women in history

I have always loved studying history, and the stories of various queens especially fascinate me. But it was after I began working in the field of domestic trauma that I began to reconsider those stories in more depth, and with a feminist eye as to how they have generally been told. Manipulative seductresses scheming for power have transformed in my mind into trapped, abused women simply struggling to survive and do some good if they can in a violent, deadly world of men which ultimately kills so many of them.

I saw traumatised children whose personality development was warped by their experiences and so they went on to become mad queens who are still mocked and reviled today.

I saw sexually abused girls.

Raped women.

Women bound into political marriages, many of which were dangerous to them and even the death of them.

Mothers who had their children taken from them or killed.

Wives discarded, betrayed, or imprisoned by their husbands.

Queens slowly destroyed by ambitious men, including their own fathers.

Queens who had to be careful of every word they spoke incase their psychopathic king-husbands got offended and had them killed.

For example, when you study Anne Boleyn's life from a feminist perspective, you discover a complicated and frightened woman, a pawn of men who used her and moved her about to satisfy their own wishes or schemes. She clearly did not like Henry's attention from the beginning - yet she is still considered a manipulative woman who wanted to be Queen.

When you sift through the obnoxious patriarchal judgments made of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots, you find not a brazen hussy who had her husband murdered but a young woman who worked hard to understand the best way to rule her native country but was swallowed up, broken, and spat out by the multitude of male enemies who surrounded her - leaving her no option but to escape into the clutches of her worst enemy of all, Queen Elizabeth. There are eye witness accounts of Mary's inconsolable, suicidal grief after having been abducted and raped by Lord Bothwell and forced to marry him - yet still people suspect she was a willing conspirator madly in love with him.

When you read in depth about Catherine Parr's life you find that she was held hostage by Catholic rebels during her marriage to Lord Latimer, terrorised, and possibly sexually assaulted. I was shocked when I read this for the first time after decades of studying the lives of the Tudor queens - shocked because it had never come up before. No one had ever thought Catherine's life before she married Henry to be of any importance at all, beyond the fact that she was a widow forced to (temporarily) give up her beloved in order to marry the king.

History is written by the winners. And men are always the winners, even if they don't hold political power - because for the majority of human history it has been mostly men who produced the biographies, the ambassadorial letters, the legal documents, the poems, and all the other written sources of information we have about women. Over and again I've read about women ... such as Marie Antoinette, Boudicca, Lucrezia Borgia, Empress Alexandra of Russia, Empress Sophia of Russia, Elizabeth of York, Queen Mary, and Queen Emma of Normandy ... whose lives must be deconstructed, with all the masculine attitudes stripped away, the lies revealed, and the sources translated into a more female language, before we come even close to a womanly understanding of their womanly experience.


  1. Book club heaven :-) I love reading about the possible lives of historical women from perspectives other than the standard male version of history (and for that matter read of great men from the point of view of the women around them). I had hoped to find some of these points of view in the novels of Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl and The Other Queen), but I was disappointed to still read many of the main characters still portrayed in the harsh masculine light that has filtered our views of history, and they didn't sit well with my own imaginings of the matter.
    In contrast Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, although written about a mostly fictional character, had the depths and insights of the feminine experience in the man's world of the times...
    Have you read any good books based on the life of Boudicca? I would love to swim through the layers of that story.

    1. Most of the books I've read on Boudicca are scholarly articles. Philippa Gregory annoys me deeply. The Other Boleyn Girl was one long series of aggravations to anyone who knows the facts.

    2. I entirely agree. I was given both Gregory books, and didn't even make it to the end of the second one before giving up and giving them away. (Rare for me, I usually plow on through most books even if I don't like them just to see if they redeem themselves in some way, but I am getting better at putting a disagreeable book down and walking away).
      I will have to keep searching around the edges of Boudicca's story. The myths and discrepancies around it intrigue me. Moving from the realms of legends to myths and Gods I would also love to read a book well penned from Artemis's point of view. I wonder what drove the tales of her exploits, and the subtle shifts in her story from the Greek, Roman and similar stories from other cultures...

  2. Fantastic post, as usual! Yes, history is written by the winners, isn't it? From my non-professional view I also suspect more to every story, especially when a woman needs to be so competitive and popular, and/or is extremely mean and cruel, or does unspeakable violent things that cause others to see her as a monster instead of the damaged desperate person she likely is.

    1. This is one reason I love Megan Whalen Turner's books. Her queens are so fascinating, and her wicked queen in particular, the one who hurts the hero so dreadfully - she's a fabulously rich and complex character.

  3. This was such an interesting post to read! I had so much fun looking through the links and reading your thoughts about these women in history. I too, love history, and have always wanted to know more about some of these famous women in particular. There would certainly be different stories to be told if they could have been told from the view of the women.

    1. Thanks, I really enjoyed writing it :-)