Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Yay! Let's Bring Back the Comstock Act!

When Women Became No Longer Human, Part 15: Let's Bring Back the Comstock Act! 


I really couldn't decide which series of posts this one belonged to: "When Women Became No Longer Human" or “Back to the Future.” It could be either. Or both. 

Because after Dobbs, women lost their ability to make decisions for themselves and their future--they became a human-ish sorta thing. Almost but not quite human.

Seal of Anthony Comstock's 
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
(founded 1873)
Then again, nothing like resurrecting an 1873 law and deciding it's just what we need now!

Both Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas called upon the Comstock Act during yesterday's oral arguments, FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, a case about access to the anti-abortion drug mifepristone. According to the Guttmacher Institute, medication abortions accounted for 63% of abortions in 2023, the year after the Dobbs decision--up 53% since 2020. So you can see why denying women access to mifepristone is high on the agenda . . . 

Alito rejected claims the Comstock Act was "obsolete" and wanted to know why the Food and Drug Administration hadn't considered the provisions of the Comstock Act before making its decision allowing access to mifepristone. Here's Alito: “This is a prominent provision. It’s not some obscure subsection of a complicated, obscure law. . . .  Everybody in this field knew about it.”

And here's Thomas: addresing the lawyers for one of the drug's manufacturers, he asked “How do you respond to an argument that mailing your product and advertising it would violate the Comstock Act? [The act] is fairly broad, and it specifically covers drugs such as yours.”

And here's the original Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, first passed in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States:
Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; and every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose and every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means any of the hereinbefore-mentioned matters, articles or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed or how or by what means conception may be prevented or abortion may be produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and every letter, packet, or package, or other mail matter containing any filthy, vile, or indecent thing, device or substance and every paper, writing, advertisement or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can be, used or applied, for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing, is hereby declared to be a non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier. Whoever shall knowingly deposit or cause to be deposited for mailing or delivery, anything declared by this section to be non-mailable, or shall knowingly take, or cause the same to be taken, from the mails for the purpose of circulating or disposing thereof, or of aiding in the circulation or disposition thereof, shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Here's the text of the law currently, as cited by Alito and Thomas, now titled "Mailing Obscene or Crime-Inciting Matter" (18 U.S. Code 1461):
Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance; and

Every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; and

Every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or from whom, or by what means any of such mentioned matters, articles, or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means abortion may be produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and

Every paper, writing, advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing

Is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.

Whoever knowingly uses the mails for the mailing, carriage in the mails, or delivery of anything declared by this section or section 3001(e) of title 39 to be nonmailable, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, or knowingly takes any such thing from the mails for the purpose of circulating or disposing thereof, or of aiding in the circulation or disposition thereof, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, for the first such offense, and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both, for each such offense thereafter.

The term "indecent", as used in this section includes matter of a character tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination.
The law has long been considered "effectively dead”--since the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision and the 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird decision, both recognizing the right to contraception, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Tessa Stuart notes that even before Roe, “federal courts held Comstock only applied to unlawful abortions."

"St. Anthony Comstock, the Village Nuisance” 
Louis M. Glackens, 1906

But the Comstock Act is what's known as a "zombie law." I'm not a lawyer, much less a legal scholar, so here is Harvard University law professor Molly Brady's definition: "There is a phenomenon known in legislation when there are laws on the books that have been declared unenforceable by a court. The term for these is “zombie laws”—the idea being that these laws might come back, might reanimate, if, for instance, the court changes its position. So, actually, after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a lot of the laws that were invalid under Roe v. Wade came back once Dobbs revisited Roe. These were examples of zombie laws." (For a more complete analysis, click here for Howard M. Wasserman's "Zombie Laws," Lewis & Clark Law Review.)

So the Comstock Act is back . . . and ready to be used for those who would like to deny access not only to mifepristone but to birth control pills and devices and any other "thing" right-wing zealots decide is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile"!

Cartoons like the one I've embedded, above, "St. Anthony Comstock, the Village Nuisance," may be funny, but the Comstock Act has been used to many horrific ends. Among others, see the cases of Ida Craddock, Victoria WoodhullAlice Bunker Stockham, and Margaret Sanger

Here's a fine summary of the effects by Jonathan Freedman and Amy Werbel:
During the Comstock Law’s reign, millions of books, newspapers, magazines, prints, photographs and circulars were burned under court order. More than 3,000 persons arrested for violations of the Comstock Act served a total of 600 years in prison, most for writing about topics that today are widely accepted in society, including atheism, homosexuality and sexual health. Medical professionals writing about abortion or contraception were prosecuted, as well as "freethinkers" who believed in the separation of church and state. Gilded Age freethinker and editor D.M. Bennett was imprisoned for "crimes" including advocating for equality of the sexes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's "Ladyland"

 Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's "Ladyland"


Last fall, I read Michael Dirda's Washington Post review, "'Tis the Season for Horror and Weird Tales. Here Are Some Favorites." Now, I am not a reader of fantasy, science fiction, or horror, though my son is, and Christmas was coming. I not only read Dirda's review, but I bought some of the books he recommended for Christmas, including Joshua Glenn's collection of short stories, Voices from the Radium Age. I wrapped it up, put the book under the tree, and never thought about it again. Until a few days ago, when my son handed me the book and told me I needed to read the first story, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's “Sultana's Dream,” published in 1905.

I didn't know what to expect, or why my son wanted me to read it, but now I do! I've spent a lot of time reading, teaching, and writing about a recurring theme in writing by women: the dream of finding or creating a private and secluded retreat from the world of men. 

These imagined “women’s worlds” may be very small, a single room, for example, perhaps most famously Virginia Woolf's "a room of one's own." 

But many women writers are much more ambitious, fantasizing about cities (like Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies), even entire countries (like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland), created for and inhabited exclusively by women.

I even wrote a book, Reading Women's Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own.

And so my son's recommendation to me of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's short story, "Sultana's Dream," republished in Glenn's Voices from the Radium Age.

In the story, which appeared a decade before Gilman's Herland, Rokeya Sahkawat Hossain's narrator, Sultana, is resting on a chair in her bedroom while "thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood." In her dream, she meets a woman whom she takes for her friend, Sister Sara. With "Sara," she walks out of her room and through a garden into the town around them--and it's at this point that she realizes the woman she is with is not her friend, but a stranger.

She is at first anxious--not only is she with someone she doesn't know, but as she tells the stranger, "as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled." But she soon realizes that "there was not a single man visible."

Sultana finds herself in Ladyland, a place "free from sin and harm," a place where "Virtue herself reigns." And, notably, a place where men are "in their proper places": shut indoors, where they can be kept out of trouble.

What follows is a delightful overview of a world-turned-upside-down. Women know everything, do everything, create everything, and control everything. . . . And rather than getting and maintaining their position by force, women rule with their brains.

In reading a bit about Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, I learned she wrote a novella with a similar theme, Padmarag: "Her novella Padmarag is similarly utopian in its depiction of a women-run school and welfare center, and is both feminist and anti-colonial in its outlook." (Quoted from the Penguin edition’s description of the work.)

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
(c. 1880-1932)
The novella's focus on the important of education for women and the creation of "a woman-run school and welfare center" puts me in mind of Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies . . . 

You can read "Sultana's Dream" online at Other Women's Voices (click here).

A Penguin edition that contains both "Sultana's Dream" and Pradmarog, edited by Barnita Bagchi and with an introduction by  Tanya Agathocleous, is also available (click here). 

An excellent introduction to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and her work is by Roushan Jahan, ed. and trans., "Sultana's Dream" and Selections from The Secluded Ones, accessible through the Internet Archive (click here).

For a website dedicated to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, you may want to check out the Hossain Memorial website--there you will find a biographical essay, bibliography, photo gallery, letters and speeches, along with a wealth of assorted material. 

And if you like science fiction and fantasy, don't forget Joshua Glenn's collection of short storiesVoices from the Radium Age!





Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Redrawing the Lines of Power--Women's Family Trees

 Redrawing the Lines of Power--Women's Family Trees


I have just finished hanging a framed poster that was a recent gift from my son: "Matrilineal Dynasties of Europe." It was a perfect present. As it is described at the UseFul Charts website, "This unique chart views European history in a totally new way by focusing on the female-only lines within royal genealogy. Over 100 queens and empresses shown!"

My really crappy photo of
Useful Charts's beautiful
"Matrilineal Dynasties of Europe"
(published with permission)
It was exactly the kind of family tree I wish I'd had many years ago, when I was researching and writing a book that would eventually be published as The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (2002)

In the introduction, titled "Redrawing the Lines of Power," I wrote about my frustration with finding so few women on royal family trees. As I now look happily on the new poster hanging on my wall, I thought I might post an early version of my introduction--it was necessarily edited for the book, but I can print here what I originally wrote years ago . . .* 

And so, an earlier version of "Redrawing the Lines of Power," written in 1998, is published for the first time:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, the heroes of our nation's history, through whom the Lord established his renown, and revealed his majesty in each succeeding age. Some held sway over kingdoms and made themselves a name by their exploits. . . . Some led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the nation's laws. . . . Some there are who have left a name behind them to be commemorated in story. There are others who are unremembered; they are dead, and it is as though they had never existed, as though they had never been born or left children to succeed them.
                                                            --Ecclesiasticus 44:1-3, 4, 8-9

Abraham, the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob. Moses and his brother Aaron. David, the father of Solomon, and Solomon of Rehoboam. Like the "praises" of these "famous men" sung by the author of Ecclesiasticus, the historical narrative of western Europe has focused on generations of men. Political histories, biographies, and genealogies trace lines of power from fathers to sons and grandsons, brothers and nephews. 

During the period of English history with which I am most familiar, for example, Edward III is followed on the throne by his grandson Richard II; Henry IV is followed by his son Henry V, who is followed, in turn, by his son Henry VI; Edward IV was to have been followed by his son, who would have been the fifth English Edward, but instead is succeeded by his brother, Richard III; Henry VII is followed by his son Henry VIII, who is followed by his son Edward VI. Then something strange disrupts this narrative. At his death in 1553, Edward VI is succeeded by his sister, Mary I.

The succession of a woman to the throne of England horrified many, including the Protestant reformer John Knox, who concluded that any woman who presumed to "sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above a man" was "a monster in nature." Women were incapable of effective rule, for "nature . . . doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment."

Knox published this blistering assessment of female rule, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in 1558; his bitter indictment of "gynecocracy" was quickly followed in print by a series of pamphlets that echoed and expanded his argument that female rule was unnatural, unlawful, and contrary to scripture. From Knox's point of view, the political situation could hardly seem worse. Not only had Mary Tudor succeeded to the throne of England, but Mary Stuart, wife of the dauphin of France, had become queen of Scotland, while her mother, Mary of Guise, was acting as regent in Scotland on Mary's behalf.

Unfortunately for Knox, though, the political situation could get worse, and did, almost immediately. When Mary Tudor died only a few months after the Blast appeared, her half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her as queen of England. In France, following the death of her husband Henry II, Catherine de' Medici attempted to become regent of France for her son, Francis II. Outmaneuvered in 1559, she succeeded a year later when Francis died and the dowager queen assumed the regency for her second son, Charles IX. Thus, by 1560, England, Scotland, and France were under the direct "regiment" of women.

I began thinking about this exceptional historical moment after I had the experience of reading, one after another, the arguments against female rule penned by Knox, Anthony Gilby, Christopher Goodman, Jean Bodin, Robert Filmer, and Bishop Jacques Bossuet, among many others, and then, in turn, the defenses of female rule published to counter their extreme, sometimes violent, positions. Much has been written about the political, religious, and cultural factors that shaped this debate, but I was interested in analyzing these texts in a different context. In order to relate theory and practice, I planned to write a series of biographical portraits of the remarkable women whose "regiment" had inspired the debate, exploring the way each of these women achieved, maintained, and manipulated her position even as her right and her ability to do so were contested.

As I considered my project, I was at first uncertain about how to proceed. Aside from Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart and her mother, and Catherine de' Medici, I knew of only two other women to include in my project: Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and Jeanne d'Albret, the Protestant queen of Navarre, whose son had become Henry IV, hing of France. Would it be possible, I wondered, to find enough female rulers to make a "series" of such profiles possible?

But the more I thought about my project, the more I came to see what had been there all along. These women weren't the first powerful women in early modern Europe. Any analysis of female rulers in the early modern period should really begin by focusing on the lives of four formidable women who died early in the sixteenth century: Isabella of Spain (d. 1504), who inherited the throne of Castile; Lady Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509), who chose not to press her own claims to the English throne in order to promote the cause of her son, Henry Tudor; Caterina Sforza (d. 1509), who seized power in Imola and Forlì to preserve it for her son, Ottaviano; and Anne of France (d. 1522), who acted as a shrewd and politically adept regent for her brother, Charles VIII. The careers of these powerful and successful women seemed to me to provide models for the women who were to follow in the next generation. 

Still, as notable as they were, these weren't the only women to whom Mary Tudor or Catherine de' Medici could look for example. As I searched the indexes of political histories and biographies, I began to find the names of female rulers about whom I knew little or nothing. Despite arguments like Knox's against female rule, and despite the ordinary descent of political power from one man to another, it became clear to me that a whole range of "dynastic accidents" in early modern Europe had resulted in a surprising number of women ruling as queens or functioning as regents. It became equally clear that the lives and political careers of these sixteenth-century queens were hardly without precedent

Yet I could find little more than the names of these women at first. How many Blancas of Navarre were there? How many Isabellas of Aragon? Of Castile? Of Portugal? Were Charlotte of Savoy and Bona of Savoy related? If so, how? How did Louise of Savoy fit in? Were Anne of France and Anne of Beaujeu the same woman? What about Mary of Guise and Mary of Lorraine? And why was all this so difficult for me to sort out? I knew that the relationships and connections linking these women couldn't be more complicated than those of the eight Henrys, six Edwards and three Richards I knew so well; the English line of succession from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries has always been easier for me to recite than the names and dates of American presidents. 

But it was hard to find out much about these Isabellas, Annes, and Marys in traditional political history. Like the "unremembered" others in Ecclesiasticus, it was almost as if they "had never existed, as though they had never been born or left children to succeed them." But clearly they had been born, and equally clearly they had left children to succeed them. And despite the familiar narrative of conventional history, they had also had some degree of real "sway" over various kingdoms and principalities. And so, trying to figure out who these women were and whether and how they were related, I began to focus on the family trees in the books I had in front of me. And that's when I began to notice what (or who) was missing.

Like the generations of "famous men" in Ecclesiasticus-- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, Solomon, Rehoboam--one Henry or Charles followed another in succession, father and son, springing forth as if by spontaneous generation. I searched, sometimes in vain, for women; wives and mothers were simply absent from many of the genealogies appended to the histories and biographies I was reading. I think my favorite is a Valois "family tree" that charts four branches of the family over the course of nearly four hundred years. It looks as if the line of Valois kings (from 1328 through 1547, anyway)--Philip VI, John II, Charles V, Charles VI, Charles VII, Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I--managed to do without any wives or mothers at all. Then again, maybe I like best the Habsburg genealogy that begins in the tenth century and continues through the seventeenth century. There are a few wives among nine generations of Habsburg descendants, but, at least according to this family tree, there were no Habsburg daughters born between 950 and the mid-sixteenth century, when Eleanor and Mary show up on one branch.

Meanwhile, in England, the five daughters of Edward III (r. 1327-77) are all too often lumped together at the end of the genealogical line as "daughters," but that at least is an improvement over the tables that chart the descendants of his sons without noting that he had any "daughters" at all. I imagine that "issue," as it often appears on such family trees, could include insignificant males as well as females, but I am suspicious that "other issue" refers exclusively to daughters. I am almost afraid to think of what the disclaimer on one "short genealogical tree" might mean: "The irrelevant branches have been pruned."

Of course not all the family trees I looked at omitted women. The "Kings and Queens of England" poster that is hanging right next to me as I type indicates the wives of Edwards I through III, Henry IV and V, Henry VII and Henry VIII (all six). But why isn't the wife of Henry VI included, especially since she was the strong and powerful Margaret of Anjou (Shakespeare's "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide")? Edward IV and Richard III are also missing their wives, as are James V of Scotland and his grandson James VI, who becomes James I of England. Then again, to be absolutely fair, while Mary Tudor's husband (Philip II of Spain) is listed, Mary Stuart's husbands, all three of them (Francis, Darnley, Bothwell), are eliminated. Still, this version of the poster is a marked improvement over the previous edition, which left out the wives of Edwards I through III, Henry IV and V as well as Henry VI, and limited Henry VIII to only three of his six wives. If there are rules to determine when women are included and when they are omitted in such genealogies, I haven't been able to figure out what they are.

I must admit I took unexpected pleasure in some of the inconsistencies I found. The Oxford History of England's volume of The Earlier Tudors eliminates all of six of Henry VIII's wives, and while I am, in general, frustrated that so many women have disappeared from royal family trees, I was delighted to see that Henry's entire matrimonial career had been wiped out. Interestingly, his elder brother, Arthur, wasn't given his wife (Catherine of Aragon) either, but his sisters Margaret and Mary are accompanied by their husbands, or at least some of them, at any rate; Margaret has her first two, James IV of Scotland and Archibald, earl of Angus, while Mary has only her second, Charles, duke of Brandon--I don't know why she didn't get to keep her king, Louis XII of France. Henry, for whatever reason, hasn't been allowed to keep a single wife. He looks almost lonely.

Even the most complete family trees, one tracing the Medici family from Giovanni "di Bicci" (1360-1428) and his wife Piccarda Bueri through Giovanni Gastone (1671-1737) and his wife Anne of Saxe-Lauenburg, for example, work patrilineally, tracing descent through the male line. In so many family trees, men's names are set in capital letters or boldfaced or highlighted, their wives' names, when included, are smaller, underneath the names, dates, and titles of the men to whom they are connected, or off to the side, after "m" or "=" to indicate their status as wives. When women marry into a family, their names suddenly appear--but where did they come from? Who were their grandmothers, their mothers, their sisters? And when women marry out of the family, where do they go? Their names are left dangling on the trees of their families, dead ends on the lines of descent. Are they and their descendants the "irrelevant branches" that have to be pruned?

And so, out of frustration, trying to identify the "unremembered" others whose names I had stumbled across, and trying to sort out the connections between them, I set out to draw my own family trees, linking women, generations of mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces. I searched--not always successfully--for the dates of their birth, the dates of their death, the children who succeeded them. As I drew and then redrew my new genealogical tables, I came to see not a series of individual, isolated women who came from nowhere to be swallowed up in the Tudor, Valois, Habsburg, or Medici families, but networks of related women and patterns of connections between them.

Once I had started to redraw the lines, I began to see something else of significance. Mary Tudor can no longer be portrayed as a "monster in nature" who suddenly, and without precedent, dared to assume political power. Mary Tudor's mother, Catherine of Aragon, was not only Henry VIII's first wife, but a queen who had served as regent of England; Catherine, in her turn, was the daughter of Isabella, queen regnant of Castile, who herself was the niece of Maria of Castile, governor of Aragon, and granddaughter of Catherine of Lancaster, regent of Castile. Isabella's elder daughter, Juana (Catherine of Aragon's sister), inherited the crowns of both Castile and Aragon; Isabella's granddaughters included Isabel of Portugal, regent of Spain; Mary of Austria, regent of the Netherlands; and Catherine, regent of Portugal. Among Isabella's great-granddaughters were Margaret of Parma, regent of the Netherlands, and Joanna of Spain, regent of Spain.

I also began to see significant connections and relationships I couldn't always indicate on my redrawn family trees: there were "genealogical" links that went beyond blood ties. Margaret of Austria, who functioned as regent of the Netherlands from 1519 until her death in 1530, had been betrothed at age three to Charles, the dauphin of France; in 1483 she had been sent to the French court where, for ten years, her care and education were directed by the extraordinary Anne, who acted as regent of France for her brother. The betrothal didn't result in marriage; instead, in 1497, Margaret was sent to the court of Queen Isabella of Castile, marrying John, heir to his mother's Castile and his father Ferdinand's Aragon. What was the influence of two such politically adept women on Margaret, who would function so successfully as regent for so many years?

If all this seems confusing, you can see why I needed to redraw family trees. Instead of genealogies that focused on kings and their sons, making clear their relationships and connections, I wanted to draw links that moved backward and forward, tracing queens and their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and grandnieces. I have to admit that I enjoyed the process of constructing these new family trees. I made the names of the four women I identified as models big--really big, with bold boxes around them. Isabella of Castile overpowers her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. She also overshadows him--wherever I could, I put my women on top. I also eliminated every son I could, including Henry VIII's long-desired Edward, as "issue" with which I was not concerned, an "irrelevant branch" I could prune. I kept only those men through whom lines of power descended to a woman. The names of the men who remain on my redrawn genealogies are so tiny I can hardly read them without my glasses. It's somehow very satisfying to see Henry VIII looking so small. Instead of Francis I and Charles V looming so large on the scene, I could see women--generations and generations of women of power.

One of the family trees I drew for The Monstrous Regiment of Women

I could also see the shifting political alliances of early modern Europe from a very different (and revealing) perspective. As I drew my new family trees, I realized that the narrative of early modern European political history looked very different if I focused women instead of men. Men like John Knox might argue against women's right and fitness to rule, but women had and could and did rule--and rule well--even as they were were being told they could not and should not.

I began my research, as I said, afraid that I might not find enough female rulers to make the project worthwhile. Instead, as I worked, I found more and more women whose stories should be included in my project, too many women, in fact, to make the project, as originally conceived, practicable. But my redrawn family trees had also suggested a way of redefining the "biographical" essays I had originally planned. Instead of perpetuating the tendency to identify a single, extraordinary woman and to focus on her individual life and "unique" accomplishments, I decided to explore the relationships among women whose lives occupy a place in and perpetuate a continuing, though largely unrecognized, tradition of political rule. Their careers, like their lives, are intertwined.

The women who assumed political power in succeeding generations in England, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, and city-states of Italy were far more numerous--and more successful--than I had imagined, but even more surprising than their numbers and their successes is how completely their names and stories have disappeared from the history of early modern Europe. Aside from Queen Isabella, who funded the voyage of Columbus, "Bloody Mary" and good Queen Bess in England, and the romantic Mary, Queen of Scots, I had learned almost nothing about any of these "monstrous" women in a classroom, through a textbook, or from the pages of the histories and biographies I had read on my own throughout the years.

The "story" of early modern European political history has been defined by the lists of "famous men" we have constructed, lists that have "revealed . . . majesty in each succeeding age," lists that have told us who "held sway over kingdoms." There are, indeed, some "who have left a name behind them to be commemorated in story," just as there are "others"--primarily women--who have been forgotten. As far as "history" has been concerned, they are dead--it is "as though they had never existed, . . . never been born, or left children to succeed them."

I have tried here to read the past in a different way and to narrate the story from an alternative perspective. I hope, in fact, to have presented a counter-narrative here--by focusing on the lives and relationships of women, those "others" who did exist, those others who--like theirs fathers, husbands, and sons--did "hold sway" over kingdoms and make themselves names "by their exploits," who did leave children to succeed them, and who, though dead, should not be "unremembered."

My efforts here are not intended to be, and could never be claimed to be, definitive and comprehensive. I have crossed too many chronological, geographical, institutional, and theoretical boundaries to speak authoritatively. Instead, I hope they will be regarded as exploratory and suggestive-- summarizing, contextualizing, and drawing together what is known about female rule and rulers in early modern Europe, perhaps best read as an outline for or a rought draft of a counter-narrative that remains to be written.

By the way, after thinking about it for some time, I decided as I redrew my family trees to let Henry VIII keep two of his six wives--Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, strong and determined mothers whose daughters became queens.
. . . 

If you've read this far, I hope you can see that I've continued the work I began more than twenty-five years ago. In 1998, I wrote, ". . . as I worked, I found more and more women whose stories should be included in my project, too many women, in fact, to make the project, as originally conceived, practicable."

Now, at this site, also named The Monstrous Regiment of Women, I've been able to write about many of the women whose stories I couldn't tell then.


*For the sake of readability, I haven't linked all the names here to corresponding essays on this site--if you use the search function, you will be able to find posts for all of the women named here.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Costanza Calenda, a Fifteenth-Century Medical Practitioner

Costanza Calenda, One of the Renowned mulieres Salernitanae (practicing medicine in 1422)


In her extended history of women and the practice of medicine, Leigh Whaley notes that during the Middle Ages, "Most commonly, women practising medicine were the daughters of doctors or surgeons, and they were instructed by their fathers of a male relative." Only in exceptional circumstances--if she were living in exactly the right place or at just the right time--could a woman receive any kind of formal medical education.

Manuscript illustration of 
a female healer, 14th century
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
Costanza Calenda was such a fortunate woman, one of the renowned mulieres Salernitanae ("women of Salerno") who were known to have been trained in medicine in that Italian city during the Middle Ages. 

A reference to this tradition was made by Antonio Mazza, prior of the Collegium Medicorum of Salerno, who wrote the earliest history of the institution. In Urbis Salernitanae Historia et Antiquitates (1681)Mazza noted that there had been "many erudite women" who trained at the school, women who "in many fields surpassed or equaled in ingenuity and doctrine not a few men and, like men, were remarkable in the field of medicine." 

Among those women was the "noble" and "erudite" Costanza Calenda," whom he describes as having a doctoral degree ("Laurea etiam Doctoralis Constantia Calenda")

In the early fifteenth century, Costanza Calenda was "diligently instructed in medicine" by her father, Salvatore Calenda di Salerno. In his multi-volume history of the the Scuola Medica Salernita, historian Salvatore de Renzi claims that Calenda's father was "called illustrious for his doctrine and for his expert practice" in medicine. With such a reputation, he was lured to Naples in 1415, becoming a professor at the collegio medico di Napoli, and by 1423 he was prior (or head) of the college. (There seems to be some scholarly dispute about whether he maintained an official position in Salerno as well as in Naples--it's an interesting debate, but not our focus here.) 

Salvatore Calenda also became the personal physician of Queen Joanna II of Naples. (Since I have no firm dates for the life of Costanza Calenda, I am posting about her today, 2 February, the anniversary of Joanna II's death in 1435). Salvatore Calenda was still head of the medical college in Naples as late as 1430. 

In receiving her training from a member of her family, Costanza Calenda is thus like most of the women known to have practiced medicine in the Middle Ages or in Early Modern Europe. But she seems also have have had more formal instruction, an opportunity that was afforded only a very few women

Citing Mazza's earlier work, Renzi claims that Costanza Calenda proved so knowledgeable that she earned a medical degree. In Renzi's own examination of contemporary historical documents, he cites two sources identifying Costanza Calenda and her activities: the first, a document from 1423 that refers to her as a doctor of medicine; the second is from 1426, but aside from noting that it refers to Costanza, Renzi includes nothing more about the document's contents.* 

Detail from 
MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London

In 1423, Costanza also received royal assent to marry Baldassarre di Santo Mango, lord of Santo Mango, a permission necessary to ensure  her dowry. There is no further documentation of any kind about the life and career of Costanza Calenda after the reference to her marriage, but I find this theory, from Henry Ebenezer Handerson (The School of Salernum: An Historical Sketch of Medieval Medicine, 1893) absolutely hilarious: "The silence of history on her subsequent career suggests the pleasing reflection that possibly she may have proved as excellent a wife as she had been brilliant in the rôle of a student of medicine." Poor Handerson! I know he is a man of his time, so I understand his daydream about Costanza Calenda becoming a good little wife, but I don't know what tickles me most--the implications of his use of the word "rôle" to describe Calenda as a medical practitioner or his uncertainty that she might settle down after marriage, signaled by his wonderful phrase "possibly she may have"!!!

Notably, Salvatore de Renzi doesn't focus on Costanza as a wife, nor even as a daughter. Instead, he provides details about Costanza Calenda in her own separate biographical entry, not including her in her father's entry, which immediately precedes it. 

*Renzi lists his documents by number, followed by the year. The two documents Renzi had access to in the nineteenth century were destroyed during World War II, but a modern copy of one of them survives. The modern copy confirms Costanza Calenda's practice but does not say she had the title of "doctor of medicine."

In "Trotula and the Ladies of Salerno: A Contribution to the Knowledge of the Transition between Ancient and Medieval Physick" (Proceedings of the Royal Medical Society, 1940), H. P. Bayon claimed that Costanza  "lectured on medicine ex cathedra some time during the reign of Giovanna I of Anjou (1326-82) in the University of Naples." But there is no citation, and he confuses Joanna I of Naples (Giovanna of Anjou) with Joanna II, so I'm not sure about the reliability of this! 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Told Ya: These Guys Don't Think Women Are Human

When Women Became No Longer Equal, Part 14: A Veterinarian Knows That Women Are Just Like Livestock


Get a load of this guy, who has done "thousands of ultrasounds on animals" and says he knows more about "fetal development" than anyone, especially women. (Well, to be fair, he says he "probably" knows more about "mammalian fetal development" than anyone in the room he's addressing--the Wisconsin House Chamber.)


This is Wisconsin State Representative Joel Kitchens, an expert on the personhood and humanity of women because. well, he's done "thousands of ultrasounds on animals." I guess it makes sense--for Republicans like him, a woman is just a brood mare.

Also, he knows that "abortion is not healthcare." Tell that to the 66,000 sexual-assault victims in the fourteen states where abortion has been banned who have, since the 2022 Dobbs decision, suffered "rape-related pregnancies." I'm sure each one of them is feeling better about being forced to give birth to her rapist's child because you did ultrasounds on horses and cows. (Dobbs was decided on 24 June 2022--that's 66,000 "rape-related pregnancies" in the eighteen months since . . . )

Way to go, big dude. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Clarice de Rothomago, Accused of Illegally Practicing Medicine in Fourteenth-Century Paris

Clarice de Rothomago (Rouen), medical practitioner (case against her begins 17 January 1312)


In her extended history of women and the practice of medicine, Leigh Whaley notes that during the Middle Ages, "Most commonly, women practising medicine were the daughters of doctors or surgeons, and they were instructed by their fathers of a male relative." Only in exceptional circumstances--if she were living in the right place or at the right time--could a woman receive any kind of formal medical education. 

Manuscript illustration of 
a female healer, 14th century
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
If a woman did receive less formal instruction by a family member, she could present a letter "attesting" to her medical knowledge to authorities, be examined by experienced "physicians and surgeons," and receive a license. 

Such was the situation in Paris, for example, where the medical faculty of the University of Paris was eager to limit and regulate those who could practice medicine and equally intent on prosecuting those who were practicing illegally.

In the early fourteenth century, the medical faculty claimed a right to "prosecute unlicensed practitioners" based on "a regulation issued by the bishop's court at Paris" some two centuries earlier--although, as historian Pearl Kibre points out, "no text of such a pronouncement seems to have been found. There is also no apparent evidence that an organized faculty of medicine was functioning in Paris before 1200." Maybe it was meant "just a figure of speech," she says. Right. 

Nevertheless, based on this shaky reference to the existence of an ancient statute, the medical faculty pursued its goal of regulating the practice of medicine. To that end, "An edict of 1311, at the same time that it interdicts unauthorized women from practising surgery, recognizes their right to practise the art if they have undergone an examination before the regularly appointed master surgeons of the corporation of Paris." 

In addition to setting medical standards and to controling the licensing of medical practitioners, this law also granted medical faculty of the university the right to prosecute those who practiced without a medical license. 

And it is practicing medicine without a license that drew attention to Clarice de Rothomogo in 1312. She was charged with "the illegal practice of medicine." (According to Whaley, the "University of Paris was very active in prosecuting illicit medical practitioners.")

According to surviving records, Clarice received her training from her husband, Peter Faverel, who was himself described as as empeiricus, or an "empiric," that is, a medical practitioner without formal instruction or licensing. Hers was among the earliest cases prosecuted by the faculty of medicine at the university--"armed with laws of its own making," the medical faculty proceeded in their efforts to secure "enforcement."

Clarice de Rothomago's case took place over the course of several months, from 17 January 1312 until 15 June. Somehow learning of her activities, the dean of the medical faculty ordered her arrest. Her case was brought before the bishop's court--an ecclesiastical court (faculty and students of the University of Paris were clergy, infractions subject to ecclesiastical rather than civil law). She was sentenced to  excommunication.

Clarice de Rothomago appealed her sentence, but that did not serve her well--her appeal was denied, and it earned her husband, Peter Faverel a sentence of excommunication as well. The sentence further ordered that both Clarice and her husband were to be "denounced in all churches." Anyone who continued to associate with them was to receive the same treatment, excommunication.

But, as Pearl Kibre concludes, "The effectiveness of this ban of excommunication and oral denunciation, applied against Clarice and her husband, as a means of frightening off other unlicensed persons from medical practice, appears to have been slight." 

Among the women in Paris who were punished for the illegal practice of medicine after Clarice were Perronelle l'erbière, in 1319, Jeanne Clarisse, in 1322, and her servant, Agnès Avesot, who seems to have been Jeanne Clarisse's apprentice. Muriel Joy Hughes suggests that a woman charged with the illegal practice of medicine in Paris in 1331 may have been Clarice de Rothomago's daughter. She is described as "filia Clarisse qui moratur ultra pontes, que est totaliter laica" ("the daughter of Clarice who lives beyond the bridges and who is entirely secular"). And, of course one of the most well-known cases that followed Clarice's is that of Jacoba Félicie de Almania, which occurred just a decade later . . . 

Detail from 
MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London
Further ordinances about illegal medical practitioners were drawn up by the medical faculty in 1322, and a series of appeals were made directly by the faculty of the school of medicine to the pope, "humbly beseech[ing]" his assistance in their efforts--appeals were made in 1325, 1330, 1340, 1347, and 1350. (In 1340, Pope Clement VII threatened not only the illegal practicioners with excommunication, but their patients as well!)

I've linked above to some excellent resources for women medical practitioners in the fourteenth century. They span the decades: Muriel Joy Hughes's Women Healers in Medieval Life and Literature (1943), Pear Kibre's "The Faculty of Medicine at Paris, Charlatanism, and Unlicensed Medical Practices in the Later Middle Ages" in Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1953), Kate Campbell Hurd-Meade's A History of Women in Medicine, from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (1973), and Leigh Whaley's Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1800 (2011) Enjoy!