous marriage, Geoffrey of Anjou, was married to a woman--and would-be ruling queen--whom we  have met before, Matilda of England.)

Even before Baldwin's death, Fulk began maneuvering to control Melisende's role as queen, aiming to reduce her to a queen consort rather than a queen regnant. But after Melisende gave birth to a son in 1130, Baldwin II held a coronation for his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, investing them as co-rulers of Jerusalem--Melisende alone was given the guardianship of her son, Baldwin III, thus reducing Fulk's influence.

After Baldwin II's death on 21 August 1131, Melisende began to rule jointly with her husband, who persisted in his efforts to wrest political power from her. Rather than rejecting a woman as ruler, the Haute Court, the feudal council of the kingdom of Jerusalem, supported Melisende. 

The conflicts and tensions between husband and wife persisted, and the two went to war in 1134. No less a man than the renowned theologian and religious reformer Bernard of Clairvaux urged Melisende to "show the man in the woman" and to "order all things . . . so that those who see you will judge your works to be those of a king rather than a queen."

After defeating the forces of her husband in 1135, Melisende was reconciled to him (she bore another child in 1136). She continued to rule with Fulk until his death in 1143, after which she ruled as regent for her son, Baldwin III. About Melisende's role as queen regnant, the historian and archbishop William of Tyre, concluded, "Power in the kingdom resided in the hands of the Lady Melisende, a queen beloved of God, to whom it belonged by hereditary right." (His Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, the History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea or the History of Jerusalem, was written between 1170 and 1184.)

In one form or another, she governed from 1131 to 1153, when Baldwin III was twenty-three years old--and insisted that he be given power as sole king, though he had shown no interest at all in governing before that time. To appease Baldwin, the Haute Court decided that, as a compromise, the kingdom should be divided into northern and southern halves, with Baldwin to rule the northern part and Melisende continuing as queen regnant in the southern portion, including the city of Jerusalem. 

But Baldwin was not happy with that decision. Once again, tensions broke out into warfare, this time the son attacking his mother. Eventually, peace was restored and Melisende "retired," though she was called upon to act as regent of Jerusalem for her son when he was on campaign, fighting endless battles to maintain control in the Holy Land.

Melisende died on 11 September 1161. Her son died just two years later, in 1163, succeeded by Melisende's younger son, Amalric. 

Interestingly, Melisende of Jerusalem was a ruling queen at a time when there were several notable women rulers. 

Although she was not a queen regnant, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who controlled the wealthy and politically significant duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, was Melisende's contemporary. As queen of England, she was a political player of the first order. Melisende and Eleanor actually met when Eleanor accompanied her first husband, Louis VII of France, on the Second Crusade.

We have also met Urraca of Castile and León, a queen regnant who, like Melisende, inherited her title from her father Alfonso VI. Matilda of England (1102-67), married to Fulk of Anjou's son, was designated heir to the English throne by her father Henry I, though she never managed to reign as queen.

And as another interesting note, Melisende’s sisters were also regents; Alice of Jerusalem (m.c. 1126) acted as regent of Antioch for her daughter, Constance, while Hodierna of Jerusalem (c. 1120s-50s) was regent of Tripoli. Melisende’s niece, Constance (1126-1160s), whose mother had functioned as regent of Antioch, herself governed Antioch as regent.

Melisende's correspondence is available at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters.

I can recommend two wonderful books about Melisende of Jerusalem. The first is a new biographical treatment, Sharan Newman's Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem. The second places Melisende in her cultural context: Margaret Tranovich, Melisende of Jerusalem: The World of a Forgotten Crusader Queen.

Update, 22 November 2019: The BBC's In Our Time features a full-length broadcast discussion of Melisende of Jerusalem on its 21 November program. To listen to the podcast, click here.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bess of Hardwick: Upwardly Mobile through Marriage (and Brains)

Elizabeth Hardwick (married [second marriage] 20 August 1547)

One of the most remarkable women in a period of remarkable women, Elizabeth Hardwick married four times, with each marriage improving her economic and social status. At a time when women couldn't improve themselves by upward mobility through ecclesiastical, educational, military, or legal institutions, Bess of Hardwick, as she came to be called, could use the institution of marriage to great effect.

The earliest portrait of Bess of Hardwick,
c. 1560, Hardwick Hall
Although the date of her birth is unknown, Elizabeth was probably born in the year 1527, the fourth daughter and fifth child of John Hardwick of Derbyshire and his wife, Elizabeth Leake, the daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland.

The Hardwicks were minor gentry--but by the time Elizabeth Hardwick died in 1608, she had become a countess (the countess of Shrewsbury) and was one of the richest women in England, her notable building projects including Chatsworth House and Hardwick New Hall.

Indeed, in her excellent biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary Lovell uses the subtitle "Empire Builder" to describe this remarkable woman. She built a lasting empire in blood, stone--and silk thread.

Elizabeth's father died in January of 1528, when she was still an infant, leaving his widow with six children (another daughter was born after John Hardwick's death). In his will, Hardwick left his lands and property to his son and small marriage portions for each of his daughters. 

Hardwick's widow had difficulties with the Court of Wards, however, and her son's wardship was taken out of her hands and her income severely reduced. She rather quickly remarried, probably when Bess was about two years old, and thereafter gave birth to three more daughters. 

In the mean time, there are simply no details about Bess's education, nothing, in fact, until she is about twelve, when she is placed into the London household of Anne Gainsford, lady Zouche. By the time she was about fifteen, probably in May of 1543, she married Robert Barlow, a thirteen-year-old boy who was also a member of the household, who died in December 1544.

Although Bess should have received a widow's dower, one-third of the income from her husband's estates, this was refused, and she had to go to court to fight for what she believed was her due. (In court documents, Bess explained that she couldn't expect any support from her mother, since her mother's second husband was in debtor's prison!)--her mother, she said, was "very poor and not able to relieve herself," much less her own widowed daughter. She finally received her widow's rights but only after several years of court wrangling.

In the mean time, she married William Cavendish on 20 August 1547--and I've used that date as the reason for posting today. It's one of the only specific, irrefutable dates for her life to this point. Cavendish was a member of Tudor court, a member of the privy council of the new king, Edward VI, and his Treasurer of the King's Chamber. At once, Elizabeth Hardwick Barlow became Lady Cavendish.

Bess of Hardwick as countess of Shrewsbury,
c. 1590
In the next ten years, until William's death in 1557, Bess gave birth to eight children, six of whom survived infancy. But when William died, she found herself once more in financial difficulties--her husband had been accused of stealing royal revenues. Bess refused to sell off her husband's properties, including Chatsworth, to pay off his debts. Instead, she chose to build--and to marry again.

Bess's third husband was Sir William St. Loe, a member of Queen Elizabeth's court, Bess herself became a lady-in-waiting to the queen. St. Loe proved to be a wealthy and generous husband. But Bess found herself (briefly) imprisoned in the Tower in 1561--her involvement with Catherine Grey, a sister of Lady Jane Grey, brought Bess under suspicion. (Like her sister, Catherine Grey had royal connections, and a claim to the throne--she had married without the queen's permission.)

When William St. Loe died in 1565, Bess became a widow for the third time, but she was no longer a poor widow. She was enormously wealthy and, back in Elizabeth's favor, had become a member of the queen's bedchamber.

Her fourth marriage, in 1568, was to George Talbot, the earl of Shrewsbury, reputedly the richest man in England. This marriage also brought her the title of countess of Shrewsbury. It was a true family affair: at the same time that Bess married Shrewsbury, their children also married--two of his children married two of hers. Bess's daughter Mary Cavendish married Shrewsbury's eldest son, while Shrewsbury's daughter married Bess's son, Henry Cavendish. (Here's another one for the whole "traditional marriage" thing--Mary Cavendish was twelve when she was married, Shrewsbury's daughter only eight.)

A few years later, in 1574, Bess was able to arrange yet one more marriage to further her climb up the social ladder--one of her daughters, Elizabeth Cavendish, was married to Charles Stuart, the son of Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox (Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII who had married the king of Scotland; her elder son, Charles's brother, was Henry Stuart, lord Darnley--the one who married Mary, Queen of Scots--got all that?)

This marriage, too, resulted in trouble for Bess. For their involvement with this marriage plot, which involved claims to the throne, both Margaret Douglas and Bess wound up in the Tower. By January 1575, Bess of Hardwick was released--there was no evidence that the two women were engaged in treason when they engineered the marriage of their children.

But there is no doubt that Bess of Hardwick hoped that her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, would one day be queen.

Bess of Hardwick is also notable for her artistic achievements in the medium of needlework. She amassed an extraordinary collection of tapestries, hangings, and carpets for her great houses.

Bess of Hardwick's needlework,
Hardwick Hall
As countess of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwick found herself as a companion and guard for Mary, Queen of Scots, while she was a royal prisoner.

Together the women produced worked cushions, bed hangings, and wall coverings, their needlework stitches including emblems, flowers, and animals.

As Susan Frye writes, "the two became intensely involved in creating textile works that embodied more personal expressions of identity than tapestries produced in professional workshops." Frye concludes that, in her work, Bess moved from being a "skilled needleworker" into "a textile artist."

Bess of Hardwick died on 15 February 1608. 

Bess of Hardwick's letters (more than 200 of them) are all available online at a wonderful site, Bess of Hardwick's Letters. Complete transcripts are available, as is a range of wonderful background material.

On her needlework, Susan Frye's work, quoted here, is Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England. For the pictures, there's Santina Levey's The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall: A Catalogue--it is very expensive if you just want a peek at the embroidery, so maybe inter-library loan?

For a biography, I like Mary S. Lovell's Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder.

Hardwick Hall